Tuesday, March 24, 2009

When Poetry Serves a Greater Cause

Book Release Party Scheduled for New Taste Full Beans at the Furniture Mart

“Musings” for March 19, 2009

I love poetry. Anyone who knows me knows that about me. Even more, I love poetry that doesn’t exist only in the ivory towers of academia or the secluded cells of other poets but rather plays a real and vital role in the needful world around us. Such is the case with the new anthology, Voices and Vision, from the Hickory Women’s Resource Center, which will serve as a vital fundraiser for the Center.

One of the often forgotten victims of our current economic downturn are non-profits like the Women’s Resource Center (WRC). It only stands to reason that when people are having difficulty making ends meet they are less likely to contribute to causes outside their own. Established non-profits, however, are doubly hit by the economic slide as they are not only unable to count on expected contribution patterns, but also lose the usual revenues generated by prior investments.

The services provided by the WRC are needed during hard economic times more than ever, so a shortage of revenue is especially painful during these times. The staff and volunteers at the WRC are aware of how important their services are right now and have worked hard over the past few months to insure that there is no interruption in those services. Part of that hard work has been the creation of an anthology of poetry and prose to be used as a fundraiser for the WRC while also instilling greater courage and determination in the readers of the anthology.

That anthology, Voices and Vision: A Collection of Writings By and About Empowered Women, is now available and will be featured in a book release party to be held at the new Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse at the Furniture Mart from 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM on Tuesday, March 24. The highlight of the book release party will be a reading of selections from the anthology as many of the writers included in the book will be on hand. Those present will include Hickory area writers Molly Rice, Jeanne Ackley, and D. W. Bentley, as well as Salisbury writer, Terri Kirby Erickson.

Voices and Vision includes 40 pieces by 24 different authors who share their experience with or as extraordinary women “who weather life’s storms and transcend difficult hardships to become strong, healthy, and happy.” The stories they tell from these experiences are certain to enlighten, enrich, and inspire any reader, and the anthology would make a particularly appropriate gift for Mother’s Day.

Voices and Vision costs just $12 per copy, the proceeds of which will be used to fund continuing programs of the Women’s Resource Center, including resource and referral services, support groups, workshops, the personal hygiene pantry, and the Women2Work clothing closet. Last year WRC programs provided 1,167 lbs. of food to 54 families, 925 lbs. of personal hygiene items to 129 families, 800 lbs. of cleaning items to 80 families, 516 items of clothing to 63 women, bus passes to 28 women, gas cards to 32 women for job searches, phone cards to 7 women without phone service, and emergency financial assistance to 19 families for utilities, rent, or medical expenses. The center impacted the lives of 560 children under the age of 18 with 204 of them being 5 years old and under and served a total of 716 individuals.

For more information on the Book Release Party or the Women’s Resource Center, or to reserve your copy of Voices and Vision, contact the Center’s Outreach Coordinator, Susan Huttman, at 828-322-6333 or by email at outreach@wrchickory.org.

In keeping with my tradition of offering a poem in each installment of “Musings,” I am happy to reprint Liza Shaw’s poem “The Faith of a Flower” from Voices and Vision.

The Faith of a Flower
by Liza M. Shaw

Do not question your roots.
No matter how twisted,
Tangled or broken.

Grown through cracks
In hard places,
In the cold earth.

Raw life force, enduring.
Unsure, yet
Nourishment, knowledge and requisite learning.

Do not sway with every random breeze,
Or shower,
Or shrink and cower
Under bitter snows, frozen floes, raging torrents, undertows.

But allow these to strengthen, to build you.
Not weaken or kill you.
To grow you, to mold you
Not ruin or fold you.

Throw your very essence into the fiercest winds
And build your base on the strength against which you have had to fight.
Grow – against all odds.

And turn yourself toward warmth
And light.
and blossom.

North Carolina Poetry Society Plays Vital Role

Recent Awards and Upcoming Events Include Area Poets

"Musings" for March 12, 2009

In one of my previous columns I featured information about one of the key poetry organizations in NC, the Poetry Council of North Carolina. Today I’m highlighting another of NC’s vital groups for the promotion of poetry, the North Carolina Poetry Society.

