The Ties That Bind Us:
Five New Books by American Poets
Another Creature, by Pamela Gemin. University of Arkansas Press, 100 pp., $16.
Open Interval, by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. University of Pittsburgh Press, 96 pp., $14.95.
Ka-Ching!, by Denise Duhamel. University of Pittsburgh Press, 96 pp., $14.95.
Elephants & Butterflies, by Alan Michael Parker. BOA Editions, 92 pp., $16.
Let Me Open You a Swan, by Deborah Bogen. Elixir Press, 96 pp., $17.
As I sifted through books this summer, thinking about what I might like to review, I noticed that I tend to lay aside volumes by poets I know, even if only tangentially. It's always been my habit, and one I thought—still think for the most part—reviewers ought to have. At some point, however, I looked back to that pile of rejects and considered how unfortunate it is that books by one's friends, associates, colleagues, or acquaintances feel out of bounds—or at least have felt so to me—because the practice cuts out a great many books for any reviewer. It's an inevitable problem of the contemporary poetry world, resulting from its small size; we go to the same conferences, attend the same schools, teach in the same programs. It's almost impossible to pick up a handful of new books and not find someone I know.
Does this familiarity, I wondered, mean that reviewing such acquaintances can't be fair, or worse, that good books can't be reviewed because positive words will be construed as back-scratching or favoritism? I don't have a complete answer for these questions, but I finally decided that I would take on a batch of books to all of whose authors I have had some kind of personal connection. Perhaps I will reveal biases of which I myself am unaware, but I hope that the poems will bear out what I say and help me prove to myself that creative and critical communities need not always be mutually exclusive.
Pamela Gemin and I went to Vermont College at the same time. I liked her poems then and I like them now. Her latest collection, Another Creature, is no exception. It focuses on American girlhood of the Boomer era, a historical period in which Gemin has had an interest for a long time. Many poets, myself included, have written loosely autobiographical poems on this subject over the last few decades, but the topic is far from exhausted. Unfortunately, many of the poems in this four-part collection, while carefully crafted and symmetrically presented in neat stanzaic forms, introduce potentially dramatic events on which the poems fail to deliver.
The first poem, "Sweet Engine," is one of the best in the book, though it seems to make use of Mark Doty's signature combination of spirituality and sexuality in his book Sweet Machine (as well as his title) without ever acknowledging the debt. Despite that, the poem begins wonderfully: "God for the furnace, god for the fire, god / for the engine of love, where are you now?" This lyric petition quickly gives way to an anecdotal memory. As a younger woman, the narrator, apparently recently jilted or rejected, waited on top of an apartment building for the arrival of the offending man. The twist is that, when he does show up, she stays on the roof, watching, while he wonders where she is. The details are perfectly chosen: the "ancient / Johannsen sisters watch[ing] their game shows"; the speaker's "Cigarettes radio, sunscreen rolled in a fish-print // towel" around her neck; her "little red Igloo made / for a six pack." The ending is self-reflexive; the narrator imagines seeing herself "not-there." She realizes that the woman she has been—the woman the lover has wanted—truly is gone, though perhaps "only for the afternoon." This reinvention signals the tone of the rest of the book: self-fashioning, self-aware, self-confident.
Other poems, however, don't live up to the tight imagistic structure of "Sweet Engine." "Destiny Car," for example, has a wonderfully evocative title, and many readers will immediately warm to the story of teenagers and their dangerous car rides. However, the poem founders on its imagery. Many of the individual pictures are fine in and of themselves—"hot grease and battered / onions," "my green velvet jacket," "your Brut / cologne"—but the ending, with a second mention of "onion," then "patchouli smoke clinging to my hair," misses the mark because it's anticlimactic. Three lines from the end lies a much stronger, more dramatic conclusion: "I'm driving the killer / highway alone." Too bad the poem drove on by.
"Minnesota" is a meditative sestina on the Midwest that is also full of great descriptions and moves along at a fast pace. The speaker reminisces about late autumn afternoons when she and a lover "drank / at [her] kitchen table, laughing, crushing out smokes, beer / after beer, till the basement neighbors banged [their] loud music / down." Later, the speaker is by herself and the detail used to describe her lone evenings is both sad and lovely:
with my drink
and True Menthols I graded papers, sang along to the music
of famous sad women, sank into love with lukewarm beer
Sundays all I'd get to drink
was 3.2, but I was brilliant in those last days, and you couldn't wait
to get back to me and tell me your big city tales.
