Tuesday, December 22, 2009

News of the World / Philip Levine

...the unwritten epic of tedium...

Philip Levine's new book from Knopf, News of the World, is the latest collection by the great American poet, identified by Edward Hirsch in the New York Times Book Review as "a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland." Levine, who now lives in Walt Whitman's Brooklyn, after being raised in Detroit, and teaching for years in Fresno, has not slowed down since reaching his eighties: News of the World is his 17th collection of poems.

The new poems elicit memories of earlier works, but are fresh and provocative as any he's written. Certainly ever since his National Book Award winner What Work Is, Levine is our most astute living poet to tackle issues that engulf the working man and woman, their toils and lives, their desires and fears.

Consider the closing lines of "Of Love and Other Disasters":
She took a paper napkin off the bar,
spit on it, and told him to hold still
while she carefully lifted his glasses,
leaving him half blind, and wiped
something off just above his left
cheekbone. "There," she said, handing
him back his glasses, "I got it," and even
with his glasses on, what she showed
him was nothing he could see, maybe
only make-believe. He thought, "Better
get out of here before it's too late," but
suspected too late was what he wanted.
Levine's poems go right to heart, tugging and pulling, revealing and crushing. He knows the consequences of our decisions can be devastating. In "Yakov" he writes of his uncle's cabin in the old country:
"The silence, it was
all, it was everything."
Even the wolves, he told me, moved
through the trees without breathing.
The blackbirds vanished hours before
sunset. Snow fell only in the dark
so that at daybreak the world
was new.
But moving to America, to work, to survive, cost his uncle Yakov a very large price:
His Detroit was something else:
in the back of Automotive
a bare bulb swung above him
as he bowed to the wrong job
in the wrong place and entered
the unwritten epic of tedium...
Many of Philip Levine's poems recall the past, but with neither nostalgia nor fear; instead they bring the past to the present, reminding us that histories--of countries, of people, of the body--return again and again. In "During the War" Levine writes of his brother coming home wounded in battle, as the poet waited in line for bread and faced an indirect victim of the war, a widow:
When I got home my brother ate the bread
carefully one slice at a time until nothing
was left but a blank plate. "Did you see her,"
he asked, "the woman in hell, Michael's wife?"

That afternoon I walked the crowded streets
looking for something I couldn't name,
something familiar, a face or a voice or less,
but not these shards of ash that fell from heaven.
Levine's language is precise and haunting, rooted in sound, time and the strength of well-placed silences: "nothing/was left but a blank plate. 'Did you see her...'." These silences engage the reader in ways that are almost undetectable, but have great conviction and power.

In "Before the War," Levine assigns a name Gertrude to a mother in Toledo who works hard for the son she loves, a boy called Solly. Levine effortlessly and quietly brings his readers devastatingly into the poem, as he writes:
He accepts his whole name, even
as a kid he stands and faces us,
just as eleven years from now
he'll stand and face his death
flaming toward him on a bridge-
head at Remagen while Gertrude
goes on typing mechanically
into the falling winter night.
Sounds of all kinds--typing, a woman humming, a Dutch doctor comforting a small girl with "Nay! Nay!"--are important to these poems and counter the frequently evoked quiet. In "Unholy Saturday" the sounds may not even exist:
In the distance someone keeps
calling the names of the brothers
in the same order over
and over, but they don't hear
what with the riverbank gorged
with blue weed patches and all
the birds in hiding. Perhaps no
one is calling and it's only
the voices of the air as
the late light of June hangs on
in the cottonwoods before
the dark whispers the last word.
Just as Whitman hears America singing, with his carpenter measuring his plank or beam, his shoemaker sitting on his bench, Levine hears his people live their lives while doing what they must do to thrive (from "The Music of Time"):
The young woman sewing
by the window hums a song
I don't know; I hear only
a few bars, and when the trucks
barrel down the broken street
the music is lost.
Philip Levine has given us powerful poems that resonate long after they are read; they are strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable and rich; for that we are grateful.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Total Oblivion, More or Less

"I guess I was feeling histrionic because, you know, I had the plague," from Alan DeNiro's debut novel, Total Oblivion, More or Less (Spectra/Ballantine, 2009).

Here's my review at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published on Sunday, December 20, 2009.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Lacuna

Here's my review of Barbara Kingsolver's THE LACUNA (Harper, 2009) published in The Oregonian on Sunday, November 22, 2009.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Throughout his new collection of poems, Personationskin, Karl Parker confronts and subverts language, ignores grammar, uses a slurred conversational tone that combines words, distorts tenses, stirs up time, and generally plays havoc with the reader's sensibilities.