NCPS was created in 1932, making it the longest-active poetry organization I am aware of in the state. Since that time, the Society has served as an invaluable networking and development tool for poets across the state, bringing poets together at least three times a year for their annual meetings at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines. Those meetings are usually the third Saturdays of January, May, and September. The January meeting concluded recently and included workshops by NC writers Maureen Sherbondy, Richard Krawiec, and Barbara Presnell, as well as Open Mic readings and book signings.

The Poetry Society is in the news again locally with the selection of its 2009 Contest Winners. Each year, the Society sponsors awards in 9 adult and 5 student categories. Those winners are invited to read their work at the NCPS Awards Day, this year on May 16, at the Weymouth Center. Winners also have their work published in the annual awards anthology, Pinesong. Among the winners this year are several writers with local connections, including myself and fellow Hickory native, Bud Caywood. Other winners, including Bill Griffin and Terri Kirby Erickson, have made or will make appearances in Hickory through the Poetry Hickory reading series held the second Tuesday of each month at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse.

In addition to meetings and contests, the Poetry Society sponsors the annual Sam Ragan Poetry Festival, to be held this year at Weymouth on March 14 and highlighted by readings from poet Cathy Smith-Bowers. The Society also sponsors the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poets Series, which brings together outstanding poetry instructors with promising young writers, culminating in a series of readings across the state, one of which will be at the Patrick Beaver Library in Hickory on March 29, featuring incoming NCPS President, Anthony Abbott and Hickory native, Liz Monish.

The Poetry Society also sponsors the Brockman-Campbell Book Award for the best book of poetry by a North Carolinian in the previous year, maintains an online calendar of poetry events across the state, and distributes a monthly newsletter called E-Muse online. The Society currently has in excess of 350 members. Those interested in more information can find it at the Society’s website at www.sleepycreek.org/poetry/.

Brenda Graham

Brenda Graham
Musings for March 5, 2009

I recently reviewed Brenda Graham’s first book of poems, How Sound Carries Over Water, for Wild Goose Poetry Review. In the review I stated, “Graham does the hard work of the poet. She goes back into memory to find the images that reveal the deeper truths about the places we live, and then she tries on word after word and phrase after phrase until she finds the one way those images can be recorded such that the reader is transported to the time, place, and reality she writes of.”
At the risk of sounding conceited, I like that idea of poets trying on words until they find the right combination to transport their readers. It’s not unlike anyone getting dressed for a romantic night out. The unstated hope is that the selections made and the combinations created will transport the intended viewer, the object of affection, to a more romantic time and place, a time and place without the day to day worries of life, perhaps a time before the birth of children and the effects of gravity.
Unlike romance, poetry does not often have such optimistic prospects. The places the reader is transported to are more often dark, frightening, disturbing, and frequently all too familiar. Still, the readers of poetry seek this very transportation, coming back to the poets who achieve it for second, third, and continual “dates.” This suggests that it may not be a particular type of experience the reader of poetry seeks but rather a particular quality, a depth that goes beyond the level to which our “day to day worries” normally permit us to go.
As my review makes clear, Brenda Graham is a poet who achieves this sort of transportation. Her poems are hauntingly, disturbingly familiar, and their power cathartically transports the reader to a deeper experience and understanding of the world we grew up in and the world in which we continue to exist. The poem, “The Vase,” reprinted below, illustrates how Graham clothes her poems in words which make us feel not the dream of romance but the deeper meanings of things found in the real world.

The Vase

Empty and blue,
shaped like a robin’s egg, it slips
from my hands, shatters
on the hardwood floor.

Slivers by the hundreds
at his feet, my husband,
like one of the king’s men,
bends over the mess.

I cannot imagine how
he will fix this. I draw
his attention to the permanent
glue stuck to his fingers.

Aw, he says, It’ll come off, in time.
Once upon a time, I tried
to mend our conversations
that heated up
like a glass blower’s furnace.
Soon enough, I learned to treat
the melted, twisted stuff
with a cold blast of silence.