I want to love this poem, partly because it makes me feel wistful and partly because I think the form suits the content perfectly. But, again, the end falls flat. The coda begins in the middle of a sentence and then ends too abruptly on a one-word fragment. Moreover, none of the last three lines come as a surprise or revelation:
In your Minnesota, the plowed-under stalks freeze
to topsoil, waiting for wind to bear them into tassel, into bloom.
Who'd believe I'd give up drink, or the music of all-night talk
To be frozen into household, delivered out of wilderness to safety?
Most of those who drink and carouse and get in trouble as young people outgrow that behavior. The ones who don't usually don't make it very far into middle age. I want the poem to bring me something unexpected rather than deliver an entirely predictable conclusion.
I don't mean to sound completely negative about Another Creature. Many poems in this collection have great stories to tell, contain resonant images, and employ an agreeably folksy tone. I'm sure that many readers who grew up in the sixties and seventies will find much to activate their nostalgia. The book certainly did that for me. I wish, however, that Gemin had spent more time polishing this book so that it, and the individual poems within it, had a more clearly dramatic trajectory. The final poem, "Junction," does provide a fairly satisfying end to the collection, as the speaker drives through the countryside and asks herself what she wants "now." She compares the answer—"a county road that snakes / its crooked way up grey half-hills, down / the long rusty slopes, finds clusters of cows / and herds of deer at dusk"—and though the descriptions here are slightly marred by cliché and the minor pretention of British spelling, the sense of movement is clear and enjoyable. The end of the poem answers the questions about desires that the entire book seems to ask: "And you want them the way / you once wanted a drink, another / drink, a cigarette. The way you once wanted / his love, or his love, or his. But more. More." Now that's a perfect ending.
I've shared readings with Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon a couple of times; we have mutual friends; she went to school where my husband currently works. When her first book, Black Swan, came out, I read it with admiration and have looked forward to seeing her work ever since. Last year's Open Interval, her second collection, shows the same inventiveness and play that made Black Swan a pleasure (though not always pleasant) to read. In this collection, Van Clief-Stefanon continues to draw from science, history, the Bible, and autobiography to make elliptical, lovely poems.
"Bop: The North Star," which opens the book, introduces the intelligent, self-questioning speaker who governs many of these poems. The epigraph, "Auburn, NY," situates her geographically, but the place she seeks is much larger:
Polaris sits still in the sky and if I knew
which one it was I could follow it all the way
to Auburn. Oh, Harriet, who did not need the poise
of freedom knocked into your head like sense, who found it more
than possible to sleep, pistol shoved deep into your pocket
along this route, I cannot tell a dipper from Orion.
The speaker reveals that she is on her way to the "prison at Auburn" to teach writing to inmates, but the universal appeal—in both senses—adds a tragic note to the refrain, "Yes, the springtime needed you. Many a star was waiting / for your eyes only." When she tells herself to "teach the sonnet's a cell," then determines to instruct her students, "now try to escape," it's clear that one kind of escape she means for them to seek is from the limiting traps of this planet's history.
Freedom—from violence, oppression, control—is an abiding interest of Van Clief-Stefanon's, and her poetic rendering of this subject is seldom simplistic. The ekphrastic "Reclining Nude, c. 1977, Romare Bearden" filters the speaker's own complicated past through the artist's image of a woman:
The tan parchment beneath her Florida sand
As all things bring you back there—: to land
Your mother's love threatened out of you—: you out of it.
You: a beached thing just made, and open for the sun;
You: a black man's creation—: his simplest collage—: a woman.
The poem celebrates the painting, and I expected an allusion to Pygmalion at its close, but the ending does something different and surprising. It gives agency to the left-handed subject and keeps the focus on the freedom expressed in Bearden's image: "Look, the left hand, / Its long, thin fingers, brazen, freeing itself from the body." This ties the painting firmly to the author, who has written before about the problems and joys of left-handedness.