Which, it turns out in the end, creates a pretty wild and interesting ride.

At first reading, one finds little subtlety in the poems within Personationskin, Parker's first full-length collection that follows Harmstorm, his chapbook from Lame House Press, now out-of-print.

Consider the opening of "Autobiographia":
That was prettymuch the story of my life
in profile. I keep thinking about glass, but don't know what to say
when continually thugs come to me in a dark alley
disguised as you, only a you made of glass
shattering back together. But that's all behind me now...
Or in a later line of a second poem with the same name as the first, "Autobiographia":
I was originally incarcerated for my efforts to reassemble
I mean resemble--the prison.
The voices that inhabit Parker's poems sometimes claim to be a prison escapee, a thief, a toy glue factory manager, a "Catholic Roman," a government-sponsored sparrow slayer; or, then again, these voices may just be experiencing a different, more anxiety-ridden reality than many of us do.

Personationskin (Reston, Virginia: No Tell Books, 2009), contains several realities, including some that appear conventional, almost beautiful, such as that depicted in the final line of "The Early Days":
Eventually, swarms overran us. Our leaders
of course, have never lived here, and so could not know
not for many years at any rate, how they had changed
the nature of our quiet at night.
Or in the tenderness that is found in the last line of the opening of "The Recent Teachings":
The recent teachings have been, so far as
I can ascertain, strict commentaries
on the consumption of solid and liquid things
in addition to telling why we feel like trying
to touch lightning almost all the time
even though it only comes in storms.
In the end, a close reading of these 80-plus poems reveals many delicate nuances ("Weeds wreck an angle I am taking to arrive / somewhere close to here, transformed among friends. / Another self, another time of day, another sound.") mixed with jarring lines of angst ("Hope was joined in the ground. Everybody flowed. / Since we bind to occurring, this one's hard.").

Karl Parker, in an interview a few years back, noted a few writers that he returns to frequently include John Berryman, Paul Celan, Gertrude Stein, and John Ashberry, in addition to Franz Kafka--the latter is especially no surprise as Parker's words seem to be transforming as he writes, and as we read. He has said in "Credo" that he wants to "do a kind of green and dangling nondamage to language" and has said elsewhere that he wishes "to bring poetry to people in its charged multiplicitous unfoldings." With Personationskin he does just that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On Reviewing Poetry: “Thanks but No Thanks"

For the past several months, while slowly working my way through the 100,000 or more pieces of correspondence in poet William Stafford's archive for an exhibition that I'm co-curating with Paul Merchant a few year's hence, my thoughts have occasionally turned to what it means to review a collection of poems, both from the point-of-view of the critic and from that of the poet.

I recently happened upon Fred Chappell's A Way of Happening: Observations of Contemporary Poetry (NY: Picador, 1998), a collection of review essays extracted from The Georgia Review and other publications. Chappell, being a well-respected poet, critic and teacher, is in a rich position to offer us much on this subject. Although his reviews here are mostly negative commentary about what he dislikes in contemporary poetry, along with suggestions for technical improvements, his introduction to these reviews, entitled "Thanks but No Thanks," is lovely, generous and instructive, and just a wee bit apologetic for the pessimism he directs toward the collections he judges.

He begins by noting the differences of writing poems and writing criticism:
"1) Criticism is a more difficult art than most readers suppose, than many critics have recognized;
2) Much of it--especially the output of the breed known as 'reviewers'--is produced under the pressure of deadline constraint and subject to the selective claims of editors;
3) The influence of literary politics is so pervasive as to be inescapable, even in the most conscientious and least partisan of writers."
And he adds a fourth, more universal tenet:
"It is difficult to train oneself to listen to what someone else has to say, in print or in person, without interposing the force of one's own personality and permitting the tinctures of one's own prejudices to color responses that ought to be spontaneous though gravely considered, genuine though well-informed, unique but rarely cranky."
In other words: it's truly difficult to be open-minded and objective.