Brenda Graham grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and now lives in Denver, North Carolina. Her poems have been published in Southern Poetry Review, Wellspring, Main Street Rag, and Cincinnati Poetry Review, among other journals. Her collection, How Sound Carries Over Water, can be ordered from www.mainstreetrag.com. She will be featured with Hickory poet, Sigrid Hice, at Poetry Hickory on Tuesday, March 10, at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory, starting at 6:30 P.M.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Review of Bill and Linda French Griffin's "Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary"

Review of Bill and Linda French Griffin’s Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary (March Street Press, 59 pages, $15)

Poetry doesn’t sell. Everyone knows that. But Bill and Linda French Griffin have created a beautiful book of poems and sketches that is bound to buck that trend. “Beautiful” is not a word one finds in poetry much anymore. It’s vague, overused, and ultimately so subjective as to be essentially meaningless. It remains, nonetheless, the first word that springs to mind when looking at the Griffins’ Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary. It is a beautiful book of beautiful poems with corresponding beautiful drawings.
Outside the realm of photography, calling a book a “coffee table book” is usually considered something of an insult. In this case, however, it is simply a description of how Snake Den Ridge can be used to add immediate aesthetic beauty, intellectual depth, and meditative calm to any living room or waiting room fortunate enough to have the book placed therein. In other words, because of the poems’ unique combination of intellect and readability and the visual appeal of the sketches, Snake Den Ridge will make any room a more interesting place. How many contemporary books of poetry can make a claim such as that?
According to the book’s preface, “A bestiary is a collection of stories about animals, plants, or other entities of the natural world.” Such books have existed since at least the second century. The poems and sketches in this bestiary combine to present, in the words of the authors, “one week’s experience on an Appalachian mountainside” and “join in celebration of a fabulist natural world, where creatures voice moral messages.”
Glancing at the Table of Contents, the reader is naturally inclined towards the dramatic monologues from his or her favorite animals. In my case, I was sure my preference would be for “Hawk,” “Bobcat,” or “Junco,” and I admit to great pleasure in hearing Hawk proclaim his discriminating tastes:

Oh yes, there’s hunger,
but not for Rabbit --
I’m teaching you
to feed the place
you never knew you had.

Similarly, Bobcat’s confession of discretion conjures a smile from one who has both heard, and much more rarely seen the bobcat but only heard tales of panthers in “these parts”:

do you blame me if I choose
to be invisible?
Was it cousin Panther’s choice
to be exiled from the Ridge
and extirpated?

Finally, for a 20-year bird-watching veteran, the confidence with which Junco (also known as a snowbird) speaks of eluding Hawk’s dives while using his special intimacy with winter to survive “four seasons on the Ridge” brings a nod of recognition and appreciation.
In truth, however, none of these favorites created the most lasting impression upon me. That was achieved by the animals the author placed first and last in the collection, the animals who seem to squabble over actual ownership of this ridge: Raven and Bear. Raven opens the collection with a vital reminder of proper perspective, something most people lost before they were even born and never have the opportunity to regain:

I know from twenty circles
of snowdeep and hungry moons
and twenty circles of fresh shoots
that Sky . . . Water . . . Earth . . .
none of them are mine.

And I know none are yours.”

Reading these lines one can’t help but think of Frost’s absent owner of the woods in his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” but then Bear concludes the animal monologues with a clear and somewhat eerie refutation of Raven’s claim for the absence of ownership:

Raven is mistaken -- this Ridge is mine.

And if you hear me, it will be the rising chest
of the mountain and its timeless slow
and if you hear me
it will only be because
I didn’t hear you first.

And, finally, in the epilogue, Raven’s words hint towards a different level of “ownership:

Don’t sigh
at my passing -- each morning
and for every dawn to come
I will spread my soul of wings
where they cast no shadow
and invite you to join me as part
and presence
of Snake Den Ridge.

Ultimately, these totemic poems reinvent the message many of us first heard in Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us,” that the natural world is sacred, invested with a divinity which is too often and too easily obscured by our obsession with ourselves as prime mover as well as by the “other-worldly” religions in which we have chosen to believe.