The insistence on freedom or autonomy that drives so much of Van Clief Stefanon's work does not require the rejection of sexual pleasure or play. "Maul" is a sweet and bluesy love poem that has to be quoted at some length to be appreciated:
You can fry my catfish daddy
Just make sure your oil is hot
Come & fry my catfish daddy
Just make sure the grease is hot
Know I got this side meal ready
Grits a bubblin in the pot
. . .
I'm a smoke this pack of Pall Malls
Then I'm gonna let you go
Let me smoke this one last Pall Mall
I'll be good to watch you go
I might set myself on fire
Just to show you so you know
. . .
Come & split my firewood baby
With your heavy maul
Come on & split my firewood for me
Honey bring your heavy maul
The way you turn way from me daddy
It's gon be a hard cold fall
Now, there aren't very many poets around these days who will take a chance on a poem like this, but it made me laugh out loud, which so seldom happens that I had to go back and read it a couple more times just for the delight of its language and form. "Maul" takes an old subject, rejection, and makes it completely new with fresh and funny metaphor.
It's probably clear that I continue to admire Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon's poetry. To be honest, however, one element of this book simply confuses me. I don't know why so many poems have the same titles (two titled "Penelope," three titled "Blackbody Radiator", and two titled "Reclining Nude, c. 1977, Romare Bearden"). The six that have "RR Lyrae" (a type of star) as the first half of their titles are explained in the note to Part III and in the notes at the back, but the three including "Dear John" as all or part of the title don't seem to have that unity or the felicitous pun on the author's name. I love books that challenge or teach me, but I get frustrated with books that make me feel stupid, and I feel a little dense trying to figure out the point of these titles. Do they make up a refrain? A coda? I don't know, and I'm somewhat stymied by them even now. They're not what I remember of this book, however, and not the point I want to end on. The poems in Open Interval are stunning and beautiful, and well reward multiple readings.
I reviewed a chapbook by Denise Duhamel in these pages several years ago. I didn't know her at the time, but since then she and I have become colleagues at Converse College's low-residency MFA program. Denise is as funny in person as she is on the page, and her new collection, Ka-Ching!, shows that she continues to be an incisive commentator on contemporary American culture as well.
Many of the poems in this five-part book were already familiar to me from hearing Denise read them, including the prose poems in the first part, "Play Money." I confess that, though they were interesting to hear, these poems were, for me, difficult to look at. They're printed sideways, on a gray background that looks a bit like, well, money. The print is small and single-spaced. I see the point of this design element—to highlight the fixation Americans have on cash. But I felt relief when I turned to the second part. I suspect I was supposed to feel this way.
The sestina "Delta Flight 659," dedicated to Sean Penn (I wonder if he knows this) shows Duhamel at her best—playing with traditional form in a self-reflexive, comic, sometimes absurdist way. Here's the first verse (plus one word):
I'm writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ballpoint pen.
Ever since 9/11, I'm a nervous flyer. I leave my Pentium
Processor in Florida so TSA can't x-ray my stanzas, penetrate
my persona. Maybe this should be in iambic pentameter,
rather than this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn
What's the point? The obsessive form, with the sestina's repetitions taken to a ridiculous level, points to our national obsession with personal safety, with celebrity, with false order. Duhamel takes on all kinds of passions, but she always does it with Horatian good humor. "The Language Police" is a hilarious prose poem that skewers our phobias about insensitive speech:
I'm tired of the Language Police turning a deaf ear (banned as handicapism) to my complaints. I'm no Pollyanna (banned as sexist) and will not accept any lame (banned as offensive; replace with "walks with a cane") excuses this time.
Duhamel is able to use hyperbole and self-ridicule to express the exhaustion with self-monitoring that many of us suffer—but are usually unwilling to admit.
Ka-Ching!, unlike most of Duhamel's earlier work, also contains quite personal—and serious—autobiographical poems. A few years ago, her parents were involved in a hideous escalator accident, and she devotes many poems in the second half of the book to this unthinkable event. These poems are much more literal, as shown in the opening of "Urban Legend":
My parents were in an escalator accident. A pileup. Fourteen people. My mother lost her hair and almost bled to death. My father's heart went out of whack. They were rushed to an emergency room in Atlantic City. The doctors were having trouble finding enough tetanus for everyone hurt. It sounds like an urban legend, except it really happened.