Chappell's introduction is a marvelous essay that is important to read for anyone who reviews any kind of writing. Put your ideas of false objectivity away, dear reviewers, as Chappell has done. He now knows what he likes in a poem and what he should avoid:
"...I prefer a clarity of intention in a poem...if I must examine work so baffling that I cannot grasp enough of its premises to impute an intention, then there is no hope that I will ever comprehend it thoroughly enough to comment. By means of this principle I eliminated from my consideration whole shelves of verse."
But even while recognizing what kind of poetry is not for him, Fred Chappell acknowledges the difficult and important work of the poet and closes his essay with a beautiful statement of grace and modesty, a statement for which we all might consider with great sincerity:
"I am most grateful of all to the poets I read. There were few books that failed to entertain and enlighten me. Even when I disliked the work I respected the poet because I know the demands of the discipline and the toll that is exacted in almost equal measure by success and by failure. So I was constrained to do the best I could by the work--in the full and certain foreknowledge that my best would never be good enough."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

How Beautiful the Beloved

Certain poems / In an uncertain world

Gregory Orr's work has always been deeply affected by the tragedies of his youth. How Beautiful the Beloved, his remarkable new collection published by Copper Canyon Press, is a series of short lyric poems that ponder and explore the consequences which follow and surround what he calls the "beloved." These meditation-like statements are a clear response to the losses in his life and offer the poet
and the reader along with hima particular form of healing that Orr began in 2005 with Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved.

How Beautiful the Beloved is more intimate than the earlier collection; here the poems are more sharply condensed and have greater clarity. This precision results in a more
immediate reminder of the ever-present transitory nature of life, but one that is thankfully laced with both comfort and knowledge that the poet has gained, and has generously shared with us in these poems.

The collection begins easily enough with optimism:
If to say it once
And once only, then still
To say: Yes.
But it moves quickly on to worry:
Too many funerals;
Not enough weddings.
Not enough birth
I hope the beloved
Isn't losing ground.
Deeper in the book further darkness reigns, but always with a hint of light, of hope, of coping at the end:
Grief will come to you.
Grip and cling all you want,
It makes no difference.
Catastrophe? It's just waiting to happen.
Loss? You can be certain of it.
Flow and swirl of the world.
Carried along as if by a dark current.
All you can do is keep swimming;
All you can do is to keep singing.
The word "beloved"—which takes on the form of a human, an animal, a flower—appears in most of these poems and creates a dynamic, almost a chant-like rhythm, similar to Marvin Bell's "Dead Man" poems, especially when reading a sequence of these aloud. But despite this regular appearance of phrase, Orr's concise language invites surprise:
That single line: a rope
The poem tossed out
Into the dark,
Into the river's swirl.
You're holding one end;
The beloved, the other.
Rescue is imminent.
Too soon to say whose.
With How Beautiful the Beloved, Orr keenly delivers to us an acute awareness of death, in the past and future, but also delights us with his sharp understanding of what it means to live and thrive in the present:
And every kiss
We give
Or get
Could be
The last one.
Opening hearts
And arms
To such an embrace:
How brave we are!
Throughout his long career, Gregory Orr has written poetry to be a personal vehicle to climb out of grief, to make sense of inexplicable events, to explain the most sorrowful of consequences. For us, however, this new work does this and much more: it enlightens and illuminates our short time on this earth.
Poem that opened you-
The opposite of a wound.
Didn't the world
Come pouring through?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The History of Forgetting

In his brilliant new collection of poems, with the extraordinary title of "The History of Forgetting," Lawrence Raab writes fondly of Emerson, Proust, Keats and Sherlock Holmes. He elicits Shakespeare ("In the middle of a path not far from your house / you find a letter..."), he ponders the vagaries of history ("If the sky had been clear, / if the water had been colder, / if the music had continued, perhaps / we wouldn't have fallen in love."), he's amused by the birth of words ("Before 1688 nostalgia didn't exist..."), and he's saddened by his mother's albums of blurred photographs ("Somebody moved. Somebody didn't / want his picture taken. So he's fooling around, / ruining things for everyone else. But sometimes / it's the mother, the one with the camera, / whose hand shakes and slides them all / out of focus...").

The questions Raab asks and answers ("Are there too many poems about the moon? / Probably. But will anyone notice / one more?") and his desire for simpler times (preferring the silent gliding of the scythe over the weed whacker) suggests that the poet may yearn for an earlier, less terrifying and mechanical time:
Is this a good life? someone asks.
There are slices of melon on the table.
A glass of water and an orange.
Glittering wire along the barricades.
Raab's poems are casual but very precise, and highly conversational: one almost aches to hear them read aloud by the poet. The History of Forgetting (Penguin, 2009) is a powerful and very fine book.