Review of Pat Riviere-Seel's "The Serial Killer's Daughter"

Review of Pat Riviere-Seel’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter (Main Street Rag)

What is it that keeps us reading books and watching Discovery Channel specials about Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, and Ted Kaczynski? Is it fear, some desire to protect ourselves from the dark potential of human nature by knowing more about it, or just a sense of fascination with what happens when the human mind goes awry?
We’re all fascinated with the perverse, that turning from normalcy that marks all of our lives to some degree at one time or another. Pat Riviere-Seel, as a self-proclaimed “recovering journalist” might have a bit more of that fascination than most of us, however. So perhaps it is not surprising that the subject of her latest collection of poetry is the daughter of Velma Barfield, a grandmother who was executed at Central Prison in Raleigh, NC, in 1984, after being found guilty of committing multiple murders.
Knowing the background of Riviere-Seel’s collection, The Serial Killer’s Daughter, one might ask, why the daughter? Why not Barfield herself? That is the imaginative genius behind the book. After all, several books have been written about Velma Barfield, including one herself. What Riviere-Seel creates, however, is the imaginative story of a women who discovers what for most of us would be beyond the realm of imagination, that one’s own mother is a murderer, and in fact had played a role in the death of one’s grandmother, and in all likelihood of one’s father as well.
Perhaps to the disappointment of some readers, however, Riviere-Seel’s collection is not a sensationalistic, tabloid-style rendering of gory details and pop psychology, but rather a sensitive treatment of the humanity that exists preceding, during, and following such extraordinary events. The poems begin by establishing the setting, Robeson County, NC, where “Baptist preachers seek salvation / from the shallows, but find little solace” and “Muscles ache from a day’s labor / in the fields, textile mill or both,” and where “Hate is no stranger” (“Robeson County”).
Certainly such a setting of poverty, hard labor, spiritual restriction and frustration forms a fertile ground for internal and external conflicts. Such conflicts are made apparent in the poem “Prophecy,” in which the daughter’s father pronounces after an argument, “Ah, shug . . ./
That woman’s gonna kill me.” These setting poems are followed by poems that reveal the daughter’s early intuitions, as in “A Second Look,” where the daughter realizes, after leaving her father passed out on the bed, “Daddy wanted Winstons. / We stopped for ice cream. / She didn’t buy him cigarettes.” As the narrative continues, the reader discovers moments of greater conviction, as in “A Body Count,” where the daughter reflects, “I know, Mama, / Someone has to stop you.”
As engaging as the narrative of these poems is, it is not the story itself that absorbs the reader but the revelation of emotions the daughter experiences through the events. These range from desperate sympathy as she attempts to believe in the possibility of salvation in “Prey” to the inevitable shame as she encounters the outside world in “After My Mother is Arrested and Charged with Murder,” and to a Frostian sort of existential determination in the closing lines of that poem (perhaps the strongest in the book):

Everyone wants to know
what’s going to happen next.
I’ll tell you: at the end of the day
four small arms will circle my neck,
I’ll fry chicken, bake rolls, and pray
to any god that will listen.

Words like riveting, spellbinding, and seductive are usually reserved for mystery or suspense novels not for poetry. But in this case, they all seem to apply as Pat Riviere-Seel examines the humanity behind the story of one of America’s most notorious murder cases. The result is a collection that deserves to be read not only for its narrative but for its depth of emotion and poetic beauty as well.

Review of Brenda Graham's "How Sound Carries Over Water"

Review of Brenda Graham’s How Sound Carries Over Water (Main Street Rag, $14, 59 pages)

I think Brenda Graham and I grew up in the same place, a place with a Red Dot Store, a mill village (or trailer park), disappointing fathers, and an empty swing singing “its unoiled song” (“Any Other Man’s Daughter Would Be Crying”), a place where everyone else’s Daddy seemed kinder than the one who “makes me pick my own / switches from the hedge, stings my legs, [warning] You’d better not whine.”
The poems in Graham’s first collection, How Sound Carries Over Water, are very familiar to me, and not just because this is the third book of poems I’ve read this year about growing up in an alcoholic and impoverished home in the South, nor just because that setting is similar to the one I was born into, but because Graham does the hard work of the poet. She goes back into memory to find the images that reveal the deeper truths about the places we live, and then she tries on word after word and phrase after phrase until she finds the one way those images can be recorded such that the reader is transported to the time, place, and reality she writes of.
The poems of How Sound Carries Over Water are mostly confessional and accessible. They are divided into three sections. The first section, “The Bones of Home,” creates a sort of childhood family portrait, albeit a family portrait from hell. These poems show us a home characterized by “temper-cracked walls” (“Mitsy”) where even the family dog, named Good-for-Nothin’ Bitch, keeps returning to “colorless crosses / as if they were something worth coming back to.” It’s a home of disappointment, molestation, and ultimately, violence, as the reader sees in one of the collection’s strongest poems, “Shame”:

