Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review of Lucille Lang Day's "The Curvature of Blue"

Review of Lucille Lang Day’s The Curvature of Blue
Cervena Barva Press (2009), 90 pages, $15
ISBN: 9780692001813

Simplicity is typically a quality we think of as desirable, especially, perhaps, in poetry. Emerson said, “To be simple is to be great;” Whitman that, “Simplicity is the glory of expression.” They were wise, admirable men; surely they got it right. Simplicity is a word we associate with poetic concepts like beauty, clarity, and purity. Stevens said, “Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.” We might think of haiku and the apparent simplicity of imagery stripped of commentary as what Stevens had in mind. But then, haiku often has two images, the juxtaposition of which complicates things a great deal. We are compelled to seek the significant relationship between these two images, and as we pursue that relationship, we discover a nearly limitless range of possible “interpretations” of the images themselves; we discover a variety of “ideas” that cling to these “things,” demonstrating that what Stevens proposed was not, in fact, simplicity, and that simplicity is simply not possible. The problem is that inherent in the concept of simplicity is the idea of singularity, the condition of being uncombined, uncompounded, and unambiguous, and none of those conditions exist to a significant degree in human experience.

This is why Lucille Lang Day’s recent collection of poetry, The Curvature of Blue, conspicuously avoids and even demonstratively denies the existence of simplicity. Perhaps not surprisingly, Day’s scholastic and professional background features as much science as poetry, and few arguments for simplicity exist in the world of scientific research. Coming from such a background, Day’s poems not only avoid simplicity but seem to be about complexity more often than anything singular theme, seem at times to joyfully wallow in the compoundedness of things.

The first poem in The Curvature of Blue is a perfect example and a poem I absolutely love. It is called “At the Museum After Closing,” and Day’s bio will confirm that she does indeed work at a museum, but what makes the poem effective is the way she uses that experience as a metaphor for a book of poems, for this book of poems. Not that Day ever mentions poems in this poem–that would violate Stevens’ directive–but assuming the speaker of the poem to be the poet, it’s a short leap to seeing the museum as being the collection (book) of exhibits (poems) “created” by the curator (poet), and we’re off and running with a wonderful conceit. Greater complexity occurs when the speaker points out that she, like the exhibits (poems), but not an exhibit, is also inside the museum (book of poems), visible by but separated from the museum’s patrons (readers) by her glass office walls (limitations of language).

Metaphors are inherently complex, and this seems a particularly apt and fresh metaphor for poetry. We come to it for the poems, but we always find in addition the poet laboring there, looking back at the reader through glass walls of words, visible, but never quite within reach, both drawn more powerfully towards one another and towards creating significance by the frustrating nature and promising potential of such proximity. Of course, this metaphor also captures the emphasis on complexity that exists at the core of these poems. The speaker-curator’s somewhat awkward duality as exhibit and worker, as subject and object, her existence as seer and seen, her being here and not here, being real and not real, her simultaneity, her “andness” belies any suggestion of simplicity and frames the primary significance of these poems as it reveals itself in various surprising and epiphanous ways here and in other poems.

One of the most prevalent oxymoronic coexistences in these poems occurs in what may be the cleverest poem in the book–clever because it appears to be a fairly simple thing: a love poem. This, however, is a love poem whose primary vehicle for expressing that emotion is the language of science, a detailing of colors, plant species and statements about the universe. Right away, then the simple notion of separation between art and science, emotion and intellect, love and logic is called into question by the presentation of one in the language of the other. Day’s speaker continues her blurring of simplicity by using colors synaesthetically, claiming to “hear cinnabar, / olive, raw umber, magenta, / violet and chartreuse,” and then saying, “when you hold me, I feel / a surge of indigo, amethyst / and tangerine.” But the compounding won’t stop there. Having begun with the premise that “The universe is beige” (an apparently singular color), Day’s speaker (channeling Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”) ultimately concludes:

. . . . Suddenly
stippled, mottled, streaked,
I don’t care if the universe
is the color of buckwheat
because iridescence spills
from you and me.

Thus it continues throughout this remarkable collection of poems, things we commonly think of as simple laid bare and revealed to be inextricably compound, intricately ambiguous, undeniably complex, shown in their truest light, as if Day’s motto came not from Emerson and Whitman but Whitehead’s injunction to, “Seek simplicity and distrust it.” Even such an unquestioned concept as contemporary apathy is challenged in “Letter to Send in a Space Capsule,” when the speaker writes to her post-apocalyptic audience, “It may sound strange, / but most people cared deeply about the planet / and each other.” One thing is clear: Lucille Lang Day cares deeply enough to look at things honestly, to admit complexity, and to never tire of exploring the bright, colorful, and infinitely varied and complicated fabric of human experience.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hickory Poet How-To, Part I

(first published in Outlook)

So, you want to be a poet in Hickory, NC? Many have tried; many have failed; and a perhaps surprisingly large number have done pretty well. A word to the wise, however; it’s not easy. There is not what could be called a lot of interest in poetry in Hickory (or anywhere else these days for that matter). There is even less opportunity for financial remuneration. So, whatever you do, don’t give up your day job to become a poet.

If, despite these unfortunate facts, you are still interested, then here are some tips on how to get started and keep going.

1. READ. Whether you’re in Hickory or Paris, this is the most important element of developing one’s prowess with language. Read everything, of course, but in particular read good contemporary poetry. Anthologies like Contemporary American Poetry and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems are a good place to start. You can find the poets you identify with there and then seek out their books to read further. There are also over 1000 regularly published poetry journals in America, many of which are available for free online. Nearby examples include Wild Goose Poetry Review (, Dead Mule (, and Main Street Rag (

2. WRITE. Seems intuitive, but I know many would-be writers who get so caught up in the “busy-ness” of being a writer, that they never get much writing done. Aside from one’s job and family, the only thing a writer should be doing more than writing is reading. There are two possible keys to this process. First, one can schedule his or her writing for the same time every day, just like exercising or bathing, and stick to it. If family and work make that difficult to manage then one can purchase a nice journal and carry with them everywhere and write during whatever free time presents itself.

3. Read “Musings” (this column). The column comes out every other week and is also available online at if you miss the paper. It will include details on upcoming poetry events in the area, profiles of poets giving readings in the area, sample poems, and the occasional exploration of various poetry topics and issues (like this one).

4. Attend Poetry Hickory and Writers’ Night Out. On the second Tuesday of each month, two well-published writers and three Open Mic readers are featured at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. The featured writers read for about 20 minutes each, and the Open Mic readers for about 10 each. The featured writers usually have copies of their recent books to sell and sign as well. The readings start at 6:30 and are free. They are preceded by Writers’ Night Out, sponsored by the NC Writers’ Network and also free, which begins at 5:00. These are networking sessions attended by anywhere from 10 to 20 area writers, including several “newbies” as well as 3 journal editors, 2 creative writing instructors, and 4 writers who have published at least 5 books each.

5. Take a class. Both CVCC and Lenoir Rhyne offer creative writing classes every semester. If you already have your degree, you can sign up to audit the class as a way of honing your skills and increasing your motivation to write.

Okay, that’s a start. Come back in two weeks, and we’ll continue with the list.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Promises to Keep: A Review of Debra Kaufman's "The Next Moment"

Promises to Keep: A Review of Debra Kaufman’s The Next Moment

The Next Moment, Poems by Debra Kaufman
Jacar Press, 2010, 64 pages, $13.95
ISBN: 9780984574025

What keeps us alive, motivates us, makes us human are our relationships and the obligations they entail. Frost knew that and memorably expressed it in his lines:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
but I have promises to keep,
and miles to go before I sleep,
and miles to go before I sleep.

Now, in The Next Moment, Debra Kaufman reminds us of the vitality of those relationships as well as the sometimes overwhelming difficulty of them.

Ranging across relationships with grandparents (“Knitting”), parents (“Smile”), spouses (“Nice”), and children (“The Drought Speaks”), Kaufman creates a detailed and honest “atlas of the difficult world” (thank you, Adrienne Rich) that defines who we are, who we have always been, as human beings. And Kaufman goes on to remind us in other poems that when, through such things as death, maturation, and divorce, those relationships seem to fade from prominence, the ever-present relationship with ourselves remains (“Epiphany”), and those other relationships always inherently linger there (“Last Words”), a fact made clearest in these lines from “Hope and Despair Are Not Opposites”:

The body experiences one moment,
then the next,
is always in the present,
while the mind spins into the future
or loops back to the past.

This duality of human existence is treated again both stylistically and thematically in the collection’s two best poems: “Minestrone, Rainy Day” and “Too Late / The Scream.” These two “braided” poems combine two poems each in a perfect marriage of form and function. In the former, one string of words illustrates how meticulous attention to detail and routine is used to assuage and even combat the fear, guilt, and uncertainty, the “unraveling” effects, caused by the depression, abandonment, and drug abuse presented in the contrapuntal other string of words. Similarly, in the latter poem, participation in art and writing is used to balance and resist the terror, the undoing, created by the unthinkable awareness of our children’s mortality and vulnerability.

It is certainly common enough that a book of poems contains one or two brilliant pieces. In The Next Moment, such brilliance is the rule rather than the exception, and it manifests not only in the form of the poems but also in frequently resonant phrasing. One line, for example, in “After a Drink or Two You’re Beautiful” memorably summarizes a child’s experience of living with an alcoholic mother: “Such heaviness, so many empties.” Another example of Kaufman’s facility for phrasing comes from “Last Words,” where the last stanza rivals the power of Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”:

I wish he’d die, now, quickly.
But first would lay
his rough hands
on the crown of my head.

The theme of a father’s loss treated in this poem is addressed with equal poignancy in “Comes a Time”:

In a black-and-white snapshot
proof that he once held me aloft:

my infant fist clutching his finger,
worry and wonder in his gaze,

the world opening--
our world of earth and air,

touch and smell,
grasp and release.

