Thursday, April 28, 2011

New Issue of Pirene's Fountain Features Reviews By and Of Scott Owens

"Pirene's Fountain" has been one of my favorite online journals for years now. The editors are not only good judges of poetry but nice people as well. I feel fortunate to have been published in "PF" several times previously, but the new issue (April 2011) features a number of gratifying connections to my work.

Among the 100 or so poems in the issue from notable poets like CJ Sage, Lisa Zaran, Russell Ragsdale, Alex Grant, and Natalie Williams are 2 of my own, "Solitude" and "13 Ways of Flowers" and 8 of my haiku. Along with "Solitude," the editors have included 3 photos from my colleague and favorite photographer, Clayton Joe Young (his photos grace the cover of two of my books, "Paternity" and the forthcoming "Something Knows the Moment"). The photos in "PF" were the inspiration for "Solitude."

This issue of "PF" also includes two reviews of mine, one of Steven Roberts' "Another Word for Home," and another of Gary McDowell's "American Amen." There is also a review by Caleb Pletcher of "The Nature of Attraction," my most recent book, a collaboration with Pris Campbell. Finally, the editors have included my article on collaboration, "Six Degrees of Collaboration."

Here is a link to the entire issue:

I hope you'll visit and become a regular reader of "Pirene's Fountain."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Review of Annalee Kwochka's "Seventeen"

by Scott Owens
(first published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)

Poems by Annalee Kwochka
Running Poet Press

I wrote my first short story in twelve years the other day. I didn’t set out to write a story, but a scene that nearly materialized in real life refused to be dropped in my imagination, and as I began ‘disburdening” myself of it, it insisted on being prose. You may wonder what any of this had to do with a review of a book of poems (I know I would). The connection is that just as I’ve learned through 30 years of writing that the writer often has little choice in what or how they write, young Annalee Kwochka has already, at 17, learned that the writer has even less choice in deciding to write. “Mona Lisa Muse,” the opening poem of her precocious collection, Seventeen, makes that clear. “Poems,” she says, “are the fierce and ravishing aunt / whom you revere / but shrink from . . . . / Her knock is a tiny hammer on your skull, / so you’d better get that door, / . . . because this poem / has arrived.” So, too, has this poet.

The poems in Seventeen demonstrate Kwochka’s arrival in several ways, one of which is her versatility. From tankas, to ars poeticas, to typographical poems, to performances pieces, to dramatic monologues, Kwochka’s poems are consistently fresh, evocative, and surprising. Her “Window Seat at the City Bakery,” for example, masterfully uses spacing to control the reader’s pace and create impetus just where it should be. The way “Details” appears on a line of its own three times, and the way “forward” follows the push of white space after “To bear life,” and the way the parallelism of the last four lines create a satisfying sense of place (“Sitting somewhere on this planet, / This continent, this country, / This city, this street, / This seat by the window”), all work together to convey Kwochka’s own understanding of Mary Oliver’s imperative that, for the poet, paying attention is tantamount to prayer.

And Kwochka pays attention to the two things that are most important for a poet to pay attention to if her poems are going to be effective: imagery and language. We’ve already seen her attention to imagery, and in the wonderfully playful “Entry #1 from the Dictionary of Teenage Variations on the English Language, and an Example in Context,” we see her attention to language as she dissects the linguistic habits of mother-daughter communication.

Kwochka’s versatility is one not only of style but also of subject matter. She “pays attention” to nature in poems like “Window Seat” and “Green River Tanka,” to personal issues in poems like “Advanced Placement: Psychology” and “Burning,” to issues of relationships in poems like “Storms” and “Advents,” to social issues in poems like “Laws of Motion: Wake-Up Call” and “Laws of Motion: School Reform,” and to political issues in poems like “Seque for My sisters in Iraq” and “Exposition and Protest.”