What makes such a report a poem? Duhamel takes true-to-life information and builds upon it with association or metaphor until the facts suddenly become larger than their literal meanings:
The escalator accident, the escalating conflict in Iraq, fears escalate, escalating tensions ... I see the word escalate everywhere in the newspaper I hold in my lap.
Not every reader will have the patience to read these long-lined, detailed poems with care. Ka-Ching!, like all of Denise Duhamel's work, is loaded with pop-culture references, puns, and anecdotes. She loves lists, and the lists can get fairly long, like the ending poem, "Weapons Inspector's Checklist," a list of questions that has been translated through many different languages and back into English:
Do they pump their own gas?
Is the gas in this forsaken land rationed?
. . .
Are they numskulls?
Are they dumb?
Are we numskulls?
Are we dumb?
Are we numb by now to baseball strikes?
Do they compare the stupid outcomes of all the baseball strikes then laugh?
If you have the patience, read Ka-Ching! not just for its humor but for its humanity. Take the book slowly, if need be, but take it all in, because Duhamel is one of our most valuable chroniclers of contemporary American attitudes toward music, commerce, and advertising. She's funny, to be sure, but she's got a serious purpose, too.
I don't know Alan Michael Parker; I'm not sure I have ever even met him. My only connection to him is through other people, including my husband. That was enough for me initially to put him in the category of poets too close to review, so I will include him here. Parker's new book, Elephants & Butterflies, mostly uses a common mode, the first-person anecdote, to explore the thoughts and feelings of contemporary, educated middle-class Americans, folks that his readers will likely recognize from their own lives.
Like Pamela Gemin's, Parker's details are perfect emblems of daily life: the UPS man from "Next Day Air" in his "chocolate truck and chocolate suit" and the worn-out Toyota in "Cars Poetica" that seems "so sadly less of a thing." When Parker meditates upon these details, his poems are very fine indeed. Here's an example from the middle of "Birth, Mud, Hyacinth":
Elytis writes, "it is correct to give
The unknown its due."
This morning at a curve in the road
The cows stood together
Around a blinking newborn calf
Slick with astonishment.
I was going to the dry cleaners,
But cows were in the road.
Turn off the radio, roll down
All the windows. Learn.
I thought I understood onomatopoeia,
But what to make of a word
That sounds just like it smells?
Birth. Mud. Hyacinth.
Again, Elytis: "Willing or not,
We are all hostages of the joy
Of which we deprive ourselves."
Please pardon me, Master,
For requesting a revision:
Willing and not.
When the poems become self-reflexive, however, they are less successful, and this weakness appears too frequently. The first poem, "Drawing on Myself," contains a good pun, but the central idea—"I began by drawing on myself accidentally, / ... and I liked it"—governs too much of what follows. The speaker is soon "painting" on himself, and it isn't long until he has "hammered and nailed and glued / and dressed" himself. He ends by wishing he had drawn something other, "an airplane / or a post office, or just a telephone" so that he might have contacted the "you," whoever that person is. It's a clever conceit, but the poem never rises far above it.
"The Fog," which follows, begins in a hospital, with a "woman in the corner of a bed" who is "dying young, too soon, a victim of / a five-car pile-up in the fog." This is a horrible event, but the poem turns quickly to the speaker's absorption in whether the stairs in his uncle's house went "up or down." Who can care about such a thing in the face of imminent death? Waiting for an x-ray of some sort, he tells us that he can see
into the dying woman's room,
watch her chest rise a little, subside.
On a small blue monitor,
as though upon a final page of sky,
tiny blips seem to brighten, sizzle.
The poem seems to be getting back to something important, but then it ends with "Up and down, my heartbeat / climbs a mountain, crashes to the sea" and I'm left feeling a little queasy that a woman's death is used to elevate the speaker's importance. Following "Drawing on Myself" with this poem seems a particularly regrettable choice.
The "Monday Sonnet" from the middle section, "A Peal of Sonnets" (which has a slightly pretentious epigraph), presents an interesting and beautifully Frostian moment:
The nut-brown spider slung between
the Subaru antenna and
the myrtle tree
has left one wing of the fly
exposed, her breakfast buzzing still.
