Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Some recent reading

Here's a hodgepodge of some of what I've been reading during the past three or four months.

The first four are from West End Press:

Refusing Despair: Selected Poems and Journal Writings by Teresa Anderson (published 2008). In spite of the slightly new-age self-help flavor of the title, these are beautiful deeply rooted poems of life near the earth and political commitment. The later part of the book is made up of Anderson's writings that chronicle her battle with cancer, of which she ultimately died a few years ago. "Yet we have been more than survivors; / all the best I will ever be lies rooted in the earth/ where my grandmother sleeps,/ on a prairie swept clean of trees,/ under harsh, cloudless sky,/ where wheat flows in waves/ over the first sod houses,/ and the dust of the dead/ sings under the blade of the plow." (From the poem "Our People.")

Life is a Fatal Disease: Collected Poems 1962-1995 by Paula Gunn Allen (published 1997). Paula Gunn Allen's life and work spanned a broad range of interests and experience; in addition to poetry, she edited several anthologies of Native American literature, edited and authored essays and critical studies, and other writing. Her poems are often roaming narratives that move back and forth between common daily life and astonishing worlds of spirit, sometimes solemnity and sometimes with quirky humor. "Climb the spruce tree and dance on the tip/ climb into the mountain when it opens for you/ follow the winding corridors of winter tales/ enter into the moving paths of shape and time/ on eight-legged horse of blue flame arise:/ they will not send you back./ Know the silence of dust, the ache of alone./ The sun will stop just two feet from your door./ The center of time will not turn in the space/ of now--noon, history, night are/ stars, are fixed and counted nails/ on the doors of hope, the dying bloody dream." (From the poem "Riding the Thunder.")

The Red Window by Marianne Aweagon Broyles (published 2008). Much subtlety and insight in this first book of poems by Broyles; many of the poems have the compelling clarity of snapshots, moments of life held in careful clarity. Broyles works as a psychiatric nurse in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Then his eyes darken over--/ stars covered by a bank of storm clouds--/ as Philip leaves the moment/ and returns where he lies now. He releases a sigh,/ the same kind of sigh/ exhausted Pintos must have/ let go under his craggy weight./ Now, I smile at his leather boots,/ sticking out of crumpled hospital bedding,/ indicative of his unbroken will./ I sure do love them horses, he declares,/ and closes his eyes so he can/ rejoin the world he knew before." (From the poem "Mohawk Horse Breaker.")

Continental Drift by Arlene Biala (published 1999). Richly interwoven poems full of story and song, particularly out of tradtions from the Phillipines and Hawai'i, telling the lives and worlds of family and friends who have come to live in the United States. The poems have a strong spoken quality, evoking the sense of a solid body, a person speaking, standing right there in the room. "In the middle of the night, walking softly behind Fernando./ Up the path into the mountains. He turns around and whispers,/ soldados--shhh...// In the middle of the night it is the middle of the day in the churchyard/ in San Andres Iztapa, where love letters burn in sacrificial offerings/ and the lighting of different candles: blue for luck, green for money,/ purple for things unexplainable, the scent of need// In the middle of the night, a black sand beach, thundering// In the middle of the night, my face to the rain" (From the poem "In the middle of the night, at the corner.")


Two poetry anthologies have caught my attention recently, both for the similarities in their content and the differences in their approach.

Seeds of Fire: Contemporary Poetry from the Other USA edited by Jon Andersen (Smokestack Books, 2008); and State of the Union: 50 Political Poems edited by Joshua Beckman and Mathew Zapruder (Wave Books, 2008).

Poets featured in Seeds of Fire include Martín Espada, Jayne Cortez, Kimiko Hahn, Jack Hirschman, Robert Edwards, Joy Harjo, Michael Henson, Maggie Jaffe, Bob Holman, Adrian C. Louis, Sara Menefee, E. Ethelbert Miller, Margaret Randall, Adrienne Rich, Alexander Taylor, Grace Paley, William Witherup, John Bradley, Christopher Butters, Luis J. Rodriguez, Nellie Wong, devorah major, Patricia Smith, Rob Whitbeck, John Trudell, Naomi Ayala, Amiri Baraka, Mark Nowak, Leroy V. Quintana, and many others. Many of the poets here have a long history of action and commitment in the public, political life of the world, and the poetry in the anthology reflects that. Seeds of Fire is a stunning gathering of uniformly strong poems, by poets who speak instinctively with relevance and a close-up understanding of the larger struggles with which we move through the days and the years of life on the earth.

Poets in State of the Union include Wang Ping, Edwin Torres, John Ashbery, James Tate, Sesshu Foster, Dara Weir, Brian Turner, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Reginald Shepherd, Alberto Ríos, Juliana Spahr, Eileen Myles, Lucille Clifton, Ed Roberson, Rebecca Wolff, John Yau, Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, Michael Palmer, Marvin Bell, Albert Goldbarth, Wanda Coleman, and again many others. I found much highly effective work in this anthology also. Although there are are a few poets in State of the Union whose poetry I've read previously (Foster, Coleman and Turner, among others), and although I recognize the names of many of the poets here, I hadn't read the work of most of them before. (By contrast, with Seeds of Fire, I was very familiar with the poetry of many of the poets, and had previously read at least a little of nearly all of the poets in the collection.)

