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.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review of Rhett Iseman Trull's "The Real Warnings"

The Real Warnings, by Rhett Iseman Trull
Anhinga Press, 2008, 84 pages, $15
ISBN 9781934695111

I want Rhett Iseman Trull’s book of poems The Real Warnings to have the subtitle “Taking Chances Because What Else Is There” because that is the message of these poems. Presented as one part apology, one part tribute to love and parenting, and all parts acknowledgement of the difficulty of choosing to take risks and the impossibility of choosing not to, The Real Warnings provides vital testimony to the importance of fortitude, persistence, and faith in humanity and oneself.

The opening poem (one of the best) of the collection presents this perspective summarily. The speaker “warns” her parents, “You will burn yourselves on me,” and admonishes “Forget about sleeping / I’ll dominate the prayers you keep sending up . . . . / For every greeting card poem, I will write four / to hurt you. Some will be true.” But she advises prophetically, “You will take one look at that new life screaming / into the world, and open your arms.” As a new parent, myself, I have no difficulty identifying with this course of emotions.

“The Last Good Dream” presents another image of our willingness to take risks, this time in regards to love,
. . . we give
with unthinned hearts, little knowing
how even if banked by the best words

and buoyed by honesty, love can fail.
Or maybe we do know
and unharbor ourselves anyway.
And “Introducing My Brother in the Role of Clark Kent” puts a more specific face on what we’re willing to do for love and how even as we recognize the cost it has exacted from us, we know we would do it again: “he’s calculated that he’s spent / seventy-one-point-two percent of the last three years in her / presence, mostly happy, unwilling to trade a day of it.” One poem after another provides such portraits of persistence despite the warnings and even knowledge of the dangers involved: “The Boy in the Full-Length Women’s Fur Coat” “thinks of her, // the girl he keeps loving / and losing;” the speaker in “Everything from That Point On” says, “I loved you most in that moment, knowing // even as I slipped my arm up the back of your shirt, hooking us // together, that you were about to cut me loose;” and “Hanna” in “Study of Motion” says, “Pursue Joy Now” and moves “to San Francisco” to “do what she loves.”

No na├»ve romantic, however, the speaker of these poems knows that in pursuit of joy there will be frustration, failure, even desperation, and she knows the appeal of that desperation, that “what feels like the end is the end / only if you pull the trigger” (“The Ice Is Our Only Light”). She knows that along the way the frequently unsatisfying nature of life will lead us to almost unimaginable acts to feel again just the possibility of joy, as in “The House of Pain” where she remarks, “As you leave, what begins to haunt you / is not the blisters that bangle your wrist like opals. / It is not the awful things he did to you / but the yes that you roared as you let him.” Thus, these usually hopeful poems are at times painful, at times heartwrenchingly so, as in the best of them all, “The End of the Hour:”
. . . The hour’s over.
Today’s final question: not why
the scars but where? Where else
did you do that?
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . I
start to remove my blouse, to offer
a look at the marks I scored
that no one’s ever seen. For a moment
I feel human, all masks put away. I will show
her all of it, ugliness I’ve covered until now, but
That’s enough, she scolds, jotting a furious
phrase in her notes before opening the cabinet
with her heel and storing, again, my file.
. . . . . . . . . .
Don’t ask, I think, if you don’t want to know.
but I say, I’m sorry, sorry familiar
as breath, Sorry, sent out the door half-

But what matters most to the anti-nihilist, the existentialist who speaks these poems is the refusal to give up. So, in “Counting Miracles” we hear from a mental hospital resident:
We’ve learned a thing or two
about miracles for the common man,
. . . a nest of robins about to hatch;
fast cars on the highway, going somewhere;
in the sky, webs of lightning . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
The stars know the danger
of even a bingo-paced Wednesday and light
themselves every night in celebration
of the simple fact of our survival.
And in “The Night before Depakote,” we’re told simply, “It’s enough that we live.” And in “Last Word,” we hear perhaps most clearly from the poet herself the proclamation, “I don’t really want to be a concrete / signature. I want to grow old choosing ink over blood / with which, on the flank of the world, I’ll set my brand.” And, then, since the “last word” is really just the last word in this book-length struggle for hope, we read in the final three poems of the rewards for this victory over despair: “The streets of my heart while sun-licked, well-trafficked, amazed, / hosted a previous traveler or two, but none until you / paused to point out beauty I missed” (“The Streets of My Heart”); “Jeff and I, for the better / part of a year, have been trying to start / a life inside me” (“Sonogram on the Way to Earth”); and “Maybe // we’ll bring into this world five children and ruin / every one” (“Heart by Heart the House”). Such hopeful planning should be the final breath of every difficult day.