The radical religious questioning of a poem like "Design," however, never occurs in "Monday Sonnet." The speaker calls in sick "a lie, one wing" and sits down with morning coffee to "watch the insect die." The connection between the wing and the lie isn't very clear; the juxtaposition tries to force a metaphor that doesn't really work. Serious philosophical speculation is still possible, but the poem ends with a self-satisfied apostrophe: "Today, my friends, let us raise a glass: / One of us will go hungry, / and it isn't I. It isn't I— / / when the one wing stops moving." Clearly, the "I" is synecdochic, and the self expressed here is greater than one speaker's grisly morning entertainment, but the details of the poem's early lines suggest an individual with whom readers can identify and sympathize. That's no longer the case, at least for me, by the end of the poem; the conclusion, in fact, left me feeling somewhat let down, because the moral dilemma seems, at best, inconsequential, and the speaker self-important.
Despite the recurrent tendency to solipsism, Elephants & Butterflies does contain some lovely language. "Jelly Jar Ode" is a wonderful poem, with a "bulletin board that is / the sky" on which "push pins / tack the dark, the night / an office cleaned by God." The speculative "I Have Been Given a Baseball ..." imagines an evening at a game. The picture is focused on a boy and the fans who surround him waiting for the opening pitch:
Happy there, at last,
Fidgety in the bleachers.
The lights light up the field
Perfectly in the buggy, humid night—
It's like being inside a pretty thought.
When the small, sodden crowd—
Are they angels?—
Begins to chant Let's Go Mets,
Someone changes the chant to Let's Go Home.
Such moments happen, unsurprisingly, when the speakers in Elephants & Butterflies are studying the world. Too often, however, these speakers don't look outward but reflect upon themselves and their relatively privileged, safe lives. It's an important reminder that poems are often at their best when they are not mirrors, but windows.
Deborah Bogen and I enjoy an intermittent e-mail acquaintance, in which we exchange mostly friendly greetings and quick updates. I feel close to her as a poet because I have long enjoyed her work—long before I had ever had any, even virtual, contact with her. Her new book, Let Me Open You a Swan, didn't disappoint me, and I am sure I'd like this book whether I knew Deb or not. It even has a cover I can't stop looking at.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that Bogen's new book is published by Elixir Press, which has published two books and one chapbook of mine. I'm likely not objective in my opinion that Elixir is putting out some of the most interesting and most beautiful books around, but I believe that it's true. This one is a perfect example; experimental in the best sense of the word, Let Me Open You a Swan takes the body (including the mind it houses) as its subject. Bogen's bodies are both literal and metaphoric, and she is unwilling to relinquish either. Her poems have a clarity of surface meaning that allows the secondary and tertiary meanings to come slowly and satisfyingly into view. "Ghost Images" seems almost an ars poetica for the whole book:
The mind's a mad cupboard, blackened silver, cups and thimbles.
The mind's a jerky focusing machine still stuck on the girl
who hung by her knees.
And within the camera [opening : closing]—fireworks.
Into the angular cranium levers lift cold light, but
how dark and small the box.
And hands must hold the camera still, so stop your breath
[so stop your breath]
That's how you coax something into the box, something bloody or blood-lit,
a headless rooster or snipe—your attention split.
Seeing the two worlds.
This double vision expands into triple vision in "Dakota Schism." Stanza one sets up a tense equation between the human and non-human worlds, tense because the traditional relative values between the two realms seem to shift. It's difficult to tell exactly where the narrator's loyalty lies, with natural theology and the dignity of the non-human or with humans, even with their faults, as the measure of meaning:
In Sunday's mirror the red barns
fade, high school girls scrub rouge
from their cheeks, the prize bull apes
a deacon's sneer, crickets choir like
cherubim. Only the grasshopper
carries on, spitting and sawing,
spitting and sawing as the preacher
calls us to The Upright Life.
In this passage the speaker seems to lean toward natural theology, with the exception of the bulls, who have taken on the unpleasant expression of the deacon. The girls are caught in the mutually exclusive demands of sexual beauty and religious rejection of vanity. The religious figures themselves are ridiculous, their actions futile, while the lowly crickets are ennobled.
The second stanza, however, presents meaningful human action:
But in our mudrooms lovelorn women
kneel to scrub the dirt-smeared floors
as through the window comes
a sable light Vermeer would love.