On the whole, the poetry in State of the Union feels to me to grow out of a more conscious effort to address explicit political content, rather than from an instinctive impulse. This is a very broad generalization, and there are exceptions. Although there are certainly poets in both anthologies who teach or have taught in colleges and universities, I notice that the bio notes in State of the Union tend to list academic credentials more often than in Seeds of Fire. These are subtle differences, and I don't want to diminish the importance of either collection. If I could only read one of the two anthologies, I would certainly read Seeds of Fire; but there is vital poetry in both, and I'm glad I didn't have to choose between them.


Recently in the mail arrived Strip by Jenni Russell (Finishing Line Press, 2008). This is an agile, quick-witted, and sometimes tough-skinned collection of poems, dealing in part with Russell's years dancing in strip clubs and doing other kinds of work in that world, and with her life and family in general. Her poems often read as though she has just started talking, telling whatever she feels moved to tell, without needless ceremony, bringing life from the shadows into the light of day. "Grandma worked odd jobs/ Cleaned the wealthy lady's kitchens/ Sewed real pearl buttons/ On the collars of blouses/ Mended silk slips and washed underwear/ I couldn't sit on her red velvet furniture/ I could't play with her red velvet furniture/ I couldn't play with her dusty walking doll/ I couldn't open the green parakeet's cage/ I couldn't go near the abandoned number 32 bus/ But I smeared blackberry jam on Chatty Patty/ Chucked her on the driver's seat/ Wiped a circle in the dirty glass/ Cracked the folding door so I could hear/ Let's make funny faces in my mirror" (From the poem "Sound of Hangers like Wind Chimes.")

Although she's taken a bit of a break from blogging at the moment, Jenni Russell's blog Chanticleer is here.


Moving Targets by Stephen Kessler (El Leon Literary Arts, 2008) is a collection of essays by a poet who has, over the past two or three decades, edited the poetry magazine Alcatraz and two newspapers (he's presently the editor of the quarterly paper Redwood Coast Review, to which I subscribe). I've always enjoyed Kessler's straightforward approach, free of literary-industrial entanglements; this is evident in the essays in Moving Targets, as he treats variously the work and lives of Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, William Everson, Bob Kaufman, Denise Levertov, Ernesto Cardenal, and the other poets he approaches here. The collection also includes a group of essays dealing more generally with such topics as translating poetry (something Kessler himself has done much of), poetry and radio, and (in an essay from 2003) the notion of a definable antiwar esthetic in poetry.

Stephen Kessler's website, with further information about his life and work, and samples of his writing, is here.


Finally, for the moment -- I wouldn't have guessed I'd be talking about a detective novel here, but here one is: The Man in the Blizzard by Bart Schneider (2008, Three Rivers Press, an imprint of one of the large New York publishing companies).

The novel, which takes place in Minneapolis and St. Paul, features a private investigator and his police detective friend who both have a fondness for poetry, and are constantly quoting (mostly modern) poets to each other. The private investigator, Augie Boyer, busies himself in odd moments with memorizing, a dozen lines at at time, Tom McGrath's epic poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend. The story involves a slowing unfolding assassination plot during the 2008 Republican national convention, which winds its way past right-wing anti-abortion fanatics, Nazi sympathizers who collect rare (stolen) violins, and other complications. The book is written in short sections, and breezes right along; Schneider is good at leaving out the dull parts.

I was actually reading The Man in the Blizzard during the week leading up to the Republican convention here, which gave it (the book, that is) an extra sharp flavor. I had a lot of fun reading it.

Thanks for the breakdown. Seeds Of Fire sounds like the kind of book I'd like to be reading right now. Hope all's well.
I always enjoy your reviews, Lyle. Thanks for pointing arrows to the ones you enjoy and why.

I'm curious. Do you read many novels, too, or review those?
Hi, Pris, thanks for dropping by. I read novels fairly selectively, or (in some cases) just as an escape, depending on the novel. Actually hard to remember what was the last novel I read, prior to reading "The Man in the Blizzard" (which I've talked about briefly in this post). It would have been a while ago.

Don't have anything against novels, just boils down to having only so many hours in the day, and I have to make choices...

Since you asked though, a few novels I've read over the years (over many years), that I've liked a lot, are:

Hemingway, "The Sun Also Rises"

Steinbeck, "Cannery Row," and the sequel (written, published, and takes place a number of years later), "Sweet Thursday"

Claribel Alegria, "Luisa in Realityland (published years back by Curbstone Press)

Kurt Vonnegut, "Cat's Cradle"

Robert Louis Stevenson, "Treasure Island"

"Njal's Saga" (unknown author) -- maybe not a novel in the usual sense, but a somewhat fictionalized account of a fifty-year blood feud between large extended families, taking place in medieval Iceland, based on actual history and events. (I read the earlier Penguin Books edition, translator's name is Magnussen. I much prefer it to a recent new translation, by a different translator, also published by Penguin.)

"Njal's Saga" absolutely gripped me by the time I'd read the first two pages. Full of dark low-key simmering tension, and the foreshadowing of events that unfold swiftly through the story. One of the greatest books I've ever read.
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