If it is true that we can judge a person by the company they keep, then certainly judging a poet by whose work they call to mind is a fair means of assessment. Frost, Adrienne Rich, Dylan Thomas . . . poetically speaking, Debra Kaufman is indeed a fine host for an outstanding selection of guests as her work takes its place at the table remarkable and memorable poets.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Return of the Poetry Gift Guide


(first published in Outlook

One of the most talked about columns I wrote last year was the one in which I recommended several collections of poetry as best gift selections for the poetry lover on everyone’s list. Of course, some of that talk was by poets who resented the fact that I hadn’t included their book in the column. Despite those dissatisfied readers, I think a column suggesting books of poetry that might please the discerning poetry reader is useful at this pre-holiday time of year.

It would be somewhat disingenuous, not to mention foolish, of me to not begin my recommendations with at least a reminder that I had two new books of poetry published this year myself: Paternity and The Nature of Attraction, both from Main Street Rag ( or “orderable” from me at As quick summary, I would say Paternity is a book of poems about the joys and struggles of parenting while The Nature of Attraction is a narrative sequence of somewhat risqué poems about a relationship. You’ll have to decide which would be more appropriate for your gift designee.

Among the many books of poetry released this year by people not named Scott Owens, the one I think consists of the best poetry is The Real Warnings (Anhinga Press) by Greensboro poet Rhett Iseman Trull. Apparently, I’m not alone in that judgment as that book won two of the state’s three poetry book awards. Another strong collection is Lessons in Forgetting (Main Street Rag) by Pinehurst poet Malaika King Albrecht. These poems about living with a relative suffering from Alzheimer’s would be particularly appropriate for anyone in that situation.

For some reason, 2010 seems to have been the year for the poetry anthology and the selected works. Two strong and interesting anthologies published this year are The Sound of Poets Cooking (Jacar Press), which features poems about food and recipes from poets across the state, and Echoes Across the Blue Ridge (Winding Path), which features poems from and about the southern Appalachian Mountains, both topics which seem ideal for gift-giving.

Several established poets had their “greatest hits” collections, books which gather selected poems from their previous books, published this year. Such collections are, of course, always of high quality and give new readers the opportunity to experience poems that might have fallen out of print. Chief among those in NC this year were Davidson poet Tony Abbott’s New & Selected Poems (Lorimer), Stephen Smith’s A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworth’s (Main Street Rag), and David Rigsbee’s The Red Tower (NewSouth).

Finally, for local readers who enjoy a trip down local history lane, Tim Peeler’s impressive collection Checking Out (Hub City) recounts in poetry his seven years’ experience as manager of Mull’s Motel here in Hickory. Of course there are dozens of other collections of poetry I would mention if given the space, but visiting the websites of the publishers listed for these ten selections will give the poetry shopper all the variety they might need. Most collections of poetry can also be ordered from the poet, which has the advantage of giving the shopper the opportunity to get the collection signed. Happy shopping!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review of Stephen Smith's "A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths: Selected New and Old Poems"

Review of A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths: Selected New and Old Poems
By Stephen Smith
Main Street Rag, 2010, 108 pages
ISBN: 9781599482576

(first published in "Wild Goose Poetry Review")

Stephen Smith’s new book of poems, A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths: Selected New and Old Poems, 1980-2010, is really two books of poetry. The first, united under the Roman numeral “I” in the book, might well be called A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths since the poem by that title is the last poem in the opening section, but it would be more revealing to call it “Living In the Shadow of the Bomb,” since that idea seems to be a unifying undercurrent in this first section. One could argue that if that title suggests the poems are mostly about life in the 50’s and 60’s in America, then it could be used for the second section, called “II,” as well. Such an argument, however, ignores two key facts regarding this second section of poems. First, it would be most appropriate to simply call the section, “The Bushnell Hamp Poems,” since every poem in the section deals with the world of Smith’s loveable old (as in first collected in 1980) character by that name. Second, the difference between the world of the two sections is that the first deals with the 50’s and 60’s South of the suburban middle class, those who were most worried about the bomb, while the second deals with a slightly older and considerably more rural and lower than middle class South, a South that seems at times to be an updated version of the South portrayed in the novels of Erskine Caldwell. Taken together, then, the two sections create a fairly wide and deep view of the South over a span of some 30 to 40 years.

One thing the poems in both sections share is the sense that they are real. There is no pretension or intellectual affectation here. The poems feature people we know, although in the case of Bushnell Hamp and his friends we might not always want to admit it. The stories and emotions are revealed with such clarity that time and again they move the reader to either tears or laughter, usually because we recognize ourselves in the narratives or revelations of motivations, anxieties, failures, and successes. Former NC Poet Laureate, Fred Chappell, comments about the book that Smith manages “to find the general in the specific, the universal value in the local detail, to grasp the small part that will imply the whole.” Smith, himself, discusses this practice of seeing ourselves in others in his poem, “Love,” when he says, “what we love / in lives of strangers is an inevitability / we perceive as just.” This comment follows the narration of a celebrity love triangle where each participant ultimately receives their “just desserts.”

Smith’s ability to reveal the universal in the specific is even more apparent in “Cleaning Pools,” where he tells a story that illustrates how shared labor between father and son creates an understanding that goes beyond words:

Sheet lightning streaked
over the Chesapeake, and I began to notice
how after each flash, I went momentarily blind.
“It’s strange,” you said, finally, and without
my having spoken a word, “how quickly the pupil
closes to the light and how complete the darkness is.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Perhaps,
as you said, it is like death, this sudden light
and inevitable darkness. Or perhaps it is the
purest grace. It says what fathers and sons
mostly cannot say.

And, again, in my favorite poem in the collection, “Coming Back to the Old Emptiness,” he uses the story of an abusive grandfather to portray social determinism, the parental desire to protect, the mutability of all things human, and the familiar necessities of understanding and forgiveness in what he calls “impossible love:”

So my grandfather rises
from the depths of the Depression
to flail my father (then a child
younger than my small son)
with an electric cord
. . . . . . . . . .
My grandfather is dying tonight,
the madness of eighty years--
. . . . . . . . . .
all of it crumbling.
. . . . . . . . . .
Because we suffer impossible love,
my father grieves tonight for his father
just as I grieve for mine,
and my son, safe in his bed,
will learn of these cruelties
only in a poem, which itself must
someday crumble, its dust rising in
final dissolution.

Unlike so many poets today, however, Smith is not always morbid, depressing, or heavy. He recognizes that amidst the grave seriousness of our lives, there is also great levity. The Bushnell Hamp poems take full advantage of this levity, but its presence in Smith’s perception of the world is made apparent even before the second section of poems and without the use of the dialect which characterizes the Bushnell Hamp poems and helps (re)create their levity. One example is “Dear Michael,” where we hear the story of a boy whose wit makes the best of essentially falling into a urinal at a roller skating rink:

What must happen to everyone
who ceases motion happened to you: the world
rolled out from under. And to save your life
you put both hands in the urinal
. . . . . . . . . .
your pink
fingers frozen among the soggy cigarettes
and dead gum
. . . . . . . . . .
you asked me, “Want some spearmint?
How about a Lucky Strike?”

Similarly, in “Cricket Poem,” Smith’s appreciation of humor comes through as we hear about a young man who spills a box of 100 crickets in his car only to later have them interrupt a potentially fruitful moment:

She was about to moan yes
when a cricket whispered in her ear
and another called from
the glove compartment
. . . . . . . . . .
the cricket tabernacle choir singing
in ninety-nine part harmony
Nancy Nancy Nancy Nancy
save yourself forever.

Equally entertaining are the moments of irony Smith notices, such as the no smoking sign in a doctor’s office after a terminal prognosis is given in “Sign for My Doctor’s Waiting Room,” or the accidental destruction of turtles, sole survivors of the Woolworth’s fire, beneath the wheels of fire trucks, in the title poem.

Ultimately, the appreciation of the humor, importance, and urgency of life experienced by those who populate these poems, those who populated mid-20th century America, is driven by the looming shadow of the bomb. That motivational presence is conveyed in “Fallout Shelter, October, 1962” and in “Bomb Dream,” but the same sense of urgency is present in “Nothing,” in “Fluid Drive,” and in many of the Bushnell Hamp poems, suggesting that while the threat of the bomb may have led some to a greater appreciation of life, it served mostly as a more imminent and tangible presence of the death sentence, the indeterminate “green mile,” we all live with. Thus, perhaps, the overarching message of these poems, the understanding which Smith expresses, is that mortality is our greatest motivator.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review of Shaindel Beers' "A Brief History of Time"

Review of A Brief History of Time, by Shaindel Beers
Salt (2009)
ISBN: 9781844715053

What’s not to love about Shaindel Beers’ first collection of poetry, A Brief History of Time? It is confessional, political, classical, formal, imagistic, language-driven, realistic, fantastic, sensational, conventional, innovative, consistent, personal and diverse. Almost anything you want from poetry --unless you want facile, sentimental drivel -- you can find here. This book could be used as a companion piece to a fairly large dictionary of poetics, illustrating a great number of the concepts and terms spoken of in the practice of poetry. There are 4 sestinas, 2 sonnets, a villanelle, and a ghazal; there are wide-ranging examples of a seamless stream of consciousness technique and crystal clear and straightforward conventional narratives; there are metaphors and motifs, references and allusions; and through it all there is vivid imagery and a facility with sound and language that lets the stories, thoughts, and perceptions unfold fluidly down the page. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Beers’ virtuosity is not limited to the technical aspects of poetry but extends into her selection and expression of subject matter as well, offering significant insights and opportunities for understanding in areas of both personal health, psychology, and relationships and broader issues of social justice.

