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Please note that the unique formating of some of the poems below will go out of alignment on a smaller screen, such as a cell phone. The webmaster has removed previous formatting, but even he has been unable to reconcile about two lines of Soniat's poems. We beg your indulgence.
Katherine Soniat, Bright Stranger
Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2016. 110 pp. ($17.95 paper)
Review by Daniel T. O'Hara
Spectral Voice of Song: Katherine Soniat
Retells the Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice
makes use of this ancient myth not so much to frame her new volume of generally remarkable poetry as to have the myth haunt the volume, coming in and out, almost where the elements of the story feel is fit to do so. This remarkable effect is carried off, as are the poems themselves, with a lightness, a deftness, a tenderness suggestive of the caress of light on the fading face of Eurydice as Orpheus, lacking full faith in Hades' word and power, steals a glimpse of his bride as he leads her out of hell. Thanks to the power of his song to haunt the god with the poet's own ravishing mourning for his lost love, Hades had granted Orpheus his wish of restoring Eurydice to her place in the living world.
We know the old story of this mythic couple. Orpheus, favored pupil of Apollo who instructs him in the lyre, beats his master in a contest. When (in one version of the myth) Orpheus is to wed the wood nymph Eurydice, after charming the beasts into docility and raising stones to make a guarding wall and voyaging with Jason and the Argonauts to retrieve the golden fleece, Aristaeus, son of Apollo and a minor deity, is smitten with Eurydice, who flees from him into the woods, she steps upon a nest of mating vipers, instantly being bitten many times, with her soul descending to Hades. And the rest we know, too.
The seven sections of Bright Stranger
interleave and interweave the elements of the myth, sometimes explicitly, most often silently, so the reader may articulate them, with the poet's pieced together songs (from her notebooks) of lost love, possible restoration, and remembered as well as anticipated union with nature as the true object of love. Nature's power of renewal always returns--so far in human history, though sorely endangered now. The presence of nature is ubiquitous, as we expect from Soniat's previous poetry, especially the beautifully accomplished The Swing Girl
(also LSU: 2011). We find it turning up in the title poem, whose seven sections mirror those of the volume (and vice versa, for a fluently lovely mise en abime effect). From section 6 "apocrypha", here are these lines, which exfoliate the volume's major thematic:
Can a voice in dream be spectral before passing
to the other side?
That dream paused after my son's bet surrounding
the word dark--wondering who owns it
Like hoping the sun and moon will fail, So one won't diminish the other. That slant
Stripped logic. Screw that does not hold.
Nothing can be excluded from the subterranean
thoughts of another--
brains of the children we make, their decisions that destroy us.
Conceivers step up
Lost children have fathers too--men touched deeply at the beginning
can reappear near the end:
One morning a fox walked from the bushes Drift of July light And within days the sleep-messenger came making guesses throwing dice in the air After that the hour glass began to run out to run dry Punch a hole in the breath--
and nothing's left to tear No one to track
The hours and minutes spent circling disappearance
like a canyon (44)
What the reader pieces together from this poem and the volume as a whole is the latent story of the poet-speaker's son, along with his father/her husband, and other lost ones also. And it is nature that restores (but without making whole again), because the speaker learns that it is out of such holes in the psyche's fabric that the spectral voice of song appears, an apparition that fades into the light of common day, but can be captured and evoked again if one is both quick and careful enough. This explains the unusual spacing of the lines throughout the volume, a formal invention previously seen, of course, but never so well handled.
As "Bright Stranger" concludes, we are clearly around the rim of the Grand Canyon, back in Grecian woods, and in the mind of the poet holding past, present, and future together in the notes of her beautifully haunting song:
This fox, my dead husband's nickname, re-embodied in fresh thick fur : : Father-ghost in disguise
days before our son's immanent departure Abrupt ruthless as the human mind could make it Wind blew
in four directions No pattern to make sense of I was nine
days out from retrospect Only that lit red fur
in a void I could not fathom
Me and this animal so close Cross talk between the species
Repeat, say who you thought you were that morning
among the trees.
Identity flows into and out other identities, even as they flow into and wave away those of the poet or reader.
