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Becoming the Villainess

This book of poems by journalist Jeannine Hall Gailey caught my eye back at the beginning of the semester, and I checked it out, meaning to read it right away. But the longer it sat there on my desk, the more reluctant I was to open it. I adore mythology and fairy tales, and was concerned that perhaps Gailey would treat her subject matter in the usual, clichéd way. I kept looking at the cover, with its cheesy font and disconcertingly large areas of white space. With a cover like this, I thought, it’s probably going to be a disappointment. I wanted so badly to be surprised, delighted, and unsettled that I was afraid to even peek inside the book. I even hid it at one point to stop myself from worrying. But it’s the last week, and this was my first book, so today I read it.

Well, thank goodness. While Gailey is a tad uneven in places, there are some beautifully captivating poems that completely make up for it. She writes about Persephone and Philomel (several times…you can certainly tell where her obsessions lie), Wonder Woman, Ophelia, Melusine, and the Snow Queen, to name a few. The poems are not–as the title might suggest–all about evil stepmothers. Most are about other female characters; some are empowering, but many are not. Gailey’s poems are melancholy, triumphant, disconcerting, introspective, playful, and bittersweet. She also often contrasts these mythological and literary references with modern, hyperrealistic details. In “Little Cinder”, she creates a very different type of Cinderella, and this is especially apparent in the last two stanzas:

You deserve the palace, you think, as you signal
the pigeons to attack, approve the barrel filled with red-hot nails.
Its great hearth beckons, and the prince’s flag
rises crimson as the angry sun.

He will love you for the heat you generate,
for the flames you igite around you,
though he encase your tiny feet in glass
to keep them from scorching the ground.

And one of my very favorites, inspired by a quotation from Eliot’s The Waste Land, is called “Her Nerves”:

I surrounded myself with the safe, with the sane.
“You know there’s a history of mental illness in my family.”
I devoted myself to botany, to mazes, to the infinitesimal.
I married you to challenge my inevitable end—
my human tranquilizer.
You like my “little poems” but
I scare you when I rock myself over and over
saying I dreamed I killed you again,
I dreamed you killed me again,
and you couldn’t stop the nightmares.

You liked it when I laughed at Plath,
sketched repeating uneven branches of starfish arms.

You are afraid—not just of me,
but what I see and hear that you don’t—
the crusts of blood, slippery dirt-gorged voices.
You like it when I curse creatively,
hate it when paper piles like excrement around me.

Afraid our sloppy physicality
will tear at your maintained monastic cubes,
our “Siren Song,” our red hair flaming into points.
You name our extremities as if decayed already,
the translucent hand,
the ankle frail as a twig.

Now that I’ve finally read this book, I’ll stick it back on the shelf for the rest of you. It was worth the wait.

-Serena

Recommendation: R.T. Smith’s Brightwood

Brightwood explores author R.T. Smith’s experiences growing up and living in the American South through a collection of vivid and lyrical poems.  The poems present a wide range of subject matter that Smith has encountered throughout this life that all share haunting-like features, wrapped in a subtle or obvious conflict and searching for resolution.  Incorporating rich diction and sound, the poems appear to have a rhythm of their own even though there is no formal rhyme scheme.  Whether the poems address personal relationships, racial injustices, or challenges to the traditional social flavor of the South, Smith paints a colorful variety of scenes and characters in his poem collection that presents a warped world tinted with a bit of hope. 

 

The first poem in the collection, “Brightwood,” describes the crafting of a fiddle, and ultimately sets the tone for the rest of the collection.  The last four lines state:

 

“If a fiddle’s fashioned with such ardor,

it can stir the world’s first spark,

drawn the way healing always is—

from the stridor of the dark.” (18-21)

 

These lines suggest how the music and craft of a single instrument mimic the struggle to heal or come to terms with life events.  The poem opens through a description of how the fiddle is carefully constructed with “candor” (5) and “patience” (7), two qualities that allow for an open and accepting perspective.  The instrument itself is reflects beautiful craftsmanship—it has “cambered light” (6) and “[a] good cut” (10) and has its own soul tuned to the wind so that “it comes alive” (17).  This beautiful fiddle, in appearance and virtue, acts as forum for reflection and acceptance for Smith so that he can come to terms with the events in his life.  Its function is to heal anxieties, fears and frustrations as it is “drawn the way healing always is” (20).  Through tribulations, the fiddle plays from the “stridor of the dark” (21), insinuating a sort of haunting or disturbed melody, yet almost comforting as it continues to play in the midst of the “dark” (20) or a troubled or uncertain time. 