Monday, August 9, 2010

New Wild Goose Poetry Review Online

The new issue of Wild Goose Poetry Review went online last Wednesday, and it has already had over 1200 views. The most popular item in the issue so far has been the review of "The Sound of Poets Cooking," with nearly 100 views. The review of Rhett Iseman Trull's "The Real Warnings" has been second most popular with about half that many views, followed by three poems by Maren Mitchell. The most gratifying part of this release for me has been the number of people leaving comments and the conversations about poetry that have developed as a result.

If you haven't checked it out yet, go on over to www.wildgoosepoetryreview.com and read some good poetry or reviews, and leave a comment or two while you're there. Other poets in this issue include Harry Calhoun, Debra Kaufman, Austin Rory Hackett, Doug MacHargue, Linda Marion, Tony Abbott, Jean Rodenbough, Clare Martin, and more. There are also reviews of new books by Ami Kaye, Richard Allen Taylor, David Manning, and Steve Roberts.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Review of "The Sound of Poets Cooking"

First Published in "Wild Goose Poetry Review" and in a modified form in "Outlook"

Review of The Sound of Poets Cooking, edited by Richard Krawiec
Jacar Press, 2010, 172 pages
ISBN: 9780984574001

It happens to all of us at one time or another. Late of an afternoon, we start to feel a certain emptiness, as if something is missing, something needed. We call it hunger or craving. And the more we try to ignore it, the stronger it gets. Maybe we long for something light and refreshing, or something heavier, meaty. Maybe just something sweet. Or maybe we can’t figure out exactly what we want. And that’s when we know that the answer to our appetite is surely a buffet. And that’s just what Richard Krawiec has arrayed before us as editor of The Sound of Poets Cooking. Whether we long for something exotic, something familiar and comforting, something spicy, salty, or even a bit saucy, this enticing collection of delectable delights is sure to satisfy.

To be clear and leave metaphor behind for a moment, The Sound of Poets Cooking is a new, 172-page anthology of poems about food accompanied by related recipes, from Krawiec’s fledgling press, Jacar Press. And it is an impressive debut, featuring wonderful work from poets both familiar and new, including two NC Poets Laureate, Fred Chappell and Kathryn Stripling Byer, and numerous other standards: Joseph Bathanti, Kelly Cherry, Jaki Shelton Green, Susan Ludvigson, Joanna Catherine Scott, Shelby Stephenson, and more, wrapped in a clever cover with an image of Buddha cradling a pomegranate, eggplant, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potato, chef’s knife and some spiky yellow fruit I’m not familiar with, appealingly conveying the mixture of spirituality and whimsy one might expect from poetry about food.

Of course, individual poems and individual recipes from the collection prove both enjoyable and useful, but like any good recipe, The Sound of Poets Cooking also masterfully blends disparate elements to create what might be experienced as a single savory delight, a cohesive record of the diverse ways in which the culinary arts and poetic arts are woven into the fabric of our memories, our experiences, and our daily emotional and intellectual lives. Here a reader finds the mock heroic tetrameter couplets of Chappell’s “Pot Luck Supper: Aunt Lavinia Strikes” delicately balanced by the therapeutic free verse of Grey Brown’s “Scrambled.” Or the stick-to-your-ribs heaviness of Debra Kaufman’s “Minestrone, Rainy Day” relieved by the joyful ad-libbing of Alice Owens Johnson’s “Gumbo.” Or the formal propriety of Jim Clark’s “Sunday Dinner” harmonized by the titillating temptation of Deborah Kolodji’s “Eggplant Parmigiana.”

As for the recipes, there are many I intend to try my hand at, including the onion pie, the Brussels sprouts & goat cheese risotto, and the coconut cake, but like Lenard Moore’s daughter, the one I look forward to the most is the three cheese macaroni and cheese.