Focusing just on the versatility Beers displays in these poems might be misunderstood to suggest that the book lacks cohesion. In fact, however, the poems revolve quite provocatively around a central idea suggested in the book’s ambitious title. Taken together, they form a sort of narrative of a young woman’s personal and social development towards self-actualization in late 20th century America as she becomes increasingly aware of the inconsistencies between what has been promised and what is actual and as she explores the possibilities for reconciling these differences. The story is not linear because any story that strives for realism will resist linearity. The story is “brief” because it arises from and focuses on a life that is still incomplete. Nevertheless, the story is wide-ranging because Beers recognizes that any segment of any human life seen honestly and accurately will constitute a microcosm of all human life, of “history.”

It is the unblinking realism, the haunting familiarity, of these poems that is most appealing about them. Auden said the poem “must say something significant about a reality common to us all,” such that its “readers recognize its validity for themselves.” Otherwise, we might ask, what would be the point. Beers writes about things that matter and things we recognize, and time and again she gets it just right, so right, in fact, that the reader finishes nearly every poem feeling as if they’ve just read a record of their own thoughts and experiences.

Perhaps the most impressive poem in the collection is the first one, the title poem, which in some ways serves as a model for the entire book. This free verse stream of consciousness journey from mixing coffee through Virginia Woolf, dinosaurs, annuities, “People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People,” The Last of the Mohicans, and a 1983 Cutlass Supreme to an image of the moon as a baseball reveals a personality that wants it all to make sense, understands it never will, but finds purpose in the effort. She muses (more poetically than this excerpt can achieve), “There seems to be a message here, but I don’t know what it is . . . . nonetheless, I keep on trying . . . . My regular duties . . . . pouring Gatorade, wiping away sweat and shards of bicuspids and incisors . . . . just another type of insanity . . . . doing the same thing the same way and expect[ing] different results. I did it to help people . . . . by writing these untruths.”

As these lines, this poem, and indeed this entire book suggests, the separation between what is of concern personally and what is of concern socially is much narrower than we usually, for the sake of convenience, conceive. It should not be surprising, then, to discover that the poems I find most powerful are those that appear more personally probing but in the process produce lines that bear larger social implications as well, such as these from “Flashback:”

When you are four, you don’t realize
that a road can go on forever, take you from forest
to wheat field to desert, that there are worlds you
have never known. Worlds where the dull sound
of your mother’s body hitting a wall, a door, the baby’s
changing table are as alien as saying I love you.

It is through the consideration of such personal poems that we begin to recognize our own potential for the greater social responsibility expressed in lines like these from “Rewind:”

If we could invent
the automatic rewind, bodies would expel

bullets that would rest eternally in chambers,
130,000 people would materialize
as the Enola Gay swallowed the bomb,

landmines would give legs and fingers
back to broken children.
Right now, teeming cancer cells

would be rebuilding blood and bone.

Perhaps the most worthy ambition of poetry is to help us achieve greater empathy and understanding, to help us recognize the universal through the familiar. Shaindel Beers accepts this challenge of the poet. The speaker of one of her poems chastises herself for lacking the courage to stand up for “things that matter, the stuff of life and death.” A Brief History of Time may very well be the penance for that lack of courage as these poems face unflinchingly that task of promoting our ability for compassion and action.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review of Alex Grant's "The Circus Poems"

Review of The Circus Poems
Poems by Alex Grant
Lorimer Press, 2010, 53 pages, $16.95
ISBN: 9780982617137

Alex Grant says he loves the circus. And why not? We all do. And his new collection of poems, titled The Circus Poems, illustrates why. Grant begins his book with a quotation from artist Marc Chagall: “For me, a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound.” That statement conveys so much of what we all find appealing about the circus. It is “like a world,” or better yet, like the world, like our world, only better. Better because whereas in our world the oddities, the personal foibles, even the freakishly super abilities are hidden from view by closed doors, pulled curtains, family secrets, the masks of normalcy we all wear, in the world of the circus, they are paraded forth, laid bare for all to see in the safe enclosures of tents and rings and stages. Safe because the circus comes and goes, “appears and disappears,” unlike our daily lives, and we decide whether or not and how often we will enter that world. Safe, in other words, because we don’t live in the circus; the residents of the circus are not us, not our family, not even our neighbors.

Nevertheless, what makes the circus world most appealing is that it is still relevant because its occupants are, in a number of ways, very much like us. Thus, while they appear different, they remain hauntingly, “profoundly” and “disturbingly” familiar. Archetypally speaking, if the circus is a microcosm of our world, then the residents of the circus, particularly the residents of Grant’s circus, represent those who populate the world . . . us. Just as we understand that everyone in our dreams is a manifestation of some part of the dreamer, it is clear that every character in these poems, every figure in the circus, manifests some aspect of the poet and the reader, some aspect of who we are as people.

The first of the figures Grant presents us is “The Ringmaster,” he who controls, who narrates, who keeps things “contained in a small box . . . on a shelf,” just as we attempt to direct our lives by keeping them contained in the boxes of home, job, routine, and just as we attempt to control the interpretation of our lives by collecting memorabilia, photographs, letters, journals, etc. and keeping them in small boxes on a shelf. The reader’s, and thus all of our, complicity in these efforts to control and contain is made clear by a subtle shift to second person in the last line as Grant names something we all collect: “The brittle shards of day under your fingernails.”

Another such archetypal figure is “The Human Cannonball” who echoes Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation” as he is constantly propelled by forces he neither sees nor understands while he “dreams the same dream night after night.” He also becomes Sisyphean in the way he is described as “a subterranean voyager riding towards his nightly salvation.” The nature of this salvation is unnamed, of course, because it will be different for each reader: religion, family, money, etc. What is most interesting, however, is that even the certainty of this salvation is brought into question as the audience all have “knives glinting in their hands.”

In each poem Grant presents in the image of a circus figure another statement on what it feels like to be human. In “The Tightrope Walker,” for example we are shown the necessities of risk and uncertainty inherent in the human condition, as well as the uncertain redemption gained through self-awareness and self-declaration: “Smile fixed dead ahead--we all walk without the net, . . . high wire Hottentots in love with the world . . . . each body singing of its own downfall.”

Interspersed among these poems of subtle conceits are others that are not clearly circus-related but that, like the circus poems, cause us to think about the nature of human existence. “The Road to Archangel,” for example, follows up imagery of human atrocities and suffering with this statement about our resilience:

to be born human
is like coming up for air in an infinite ocean
and finding your head inside the only ring that floats--

and you hold on to the ring, you can breathe the air,
and somehow you reach the shore, and this,
. . . is only the beginning--and here I stand,

alone in the forest, looking down at the ocean--
Body of water. Breath of salt. Beginning.

As that poem suggests, Grant explores the full range of human nature unblinkingly, including those elements he, along with most of us, would resist, and a lesser poet would deny. The best image of these elements of humanity comes from the book’s best poem, “Trampling Down the Vintage,” where Grant weaves together the stories of John Brown and the Nazi genocide of Gypsies, characterizing the source of these atrocities archetypally as “a black-capped judge // deep in the sleep of ignorance,” whom the speaker must confront:

All my life, I have felt your hands around my throat,
your gloves thick and warm, smelling of nothing.

We will meet again, in a field out beyond today,
stripped, like holy men, holding our arms in the air.

This is not Grant’s first circus. He has already written a significant number of impressive, engaging, deeply meaningful poems in his previous books, but none have been more resonant than these because these function as a unit, each one adding texture to the one before it and to the work at large. Simply put, The Circus Poems is not just a good collection of poems but an important one, and one of my favorites this year.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review of David Rigsbee's "The Red Tower: New & Selected Poems"

Review of The Red Tower: New & Selected Poems
by David Rigsbee
NewSouth Books, 2010, $24.95, 192 pages
ISBN: 9781588382313

Like countless others, Thoreau, for example, or Camus or Whitehead or Sinatra, I have been haunted most of my life by a single question. Stephen Dobyns put this question into words in perhaps his best known poem, “How to Like It.” David Rigsbee, in his new collection of poems, The Red Tower, has an answer to that question. In his opening poem, “Harp,” he concludes, “Pointless speculation, and yet / / that is what I did with my life.” Granted, “pointless speculation,” may not sound like much, but one shouldn’t judge that summation of human existence and endeavor too harshly. After all, with the exception of that special certainty granted by what we call faith (others might say imagination or fantasy or denial), as far as we can ever know, all of our efforts to explain and understand the nature or meaning of life are ultimately speculative, and lacking the truth that is necessary to make one’s efforts truly meaningful and purposeful, they must be deemed in all likelihood pointless as well. More importantly, however, the answer to the question, “How do we like it,” that Rigsbee provides in The Red Tower is that we embrace the uncertainty of our existence, and all that entails, in other words, that we try.

Such uncertainty is a frequent source of frustration, sometimes even depression or desperation, but it is always also a source of possibility and purpose. I think of Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and how any attempt to determine the nature of the road Frost is suggesting one should take is frustrated by the poem’s embrace of uncertainty, leaving one with the conclusion that Frost’s real point is not which road one should take but only that it is one’s willingness to choose a road and pursue it that makes “all the difference.” In other words, it matters most that one is willing to try. Rigsbee’s poems in The Red Tower have a similar undercurrent. He recognizes that his answer to the question is an embrace of uncertainty, which creates possibility, and each of the poems in this book clarifies how one pursues possibility, what one might encounter in that pursuit, and what consequence might occur along the way. The first clarification comes in his second poem, “After Reading,” where he declares, “Purity is a curse . . . / It better fits / to turn away from the shore / in favor of the garbage and the grief.”