In our cellars, a votive rhubarb,
on our stairs, a velvet dark.
Therefore, the Aunts dally in the parlor.
Therefore, the Uncles loosen their belts.
We have been another week behind
the reaper. Only God's a pillar.
Now the tension seems to be between classes of people rather than between humans and non-human beings. In contrast to the deacons and preachers, the people in this stanza are linked to art, to prayer, to physical pleasure, to anything but the institution of the church. These people are enmeshed in the plants and dirt of their quotidian existence, not in opposition to them. It's not exactly natural theology anymore; it's theology that accepts the material world with all its flaws, including the people in it. But nothing in this poem is uncomplicated or simplistic. The women mopping are "lovelorn" and the Aunts and Uncles are caught in moments that suggest both violent and pleasurable possibilities. "The Upright Life" at the end of stanza one is uneasily recalled in God's being a "pillar" at the end of the second. The poem does imply that only God is a pillar—people can't be that "upright"—but in retrospect the preacher doesn't seem quite as benighted as he did the first time through. So even class difference gets muddy and all judgments suddenly are called into question.
This refusal to come to simple conclusions marks many of Bogen's poems. The confusions of childhood spiritual training are the subject of the second section of the book, titled "Religion." In "This White Bird is Not the Swan," religious symbols are presented in such a clumsy way that the poor child who is the poem's speaker seems doomed to misunderstanding:
When I was five they
said, See the White Bird?
That's the Anointing.
And that man, he's the one.
The one who foretold the One,
the one unfit to tie the One's
It's impossible for meaning not to slide, leaving the entire enterprise of doctrinal training such a mess that the child is most likely to remember only the threat of pain in the final image of Jesus as king: "So did he have a shiny crown? // No, child—thorns."
The connection between pain and spirituality is made more personal in the poems about physical suffering. Migraines and their reality-altering quality show up over and over. These headaches cause double vision, auras, and, of course, unbearable throbbing that teeters into religious experience, such as in "Migraine Without Aura":
Gone to the void, I'm bared to God's fistic gaze,
a bitch straining her chain as the surgical needle bores through
—but this time, no lights,
the windows of heaven are painted shut.
If there's a weakness in this book, it comes when Bogen leaves the body and the soul behind and focuses on poets and poetry. "What Thomas McGrath Taught Me" and "Dear Berrigan, You Died" are less driven by image and metaphor than they are by summary and expository statement. Of the two, "Thomas McGrath" is more successful. It's really about image and identity formation, particularly in the second half:
the blotch and blur,
pockmark of my early vaccination,
that smudge and stain and
because Dakota's busy
shoring up an after-hours bar
kept by an unkempt
as refuge from the psychic
the hunting shack
dogs and rifles.
It's still possible to be alone on the planet.
Thomas McGrath just isn't necessary to making this interesting poem work, and I wish Bogen had come up with a different title for it.
The book ends hopefully but not easily on a poem called "To See for Yourself." Bogen is still aware of the body's capacity for pain, but this poem asserts that "It's love that knuckles down, that struggles / to tell the tumor from the bright idea." The poem—and the book—ends with the realization that though "[t]here will be months and years when you can't / see," there will come a day when "the flock lifts." Let Me Open You a Swan is a complex, graceful book, one that I have enjoyed reading and rereading. It takes on big subjects and wrenches them into lyrics that I find hard to forget, and I think this is the case despite the fact that I know the author. Actually, I probably know more of the author than I do of her work, because Deborah Bogen has not been an especially prolific writer. When I find a book so polished, however, it makes me wish that more poets could slow down, publish less, and write this well.
I am bound to all these poets in ways that are difficult to forget, but their work is what's important. My responsibility to judge their poems impartially, in fact, feels greater because of my ties to them, regardless of how close those ties are. All of the books under review here are rich, and they deserve attention. Poets are probably always going to make up a small subset of writers, however numerous we seem at AWP conferences, and our conversation becomes fuller—and truer—when we can honestly discuss each other's work in print as well as in person. I like all these poets. I like their work even more. That said, I must also say that the preceding exercise was fairly painful, so this is my advice for other reviewers: don't try this anywhere except at home.