 

One of the poems that I think is particularly interesting is “In the Night Orchard” that discusses the drive of curiosity and indulgence through the scenes of deer seeking pears in farmers’ orchards even at the risk of getting tangled in the branches.  Smith describes this instinctive drive in lines 27-35:

 

“…We all remember what it’s like,

this driven season, this delirium

for something not yet given a name,

but the world turns us practical, tames

 

us to yearn for milder pleasures.

For Augustine, it was actual pears

that brought him out of the shadows

and over a wall, for Eve, the secret

inside what we now say was an apple.” (27-35)

 

Smith suggests that “[w]e all” (27) are like the deer who may become fixated upon the mysterious or forbidden that we are supposed to avoid, like the farmers’ pears to the deer, yet we pursue these items of interest anyway—as it is an instinctive part of our natures for the better of ourselves or for the worse.

 

I highly recommend Smith’s Brightwood for an insightful and captivating read that touches on the anxieties of human nature in the setting of the South.

 

 

– Ellen Ferrante

Recommendation – “Pictures of the Afterlife,” Jude Nutter

What first struck me about Jude Nutter was the brutal force with which her words hit readers.  Her Pictures of the Afterlife is extremely remarkable in the way that she approaches the subject of death.  Nutter hits it from all kinds of angles, none of which she allows you to gloss over or ignore.  My favorite part of Nutter’s works is the way she carefully chooses her wording, putting together phrases and words that I am just profoundly jealous of.  In the opening of “Raising the Dead with Words,” she writes

“They were rabbits mostly, gathered up from mud

and road grit where they’d come to rest, bodies kissed open,

their fur licked flat by the concussion of passing traffic…”

Despite the macabre tones and subject matter, Nutter manages to make the scene almost ethereal.  Her imagery is so vivid, I feel as if her words are jack hammering my brain from the page itself.  Nutter’s poetry is full of jarring figures like rabbits’ “bodies kissed open” that beg to be appreciated for the chilling beauty they create.  I loved the way she juxtaposed seemingly optimistic words like “kissed” with such dark imagery as well as the way she made the traffic itself, ironically, come alive by saying it “licked” the fur of the (now) dead animals.

After the initial onslaught of Nutter’s diction, I also saw how she approached a single subject, the afterlife, from so many different ways, ranging from the dying, to the deceased, to memorials, hospitals, and more.  Each carefully crafted poem moves further into the questions and philosophies behind death, yet in a way that doesn’t leave me depressed, but rather impressed at her take on it.  While the subject of death can be overwrought with clichés and melodrama, Nutter’s approach is darkly fresh and provoking.  In “Hermes Delivers Flowers to the Hospice” –

”           …Even though at birth

you were lost already, borne into debt.

Maybe the grave is the only

door that leads you anywhere,

but how would you know…”

Nutter refuses to shy away from topics, as can be seen simply by her poems’ titles – “Abortion as Ecstasy,” “Suicide Notes at the End of Summer,” “Aunt Alice’s Ashes.”  Nutter delves into the question that is death and bereavement without losing the audience to overly philosophical or existential ramblings, as she does in “The Blue Balloon;”

”           …Which is more difficult: to believe

in the soul, or admit you have a body.  This

is the only question there is; it will enter

your life any way it can

and when you ask it the dead will hand you

the remains of their deepest work.”

Her figures are also notable.  In “Atomic Nightmare,” she writes: “the rind of an apple peeled off // and flung on the table in a continuous strip / like a green banner; the smell light makes / when it hits water…”  Nutter takes unusual images, like the smell of water, and incorporates these enchanting figures within the darker structure of her poems, but in a way that doesn’t make them awkward or stand out, but weaves them intricately into them, transitioning real life images of a family member at a hospital with things like the apple peel banner.

I would recommend this (and her other collection, The Curator of Silence) to anyone who admires a darker set of poetry loaded with thick, penetrable diction that seriously just bombards you the second you open the book.

– Ellie

New York Review of Books Poetry Month

The New York Review of Books is celebrating National Poetry Month (April) by posting a poem from its archives on its website every day, www.nybooks.com. There is some really great stuff on there so far, everyone shoud check it out!

–Nathan

The Wick Of Memory by Dave Smith

I’ve taken my time writing this review because I felt that this is the book that spoke to me the most. Dave Smith has a variety of poems here, some colloquial, a couple dream-quests, and a couple parables referencing animals; needless to say, I really enjoyed them. I prefer a little narration in my poetry and Smith gives me that. I’ll talk a little about some of my favorite poems so you can get a feel for them.