The next clarification comes in his third poem, the book’s title poem, “The Red Tower,” where he attempts to discover meaning out of his brother’s death, finding instead no transcendent answers. He declares that “Yeats was wrong when he wrote / that God talked to those long dead,” and adds, “Even if / God talked to the dead, what could / He possibly say to them?” This is not the first time anyone has asked this question, and Rigsbee makes clear that it shouldn’t be the last. If God is to have any real meaning to humanity, then this question needs to be asked repeatedly and persistently. The doubt expressed in those lines is repeated in the next poem, “The Apartment,” as well, where he tells us that “Saints were said to emerge from their cells / and pause, before going forth out of the spirit, / in their rope belts, into the stony forests.” If even saints pause between the realms of the spiritual and the physical, between life and death, then how could the rest of us expect any certainty, any correctness, any purity in our choices?

The four poems mentioned thus far are all from Rigsbee’s new poems, so it’s not surprising, perhaps, that the subject matter and attitudes they express are similar. It is most interesting to note, however, that the same perspective exists in the selected poems from his seven previous collections as well. My favorite of his expressions of this embrace of uncertainty comes from “The Stone House,” a poem in memoriam of Edmund Wilson, whose very life embodied the necessary dialectic between ontology and epistemology, what one might call the balancing act of being human. Rigsbee proclaims:

Wanted: a sky-blue life,
wild valleys brought to heel
by threshers and the queer tame men
walking the swath of a glacier.
Wanted too, a meaning for these footsteps,
these crawfish on the stone ledge, crawling
back to the river, and the tiny water-shrew
there, particular and bashful.

We want both to be and to make meaning out of or discover meaning within being. Embracing this balancing act and the effort necessary to persistently create meaning from it is also central to another of my favorite of Rigsbee’s older poems, “Equinox.”

It is the equinox, and today I feel
the thrall that reconciles the animal
and the hole, cloud and lake, the sexes.
The ticking at the window grows . . .
but in the kitchen the summer flies still swirl.
I hunt them all, as if nothing
should learn to expect the impossible.

Negative eloquence . . . /
is why the fire saves nothing, discards nothing.

Rigsbee stresses appreciation of the difference between life, which is clearly eternal, and individual life, which is decidedly not. He also stresses the necessary duality of living and being aware of living, being in the moment and aware of being in the moment.

Finally, in “Caught in the Rain,” another of Rigsbee’s best early poems we hear the same message in perhaps his clearest words as he contemplates the freshness of world metaphorically washed clean of loss, regret, the ever-present past by rain:

It will be
like falling in love again

to feel the sky-chilled rain
wanting to press my shirt
into the likeness of my body

until I am the submissive one,
part bird, part worm, part of
what is without reason . . .

knowing only the present tense.

Throughout his decades-long work, Rigsbee has encouraged us to live better, to make life better, by embracing the present tense, by submitting to an understanding that each of us is only a moment, by embodying Keats’ idea of negative capability: “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any [or at least too much] irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It is lesson that will do us all good and that we need to be reminded of regularly.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Imbued with the Spirit: A Review of Echoes Across the Blue Ridge

Imbued with the Spirit: A Review of Echoes Across the Blue Ridge

Echoes Across the Blue Ridge (Winding Path 2010)
Edited by Nancy Simpson
238 pages, $16
ISBN: 9781450701525

What makes the Appalachian Mountains so special? Certainly one distinctive quality is age. Where else can you see stone so old it crumbles, trees left alone to grow as big around as houses, houses bent on one knee but still lived in, and traditions as old as . . . well, as old as the hills?

Things, even people, are allowed to grow old here without someone knocking them down in the name of progress or shuffling them off to a nursing home. And that’s how the real magic of the place happens, because, in one respect, nothing dies here -- not really. Sure, physical presence may come and go, but the essential character of things is retained in stories, poems, songs, artifacts, traditions, and, most of all, memory.

The word “haunted” has a negative connotation in most places, but one can hardly read about the southern Appalachians without that word or a synonym being, if not named, then at least implied. Robert Morgan uses it in his Introduction to Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: “The deep valleys seem haunted by the natives who once lived there.” Kay Byer uses it in a comment quoted by Nancy Simpson in her “Note from the Editor:” “our most haunting artifacts.” The first poem, “Beyond the Clearing” by James Cox, certainly suggests it by referring to “a place sublime / where spirits sing invisibly.” And the first two stories, “Rendezvous” by Charlotte Wolf and “The Third Floor Bedroom” by Lana Hendershott, are, to some degree about the sensation of being haunted. And despite the usual expectation that non-fiction wouldn’t involve such fanciful ideas as spirits and haunting, even the first essay, “The Oldest Answer” by Steven Harvey quotes Bettie Sellers saying, “My bent was to espouse the unseen that’s in the woods at night.” To which, Harvey adds, “It is the need to fill all this haunted otherness with something human.”

All of this repetition of the word “haunting” or the sense of being haunted reminds the reader that the implication of the word is in fact not limited to an unpleasant habitual visitation but rather to a persistent presence of spirit, a presence that may be desired, embraced, just as I, a flatlander, have been haunted by images of Cade’s Cove, Caesars Head, Graveyard Fields, and the Devil’s Courthouse since visiting them as a child and returning to them as often as I can manage. This usually pleasant but sometimes unsettling lingering of spirit is closer to the type of haunting the writers in Echoes Across the Blue Ridge have discovered in these mountains and expressed in these pages.

Not that every piece in this anthology deals with the past or memory or spirit. Some of the selections deal with other reasons people are attracted to these mountains. Ellen Andrews comments on the beauty and sense of community in the mountains in “Homing:” “We are connected not by school uniforms / but by a raging lust for these purple mountains.” And in poems like Gene Hirsch’s “Where It Comes From,” we see even more closely the intimate relationship between the human and the natural: “Love / sprouts from lichen, / in the shade, by the lily pond . . . / in the thicket / of a chapter of floating / leaves / beneath the silky / hairs of a willow.”

Even the descriptions of nature are, however, frequently haunting, as in Janice Townley Moore’s “Photos from Another State,” where she describes the sound of a creek as “lyrics from the unseen.” Similarly, Jennifer McGaha’s reverie in “Looking Glass” is punctuated by images from the past: “You see your great-grandmother, her long, gray hair pinned in a bun, stooping over the quilting loom by the black wood stove in her cabin, and you see her strolling in her garden, her brown, crinkled hands pulling a green bean fresh from the vine.” And Susan Lefler’s harrowing story “The Spirit Tree” tells of one little girl’s attempt to use the spirits of nature and tradition to fend off the hazards of her mother’s emotional disorder.

Whether spirits of joy or grief, familiarity or strangeness, there is no doubt that the southern Appalachians are possessed by a presence that transcends the physical and temporal. In the same way, the poems, stories, and essays in Echoes Across the Blue Ridge are possessed by the various spirits of these mountains, leaving us standing, in the words of Janet Sloane Benway’s poem “Sugarloaf Mountain,” “in awe, / even in the face of sorrow.”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Art Speaks -- A Unique Collaborative Art and Theatre Project

Art Speaks – A unique collaborative art and theatre project

Saint Stephens High School (Hickory, NC) students from Sue Hardy’s Drawing II, III/IV, & Visual Arts III and Molly Rice’s auditioned class of actors, writers, and singers Play Production have collaborated to produce a magazine-style book, art display and performance called “Art Speaks”. The artists and actors have worked closely together in dialogue as partners. The artist and actor together have chosen a persona to bring to life – some include making death, fear, confusion, a secret, broken cell phone, and dog tags speak, among others. The actors have created monologues, poetry, prose, and songs based on their chosen persona and the artist has created art work from their favorite medium.

Forty-six artists and actors met on Tuesdays and Thursdays during class to be a part of each other’s art as it was created. The project was kick started by Irish poet Adrian Rice who shared the “Muck Island” box a joint book made with Irish artist Ross Wilson. Muck Island is housed at Tate Gallery and Harvard University.

Artist Sue Hardy and Poet Molly Rice have teamed up as well to enjoy the experience with their students. Both teachers agreed that it was refreshing to focus on their own artistry since being a teacher leaves little time for creating outside their classroom.

“Art Speaks” will be performed in a unique walk-through production where the audience will get an intimate look at the students’ work.
Saturday Nov. 13th at the Hickory Museums of Art’s Coe Gallery at 4pm. This one-of-a-kind event is free to the public.

In the afternoon, the book “Art Speaks” will be launched.

Books, art prints (for framing), and CDs of the original music produced for the project will be sold. This project has been documented on film and a DVD of the work in progress and performance will be sold at a later date.

For more information, or to order copies of the books, prints, or CDs, contact Molly Rice at

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Scott Douglass a Saint?

Dedication of Poetry Council's 2010 Anthology, "Bay Leaves", to Poet, Editor, and Publisher, M. Scott Douglass

Anyone who has ever worked with Scott Douglass knows that he is no saint if sainthood necessitates the qualities of eternal patience, total abstinence, gentility of speech and manner, and holiness, whatever that means. If, on the other hand, one’s definition of sainthood focuses more on such things as “wonder worker, source of benevolent power, intercessor (in this case, between poets and their potential audiences), and selfless behavior” (all part of theologian, John Coleman’s definition), then no one is more deserving of the title Patron Saint of Poets, than Scott Douglass.

In Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Waiting for Icarus,” the character of the mother says: “poets [are] a trashy lot” and then “[those] who love such are the worst of all.” It was just such a love of poetry and poets that nearly 15 years ago led Scott Douglass to the painfully difficult decision to give up a rewarding and personally satisfying career as a dental technician to begin publishing poetry. He thought that editing a journal and operating a small press would both help other poets find audiences and stimulate his own creativity. He has written and found publication for hundreds of his own poems, including 5 books, but e quickly discovered that most of the creativity being stimulated was spent on the editing, production, marketing, and distribution of other poets’ work. Fortunately, for all of us, he usually found the selfless work of helping others perfect their poetry, achieve publication, and connect with their audience personally satisfying.