"One of the First Questions" concludes after immersion in nature that goes beyond the canyon rim or the rented house in the desert--a house of memory, with sprigs of lilac suddenly also in the poet's head, so reminiscent of Whitman's famous elegy. The ocean, Whitman's ocean, whispering the name, his name, of death, from "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" rides smoothly into other natural scenes, from around the planet it seems, to get back to "the initial question," the one before the one that generates the poem: "of how to settle into another's / scented space" (45). The spectral voice creates images of worlds, and the objects, the particles of those worlds, natural and human, creates image of that voice, like Ariel in so many trees awaiting to be sprung by Shakespeare's imagined self-image, Prospero, perhaps one day, turning to reveal all the divine magic of his trade.
I end with the finale of "One of the First Questions" without further comment, as I believe they are their own best commentary, as are indeed all the vibrantly beautiful lines of this whole volume:
Only later do I understand that greater part of transmutation comes with restlessness as coyote howl creeps into my bed along with the moon. Bark and bay in a chill blue light. I too vibrate with what's alive in the desert at dark.
My last hours here, an ant crawls diagonally across the blank page, and three Bosc pears want to be jammed in at the end: skewed models of balance, I scribble, then zip the stuffed red fox in my bag--lost ancester for the baby girl at home. And also to take back, the fresh blue wing tattooed on my left ankle. Small and solitary, it's an energy that wobbles. (52)
Daniel T. O'Hara, Professor of English and Humanities at Temple University, is a co-editor of Shinning Rock Review and author and editor of many books in modern literature and critical theory. He is also in recent years a publishing poet. His most recent critical book is Virginia Woolf and the Modern Sublime: The Invisible Tribunal (2015).
Clarence Major, From Now On: New and Selected Poems 1970-2015
Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015. 336 pp.
Review by Elizabeth Kim
With selections from over a dozen books of poetry spanning nearly five decades, Clarence Major's From Now On: New and Selected Poems 1970-2015
is an omnibus representative of his remarkable craft and career. It is no easy task to adequately account for a poet's oeuvre, but in Yusef Komunyakaa's foreword to the collection, he aptly describes Major's work as embodying "language as feeling." Indeed, Major's language is not only charged with feeling but language also serves as the means by which he makes sense of feeling, of the mutable and sometimes erratic shifts in thought and attitude that so strongly direct his experiences. While race is not always the direct subject of Major's poems, it is the context within which they operate. There is constant movement within his work; it continuously challenges previously held notions and reevaluates the realities of African American experience--which, for Major, rarely offers the luxury of order or leisure. As the final line of "The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage" resolves, his poems, "If nothing else, celebrate survival."
Major makes his rethinking process palpable through his varying use of form. There are narrative poems that progress in couplets, such as the long poem "Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century," as well as dense, single stanza poems like "Doodle" and "Drawing from Life," along with more abstract and spacious poems like "Air" and "The Distance between Tomorrow and Me" that, apropos of their titles, are composed of single line stanzas that allow readers to breathe between the lines. Major's poems shift forms to animate the spaces in which his contemplations take shape so that they never remain static.
Readers can observe the ways in which Major sharpens his lens not only within individual volumes but also across multiple texts. His early books revisit themes of the self and motherhood, complicating them further each time. In "Segregated Self" from Swallow the Lake
(his first book of poems), Major writes:
He never knew she hurt
to way down at the mother level
of self, herself throbbing and breaking
between her and her man who broke.
For Major, the mother level constitutes pain caused by this very fact of its status, as he explains: "she tried to make ends meet / to end the failure of the self." Here, motherhood is not so much a state of happy sacrifice and serenity, but rather a role which essentially entails self-doubt and a deep sense of inadequacy.
The first poem in Private Line
presents a kind of sequel to "Segregated Self" by conceding that even writing about his mother fails to serve as reparation for the speaker's prior disregard. "A Mother's Pride" begins:
I played it, forgot it
I spoke it and
played it against the sophistication of the self--
its disappearance into print.
Can the self be articulated into words? Major suggests that doing so actually denies the self of the complexity that it warrants. However, while a mother might deem herself lacking, and despite the ways in which the speaker mistreats his mother, her pride is the one resilient facet of her being. Major writes, "it never turned back on us. / Being in the presence of my mother was key. / And she forgave herself in me." In this sense, selves are not exclusive but interconnected. It is by being with
her child that a mother can make amends with her perceived failure. As further suggested by the lovers in "1915 Interior" from The Cotton Club
, rather than forming in isolation, the self develops in relation to others.
