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.