Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Joining the Conversation: A Review of David Rigsbee's "The Pilot House"

Joining the Conversation
A Review of David Rigsbee’s The Pilot House (Black Lawrence, 2011)

(First published in "The Pilot" newspaper)

If you read enough poetry you come to realize that most, if not all, poets are involved in a dialogue that enriches each poem. Sometimes the involvement is a conscious one. You read a poem, put the book down and begin one of your own related to what you just read. Sometimes it is unconscious. Without realizing it, you carry a bit of a poem around in your head for weeks, months, years, and then write what you think is singularly yours, but others may recognize the relation to Whitman, Williams, Neruda. And sometimes it is something even less than (or perhaps more than) unconscious. You write from “something in the air,” out of the time, the world, in which you exist intellectually, emotionally, or physically. You respond unconsciously to a moment that other poets have likewise responded to or are simultaneously responding to. In that process a number of poets separately create a dialogue that is further joined by every reader who in their turn puts words to paper.

When I picked up David Rigsbee’s new book of poems, The Pilot House, and read the first poem, “After Reading,” I felt as if he and I must be writing from much the same experience, as if he had joined a lengthy, ongoing debate I was involved in and had been writing about for some time. The crux of that debate is summarized in Rigsbee’s brilliant opening lines:

I put down the book thinking
how purity is a curse, how it
puts us off the human
for whom it better fits
to turn away from the shore
in favor of the garbage and the grief.

To turn away from the safe, secure “shore” of “purity” and wade or swim into “the garbage and the grief” of human existence is indeed an unnerving venture, one that demands courage and unblinking honesty, but Rigsbee achieves this undertaking with admirable aplomb and sensitivity by using the familiar as a touchstone for the more disturbing. Thus, each poem resonates with previously unconsidered connections: Cary Grant hanging from Lincoln’s Mt. Rushmore nose and transcendence; Latin poetry and the mutability of what passes as even basic human knowledge; yoga and the inevitable passing of every human endeavor.

These are not poems to be taken or undertaken lightly. A brother’s suicide, a friend’s mastectomy, contemplations of one’s own mortality, a father’s death from cancer and the manic, last-minute struggle for his soul that precedes it, these are poems that readily admit the seriousness of life, and that look unflinchingly into the faces of fear, uncertainty, loss and hope all the while refusing the easy sedative of oversimplified explanations like faith, chance, or biology. These are poems that insist we examine the whole human experience, the good, the bad, the illimitably ineffable, and the hopeless and hopeful ways in which we react to it and try to create meaning from it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review of Ron Moran's "The Jane Poems"

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

by Ronald Moran
Clemson University Digital Press (2011)
ISBN: 9780984259854

Simply put, this is a beautiful book! Anyone who has ever loved someone and lost them, anyone who has known love or loss, anyone who loves memorable, well-crafted, emotionally powerful poetry, will love this book, which reminds us of the vital lesson Galway Kinnell gave us thirty years ago in his best poem, “Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight:”

as you stand
at this end of the bridge which arcs,
from love, you think, into enduring love,
learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come – to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones. Kiss
the mouth
which tells you, here,
here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.

The still undanced cadence of vanishing.

These poems begin at the beginning of the speaker’s relationship with the title character, Moran’s late wife, Jane. In “The Courtship,” Moran charmingly tells us how he, as a young man, took off his tee shirt and mowed “the same // patch of lawn over and over” “on a chance she’d be riding // in a car down the hill that day”, “an offering of my unrehearsed // goods in early summer.” He follows this with poems of tender intimacy that show the relationship between the speaker and Jane growing over the years. In “Double Passage in Mid-Life,” he says to Jane, “I turn to fit the contour of your life.” In “Weddings,” he comments, “No surprise that we’re // getting into each other’s / dreams.” And in “Room by Room,” he fashions a wonderful analogy for how a marriage is constructed: “Room by room we are taming / this house built sideways / and close to a narrow street.” In poem after poem, Moran conveys the depth of this relationship through fresh, effective and vital imagery.

The second section of poems tells the story of how the speaker spent the last years of his 50-year relationship with Jane living with her illness and with all the feelings commensurate with such experience: stubborn optimism, fear, dread, sorrow, uncertainty. We first discover the illness along with the speaker in “Mirrors,” where he sits in the doctor’s waiting room trying to “flash” his “new smile” as if he “could // do something to face up to this . . . news now slowly coming to light / in pictures at the end of the hall.” Moran takes us through the various stages of emotion one faced with the illness of a loved one will inevitably experience. In “Tic Tacs,” he muses, “What will I do / if your heart closes up / like a sundrop after dark?” In “Jane” and “Foreplay” he answers the more important question of what he must do now, expressing empathy for Jane and accepting the responsibility of caring for her. At several points in this book, Moran thanks Jane for “saving his life.” In “The Breakdown” we see one of those points when we hear Jane helping him learn what to make of their experience with illness:

as we held
each other, I said “What am I going to do
when you die?”

and she responded, as if she would never die,
and that, hey,
we still had each other, and let’s make the best
of it now.