It is through Kwochka’s willingness to explore, experience, and relate such a range of topics and influences that she is able to make statements that belie her youth, statements that express a greater understanding of the complexities of human existence than one would expect from one of her age, statements like this one from “Advent” that add a third dimension to Oliver’s equation of prayer and paying attention:

I need to love even though it hurts,
I need to love until it hurts
Because there is so much hurt here,
And loving is a better way to pray.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review of Stan Absher's "Night Weather"

by Scott Owens
First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review, Winter 2011

by J.S. Absher; illustrations by Katie Nordt
Cynosura Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780615429540

Although I have published about 3 dozen haiku in respected haiku journals like Heron’s Nest, Notes from the Gean, and Shamrock, my only training in the form has been my own reading and a few exchanges with Alice Frampton, Lenard Moore, and Curtis Dunlap. So, when I received a review copy of Stan Absher’s new collection of mostly haiku entitled Night Weather, I thought about how particular some haiku purists can be and decided I wasn’t really qualified or courageous enough to make any sort of statement regarding the quality of a collection of haiku. As I read through the book, however, I realized that it contains plenty of elements about which I do feel qualified to speak. The most significant of these elements is simply how enjoyable the poems are. These quiet meditations on perception are evocative, soothing, and subtly thought-provoking.

Not surprisingly given that most of the poems are haiku or similar forms, the strongest feature of these poems is their imagery. Time and again, Absher presents images that are pleasantly familiar and enviably well-stated such that I find myself constantly thinking, “Yes, that’s it. He got it just right. Perhaps my favorite, being a planter of trees myself, is “sweetgum:”

in the riprap
cold saplings
burning red

This image of life, regeneration, and resistance reminds me both of Roethke’s famous poem, “Cuttings,” as well as my own experience planting saplings in a thick bed of mulch.

Absher demonstrates in all of these poems what is undoubtedly the poet’s most important skill: keen observation. Nowhere is that more apparent than in “Ripeness Is All,” which I quote in its entirety below:

Weighting the low branches, vermilion
splotched with apple green, it hands
in easy reach -- not quite ready
to pick, but turn his eye away one
moment, it will bruise with neglect.

The exact moment never comes
when it falls easily to hand.
By day it holds the stem like
a hooked redeye, then over night
spikes itself on the stubble.

When is my time, he wonders,
when will I, trembling with plenty,
let go into the ripe void?
When will I steer
drunkenly into the blade?

This metaphoric representation of the ceaselessly anticipatory nature of human existence resonates not only with our own perceptions of the natural world but also with our unspoken impressions of life, and of course, with all the literary and personal associations we have with the concept of forbidden fruit. Such associative richness is what makes these poems, and all good haiku, and all good imagism, work. It is this quality above all others that make such poems enjoyable.

Organized around the theme of passing seasons, Absher’s poems have two vital lessons to teach us: pay attention; and be ready.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review of Steven Sherrill's "Ersatz Anatomy"

by Scott Owens
first published in Wild Goose Poetry Review

by Steven Sherrill
CW Books, 2010, 120 pages
ISBN: 9781936370153

The poems in Steven Sherrill’s Ersatz Anatomy use the words “want,” “need,” “desire,” “longing,” and “yearn” 74 times. Those words appear at least once in 36 of the volume’s 74 poems, clearly suggesting that desire is the primary subject of this poetic inquiry. As if to erase any doubt about that, Sherrill offers such individual titles as “Preamble to the Treatise of Desire,” “Footnote to the Preamble,” “Treatise on Desire,” “First Amendment to the Treatise on Desire,” “Retort to the Treatise,” “Passion,” and “The Want Bird.” Similarly, among the many memorable lines related to desire, Sherrill writes, “It is the topography of need we traverse” (“Geese at 9000 Feet”) and “I am punch drunk with want” (“Sweet Grief”).