.

A Dream of Poe In New York.

“Worked over here, I’m screwed.

I leave the bar, walk, a man

in need of a woman. She who’s

what I deserve is no bargain.

Losing her smell’s the problem.

Her light touch turns greasy.

The street glistens like phlegm.

Then rain’s spurt plummeting.”

A Dream of Poe in New York gets on my to mention list because it’s about as gritty as poetry gets, it’s ugly and almost unforgiving. I really appreciate Smith’s brutally honest portrayal of the realities of this narrative, the way he picks up on the seemingly small details and flushes them out to fruition. A Dream exemplifies Smith’s ability to take off the gloves and throw some real punches.

The Shark in the Rafters

“…Because, they watch the terrible

jaws jammed open again, the hook

spooning out the man’s leg-stump,

blue-sluice flowing below them

into the minnow seeded water,

each surprised to feel risen

inside a finger’s forbidden

touch: this hide is all

between them and sun’s boil.

To open it at last, one

climbs with knife, cheered

by the girls whose thighs burn…”

The Shark in the Rafters is another one of my favorites. You can read Smith’s penchant for an almost gore, but it’s always justified, never superfluous. He creates a lot of tension with these poems, perhaps embodying the tension between all animals and human in the inevitable conflict but he always finds something redeeming, something worth knowing.

Lastly, my favorite poem this semester, Red Dog. This is the narrative of a man’s dog and Smith really refines his voice, to give it some real compassion, some real emotion, subtle, but powerful. Here are some of the most powerful lines.

Red Dog

“We bought you for our son. Half—grown

Already your bag of skin sagged everywhere,”

“You

mostly don’t expect to find the lost—and yet,

hopefully, I’d shout, then sleep, then shout. Gone.

You’d wait. You’d creep like sun across the lawn.”

“You slowed.

Dirt-bedded, you had new smell. Bones fouled floors.

Squirrels reclaimed their nuts. The awful spew

Of what spoiled in you, lying by our fire,

Comes back to me as the vet says you’ve worn

Out the heart that banged to sleep beside my son.”

“Worn out the heart that banged to sleep beside my son.” That kills me. Smith is a fine poet, I really enjoyed this book and I’d recommend it to anybody with a taste for grit, parables, and dream-quest poems. I’d also recommend this last poem to anyone who’s ever once, had a dog.

–Sam

Picnic, Lightning – Billy Collins

Picnic, Lighting is Billy Collin’s sixth collection of poetry. The book begins with the poem “A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal” and a quotation from Yeats: “A poet…never speaks directly, as to someone at the breakfast table.” Collins devotes the poems in this book to proving Yeats completely wrong.

His poems are universal, simple, surprising, observant, unobscured and rewarding. The writing in un-gimicky and relies on the relateability of the subject matter. His poems are firmly set in the every-day, but their strength comes from their intense dedication to the observable world and their ability to derive significance from the ordinary. Collins speaks to you in a warm voice, like a friend with a hint of amusement in his voice.

Even after I have forgotten what year it is,

my middle name,

and the meaning of money,

I will still carry in my pocket

the small coin of that moment,

minted in the kingdom

that we pace through every day.

Collins uses ordinary circumstances “that we pace through every day:” a breakfast table, a backyard, a driveway, on walks, planes, trains, in a bedroom, a study, to convey extraordinary understanding. He loves the morning and microcosms. He excels in the studying the under-noticed. “In the Room of a Thousand Miles” summarizes Collins’ poetic identity nicely:

“She thinks I ought to be opening up

my aperture to let in

the wild rhododendrons of Ireland,

the sun-bleached stadiums of Rome,

that waterclock in Bruges –

the world beyond my inkwell.

…And then – just between you and me –

[I] pick up my thin pen

and write down that bird I hear outside,

the one that sings,

pauses,

then sings again.”

Collins seems to make sense of the world in this way, and in reading his work, so do we.

-Johannah O’Keefe

Linda Gregg’s In the Middle Distance

Linda Gregg’s In the Middle Distance is a volume of poetry that plays on the examination of space and loneliness through the use of metaphoric images. Her verse is seemingly simple, with fairly regular meter and vocabulary, but the depth of meaning in her pairing of visuals and emotions is rewarding and complex. I found myself drawn to the honesty, with which she portrays her subjects and her ability to pair abstract feelings with tangible things or realistic experiences.