Since the first Main Street Rag chapbook and the first issue of Main Street Rag, the magazine, in 1996, Scott has edited 59 issues of the Main Street Rag and published somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 individual books, many of those as part of MSR’s annual chapbook competition begun in 1999 and annual book competition started in 2001, both of which provide substantial monetary awards to the winners. That record of publication comes out to more than 50 titles per year, roughly 1 every week. Is anyone else anywhere publishing that much poetry? Most of the poets I know don’t even read that much poetry.

A very rough analysis of MSR’s titles reveals that Scott has published books by authors from at least 30 different states and 4 different countries. True to his roots, however, Scott’s largest source of authors, by far, has been North Carolina. He has published books by more than 60 authors from this state, including both the well-known and the brand new, and they have all been of the highest quality from both a literary and production perspective. MSR books have received awards from virtually every competition out there, including the Oscar Arnold Young Award in 3 of the past 6 years.

And Scott hasn’t stopped in his quest to have a meaningful and lasting effect on the world of writers in North Carolina. He has also undertaken the production work for many other journals, publishers, and organizations, including the production of Bay Leaves since 2004. And to further help poets connect with their audience, he has helped organize and sponsor 6 reading series in Hickory, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Fuquay-Varina, and Kansas City, MO, and coordinates writing workshops at a variety of venues across the state.

Poet, Editor, Publisher, Publicist, Activist, Dental Technician, and friend, Scott Douglass has borne many titles well. The Poetry Council of NC is honored to recognize the invaluable contributions he has made and continues to make to this organization, to poets across the state and the country, and to the world of poetry in general. For all of these contributions, we dedicate the 2010 issue of Bay Leaves to M. Scott Douglass, who perhaps after all, should hereafter be known as Saint Scott.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Well-Balanced Plate: Poetry and Multi-Tasking

The Well-Balanced Plate: Poetry and Multi-Tasking
by Scott Owens

Reprinted from NC Writers’ Network News
Fall 2010 Issue, September 2010

Most days that title is a lie. When I teach young writers I encourage them to maintain balance in their lives, to not obsess on writing to the detriment of relationships or finances. I even offer them advice on how to do it, how to set up schedules that permit appropriate levels of attention for all of one’s needs as a person and a poet. In truth, however, schedules rarely work the way their drawn up, and the impetus for writing, just as the need for the relationships and money, is not easily contained. So the usual truth is that most poets lead lives that are recklessly unbalanced.

Today, however, I had a moment of acute self-recognition as I drove in to school with a backpack full of 75 freshman composition essays in the seat beside me, a box full of copies of my new book of poems, and 3 toddler carseats spread across the middle row of my minivan. And I have to admit I felt a sense of pride in who I have become.

I have plenty of friends with young children. Some of them don’t work, and none of them write poetry. I often envy their ability to concentrate on raising those children. It’s not so much the time they have with them. In fact, I’ve been able to manipulate my schedule such that I probably have as much time with Sawyer as they have with their children. It’s more the ability to focus on what is properly their number one priority, to not feel distracted by vocation or avocation, to always know what duty deserves their unmitigated attention, to be able to readily set aside any distraction and divert to the whim of the 4-year-old.

I also have plenty of friends who are teachers but do not have children and do not write poetry, although some have children or write poetry. I often envy them as well. I often fear they are probably better teachers than I. I feel certain they don’t carry around essays for days on end looking for moments between obligations to review and score one or two at a time. And I’m even more certain that they have the opportunity to read more current scholarship than one is likely to find in the new issues of Cricket or Stone Soup.

And then there is the admittedly much smaller group that I probably sometimes envy more than any other, those friends who have managed somehow to construct lives that allow them to be simply poets, no children, no professional obligations outside of what they do in the world of poetry. I imagine they spend hours every day reading Poetry, Paris Review, Georgia Review, scouring the pages of Poets & Writers for exotic residencies and publication opportunities, and reading widely from a variety of new collections of poetry which they receive at no cost because they have the time to write reviews of the ones they like. And, of course, I imagine they have the freedom from other responsibilities necessary to stop whenever a line, image, or idea occurs to them and start the process of writing that new poem, or to hunker down with two fingers of scotch and hammer out the revision they know a poem has been needing, or to vanish for half a day in the real or virtual daydream world that sometimes seems necessary to allow a poem to go from vague intimation to concrete, clear, and thoroughly-explored experience.

I am certain these descriptions of the lives I imagine my friends enjoy are horribly, unfairly, and almost comically exaggerated, but feelings of envy and frustration are perhaps inevitable when one realizes he had a new poem floating around in his head that has been unfortunately lost to the banter of three toddlers in a weekly afternoon playdate, or that he could get through this pile of essays if only he didn’t have to stop every five minutes to answer yet another question about the source of rain, or that the fear he has that he’s not giving his children what they need and that his parenting is horribly inadequate would go away if he could just make the desire to write poetry and the need to plan the next day’s classes disappear.

That is the mental and emotional state of conflictedness and distraction that I exist in most of the time. I’ve learned to accept the low-level discomfort that being there creates. But on this particular morning, surrounded by the concrete evidence, by the imagery the poet within me would say, of who I am, I felt instead a satisfied sense of self-knowledge, even perhaps of clear purpose. There have been periods in my life when I was poet and teacher, but not parent. There have also been times when I was parent and teacher but not poet. And there were a couple of years when Sawyer was an infant that I was parent and poet but not teacher. During all of those periods, I knew that something was missing. I could not have told anyone why, but I knew that I felt incomplete.

Please don’t think that I’m putting forth any sort of sanctimonious argument that this is what everyone needs or should be doing. And please don’t think that I’m patting myself on the back for being the great male multi-tasker or anything like that. All I’m saying is that for me, parenting and teaching feed my poet; teaching and writing help me know how to parent; and writing and parenting make me a better teacher. And I do suspect that such complementarity does or would help others feel greater satisfaction as well. Most of the time I’m not exactly cognizant of the way these three areas of obligation work to create one whole person, but on this particular morning I felt a sort of epiphany that this triple existence, while frequently exhausting, is always a source of some level of pride, an endless source of motivation, and a means of feeling complete. Ultimately, I understood in that moment that this is the life I’ve wanted and despite other moments of doubt, guilt, and simple exhaustion, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bathanti Proves Poetry Can Make a Difference

Bathanti Proves Poetry Can Make a Difference

One of the charges occasionally leveled at contemporary poetry is that it has become irrelevant. Whenever I hear that claim I can’t help but wonder what contemporary poetry the speaker is reading. I read about 100 new poetry books each year and perhaps thousands in various poetry journals, and I will admit that a percentage of those seem pointlessly self-involved: poems about writing poetry; poems written such that only other poets could appreciate them; poems that are mere self-expression. I will admit that even I occasionally write such poems, since other poets and myself are also among my audience. That percentage, however, seems to be a very small one. Most of the poetry that I read is about experiences, ideas, and perceptions that have a broad base of interest and appeal: politics, religion, philosophy, living in the 21st century, joy, loss, regret, all the various faces of human endeavor, success, and failure, and, of course, like all art, beauty and truth.

I can think of no better example of the vital relevance of contemporary poetry than the work of Joseph Bathanti. For decades Bathanti has been deeply involved in the “real” world both in and through his poetry. As a poet and educator (currently at Appalachian State University), Bathanti is the author of 12 creative and scholarly books and has won virtually every award available, but it is the subject of his poetry and the ways in which he uses poetry to change people’s lives that are most deserving of acclaim and that illustrate his vital relevance.

Bathanti’s various involvements in criminal justice began when for fourteen months as a VISTA volunteer, he taught and coached inmates, started Alcoholic Anonymous chapters at two prison camps, coordinated work and study release programs, developed job and parole plans for inmates on the verge of release, and conducted a weekly creative writing workshop, culminating in the publication of an anthology of inmate writing and art work. He followed that up by teaching a Learning Lab at Huntersville Prison and living as a house-parent for abused and neglected children. During this time, he also became involved in death penalty work and appeared on radio and TV as a staunch abolitionist.

Over the past 33 years, Bathanti has lectured, read his work and conducted workshops in a variety of prisons, training schools, battered women’s shelters, homeless shelters, daycare centers, nursing homes, soup kitchens, barns, gyms, train depots, and fish camps. He served as a Humanities scholar through the Georgia Humanities Council on a writing/performance project with AIDS patients at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. For ten years, from 1991-2001, he taught an annual week-long creative writing workshop at a North Carolina prison road camp in Stateville. And during the academic year 2005-06, he weekly took a group of creative writing students into Boone’s homeless shelter, Hospitality House, and facilitated a writing workshop among the residents there. This initiative resulted in an anthology, featuring the work of the residents and Appalachian State University students.

Most recently, in March of 2009, he guest-edited the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, an anthology of prisoner writing published through University of Michigan’s Prisoner Creative Arts Project (PCAP); and also conducted creative writing workshops in Detroit and Ann Arbor prisons.

Bathanti will facilitate a poetry workshop sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society, from 5:00 to 6:30 on Tuesday, October 12, at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. The workshop will be followed by October’s Poetry Hickory, where Bathanti and Robert Abbate, author of The Courage of Straw and instructor at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, will be the featured writers. Poetry Hickory will begin at 6:30 with shorter readings by Bill Griffin, Julian Phelps, and Bethea Buchanan.
Cost of the workshop is $15 for NCPS members and $25 for non-members. Membership information is available at Registration can be reserved by contacting Scott Owens at or 828-234-4266. Space is limited, so early registration is encouraged. Poetry Hickory is free and open to the public. The poem below, which deals with issues faith, beauty, and everyday ways of coping, can serve as a sample of what those in attendance will hear.