The emotional process the speaker goes through in accepting inevitable loss as well as the responsibility of caring for another and learning to make the most of every experience we have culminates in “A Blessing,” perhaps the book’s most powerful poem:

I cup her hand leisurely in mine, closing
it slowly, feeling her tremors until my hand

calms hers, and I whisper, “Time to sleep”;
and as she does, I count interludes between
breaths, longer than ever before but steady,
then release her, knowing how blessed I am.

The final section of poems deals with Jane’s death and the speaker’s life afterwards. The first poem in the section, “Lines of Demarcation,” describes the speaker’s discovery of Jane shortly after her passing. It is one of the most powerful poems I have ever read:

she was on her back, her mouth
wide open
as before, but her thin and bruised body
did not twitch.

She was still, like a figure in a photograph,
not gasping
for breath as when I left her room.
I tried to close
her right eye, barely open, but it would not
stay shut.

The nurse said, “Do you want a few minutes
alone with her?”
I said I’m OK, which I was not, but I only knew
how much I was not OK and never would be

The remaining poems take the reader through a second process: the process of grieving, remembering, and coming to terms with being alone. The poems describe the journey with remarkable honesty, admitting all the complexity, depth, and difficulty of grief without trivializing it with oversimplified platitudes, concluding only with a measured joy that might best be called, appreciation:

I keep thinking of E.M. Forster’s “Only connect,”
and all I want

is to rerun my life with Jane, beginning in June, where
an oak in Walnut Hill Park, we both asked, “Can it work?”
Yes, it did.

Ultimately, this book about love and loss becomes a celebration and an expression of gratitude. No more stirring tribute to the power of another in our life, to a relationship, to love, has been written. Nor has there been anything more helpful for any who face the prospect of living with a loved one’s dying. Moran has achieved those most poetic of ambitions, catharsis and relevance, transforming his life into art that is transformative for the rest of us.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thinking About the Next Big Bang

(first published in Outlook)

Thinking about the Next Big Bang in the Galaxy at the Edge of Town

In the Galaxy at the edge of town
there is still plenty of fresh air,
space is abundant, light
is spread evenly everywhere.

Children keep rattling wheels
moving forward, the machinery
of produce continues,
seven languages are spoken.

A homeless man seeks shelter,
jacket pulled tight around him,
orbs of eyes concealed
beneath rings of his hat’s brim.

Stockboys wait for beauty
to descend and need them, they dream
constellations in their hands,
spin cans to face the front.

Potentialities, polarities, cosmic
design are all worked out
in the commerce of heavenly bodies.
Everything moves in perpetual orbit.

A man walking between rows
wonders at the infinity of choice
spread out before him, thinks
one day decisions won’t matter.

At closing time they walk
towards the black hole
of windows, afraid of no
gravity but their own.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

3 July Events

3 July Events

July is typically a pretty quiet month for poetry in the Hickory area, but this month I'm involved in three big events.

Poetry Hickory featuring Helen Losse and John York, July 12, 6:30 - 8:00, Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse. Open Mic readers are Kim Teague and Brooke Johnson (1 10-minute slot open -- call me (828-234-4266) or email me (asowens1@yahoo.com) if you want it. Writers' Night Out 5:00-6:30.

Poetry Lincolnton featuring myself, M. Scott Douglass, Jonathan K. Rice, Helen Losse, Devona Wyant, Shane Manier, and Morgan DePue, July 15, 7:00, Lincoln Cultural Center (403 East Main St., Lincolnton, NC)

Greatest Writing Prompt Ever, 3-Day Creative Writing Workshop with Scott Owens, at Minetta Lane Center for the Arts and Peace, July 21, 28, and August 4, 270 Union Square, downtown Hickory. This workshop will get you writing and keep you writing for years to come. Appropriate for all genres. Revision and publication will also be discussed. Cost is $75. Email michael.minettalane@gmail.com or call 828-446-4451 to register. For more information, visit http://minettalanecenter.org/events_calendar/

Friday, July 8, 2011

Review of Nancy Posey's "Let the Lady Speak"

by Scott Owens

by Nancy Posey
Highland Creek Books, 2010
ISBN: 9780982085820

So what makes a writer put into words all the joyous, difficult, embarrassing, sad truths of one’s life? Hunger. A hunger unlike that known by animals, a hunger that cannot be named but can be endlessly described. The same hunger that Nancy Posey knowingly saves for the last poem in her new collection Let the Lady Speak. Ironically, the summative hunger, the hunger of all humanity, she captures in the poem “Hungry” is the first hunger of humanity: Eve’s hunger to be, fully, to partake of existence consciously, to experience and speak truly. In the poem, Eve says, “Who could have blamed me if I had said, when asked / why, I was just so hungry, and the fruit looked so good.”

