Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review of Al Maginnes' "Greatest Hits"

by Scott Owens
First Published in The Pilot and Wild Goose Poetry Review

by Al Maginnes
Pudding House, 2010
ISBN: 1589989317

I admire Al Maginnes, his optimism, his zest for life and passion for all things human, his empathy, his lyricism, his long but still seamless and uncluttered lines, his fluid syntax, his spot-on metaphors and conceits, his ability to tell a good story and reveal the significance of it with a subtlety that lets the reader experience the poem’s cathartic and epiphanous moment as if it were their own, and now his ability to be his own best editor. In his new book of poems, Al Maginnes: Greatest Hits, Maginnes selects from 23 years worth of poetry only 12 to be included as “greatest hits.” I’ve written half as long as Maginnes and don’t think I could do that. Somehow I’m sure all the poems I didn’t select would turn against me. The amazing thing about Maginnes’ selections, however, is that he got it right. I’ve read most of Maginnes’ work over the years, and if I had to choose just 12 to keep, it would be these.

Another of the more admirable qualities of Maginnes’ poems is their ability to capture the full sense of some vital human abstraction -- to be the kind of poem that leaves a reader nodding his head, if not saying, “Ah, yes,” in recognition and appreciation. It seems almost silly to single out poems from a collection of only 12, but singling out poems as illustration of one’s points is what a reviewer does. So, four poems in particular from this collection stand out for their embodiment of longing, regret, and perspective.

The first of these is “Sharks in Kansas,” a remarkable poem of romantic longing that imaginatively revisits the road not taken. The speaker of the poem tells us:

. . . For two years, she
and I tracked each other’s moves,
both of us in love with other people

and happy most days, but curious
about the quick flame of sun
on water we had seen in each other.

and later

When she said “Florida. Paleontology,”
I did not move to wrap her in the thoughtless hug

I might have offered someone else, but said
“Arkansas” and “poetry.” When she asked, “So, when
will I see you again?” we both knew the answer.

And all of this buried longing is sparked through a wonderful associative logic brought about by a news story concerning the discovery of fossilized shark remains in Kansas, which the speaker describes in a delightful conceit for that longing:

There are sharks, sharks in Kansas, still
swimming in water that has turned to stone,
bent in the memory of tides

to the exact angle I once saw her arm bend
across her lover’s shoulder . . . .

Another poem rich in associative logic is “Elegy with Clifford Brown Playing Trumpet.” This beautiful revelation of perspective about the importance of the “white space” or “negative space,” the absences, loss, and ultimately, mortality that give meaning to all human endeavor begins with a mystery the speaker is reading and ends in greater appreciation of the contributions of both musician Clifford Brown and poet Larry Levis and in a deepened understanding of the limitation as motivation. My favorite moment in the poem is the breathless unfolding of something as unimaginable to us all as death. The speaker tells us that somewhere in the laments of Larry Levis

lurked the hand that will come one day to touch us,
perhaps right when we are in the middle of things,

& lead us into a puzzle of streets
that we only understand slowly we will not
find our way out of, although that matters

less & less as the blacktop buckles and thins
to cobblestones, then to dirt, as we walk out of our shoes
until we are walking on nothing and then

we are not walking at all & the way back
to all we have left undone is forgotten.

The third truly remarkable poem is one of Maginnes’ best narrative reflections, and it also about perspective. In fact, “To the One Who Stole My Lawnmower” might be called a parable of perspective. The speaker of the poem reveals that not only has his lawnmower been stolen but that he knows the person who has stolen it and is aware of that person’s situation as well. The reader follows the speaker through all the usual stages: anger, guilt, blame-shifting, acceptance, and understanding to conclude:

. . . the truth is
the loss of my lawnmower has become a story
and, like most stories, gets told for laughs.
But I can laugh even when, like today,
I sweat like a rented mule, forcing
the motorless contraption I use to cut grass now
through high weeds, because my life is not yours.

The final poem that stands out for me differs from most of Maginnes’ work in that the lines are shorter and essentially syllabic, as opposed to his usual predominately tetrameter or pentameter lines, but “Legend” retains Maginnes’ characteristic syntactical mastery and his knack for embodying a common and vital human emotion--specifically, in this case, regret. The poem is about a lost opportunity to see and hear the folk singer Carolyn Hester in person, and the speaker concludes

Even if all she had done
was chant the famous names
of her dead husband or her
new god, even if she denied
completely or insisted
upon being defined by
her past, even if time has
done to her what it has done
to all of us, I should have gone.

In typical Al Maginnes fashion, the poems collected in his Greatest Hits achieve what is poetry’s most important task, the deepening of our experience of the world as human beings. This thin volume is a wonderful introduction to Maginnes’ lifework for those who have only now discovered it. It is also a perfectly representative selection of all that makes Maginnes’ work important for those who have been fans for years. Ultimately, it should be a standard part of any poetry lover’s bookshelf.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Review of Connie Post's "Trip Wires"

by Scott Owens
First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review

by Connie Post
Finishing Line Press, 2010
ISBN: 1599246252

Good poems often remind us of what we already know and help us look at the essential points of our lives more deeply. Because they often look at things with brutal honesty, good poems also have the ability to scare us. Such is the case with Connie Post’s new book, Trip Wires, in which the best poems are also the most terrifying in their focus on loss and absence. The poem “It Won’t Be Long,” for example, makes clear why no matter how well prepared we think we are for loss, it is never as we expect. Made aware of the pending reality of a loved one’s loss to cancer, the speaker prepares herself:

I find myself on this transient road
. . . . . . . . . .
thinking I might know
what it will be like
when you are gone
. . . . . . . . . .
but when the phone rings
and all the purple vases crash to the floor
I realize I should have known
. . . . . . . . . .
the resounding difference between
the end of dusk
and total darkness

The understated devastation expressed in the concluding contrast of expectation and reality is one of the more harrowing moments I’ve read in poetry in quite some time, and it makes clear that preparation and imagination can never negate the absence that results from loss.