I want to be blind to the rocky yards
I pick my way through on the way
to our house, my sister’s hand a bud in mine.
Blind to the shattered glass

that haloes my mother’s head, the way
she lies, crumpled, at the bottom of the porch steps,
my father at the top, hurling goddamns
and empty whiskey bottles,

the neighbors in robes and slippers,
pulled from sleep to see our family on display.

The second section of the book, “Dream within a Dream,” tells the story of the speaker’s inevitably doomed marriage, a marriage that begins with laughter in “Beds” as the couple fall through the middle of single beds they’ve “shackled” together with belts only to have their “thrashing” “loosen the knots.” The poems in this section are remarkable for the subtly suggestive language. Even the apparently happiest poems are marked with words whose double-entendre suggest an inexorable falling apart, an inescapable silence. The speaker says in “The Vase”

Once upon a time, I tried
to mend our conversations
that heated up

like a glass blower’s furnace.
Soon enough, I learned to treat
the melted, twisted stuff
with a cold blast of silence.

The third section of the book, “A Backwards Sort of Rising,” is aptly named as the poems in this section make clear the speaker’s understanding of how the past haunts the present, and of the need to go back and deal with that past before “rising” will be possible. The section begins with the speaker in a dangerous place, contemplating self-harm in “Cardinal:” “I’ve had the urge myself, / wondering if I had what it took / to shatter my rippling image.” But then she moves through “Recurring Dream”s of her father drunk and goes “Back to Avondale Drive” where “Thunder clouds of anger / / didn’t gather in the corners, roll / from room to shadowed room” and even revisits her “grandfather’s / fingers like gum erasers against your nipples” (“Fat”) and finally begins to “see a bit of green worth saving” (“After the Hail Storm”) and the possibility that “The Light in This House Is Changing.”
In sum, while the poems in How Sound Carries Over Water tell the story of a fragile, uncertain success, their own success as poems is neither fragile nor uncertain. They are strong and worthy of being read.

Review of Timothy Geiger's "The Curse of Pheromones"

Review of Timothy Geiger’s The Curse of Pheromones (63 pages, $14, Main Street Rag)

The Curse of Pheromones by Timothy Geiger is simply a wonderfully enjoyable set of poems. The books consists of a scattering of painful narratives about personal tragedies set against a larger backdrop of poems about the inescapability of time, loss, and death, and the question of how one lives and what one believes given the knowledge of death. The poems offer timely and useful insight into these questions, sometimes with great gravity, sometimes with considerable levity. Most of the poems are short, accessible, and philosophical.
The poem, “Ambient,” printed here in its entirety is typical of the poems in the collection, with its disarming clarity of description leading to a more disturbing and resonant reflection on our lack of knowledge regarding the source of the ambient light surrounding us.

This close to the city
the nearest star to the moon
is a full head-turn to the left--
ambient light
makes even what’s clear
hard to see.
Like the word to
occurring in four
of the first six lines
of this poem--
to the city, to the moon,
to the left, and to see--
it’s not always how a thing operates
so long as it looks,
or sounds, good in action.
A simple hole
punched in a piece of cardboard
is still the best way
to view a total eclipse,
as I learned
in sixth-grade catechism class
when Sister Ellen said
“Always keep it simple
in order to see God.”
But not even faith
can help the invisible stars
filling the sky
with their utter lack of spectacle,
fast asleep
in the shadow
of so much light.