These early pieces seem quiet in their preoccupation with interiority, but Major's later poems raise the volume through prevalent use of exclamation points. While this form of punctuation may appear to a casual reader as heavy-handed, following the trajectory of his work illuminates Major's insistent use of exclamations--often used with clichés or in the form of short imperatives--as markers of a kind of exasperation that has been endured beyond the point of endurance. The emphatic outbursts begin to proliferate in Syncopated Cakewalk
, most notably in the suggestively titled "American Setup." Mid-way through the poem, Major exclaims:
See Lincoln! See Washington!
See Jefferson! See Kennedy!
See Martin Luther King!
See Malcolm X! It's late!
Everybody's got a hero!
Who's yours! It's 1968!
See those buildings in flames!
See the riots! These are not games!
Although they appear at first to be celebratory, these exclamations quickly take on a disillusioned tone as it becomes apparent that many of the aforementioned heroes were assassinated. So when Major declares "What a nation!" he hardly professes patriotism. Furthermore, "Onion," one of his new poems, demonstrates the almost-comical nature of maxims like "Keep your perspective" by subsequently asserting, "It's all vapor!" The layers peel back to reveal nothing. Major also uses exclamation points to distance himself from and critique the paradigms of canonical poetry, as in the lines "I was not charming. / I had no sprezzatura
--translation: I was not cool!" from "The Art of Confessional Poetry."
In his foreword, Komunyakaa addresses the ways in which readers have drawn comparisons between Major and several canonical poets, defending Major's work as a category of its own. At a glance, the numbered poems of Surfaces and Masks
do seem to nod at Ezra Pound's Cantos
, the wide-running lines that critique American consumerism in "Parking Lots" echo Allen Ginsberg's "Supermarket in California," and the concentrated imagery, not to mention the title, of "The Red Bench" calls to mind William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow." However, Major is not interested in pastiche but in articulating the language he knows in the way that he knows it. In "In My Own Language," from Waiting for Sweet Betty
, he writes:
It's a tight situation.
I move things around to make rock and tree,
water and land, connect
in their own language, but
only as I learn to speak it.
In this sense, Major is ultimately the orchestrator of the connections because although they occur on their own terms they appear in his poems in his terms.
Conversely, in the subsequent volumes, Myself Painting and Down and Up
, which most overtly highlight Major's work as a painter, the poems take the focus off the artist's craft and skill in order to emphasize the contingencies of the creative process. While "Difficult Pose" acknowledges the suffering model's experience, "When the Model Does Not Show" confirms that artist's productivity is largely dependent upon his subjects. In these cases, the artist does not maintain total mastery.
Major resists settling upon a stable position concerning the role of the artist. In "Always," the penultimate poem in the collection, he reasons:
But there was always something to gain by keeping patterns.
There was always something to gain by breaking patterns.
I was living calmly in patterns.
That was my pattern. I was one with the nation.
Yet I was trying to be innovative.
In light of his vacillating thoughts, From Now On
is a fitting title for the collection as a whole because it captures the constant present-ness of Major's poems. Rather than committing to a particular pattern, Major's poems put pressure on the pre-existing patterns of relationships, history, and art to give his readers glimpses of his now as each moment of that now unfolds.
Elizabeth Kim holds an MFA in Poetry from the Creative Writing Program at Rutgers University-Newark and is currently pursuing a PhD in English at Temple University. Her prose can be found in American Book Review and her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Waiting Room Reader, Gesture, and The Stillwater Review.
John Hoppenthaler, Domestic Garden
Pittsburgh; Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015. 77
Reviewed by Dorothy Chan
John Hoppenthaler's Domestic Garden
is a great read. Hoppenthaler's skill with plain-spoken language that conveys the truth is remarkable. The poet doesn't over-embellish--this is ironic given that the title refers to gardens, and gardens are usually thought of as embellishments to a house or yard. However, gardens are also a metaphor for life, and Hoppenthaler brings out this "life as a garden" metaphor in this collection that is so elegantly crafted into five sections. These five sections begin with the curiously titular "domestic garden." What makes this opening poem so curious is the ghost--while death and life play a major role in Domestic Garden, it seems that the ghost in this first poem serves as a clairvoyant. The ghost builds this garden of roses and the poet's Adam and Eve step into this domestic world.