Another sort of devastation is addressed when the speaker of “Undoing a Poem” imagines going backwards to the nothing that existed in the place a poem now exists before the poem was, or perhaps all poems were, written.

Start from the end and peel back meaning
word by word, line by line
undress each stanza
. . . . . . . . . .
until you are alone in a room
. . . . . . . . . .
fall to your knees
grope the fallible floor . . .
until you fall back onto one rusty nail
then bleed backwards into the placenta
to the place where you found yourself
absent of all language

Again, it is absence, in this case the imagined absence of language, that sends a shiver up the readers’ spine.

Perhaps what is most revelatory and frightening about these poems is that they suggest we live amidst loss and absence all the time, not just when someone dies, or when words fail, but every day. The very lifestyles we have chosen to subject ourselves to are fraught with felt but unrecognized, and unaddressed absence. The poem, “One Monthly Donation,” for example, speaks of “the endemic solitude / built by a steady and proportioned life” and suggests “you plow steadily into the tyranny of your days // your needs surround you like a well built fence // enclose the backyards of self made urgencies.”

Poet and critic, Edwin Honig, has commented that, “In a large, mobile industrial society people tend to become indifferent about their ability to think or feel for themselves.” Isolated by the busyness of our daily lives, we need poems like those found in Trip Wires to remind us to be humble, to recognize that we don’t have it all under control, that, in fact, control is largely beside the point and that we are surrounded by the trip wires of loneliness and desolation. We need poems like these to shake us out of our comfort and complacency, to scare us into remembering the primacy of connection with self and others.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

New Series in Morganton to Feature Local Writers


The Burke County Public Library is beginning a new reading series to be called “Wednesday Night Readings.” The readings will be held at the main branch library in downtown Morganton, and at least initially will feature primarily area writers.

The series will kick off March 9, at 6:30, with Hickory poet, Scott Owens. Owens, who teaches at Catawba Valley Community College, is the author of 6 collections of poetry, editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review, Vice President of the Poetry Council of NC, and founder of Poetry Hickory. His work has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the NC Poetry Society, the NC Writers’ Network, the Poetry Society of SC, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Owens’ latest collection of poems, The Nature of Attraction, is a narrative sequence focusing on the relationship of two characters, Norman and Sara. The collection was written collaboratively with Florida poet, Pris Campbell, and published in 2010 by Main Street Rag.

Joining Owens will be Lincolnton poet, Morgan DePue. Together, they will present a dramatic reading from The Nature of Attraction. They will each read a small selection of their own work as well.

Other readings in the series this spring will feature T.A. Epley, author of Ghosts of the Soon Departed, on March 30; Vale’s Ann Chandonnet, author of Write Quick: War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1887 and The Pioneer Village Cookbook, on April 6; Morganton poet, Ted Pope and Hickory poet, Tim Peeler, co-authors of Waiting for Charlie Brown, on April 20; Caldwell Community College instructor, Nancy Posey, author of Let the Lady Speak, on May 4; Hickory poet, Kermit Turner, author of Sandy Ridge: Portrait of a Depression Family, on May 18; biographer T.J. Shimeld, author of The Four Foot Giant and the Vanishing Wheelchair, on June 1; and Winston-Salem poet, Helen Losse, author of Seriously Dangerous and editor of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, on June 22.

All readings in the series are free and open to the public. For more information on the series, contact coordinator, Mindy Evans, at 828-437-5638

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Poetry Council Annual Contests Open for Submission


The Poetry Council of NC’s annual poetry contests are open for submission until May 31. PCNC sponsors annual poetry contests in 9 different categories, including best NC book of poetry, free verse, traditional form, humorous verse, and performance poetry. There are also separate contests for NC elementary, middle school, and high school students.

In most categories, first, second, and third place winners are named as well as three honorable mentions. Prizes range from $15 to $100. Winning poems are published in the Council’s annual anthology Bay Leaves and on the Council’s website, and all winning authors are invited to read their winning poems at Poetry Day, held this year on October 1 at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC.

To be considered, poems must be no more than 40 lines, previously unpublished, and not under consideration for publication elsewhere. Entry fees are $5 for individual poem contests, and $10 for the book contest, but there are no entry fees for the student competitions. Performance poems are limited to 2 minutes and will be performed and judged live at Poetry Day. Complete details and guidelines are available at or from Ed Cockrell at 2906 Gait Way, Chapel Hill, NC 27516, (919) 967-5834.

Last year’s winners included well-known NC poets Tony Abbott, Alex Grant, Rhett Iseman Trull, Malaika King Albrecht, Sara Claytor, and Bill Griffin, among many others. The Poetry Council is a non-profit organization in its 59th year of working to foster a greater appreciation for and appreciation of poetry in NC.