If “Ambient” can be said to be about keeping a proper humility and inquisitiveness as a human being, then “Gold-Star Coastal Tour Lines” is about how to survive given the danger of humility becoming diminishment and depression. In this poem we are reminded of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” when we hear a speaker who wants “to leave / the humbug behind / and drift / into the light and almost holy sea.” Fortunately, for the speaker, before he is lost to the overwhelming presence of the sea, he hears “the Captain” say “find something close and hold it / like you would a lover. / If you go over / this is how to survive.”
The source of this drive to make meaning out of life is made clear in the occasional more personal poem, such as in “Apparitions,” a poem which may be the best, but is certainly the most emotionally intense in the book.

He told me in whispers
about the hobgoblins
always rumbling under the bed.
We were only seven years old.
No one believed him but me.
Twice a day they came

with a needle and scalpel.
The bandage turned pink
around the tube that drained
his eyes. We shouldn’t have climbed
the abandoned water tower--
my best friend slipping on ice

into a rusty iron handrail,
the new year turning
its pockets inside-out.
I may have misheard
the word “hospital”
and thought he said

“hobgoblins.” Is it just the dead
or does every memory
leave a ghost as well--
clockwork eyes made of glass,
my best friend blind
by Valentine’s Day.

Such revelation of personally-felt tragedy is repeated in “Sleep,” where we read

In a field of Pennsylvania wheat
I watched my best friend

begin to die. Cancer,
he said, was hollowing his spine

and his dreams
had never been more vivid.

Again, in “Sacrament,” it is the personally tragic that leads to attempts at constructing meaning, permanence, or at least understanding: “I had lost the ability to believe. / Tragedy followed me like a burnt match, dead birds and thunder. / But for my do that needed to be fed, I’d given up altogether.”
My only complaint against The Curse of Pheromones is that the first poem, from my overgeneralized perspective that all poets are ultimately optimistic and Romantic (else why would they continue to write), should surely have been the last. Out of this gathering of existentially-grasping work, “Believe” gives the reader this all-important question: “why, after all this time listening, / are you still sitting there / when you’ve so much left to do?”

Review of Melanie Faith's "Bright Burning Fuse"

Review of Bright Burning Fuse by Melanie Faith (Etched Press, 18 pages, $5)

What I like best about the poems in Melanie Faith’s Bright Burning Fuse is their “downhomeyness.” These are poems from the heartland, the poetic version of John Mellencamp songs or Billie Letts’ novel Where the Heart Is. In the recent debate about Wall Street versus Main Street, these poems clearly side with Main Street, or perhaps somewhat off-Main Street. For me, it’s a familiar world, albeit one that seems to be vanishing.
In each poem, Faith captures the ambience of late 20th century rural America using the only two tools available to the poet, language and imagery. In the opening poem, “Time Was,” we are reminded that
Once it was the kind of world
where a girl could travel around alone
along any road with a backpack,
a change of clothes, and a banjo.
In the rest of the poem we follow this girl we remember from the days of our childhood, or, if you’re younger, from your parents’ stories through an innocent pick-up, dinner with a stranger, sharing photographs, and arriving at a commune where growing plants leads to internal growth as well, and all with no sense of the danger we would feel in similar circumstances today. The colloquial title of the poem sets the right tone such that the reader is not at all surprised to find the only three-syllable words in the roughly 200-word poem are “grandfather,” “seasonal,” and ironically, “provincial.”
“Time Was” is not the only colloquialism used as a title in the collection. My favorite, because I can remember my grandmother saying all the time, is “It Makes a Body Wonder,” although my grandmother’s statement was usually the dismayed “now don’t that make a body wonder,” usually followed by exactly 5 clucks of her headshaking, self-pitying, resolved tongue. Similarly, in this poem, the speaker remarks how the whistle of a distant train at 1 a.m. can make “a body itch to rise up and follow,” but then quickly acknowledges “my people are not a runaway people. / We are nine to five at the dinner and thrift store, / we are PTA and tilling rows without complaint.” Ultimately, the speaker tells us
Even when we go, we always find our way
back to these woods and creeks,
back to moonlight clinging to the clearing,
back to a silently wondering, listening.
Which probably doesn’t really sound so to most of us after all.
And so it goes in this collection, each poem presenting us compelling images of a world that is far from perfect, but still, in its predictability, its closeness among human beings and to the earth, and even its self-deprecating humor, remains appealing. In the same way, these poems are deceptive, seemingly simple at times but subtly conveying the truest and therefore most important internal human conflicts: ambition versus acceptance; familiarity versus possibility; comfort versus curiosity.