The poems in Let the Lady Speak seek to express, with a particularly feminine quality, that hunger for conscious, autonomous existence, and in expressing it to, at least temporarily and partially, satisfy it. James Agee’s classic book of Southern culture is called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a title taken from the ancient Hebrew text, Ecclesiasticus. Posey’s title could just as easily be Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, as the poems juxtapose the voices of Scarlet O’Hara, Guenevere, Amelia Earhart, Hamlet’s Gertrude, Eve, and Penelope with the voices of the poet, the poet’s mother, the poet’s daughter, etc. But Posey’s actual title hearkens back to a tradition just as old as that invoked by Agee, namely that of patriarchy and misogyny. Most of us have little difficulty remembering a time when women often had to be given such permission as the title implies in order to speak or at least be listened to, and so the hunger expressed in these poems is not just the human hunger to experience the world and speak of it but a somewhat more frustrated and still sometimes denied feminine hunger.

The wonderful thing about these poems is that this deep feminist subtext is just that, a subtext. The surface of the poems is much less serious, much more readily accessible, even playful, such that any reader, feminist or otherwise, philosopher or pleasure-reader, can find enjoyment in them. Take these lines, for example, from “Or Maybe the Day after That,” spoken by Scarlet O’Hara:

Right now I have no plans
to make plans. Instead,
I’m going to sit right here
at the foot of the stairs
and have a good cry,
and I don’t care if anyone
gives a damn or not.
Maybe tomorrow my thoughts
will come clearer — or
maybe the day after that.

Certainly there is a great deal about life and our approach to it for the literary critic, the hermeneutist, the philosopher to consider in these lines, but most of us, regardless of how “deeply” we want to read, would enjoy the playfulness of hearing Scarlet’s most famous line revisited and playfully combined with Rhett’s.

A similar playfulness appears in “unvoiced” poems like the wonderfully titled “Hippopotomonstosesquippedaliophobia,” which according to the epigraph means “fear of big words.” The speaker of this surprising and tender love poem begins, “Shunning Latinate constructions, I choose / instead the simple Anglo-Saxon / monosyllabic words.” Then, true to her word, she concludes with the monosyllabic proclamation, “We will share one sweet kiss.”

A considerably less playful revisitation of familiar perspectives is offered in several poems, including “Guenevere,” where the title character grows cynical and impatient with the limitations of traditional roles and expectations. She knows, as always, that she will “be set / free before” she bursts “into flames” and that “the one / who makes the move / will certainly expect” her “gratitude to burn / hotter than this fire,” but she has become disenchanted with this cat and mouse game in which she is always the object and never the subject, always the acted upon and never the actor. She confesses, “I now feel / cold as a winter cave, / surrounded but alone.”

Whether playful or serious, familiar or exotic, what arises from all of the voices of these poems is the singular voice of a contemporary woman full of the complexities such identity would imply. Sincere, accessible, insightful, and charming, ultimately, the poems in Nancy Posey’s Let the Lady Speak are in a voice we can all enjoy . . . and learn from.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review of Gary McDowell's American Amen

by Scott Owens
(first published in Pirene's Fountain

by Gary L. McDowell
Dream Horse Press, 2010
ISBN: 9781935716044

“Between dawn and dusk / is purgatorial,” says Gary McDowell in “Forever Falling Off or Out,” a poem in his stimulating new collection, American Amen. Night, that time of the unconscious, these lines imply, may be heaven or hell, but either way it is beyond our powers to control. Thus, the proper concern of mankind is that time between, that time of striving, of committing sins and making amends, of doing what we can to make the best of our conscious existence.

In keeping with this existential positioning, the best of these poems explore the coexistent contraries of human nature--the selfish and selfless, the savage and loving--and the thin veil of comfort that separates these polar inclinations. The speaker of “Winter” tells us:

I am not that far removed
from cracking bones
to put food in my stomach
. . . . . . . . . .
I am not that far removed
from eating only what I catch
I am not that far removed
from being afraid of waking
to find my family vanished.

Part of what we do to fend off our own savagery in this purgatorial existence is embodied by this book of poems, by any art, by any objectification of our psyche. In “Too Damn Perfect,” the speaker tells us “I’m trying to translate my misgivings into precipitation.” The line makes a fair statement about the artist’s purpose--translating misgivings into that which moves things forward--and perhaps just as fair a statement of what we all should be doing.

No one should think, however, that such an examination of life will be inevitably and invariably somber. One of the joys of this collection, in fact, is the sense of humor and humility frequently exhibited by the poems. In “Weather, Weather,” for example, the speaker lists his “greatest moments: eight hours of consecutive sleep, / four cheeseburgers in ten minutes, two women in my lifetime.” And later in the same poem he acknowledges, “I know that my greatest moment will one day be clogged in glaciers” and “I sometimes / wish I had more to record.” Similarly, and perhaps ultimately, he acknowledges in “Back Home” that “it’s impossible to get this right.” Fortunately, for those of us who manage to find these poems, none of these humbling facts about human endeavor has kept McDowell to “get this right.” And I hope, as I suspect McDowell does, that all of us will take up the same challenge of making meaning where uncertainty is the only thing granted.