Such an emphasis on desire should not be surprising. After all, what emotion is more human than desire, and what desire stronger than the desire for knowledge, for certainty, for God. The earliest stories of human being(s) (Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Gilgamesh, for example) make it clear that the defining characteristic of human existence is desire. Those stories tend to cast desire in a rather ambivalent light. Specifically they propose that desire to be with or like God is good and desire for all else is bad, at least in any measure exceeding the very relative term “moderation.” Of course, the fact that human beings can only know God in very nebulous forms (burning bushes, pillars of cloud, thunder and lightning), heightens the sense of desire and redirects it towards things that might approximate religious rapture. It is no semantic accident that the word most often used for both religious and sexual fulfillment is the same--ecstasy--a fact not lost on the speaker of these poems.

Unable to achieve either fulfillment of the one desire that defines humanity or lasting fulfillment of desire in general, the nature of human existence is to live in uncertainty, to be subject to an “unknowable you,” our “doubt” to whom we “remain devout” “with true pause” (“Latter-Day Sonnet”). The real question then becomes not whether one experiences desire or doubt, both of which are inevitable, but what one does in such a state, whether one denies it; or better, manages to exist in a state of uncertainty without “any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats’ negative capability would suggest; or better yet, relishes that state, explores it, as the speaker of these poems does, inventing a capability that is neither negative nor positive but decidedly human: “Beyond hunger more hunger / Learn to eat the emptiness” (“Footnote to the Preamble”). The speaker of these poems understands that no teleological approach to human existence holds any satisfactory answers, and that the absence of such answers is inherently unsatisfying as well. What we are left with is the constantly difficult proposition that the journey is its own reward.

Sherrill signed my copy of Ersatz Anatomy, “For Scott, who shared my journey for many good years.” Nothing could be more appropriate. When we were both younger we took many journeys together, walking every set of railroad tracks and every creek leading from Charlotte, NC, just to see what we could see, hiking nearby wooded or mountain trails, climbing Crowder’s Mountain, working through classes taught by Robert Waters Grey, Robin Hemley, and Chris Davis at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. And of course, all of this was part of our mutual journeys towards becoming writers and men.

I’ve seen Sherrill only once since we parted ways some 18 years ago. In the interim we have both been married, divorced, and remarried, have both raised children of our own, and have both pursued with some success our careers in teaching and writing. Through all that, however, one thing has never changed: Sherrill is still at his best when on a journey, in this case, the kind of journey afforded him in a long poem where thought, perception, emotion, and reflection all interweave to (re)create an experience as authentic as any I’ve read. The poem “At the Shore of the Great Lake Michigan I Come Upon the Feet of Egon Schiele in the Moonlight” is a thematic and stylistic paragon of all that Sherrill undertakes in this book.

The poem begins innocently enough: “On the bluff above, a caveat -- Beach Closed. No Entry After Dark.” From that, few would guess that what would follow would be a refreshing meditation on the nature of religion, faith, and humanism. “It is well after dark and I am here” the speaker defiantly proclaims in the same stanza, and we follow him as he descends to the dark beach and discovers a piece of driftwood that strikes his imagination as “the feet of Egon Schiele.” A series of religious, historical, and personal associations then leads him to the poem’s final remarkable epiphany:

The nature of faith is, more or less, . . .

any goddamned thing I want it to be. Here I write the doctrines.
I am the Apostle and the acolyte . . . I am the deacon and the fold.

This is my church, my church, and I believe
in the feet of Egon Schiele
in the moonlight.

This epiphany of how art, beauty, identity, and hope are all found in the interaction of nature and human memory, of philosophy, science, and religion, clarify the humanistic and aesthetic understanding that is at the thematic and emotional center of all of these poems.

As “At the Shore of the Great Lake Michigan” illustrates, there is nothing easy about reading Steven Sherrill’s poetry. The poems are full of remarkable, often surreal imagery and surprising shifts in perspective, moving by an associative logic that challenges the most imaginative reader to keep up. Sherrill is not only negatively capable but very comfortable with contraries: faith and heresy; Apollonian control and Dionysian wildness; aesthetic smugness and endearing humility. None of that is easy, but anything that explores human nature without flinching at its complexity, with such unblinking honesty, can be cathartic and enlightening, and in any event, a hell of a lot of fun.