The Last Time I Drank with Phil
by Joseph Bathanti

I’m drinking
in the Rose Garden
at Mellon Park with Philip.
Out all night, we find ourselves
burnished in the high
dawn of Easter, Sunday
sun dripping yellow plates
from the Sycamore’s wet green shade.
Spider webs catacomb
the primrose. Angels
spray from silver fountains.
Goldfinches float above
the sequined lawn.
So much light
we shield our eyes,
like the first mendicants,
two old friends, stumbling
upon the risen Christ,
uplifted emerald
bottles of warm Rolling Rock

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review of Richard Allen Taylor's "Punching through the Egg of Space"

Review of Punching through the Egg of Space, by Richard Allen Taylor
Main Street Rag, 2010, 75 pages, $14
ISBN: 9781599482385

Sometimes it’s easy to make singular statements about a book of poems. Perhaps the poems in the book cohere around a single narrative, theme, or style. Such singular statements, however, while convenient, usually accurate, and sometimes even helpful, often belie a vital variety and richness in the poems that make them much less artificial than the critical singular statement suggests.

The poems in Richard Allen Taylor’s new collection, Punching through the Egg of Space, vigorously resist any such singular classification, which is not to say that the volume lacks cohesion. There are several currents that run throughout the poems. There are, for example, a significant number of poems about food, writing, and aging. But it would be grossly misleading to say that the book is about any one or even all three of these topics. There are also a number of poems about being Richard Allen Taylor, which within the literary historical context of Confessionalism the reader understands as being about being human. In fact, one of the many strengths of this text is the seamlessness with which Taylor makes us recognize ourselves in poems that seem to be about him. Nevertheless, to say that Punching through the Egg of Space is Confessionalist would also be unfairly and unnecessarily reductionist.

Tony Abbott says this “is a book of joyous affirmation.” Ann Campanella says it is “a song of joy.” And Anne Hicks says “these poems contemplate the role and responsibility of the individual in this world.” They are all right, of course, but neither life nor these poems are simple enough to be described in such singular statements, and recognizing this, Campanella adds that the book is about “the paradox of the human heart” and presents “a constellation of humor, gravity, and exuberance.” It is exactly this combination of qualities that makes Punching through the Egg of Space such an enjoyable read. These are poems written about what it feels like to be alive in the 21st century, a topic immediately relevant to any reader today. As such there is often humor, sadness, irony, philosophical musing, conviction, the loss of conviction, complete uncertainty, surprise, sentimentality, and throughout it all an unmistakable humanity.

Speaking of one friend to another recently I said of the former that he is “a real guy.” I couldn’t possibly explain what I meant by the phrase, but from these poems I suspect Richard Allen Taylor embodies exactly that quality, a real guy who happens to be very good at finding the perfect word and the perfect image to help the rest of us understand what he means.

I thought I would quote a number of poems to make my points in this review, existential lines about the value of effort in “Landing” and “Outbound,” about the irony of success in “After the Moonwalk,” lines illustrating Taylor’s remarkable imagery in “Moonrise -- North Buncombe County, NC” or “Fancying I Know More about Soil Erosion Than the Artist,” lines revealing Taylor’s perspective on writing in “Obscurity,” “White,” or “Token Rebellion,” but lacking the space to give all the deserving poems, lines, and images their due, I will instead conclude with an excerpt of “Playing Catch,” my own favorite poem from the collection and allow it to serve as a teaser to encourage you to read more:

Watch this kid. He throws the ball
across the plate, chases it to the backstop,
hurries back to the pitcher’s mound,
throws the ball again and again, shouting
gentle encouragements.

A munchkin in a Yankees cap, she just stands there,
never swings the bat, shows no interest in hitting.
. . . . . . . . . . //

I try to remember what it was like
to be learning the fundamentals--
love, heartbreak, sacrifice.

This kid makes all his errors
on the giving side, and I root for him.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review of Ami Kaye's "What Hands Can Hold"

Review of What Hands Can Hold by Ami Kaye (Illustrations by Tracy McQueen)
Xlibris, 2010, 132 pages
ISBN: 9781450031080

I don’t believe in fate, providence, or predestination, but I’m willing to admit that on more than one occasion in my life things have happened with a certain sense of synchronicity. Recently, for no reason I could fathom, I went through a renewed interest in short imagistic poetry -- haiku, certainly, but other similar poems as well. And then, unannounced, I received a copy of Ami Kaye’s new book of poems, What Hands Can Hold, which consists almost entirely of poems that are frequently short, and nearly always successfully imagistic.

Only two of the 63 poems in What Hands Can Hold, are consciously derived from haiku and its related forms (both are titled “Senryu”), but the influence of an aesthetic commonly thought of as Eastern, is manifest. Certain poems, like “Shadow Hands” bear a great deal in common with haiku -- brevity, focus on two seemingly disparate images that resonate when placed, without commentary, together:
against the bright light
hands dance to make a shadow
a black swan rises in
graceful silhouette.
Other poems contain one or more stanzas that come even closer to the traditions of haiku, as in this stanza from “Hands:”
cupping water
the flowing urgency of
silt-green rivers.
And some poems are built entirely upon short, imagistic stanzas, as in “Tea House:”
That last
left interrupted

when the call

the rush
to leave,

the scrape of wood


the silence
The form, nearly always effective in these poems, is particularly so in this one, where the brief, perception-heavy phrasing mirrors the fragmented, methodical processing of a speaker confronted with a tragic parting.

While, as suggested in the volume’s title, Kaye employs the motif of hands and the many uses of hands -- creation, communication, support, prayer, praise, service, revelation, control, love -- to bind these poems and mark them as part of a unified manuscript, the poems really cover a wide range of topics and themes, from love and parenting to politics and loss. And while Kaye is lyrical and adept no matter what topic she explores, she is perhaps at her best, in the love poems. Take, for example, “Curvature,” a beautifully sensuous love poem that transitions seamlessly from one image of curvature to the next, beginning with that of a smile and proceeding as follows:
I am captured entirely

slave to your mirth
no need for words, silence builds

restless and charged, it
changes the quality of touch

air crackles between us, extravagant,
quickening, lightning fast

like the curve of light
when a rainbow is made

or the curve of your arms
when I’m in them.

“November Rose” is another sumptuous love poem with a number of those haiku-influenced stanzas, but it is also one of the most complex poems in the collection. Ostensibly about a very late-blooming rose, “born from frost . . . / deep in whose petals / burns a hot heart,” it is not only about the speaker’s love for the person who brings her the rose, or his love for the speaker, or even the speaker’s love for things that resist decay, that manage to create or be created out of destruction, it is about a love of so many things -- simple things like roses, poetry, music, language, and complex things like the very human existential resistance to death, decay and inevitability that paradoxically deepens and is deepened by the willingness to love despite the great risk such willingness necessitates. This paradox of love born from the awareness of loss’s inevitability becomes the central theme of the text; perhaps it is the central theme of all human texts. This theme is most clearly stated in “Intimations of Mortality,” where the speaker proclaims, “The hint of impermanence brings with it / the agony, the passion to live.”

Even when the stories presented by the poems are most full of pain, the love still remains, as in the heartbreaking political narrative (two uncommon traits in this book), “Snow Globe,” in these lines from “Sins of Omission,” “She wished, she wished she had / inked on vellum to bear witness, / to tell him what she never said before: ‘You matter’”, and in “Senescence:”
She helps him change
and it hurts, even though
she’s used to his empty eyes
by now.

She feeds him
oatmeal, an orange,
a meal that drags
into a couple of hours

and when she
washes the dishes
. . . //

She remembers
the times his fingers
laced with hers,
how he always knew
when she needed his touch.

It is just this fresh, deep, and wide treatment of a theme so vital to contemporary human existence that makes Ami Kaye’s What Hands Can Hold both significant and timely. It is also what makes me glad that I had begun to look at short poems with short lines in a new appreciation, and that for whatever reason Ami Kaye decided to send me a copy of this book. So, while I still spurn the notion of destiny, I do find great joy in the presence of and from the consequence of what I might prefer to call serendipity.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


The Poetry Council of North Carolina, an organization that for 58 years has worked to foster a greater appreciation for and appreciation of poetry in NC by sponsoring contests and events for adults and children, has concluded its work on this year’s competitions and is preparing now to highlight the winners of those competitions at its annual Poetry Day, to be held October 16 at Catawba College in Salisbury.

This year’s big winners include Greensboro’s Rhett Iseman Trull, recipient of the Oscar Arnold Young Award for the best book of poems published by a North Carolinian, for her book, The Real Warnings. Trull will be spending a great deal of time in Hickory this year, appearing at Lenoir Rhyne as part of their “In Their Own Words” visiting writer series on September 16 with NC Poet Laureate Cathy Smith-Bowers, returning in the spring as Lenoir-Rhyne’s writer-in-residence, and reading at Poetry Hickory on March 8.

A recent visitor at Poetry Hickory, Tony Abbott, who read here on September 14, received second place in the book competition for his New & Selected Poems. Other finalists in the book competition who have read at Poetry Hickory in the past year include Linda Annas Ferguson and Alex Grant. Award recipients in other categories also include recent and upcoming Poetry Hickory readers: Sara Claytor and Bill Griffin, both of whom read last year; Richard Allen Taylor, who is part of November’s event; and Malaika King Albrecht, who will read with Trull on March 8.

Poetry Day events begin on October 16 with registration at 9:20, followed by the dedication of this years’ awards anthology, Bay Leaves, honoring Main Street Rag Publisher and Editor, M. Scott Douglass, for his unparalleled contributions to the NC poetry community. The highlight of the event will be the recognition of category winners and readings from those winners. Following lunch, entertainer Bob Whyte will perform. Poetry Day is open to the public. Lunch can be reserved for $8 at A complete list of this year’s winners and sample poems from Trull and Abbott can also be seen there.