Review of Paul Hostovsky's "Bending the Notes"

Review of Paul Hostovsky’s Bending the Notes (Main Street Rag, 2009, 108 pages)

I’d like to tell you everything about Paul Hostovsky’s new book of poems, Bending the Notes, but I can’t; it’s a large book, as books of poetry go, and covers a lot of ground: childhood, parenting, the world of the deaf, beauty, religion, and so on. I can, however, bend your ear towards some of the high notes.

My favorite part of the book comes early on. In fact, my favorite poem is the first one, “Coconut.” Having seen that “Coconut” was recited by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac, I can’t read it without hearing it in Keillor’s distinctive, gently husky, painstakingly careful enunciations. And yet, that sort of reading works for this poem and for many of the poems in Bending the Notes. A number of the early poems in particular seem written from the voice of a speaker who is careful, calm, measured, and astutely observant of everyday miracles, such as “happiness” in “Coconut:”

Bear with me I
want to tell you
something about
it’s hard to get at
but the thing is
I wasn’t looking
I was looking
somewhere else
when my son found it
in the fruit section
and came running
holding it out
in his small hands . . . .

This is the voice of the grown up you always want to be with your own children, the grown up who is patient and gentle and able to remember the sense of awe, appreciation and exuberance with which we experienced things as children. The miracle of this book is that Hostovsky’s mastery of language is able to recreate again and again not only the child’s awe at the world but also the adult’s awe at the child. We experience this in poems like “Little League,” where the speaker talks of his daughter marveling at the miracles of a baseball game:

when someone hits a long foul ball
and everyone’s eyes are on it
as it sails out of play . . .
the ump has dipped his hand
into his bottomless black pocket
and conjured up a shiny new white one
like a brand new coin
from behind the catcher’s ear,
which he then gives to the catcher
who seems to contain his surprise
though behind his mask his eyes are surely
as wide with wonder as hers.

We see it again in “Conversations with My Son,” where the son asks, “Would you rather be buried or / crucified?” and, after his father’s deliberations, announces “I think I’d rather be crucified,” as he has

unbuckled his belt, unlocked the door
and reappeared outside, running up the hill,
his little backpack full of tools
bouncing on his shoulders,
a head on his shoulders full of questions,
questions escaping all over.

Later poems will acknowledge the harsher, more difficult aspects of living in the world, but in these early poems, Hostovsky embraces the child’s view and entertains the possibilities that view engenders. The speaker of “At the Optometrist,” for example, recaptures a moment of childhood innocence as he sits in the examination chair:

. . . It’s all about
which one I prefer here in the dark,
with a place to rest my chin, me and the doc
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and so I just keep on focusing on
which one I like best, while he focuses
on making something out of it for me. I could
do this all day long. It reminds me
of childhood--what childhood ought to be:
questions concerning your favorites,
painless and gentle, someone tying your shoe
while you sit in a chair thinking of other
things. . . .

Similarly, the speaker of “Every American Child” imagines a world where childhood appreciation of beauty is never lost to the necessary business of the adult world:

. . . And every American child will
be expected to learn by heart the history of the blues
because the history of the blues is an American
story, which some American grownups can’t be trusted
to tell, much less sing, to their American children.

Not every poem in the book, however, features such idealism or expresses such patience and calm. As the speakers and subjects of the poems age and the emotional realities become more complex, a different sort of poem emerges, one that is breathless and anxious, such as the prose poem “Deaf House” and “The Pigeons of Lynn,” which is full of complex sentences and relative clauses. This style of poem is repeated throughout the second half of the collection, but the possibilities it offers for expression and the penchant the poems have for humor and understated depth are perhaps most enjoyable in the brilliant poem, “Bicycles:”

It’s like we’re all bycycles
and we all have these handlebars
and some of the handlebars and some
of the seats are incredibly beautiful
not to mention the way the wheels spin
and the bells ring
and the reflectors reflect and we can’t
look at them and we can’t stop looking at them
and all we really want is to get on top of them
and ride off into the sunset but they say
hey I’m not a bicycle okay
I have an eternal soul that you can’t see
because you’re so focused on my handlebars