To whet your appetite a bit more here is a sampler platter of some of my favorite lines from The Sound of Poets Cooking. Bon appetit!

from Scott Douglass’ “Bread Crumbs:”
. . . I fill
each page with bread crumb words,
a trail for someone, sometime
to follow back to me

from Anne Barnhill’s “Tiramisu:”
Don’t give me puffy white clouds
Fat as marshmallows
To lounge on when I die.
. . . . . . . . . .
Just place a generous block of tiramisu
In front of me;
. . . . . . . . . .
Sin straddling goodness--
Delicious as Dante.

from Pat Riviere-Seel’s “Road Trip Conversation:”
Beside you now I am ravenous
for the ripe figs of your fingers
folded around the steering wheel.

from Michael Beadle’s “Fromage:”
For a flash of free verse, I invoke
the Goddess of Gorgonzola, //
who bids me long life
as long as I use her bounty //
upon this holy cracker of truth,
this snack we have to share //
as the Muenster metaphor
melts in our minds.

from Susan Meyers’ “Fork: Song for the Misunderstood:”
May the fork in its daily travels discover
an insatiable mouth.
May the mouth
always adore the fork’s repetitive tune.

Reading in Lincolnton, NC

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Paternity Reviewed by Felicia Mitchell

I was thrilled when I picked up the new issue of "North Carolina Literary Review" (http://www.nclr.ecu.edu) to find a wonderful review of "Paternity" on page 228. The review is called "Images of Childhood" and was written by one of my favorite poets and scholars, Felicia Mitchell, English Department Chair at Emory & Henry College in Virginia.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the review (thanks to Felicia and NCLR Editor, Margaret Bauer):

Some say that it is never too late to have a happy childhood, it probably is, but perhaps it is never too late to experience the magic of childhood, which is what Owens conjures up in these child-centered poems.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Childhood functions as a catalyst for the exploration of a concept of paternity that embraces individuality, innocence, and childhood potential, along with the exploration of how children shape the poet's own identity.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Nature of Attraction" Released

Last Friday I gave a reading at Green Rice Gallery in Charlotte with M. Scott Douglass, editor of "Main Street Rag" and Jonathan K. Rice, editor of "Iodine Poetry Journal." It was a wonderful evening, highlighted for me by the release of my new collection of poetry, "The Nature of Attraction," a collaboration with Florida poet, Pris Campbell.

I read from the book for the first time that night, and received a lot of wonderful compliments from those in attendance. The next day I went to the NC Writers' Conference in Chapel Hill, and yesterday was "family day" at home, so this is my first chance to announce to everyone that "The Nature of Attraction" is now available, and if you've already ordered a copy, it's probably in the mail.

If you haven't ordered a copy, you can pick one up at the Book Release Party this Thursday, August 5, from 5:30 to 7:00 at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. I'll give a reading, and I have a recorded reading by Pris that I'll play as well. We'll serve wine and snacks, and I'll be signing books for any who purchase them.

If you can't make it to the Release Party, you can order a signed copy from me (email me at asowens1@yahoo.com) or Pris, or you can still order a copy from Main Street Rag (www.mainstreetrag.com)

Here are some comments about the book from several people who got to look at it before publication:

You hear multiple voices in The Nature of Attraction, but not by contrast, more by the harmonic way these voices mesh together, the way words and ideas fold together to form an image, a phrase, a meaning that transcends an individual thought and becomes something shared. That's how it is with this collaboration between Pris Campbell and Scott Owens. In these poems, a lifetime passes for Sara and Norman, a lifetime of great joy and great sadness, of longing and resignation that wanting isn't always enough. Throughout this rollercoaster ride, it's hard to tell where Scott ends and Pris begins and vice versa because the narrators' voice remains steady. A challenging feat handled adeptly by two very fine poets; an extremely worthwhile read.
--M. Scott Douglass, Publisher/Editor Main Street Rag

Baudelaire once wrote, "Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling." This stirring, painful, and wondrous poetic exchange between two master craftsmen breaks the traditional mould while at the same time reinforcing it. The personas created by Owens and Campbell speak truths that many of us often deny. "The Nature of Attraction" is truly a marvelous read that is surely not for the faint of heart.
--Carter Monroe, Publisher Rank Stranger Press

I read the poems in “The Nature of Attraction” while on a commuter bus on my way home from work. I read them through clear skies and into a storm. A man’s teeth will always be/as large as his fear. I read them pressed against the window, shirt slightly open. Maybe I should give in to my body’s bending/toward her. I read them while everyone else was asleep or trying to be. A star lies on her pillow. Her bed lights up the room. I read them the way a flag has no choice but to unfurl itself to the wind. When her stomach churns/and the moon buries itself deep. I read them the way love might, with lightning all around. Maybe I can get away/without doing anything at all.
--Tammy Foster Brewer

I hope to see you all this Thursday and to soon hear your reactions to our narrative collaboration.