One poem, I particualry admire and continue to mentally revisit is titled, “Purity.” She writes,

I’m walking on farm road 2810 again,

alone as always. Unless you want count

the Border Patrol. Or the police cars

that go by with their strange maneuvers

in front of me and pull off into

the mowed grass on the side. Then turn

and come back. Stalling and facing me.

Waiting until a car approaches

from far away. It passes and the police

follow it toward town. Leaving me

with animals, insects and birds.

And the silence. I walk toward the sun

which is always going down.”

I was going to try to select a few lines from the poem, but I couldn’t help but feel that every line is essential and contributes to the meaning. Gregg’s words and syntax are deliberate. The short sentences work to maintain the simplicity of the poem, which I think reinforces the message and allows the reader to focus singularly on the visuals. Gregg elevates the ordinary, highlighting the detail of the mowed grass and the exact farm road. She does not derail the importance of her last few lines with fancy imagery driven language about what the appearance of the sun, and she doesn’t need to. 

In another poem titled “Being,” Gregg describes a woman getting water from a well, hanging clothes, and going about her daily routine. In the final lines of the poem Gregg writes,

“No one is there. She may not believe

in anything. Not know

what she is doing. Every morning

she waters the geranium plant.

And the leaves smell like lemons.”

Again, she uses regular line length and enjambed short sentences. I find this poem particularly interesting because of the use of the third person. The ambiguity of the character, referred to only as “she” is captivating. The woman described (because Gregg’s description is minimalist) has a universality to her. Also, because the details Gregg includes are so selective, I found myself reading this poem many times trying to figure out the importance of things like the leaves smelling like lemons.

I highly recommend In the Middle Distance and will most likely be checking into Gregg’s other work.

-Kelly

Spam Poetry, part 2

Nobody’s posted lately, so here’s some more spam.

Soon unto him, said these words.’ kripa, said, received was
to the effect that m. De st. Luc of the attribute of darkness,
one embraces sleep be struck with anxiety. He immediately
had recourse then you haven’t remarked that each time it
has.

Take those great entities which are really nonego energy
and invincible in battle accompanied by these words, o son
of pritha, i immediately became righteousness and merit,
of that brahmana and arrow of drona. And thus the vrishni
hero, o sire,.

Of these four elephants.73 their length, breadth prince of
the kulindas then, with that elephant provided by law for
the machinery of a convention, libations, impelled by specific
desires, and that did a pigeon in days of old feed a suppliant
foe.

Need not think to comfort me that way, uncle for disposed
of the muffles, gave himself up to unrestrained had translated
the erl king, which she knew by that point, agreed inspector
colgate went on: it. But ’tis hard to be told i have disappointed.

Did it himself, and he’ll hang for it. No, he we can keep
in touch with her through thibault. Took the key out of
his pocket and placed it in on the stairs,’ said poirot.
‘that will be lady the family had objected to the marriage
from the.

spam poetry

These fine works of literature needed a fancier home than my spam folder. I’ve been collecting them, waiting for the day I’d have enough to justify posting them here. Last night, the spam fairy visited twice, so I think I’m ready.

Attention!!

Moment —only i get so sleepy. If he will but if back of the
house. At last he found what he was lantern and hiding it
with the skirt of her long double time. Knighton was overjoyed.
he had found at the table. Carton, with his right hand in
his.

Waarning!

Is young and she’s goodlookingthat’s enough. And maddened
13, passion, he had committ the crime, school.’ that will
touch st. Peter, who will answer: to some people was as
vital and fundamental as then, with a grin, he handed them
to the police.

Nothing can seduce women faaster than a…

What freedom meant in their cases, but i never of the midnight
meridian, ormiles east of my startingpoint and satiny i
love your mouth with its rosesweet movements indicating
a prevailing spirit of worldly features of healthful civilization,
inward and.

Your Acccount Was Banned

I.
To their respective quarters. Meanwhile those with mind numbering
as the eleventh. One should will continue to serve the king
well. Your most i am so sorry. Claudia keith. With a sudden
surrender by the same way as yesterday, and julie followed.

II.
Out for the next youngest sonmeaning the tuscarorasto infracto
remo neque columbae collo commoveri. Disposition, on obtaining
wealth, cannot treat out of countenance. Red said things
under his in which she was unable to do anything for months..

III.
Devouring the air. Then at the command of the i think it
was, i but before she had made the be done and what should
not. What should be done must surely be made of steel when
he could at perhapsnotall of us. Yes, sah, all of us. The.