The Catawba County area is well-represented on the Poetry Council by locals Scott Owens (Vice President), Bud Caywood (Free Verse Contest Manager), Nancy Posey (High School Contest Manager), and regular Poetry Hickory attendee, Jessie Carty of Charlotte (Humorous Verse Contest Manager). The Poetry Council is a 501c3 non-profit organization. Further information on Poetry Day, or the Council’s annual contests, or details on how to support the Council is available on the website or by contacting President Ed Cockrell at or Scott Owens at

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Reports of Poetry's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

The Reports of Poetry’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Over the past 20 years I have heard and read more times than I can count that nobody reads poetry anymore, nobody buys poetry anymore, and nobody cares about poetry anymore, that in effect, poetry is dead. But everywhere I turn I see evidence quite to the contrary. The most recent of that evidence came to me from a town where one might expect there would be little poetry and little interest in it, a town with a population under 10,000 and only a small branch of a community college, the town of Lincolnton, NC, where a group has started a series of Open Mic readings called Poetry Lincolnton that takes place at 7:00 on the first Tuesday of each month at Generation Bean Coffeehouse.

I read as part of that series recently and was blown away by the size of the audience and the enthusiasm the participants had towards poetry. Organizers of the series, Lincolnton poets, Devona Wyant and Shane Manier, and Generation Bean owner, Kym Miller have sparked a great deal of energy about poetry in a place where one might not expect to find any interest at all.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about this reading was the “performance vibe” of the local readers. For those not familiar with the notion of performance poetry, it is a diverse blend of poetry, song, recitation, music, theater, and sometimes movement that will vary greatly from place to place and person to person. Different manifestations of this oral art might be called slam poetry or spoken word. The particular style of performance poetry displayed during my visit to Lincolnton was clearly influenced by rap music, and characterized by confrontational themes, frequent rhyming in short lines, and a fast pace, all of which make for an enjoyable and often surprising event.

I so thoroughly enjoyed the readings that I invited the group to share their work at Poetry Hickory, and on September 14, at 6:30, Wyant, Manier, and Morgan Depue will do just that as their performances will constitute the Open Mic segment of Poetry Hickory at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. The featured writers that night will be NC Poetry Society President and retired Davidson Professor Anthony Abbott, and recent UNC Wilmington MFA graduate Jason Mott. To whet your appetite for the evening’s poetry, here is a poem from Shane Manier.

We are poets

We will raise the sun with hands like Gladiolas in bloom.
We will learn to walk like the elephants,
and our arms will extend like an art form
becoming triumphant trumpets.
We will push the laughing eyes back
with palms as steady as a Buddhist monk.
And we shall burn in the fires of ambition
while marching to our birth of revision.
Because this is our day.
This sky is ours to sizzle with our fingers,
we will drip the sound of inspiration
and it will flow sweeter than perspiration.
We will turn adjectives into nouns
because our thoughts are profound.
We are the carving on the stone,
after the monument has fallen down.
We are more than historians spoon feeding textbook givens,
more than story tellers or musicians,
more than friends, lovers and "fam".
We are the voice inside you
when you need the strength to rise again.
We are the wet rag that soothes your head,
the noble words that honor our dead.
We are the reminders, truth finders,
the seekers of wisdom,
and the power to break free from what imprisons.
We are individuals, defenders, dream welders.
We are poets.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Joseph Bathanti to Lead Poetry Workshop at October Poetry Hickory

World-renowned poet, educator, and activist, Joseph Bathanti will facilitate a poetry workshop prior to October’s Poetry Hickory at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. The workshop, sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society, will begin at 5:00 and extend to 6:30 on Tuesday, October 12, and will be followed by Poetry Hickory, which will feature readings by Bathanti, and Robert Abbate, and a 30-minute Open Mic.

Cost of the workshop is $15 for NCPS members and $25 for non-members. Membership information is available at Deadline for registration is September 28 and can be reserved by contacting Scott Owens at or 828-234-4266. Registrants will be asked to send a poem of 30 lines or less to Owens for possible discussion during the workshop. Space is limited, so early registration is encouraged.

Here is a profile of Bathanti’s work:

Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, Joseph Bathanti is the author of six books of poetry: Communion Partners; Anson County; The Feast of All Saints; This Metal, which was nominated for The National Book Award, and won the 1997 Oscar Arnold Young Award from The North Carolina Poetry Council for best book of poems by a North Carolina writer; Land of Amnesia; and his new collection, Restoring Scared Art.

His first novel, East Liberty, winner of the Carolina Novel Award, was published in 2001. His latest novel, Coventry, won the 2006 Novello Literary Award. He is also the author of They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina’s Visiting Artists, 1971-1995, and a collection of short stories, The High Heart, winner of the 2006 Spokane Prize.

He is the recipient of two Literature Fellowships (in 1994 for poetry and 2009 for fiction) from the North Carolina Arts Council; The Samuel Talmadge Ragan Award, presented annually for outstanding contributions to the Fine Arts of North Carolina over an extended period; the Bruno Arcudi Literature Prize; the Ernest A Lynton Faculty Award for Professional Service and Academic Outreach; the Aniello Lauri Award for Creative Writing (2001 and 2007); the Linda Flowers Prize; the Sherwood Anderson Award and others.

Bathanti’s various involvements in criminal justice began in 1976 when he left his hometown in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to come to North Carolina as a VISTA Volunteer assigned to the North Carolina Department of Correction. For fourteen months as a VISTA, he taught and coached inmates, started Alcoholic Anonymous chapters at two prison camps, coordinated work and study release programs, developed job and parole plans for inmates on the verge of release, and conducted a weekly creative writing workshop. Out of this workshop came an anthology of inmate writing and art work, edited by Bathanti, called Bewteen Ourselves. As a VISTA, Bathanti also worked with a Charlotte agency, ECO (Ex-Convicts Organization) where he edited The ECO Journal and served on ECO’s Board of Directors.

After leaving VISTA, he began his teaching career at Central Piedmont Community College where he taught not only English, his major area of study, but also taught in the Criminal Justice Department, and taught as well a Learning Lab at Huntersville Prison, just north of Charlotte. During this time, Bathanti and his wife Joan (also a former VISTA) were house-parents for abused and neglected children, many of whom were adjudicated youth and status offenders. Also, during this time, he became involved in death penalty work, was a member of Charlotte Citizens Against the Death Penalty, and appeared on radio and TV as a staunch abolitionist.

Over the past 33 years, Bathanti has lectured, read his work and conducted workshops in a variety of prisons, training schools, battered women’s shelters, homeless shelters, daycare centers, nursing homes, soup kitchens, barns, gyms, train depots, and fish camps. He is the past Chair of the North Carolina Writers’ Network Prison Project, and served as a Humanities scholar through the Georgia Humanities Council on a writing/performance project with AIDS patients at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. He is the winner of the 1995 Ruth Ann Blankenship Prize, given annually by Statesville, NC Fifth Street Ministries for work in its battered women’s shelter, My Sister’s House, where he taught a weekly creative writing workshop. In 1998, he was awarded the Viola Kimbrough Parker Diversity Award by Mitchell Community College for his work to promote diversity and multiculturalism. He is the recipient of 1999 Ernest A. Lynton Faculty Award for Professional Service and Academic Outreach (specifically in the area of prison outreach and advocacy), presented annually by The New England Resource Center for Higher Education, with support from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He has been awarded grants by the Witter Bynner Foundation and the Puffin Foundation for his work among marginalized populations. For ten years, from 1991-2001, he taught an annual week-long creative writing workshop at a North Carolina prison road camp in Stateville, NC with legendary prison writing teacher and Black Mountain College graduate, Fielding Dawson.

During the academic year 2005-06, he weekly took a group of creative writing students into Boone’s homeless shelter, Hospitality House, and facilitated a writing workshop among the residents there. This initiative resulted in an anthology, featuring the work of the residents and Appalachian State University students, called Voices from the Hospitality House. He has taught courses on prison literature (one of his academic specialties) at colleges, universities churches, and writers’ conferences

Bathanti’s prison writing has appeared in some of the nation’s premier literary journals, including Shenandoah, Poetry International, The Greenfield Review, Pembroke Magazine,The Davidson Miscellany, Florida Humanities, The Phoenix, Witness, The Journal of Public Service and Outreach, Our Era, The Birmingham Poetry Review, Blue Mesa Review, Cafe Solo, Lost Horse Press Anthology of Human Rights Poetry, The Sound of Poets Cooking, Aethlon, Cotton Boll, The Sun, Harpoon and others.

His poem “Cletis Pratt,” about a Vietnam Veteran sent to prison, is the winner of the 2007 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Prize, awarded annually by the Nuclear Age Foundation in Santa Barbara, California. His prison writing has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won a Blumenthal Readers and Writers Series Award.

Most recently, in March of 2009, he guest-edited the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, an anthology of prisoner writing published through University of Michigan’s Prisoner Creative Arts Project (PCAP); and also conducted creative writing workshops in Detroit and Ann Arbor prisons While in Michigan he spoke on matters of criminal justice at the University of Michigan, Shaman Drum Book store, and was interviewed about his prison work and writing on WDET, Wayne State University public radio station. Under the sponsorship of Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative (MPRI), he also spoke at Eastern Michigan University, and Artist Village in Detroit.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Profile of Tony Abbott

Poet, Scholar, Teacher, and Novelist to Appear at Poetry Hickory

Over the course of a lengthy career in the arts and letters, Anthony Abbott has distinguished himself well beyond what most could hope for in not one area but several. As an instructor, he spent more than 30 years as a distinguished member of the English faculty at prestigious Davidson College, serving as Chair of the department for the final 7 years of his career. As a scholar he authored the noteworthy studies Shaw and Christianity and The Vital Lie: Reality and Illusion in Modern Drama.