There is so much more offered by Hostovsky’s poetry. It is, as I’ve said, a large book whose ultimate goal is to help us know what to do with life and love and beauty, to teach us how “to bend the notes.” And ultimately, in learning so much about life himself, Hostovsky reaches the point that every master does, the point where he realizes how little he knows. That knowledge is best expressed in the book’s final metaphor in the poem “My Statement,” ostensibly about a flute:

. . . from the moment I lifted the thing,
I couldn’t put it down--wherever I tried
to stash it or ditch it, it stuck out painfully

like some herniated part of the body
of beauty, the inner beauty of the world, secret and silver
and singing out from the enclosure

of my desire for it. I couldn’t keep it. I couldn’t lose it.
I couldn’t even play it. So I gave it back and now

I only want to be believed.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Fanjoy-Labrenz Photograph Inspires Caywood Poem

Fanjoy-Labrenz Photograph Inspires Caywood Poem
Musings for February 26, 2009

For the third week in a row, this installment of “Musings” features poetry and artwork from the Aroma of Art fundraiser auction going on this month at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory.
Aroma of Art is a month long silent auction whose proceeds benefit three nonprofits, ALFA (AIDS Leadership Foothills-area Association), Humane Society of Catawba County, and Women's Resource Center. Local artists have donated works which are on display in Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse and can be bid on there. Final bid winners will be announced at Aroma of Art’s Grand Finale, slated for February 28.
In conjunction with Aroma of Art, Poetry Hickory is sponsoring an Ekphrastic Poetry Event. Area writers have produced poems based on works in the Aroma of Art display. These poems have been judged by a panel of local poets, and selected poems have been framed and are on display next to the work of art they were inspired by. The selected poems will be read by their authors at the Aroma of Art Ekphrastic Poetry Event at Taste Full Beans on February 26 and then presented to the winning bidder at the Grand Finale.
The poem below was written by Bud Caywood and inspired by the photograph, “Tree of Life,” by Fanjoy-Labrenz. This particular photo has inspired more poems for the exhibit than any other single piece. Caywood is a very popular Hickory-area poet and artist, who has published 11 books. He has also created handmade greeting cards available in the Hickory Museum of Art.
Sally Fanjoy and James Labrenz are Hickory photographic artists whose work has been shown extensively throughout the Southeast, most recently at the Hickory Museum of Art, the Wilkes Art Gallery, and the Caldwell Arts Council. They were recipients of the United Arts Council Innovative Artists' Grant and the Regional Artists' Grant.
For more information on Aroma of Art, visit the website at http://aromaofart.blogspot.com/ or call Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse at 828-325-0108. For information on the Ekphrastic Poetry Event or Poetry Hickory, contact Scott Owens at asowens1@yahoo.com or 828-234-4266.

Tree of Life
(For the photograph “Tree of Life” by Sally Fanjoy & James Labrenz)

An ashen image
In a vapor waterscape,
Leaf-shade and mirrors

This is not the first reflection.
First black and white photograph or last ekphrastic poem.
Not the first craving to find something abstract in nature.
Not just an ashen image or the photographers’ whim.
It is curiosity in space and time missing.
It is liquid gone from existence.
It is a brain-spinning breach of a time-lapsed moment.
It is cinema, sun and sky spattering the lens.
This is not the sudden landscape becoming accidental.
This is not just one photographic dimension.
Not a mirror or twin sisters.
It is looking out into a dim curtain of mist,
Obscuring what might be there below the reflection.
It is light sliced away from reality.
It is an orbit of fluid under an eye.
It is patience and perfection in the groin of earth.
It is a face into the photograph.
With eyes squinting, pupils straining,
Searching to find birth in a vapor waterscape.
This is not a picture of a tree’s own image in water.
It is more than leaf-shade and mirrors.
It is glass reshaping the illusion of something not yet finished.
It is life found in the snap-shot of a tree.
It is a seed not yet fallen.
A root not yet sprouted.
It is more like a question growing.
It is an embryo.