IV.
‘at my expense, i presume.’ ‘yes! I will denounce people
sit down to play bridge and one, the odd hope to act the
other way, said jock. Get your he could shut up like a clam
if he li?d ‘ ‘so, perhaps if he had done so, he would have
discovered.

-Serena

Neon Vernacular – Yusef Komunyakaa

I'm so jealous of this title.

I’m fascinated by the poetry that Yusef Komunyakaa has written over the years.  Neon Vernacular is the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems from Komunyakaa’s career beginning in 1997 and continuing through 1993.  Komunyakaa is a poet that has stayed below my radar; I had not heard of him before picking up this book, but he is considered to be one of the most influential poets of his generation.  Now, after reading this collection, I keep returning to his poetry to read it out loud.  I’ve already placed a copy on order at Amazon so I don’t have to part with the collection for too long.

I am incredibly drawn to poets with perspectives similar to Komunyakaa; he is writing from a place that is completely foreign to me as an African American and also a Vietnam War veteran.  He reminds me a lot of Tim O’Brien, another Vietnam vet whose fiction I fell in love with over winter break.  Though much of the poetry is focused on the heavy reality of war, I would hesitate to label it “war poetry.”  There is an incredible wealth of themes to be found in Neon Vernacular, covering everything from love and relationships to his own family. He blends myth and popular culture with his own perceptions and observations, creating a personal mythology that resonates throughout each of his poems.

The poetry itself is absolutely stunning.  Komunyakaa’s word choice is innovative and inspiring; I find that I’m continuously jealous of the way Komunyakaa says things.  Neon Vernacular is the kind of book that I can never read very much of at one time because I am always finding something to be inspired by, something that makes me want to write.  His language channels jazz and is incredibly musical.  The first poem that really struck me was the second poem in the collection titled “At the Screen Door.” It’s a beautifully written piece about what it is like to come backfrom war and interact with people, in this case a woman, who has not seen what you have.  The line “Is it her, will she know/What I’ve seen & done,/How my boots leave little grave-stone/shapes in the wet dirt,” speaks volumes.  Another favorite poem is an experimental poem entitled “Changes; or, Reveries at a Window Overlooking a Country Road, with Two Women Talking Blues in the Kitchen.” The poem is two columned, with one column as the conversation and the other a poem written like a jazz song.  It’s such an interesting form that works perfectly.

One of the best poems in the collections is “Safe Subjects” and I couldn’t pick a favorite section, so I’m just going to quote the whole thing:

How can love heal
the mouth shut this way?
Say something worth breath.
Let it surface, recapitulate
how fat leeches press down
gently on a sex goddess’s eyelids.
Let truth have its way with us
like a fishhook holds
to life, holds dearly to nothing
worth saying – pull it out
bringing with it hard facts,
knowledge that the fine underbone
of hope is also attached
to inner self, underneath it all.
Undress.  No, don’t be afraid
even to get Satan mixed up in this
acknowledgement of thorns:
meaning there’s madness
in the sperm, in the egg,
fear breathing in its blood sac,
true accounts not so easily
written off the sad book.

Say something about pomegranates.
Say something about real love.
Yes, true love – more than
parted lips, than parted legs
in sorrow’s darkroom of potash
& blues.  Let the brain stumble
from its hidingplace, from its cell block,
to the edge of oblivion
to come to itself, sharp-tongued
as a boar’s grin in summer moss
where a vision rides the back
of God, at this masquerade.
Redemptive as a straight razor
against a jugular vein –
unacknowledged & unforgiven.
It’s truth we’re after here,
hurting for, out in the streets
where my brothers kill each other,
each other’s daughters & guardian angels
in the opera of dead on arrival.

Say something that resuscitates
us, behind the masks,
as we stumble off into neon nights
to loveless beds & a second skin
of loneliness.  Something political as dust
& earthwroms at work in the temple
of greed & mildew, where bowed lamps
cast down shadows like blueprints of graves.
Say something for us who can’t believe
in the creed of nightshade.
Yes, say something to us dreamers
who decode the message of dirt
between ancient floorboards
as black widow spiders
lay translucent eggs
in the skull of a dead mole
under a dogwood in full bloom.

Wow.  There are so many poems I could have put here.  There are so many poems that I could have quoted.  Get out there and read this book, NOW.

Where have you been all my life?

Where have you been all my life?

Review by: Leslie Fannon

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