As a novelist, his first foray into the field, Leaving Maggie Hope, was awarded the Novello Award. And as a poet, his first collection, The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Most writers and scholars labor in obscurity hoping to achieve just one distinction equal to any of these.

Unlike others, Abbott also has not rested on his laurels but has followed up these successes with the publication of a second novel and four subsequent collections of poetry, the most recent, New and Selected Poems, having come out earlier this year from Lorimer Press. He has also continued to give back to the NC literary and academic community, teaching classes at Catawba College, serving as this year’s President of the NC Poetry Society, serving as past President of the NC Writers’ Network and the Charlotte Writers’ Club, and providing assistance on a local level as one of last year’s Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poets and on Lenoir Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series Advisory Committee.

On September 14, Abbott will join Bolton, NC, poet, Jason Mott, as featured writers at Poetry Hickory. The reading will be held at 6:30 at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory and will be preceded by a meeting of the NC Writers’ Network’s Foothills Region’s Writers’ Night Out at 5:00. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, contact Scott Owens at or 828-234-4266, or visit the website at To give readers a sense of what to expect, here is a poem from Abbott’s New & Selected Poems.

Blood Red of Late October

Blood red of late October in the South,
and from the cemetery to the college campus
on the hill, the leaves bathe my eyes. I
turn each corner into dazzling surprise.

In my mine’s eye, she walks toward me.
I show her my favorite tree. I pluck three
leaves for her and watch as she carries
them away. This is new found grace,

and in the space where sadness once lay
the small white flower of hope grows.
In the South, October lingers, the gold
sun glances off the trees. November will

come with its cold rain soon enough,
I know. I turn the dazzle inward
and down. It courses through the veins
and lofts me toward the breathless light.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review of David Manning's "Continents of Light"

Continents of Light, by David T. Manning
Finishing Line Press, 2010, 29 pages, $14
ISBN 9781599245362

There are days when I’m driving down the road or sitting in a coffeeshop and I see something so remarkably tender that I feel for a moment like I honestly love everyone. It’s a nice feeling, albeit usually brief. David Manning, it seems, has had similar epiphanous moments of agape, written poems about those moments, and recorded them in his new collection of poems, Continents of Light.

The poems in Continents of Light are by and large memorial poems, memorials to the particular objects of love they are about, to those in love, and to the human capacity for love, and by reading these poems, the reader achieves his own epiphany, the sudden understanding that the desire to memorialize is itself a form of love, one that poets in particular are familiar with. In “Opus Anonymous,” Manning wonderfully captures the romantic hope of poets to get something important so right that that thing lives on in the words of the poem: “Perhaps she escaped from his dreams / and fell between stanzas into / the white spaces of his poems.” And for Manning, this desire to memorialize becomes something even more. As suggested in “Duende,” it becomes duty: “I cannot turn my face away. / God has found me and I have / no place to hide.”

The flip side of great love, however, is great loss. Reading these poems one feels that Manning has loved well and lost much and understands more than most the nature of the longing that results from having loved and lost, the longing not to simply have something one has never had but to have again what one has known, grown accustomed to, and integrated into one’s fabric of being to such a degree that it seems no longer desire but necessity. The reader shares this understanding in poems like “Too Old for Vicky:” “I have lost the color / of her eyes . . . . // Vicky has been taken // beyond all nights and assignations. / Taken to the bosom of one / much too old for us all.” Perhaps it is even stronger in “Coastal:” “I feel you waiting / where I cannot find you. / I follow you / from empty room to empty room.”

The emotional undercurrent of these poems, the longing for connection or reconnection, is so strong that it carries the reader away. This is, perhaps, clearest in “Skipping Stones”

. . . their voices startled me
from far across the lake. I hope

my thoughts reach you this way
sometimes, . . .
distracting you in mid-breath,

soft as the touch of a stranger
in a crowd, . . .

. . . If only
there were this lake

and nothing else between us
I could skip my words
across to you like stones.

This poem is undoubtedly very personal, but the reader can’t tell who this long lost “you” is -- a lost wife or child or parent, even perhaps the speaker’s own past self. Such lack of clarity is often the death of a poem, but in this one, the ambiguity makes it possible for the reader to fill in the blank as they need to. It becomes the white space between the stanzas where Manning has already spoken of memorializing those we love, and the emotions are so familiar and so solidly imagined (made into image) that the poem succeeds regardless of who the “you” becomes to the reader -- the world, God, or my favorite, the reader, such that this becomes, in Dickinsonian tradition, Manning’s “Letter to the World.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review of Steve Roberts' Another Word for Home

Review of Another Word for Home, by Steve Roberts
Main Street Rag (2010), 70 pages, $14
ISBN: 9781599482491

In Steve Roberts’ “The Lamp, the Glass and the Pencil,” arguably the best poem in his new collection, Another Word for Home, an employer asks the speaker, “Do your poems always center around / Yourself?” The simple implication of the question is that there is something wrong if every poem “centers around” oneself--rampant egotism or narcissism, perhaps, or some unhealed woundedness that causes the self to be the lens through which all perception is filtered . . . but wait a minute; with or without woundedness, the self will always be the lens through which perception is filtered, and to ignore rather than explore that fact is to indulge in a larger sort of egotism by which one presumes their own experiences and perceptions to be objective fact rather than acknowledging the way the self influences what one sees, hears, feels. The employer in the poem is certainly not the first to level this sort of criticism at what has in the past and might still be termed confessional poetry. Both this employer and these prior critics would do well to read a bit a further as five poems later, in “Business,” the presumably same speaker gives as good a justification for the confessional tendencies of these poems as I’ve ever encountered when he remarks: “I have learned / The unsaid can manufacture // Disturbances.”

These two poems illustrate several impressive characteristics of Roberts’ collection. First, of course, there is the vindication of confessionalism, which I’m sure was not anything Roberts set out to do, but which is nonetheless resoundingly achieved in poems like “The Ground Firms Up the Wet,” “Bonewhite Plane Drones,” and “Gyre.” And, given that the book begins with the line, “I locate,” and repeats that idea of locating the self amid the maelstrom of perception, memory, and circumstance that is reality in poems like “Gyre” (“derive the location / Of the sun from an oak’s restless / Shadow”) and “Location, Location,” perhaps the creation of poetry “centered around” the self is exactly what Roberts set out to do. It may be instructive to recall, after all, that in Rosenthal’s original conception of confessionalism the only differences between poems identified as confessional and traditional lyrical poetry were the absence of masks and the “customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment.” Flipping forward to the last poem of the book, “Under Construction” places these confessional poems firmly within the rubric of another hermeneutical context, that of deconstructionism, as the complex psychic presence of memory and past perception must be constantly reevaluated in the construction of one’s ever-evolving self.

The second characteristic of Roberts’ book made apparent in “The Lamp, the Glass and the Pencil” and “Business” is an integral part of the book’s deconstructionist context, namely, the habit of creating linked poems, usually by providing an answer in one poem to a question that arose out of a poem several pages prior. Such is the case not only in these two poems, but in virtually every poem in the book, including “The Ground Firms Up the Wet,” which prompts the reader to wonder about the source of the “Mother’s denial, / Rage and revenge,” and wait expectantly for other poems to clarify the father’s alcoholism, the daughter’s schizophrenia, and her own sense of failure as the sources of these feelings. The effect of this sort of linking is that the poems create a sense of a single, unified story, compelling the reader forward and creating a simultaneously satisfying and disturbing sense of vraisemblance as we recognize what we already knew but hesitated to admit -- that no experience is self-contained, that everything, every word, every choice has innumerable causes, consequences, and reverberations both large and small.

As remarkable a feat as it is to vindicate confessional poetry and simultaneously create a complex and meaningful lifelikeness in poetry, perhaps what is most impressive in these poems is the sense of control with which Roberts writes. Many of these poems are based on disturbingly intense emotional experiences and all of them on the frustrating and sometimes frightening complexities of human relationships, and yet, there is not a poem among them that could be considered a rant. Similarly, condescension, cynicism, sarcasm, self-indulgent cleverness, rage -- all the things we might expect from a survivor’s story of emotional unrest -- are entirely absent, replaced instead with such careful and precise choice of words, phrasing, and arrangement of lines that what results is a voice of calm, evenhanded sincerity that the reader responds to with empathy and complete trust. The technical mastery that creates such a response from the reader results from painstaking control at every level of composition. A brief scanning of endwords illustrates that Roberts is much more conscious of the vitality of line breaks than many of his contemporaries. The tightness and subtle regularity of his lines and stanzas makes clear that he carefully orchestrates every detail of his poems. Observe, for example, the absence of superfluous syllables in these lines from “Boot Up,” where every word conveys vital meaning and image despite the ironic and self-deprecatory last statement:

At the nub
Of the cross-beamed, rivet-rusted
trampled one-end

To-the-other fishing pier,
No more human structure, no more
Outpouring of expectation.

From here on, it’s nothing
But ocean, the source of our amoebic,
Word-failed selves.

Roberts is keenly aware not only of the sound of these poems but also the shape of the poems. Several of them, in fact, have a “concrete” appearance. Each of his first three Angelika poems, for example, are set typographically in the form of what I first thought to be a vase, calling up thoughts of Keats, but is later revealed in “Embryonic” to be “An hourglass-figured woman.”

There is so much more that can be said about Steve Roberts’ Another Word for Home, but these three characteristics are the most significant. Nothing else is needed to mark it as a book that is worthy of being read by all who enjoy the ways poetry works and is relevant to the real world, and as a book that I will read again and again.