Hoppenthaler's Adam and Eve enter this domestic garden in New York, New York in 1965 ("the garden of eden"). I love this idea of the 1960s Adam and Eve--what a beautiful image of young love in the big city. In this poem, the writer creates a beautiful passage with "He placed one looped end of a thin, white rope / between her ring & middle finger, / closed her hand over it, then walked away." I'm very partial to this opening stanza because of its movement. Interestingly, the poet's use of the ampersand facilitates this movement--like the rope, the ampersand moves seamlessly from ring to middle finger, and our Adam and Eve get hitched. This delicate image of the rope between the woman's fingers unleashes a life that grows, starting with the quotidian and mundane: "boxer shorts, her camisoles," and then expands into more common images ("lettuce, carrots, parsley & melons") that branch into this elegance of survival. Again, Hoppenthaler's garden isn't made for embellishment, but instead it's grown for the simple things in life. His Adam and Eve thrive in this garden and find everyday beauty despite "Then aphids & a compost pile. & debt / began to appear, credit cards, a mortgage..." And of course the greatest thing that's grown from this garden is the couple's children who "gorge" on the "ripest fruit." Here, the author sets up the representation of the garden as life.
And, because of this set-up, Hoppenthaler's first section zooms in and out, backwards and forwards in time. I like the liberties the poet takes in shifts--it makes for an interesting in and out focus of the garden after our Adam and Eve plant their seeds of life. "eminent domain" is the standout piece of this opening section. On a side note, I enjoy how Hoppenthaler uses plain-spoken language but then throws in very American references, such as the "new Super Walmart" in "eminent domain." This "new Super Walmart" sets us up for the circus that follows. The tercets work very well in this poem; they move the narrative along seamlessly. Interestingly, Hoppenthaler creates a bizarre picture through such simple language: dwarves that grill cheeseburgers, ponies that swallow both sugar cubes and rings, and llamas that take it "all in stride." But this tercet set-up isn't just to build simple narrative excitement; just as quickly as the narrative builds up the speaker's Mother rings the triangle for dinner and the children go inside:
We crawled back through the opening in the fence.
It was barely wide enough that we were still able.
The little people could have followed, had they wished.
Here, Hoppenthaler ends with a yearning. Just as a garden of circus and mysticism was built, it all comes to an end with the mundane and the everyday. Hoppenthaler's explorations through the mundane aspects of life flows through section one.
second section marks a formal shift. Here, the lines become looser and the indentations get wider as the author experiments with varying forms. Another distinguishing marker of this section is the poet's bold move to call out to the reader in "california stars in north carolina." I always find it not only bold but also significant when poets call out to either the poem or the audience in their collections. It's a move that's either hit or miss, and in the case of Hoppenthaler, it's a total hit since it's two-fold: both surprising yet expected:
I imagined I was in Los Angeles, maybe,
giving a poetry reading, and I was telling the audience
about how, the previous evening, I'd slept under
California stars, how their faltering light
still managed to warm me through,
how impossibly happy it made me to say so.
When the speaker says the above lines, the reader expects this yet he/she does not. The reader is surprised by the poet's interruption and aside because "poem" within a poem is such a risk; yet the reader is also simultaneously not
surprised with this move because Hoppenthaler's voice is so relatable, so down-to-earth, it is almost like we are in the poet's living room, gathered around his hearth as he uses this metaphor of the garden to tell us about his life and his poetry.
Hoppenthaler builds this Domestic Garden
into three more sections. Parts of the third section shift into a "she," thus adding in the female side of this domesticity and family. Section four relies on the garden as a religious image. Section five, the concluding section, is perhaps the most curious. Crime is a recurring theme in this section and perhaps Hoppenthaler uses this theme so that all aspects of the Garden of Eden metaphor can be truly explored. Really though, the standout poem not only of this final section, but dare I say the entire book is "dinner at the wok 'n' roll buffet." "dinner at the wok 'n' roll buffet" concludes both the section and the book, and ends with the lines, "So goodnight. There's ice cream on a chubby boy's shirt. / He's smiling, and his oversized eyes / are absurdly beautiful. / I've given in, my love, to desire so that I might die fat in your arms." It's beautiful how Hoppenthaler ends this wonderful collection with such whimsy and quaint charm. I think that the last line, "I've given in, my love, to desire so that I might die fat in your arms" taken separately even furthers the idea of the garden as fruitful. Hoppenthaler's garden is fruitful and while the ghost laying roses opens the collection, the grinning fat boy closes this book, and the poet truly explores all avenues of this Domestic Garden.
Dorothy Chan was a semi-finalist for the 2015 YesYes Books open reading period. She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Plume, Spillway, Day One, Ghost Ocean, Connotation Press, and The Great American Poetry Show. In 2012, The Writing Disorder nominated her poem, "Ikebukuro Train Rides" for a Pushcart./spring-2016-book-reviews/