Chapbook Reviews II:
Lowcountry, by John Allman (Mudlark No. 31, 2006)
The poems in John Allman’s electronic chapbook, Lowcountry (now part of his full length collection under the same title), sing of place with the fervor of gospel hymns: fecund Southern golf courses, lagoons and blue herons, icy Syracuse, and beaches teeming with sandpipers and crabs. These large-hearted poems explore landscapes that both define and mystify us with their luminous vocabularies, how we notice, only when leaving
Allman’s eye is sharp, and his smart turn of phrase delights. Horseshoe crabs have “copper-heavy minds”; a “thought spreads buoyantly invisible as the / breath of fasting saints, foul, intransigent”; “the bordered mauve kale” opens “like a girl’s crinoline under the / palmettos.” Even a golf ball is a “white-nippled hardness, severed knuckle, the soft fall / onto perfect grass, where darkness crouches asthmatic / and insolvent.”
In “Chameleons,” the transplanted speaker balances the luxuriant South of the present with the North of the past, as “The word for ice” spells “out / our years in Syracuse”:
The future, the speaker tells us on the sprawling golf course, lies “beyond the 14th tee,” the sky overhead “a ghostly botany our bodies now emulate.”
Whether the characters of Lowcountry are renting beach property or seeking refuge in the South after a New York house fire, they are restless, “trying to get back to where [they] belong.” In “Leaving Home 2001” a New York family migrates to the Carolinas in mid-September, soon after the devastation of the World Trade Centers. Allman’s departing narrator notices “a bitter taste like the urine of someone else’s God” and a golden eagle gripping something that hangs “helplessly, not dead, not alive, the gray color of a northern sky, sides heaving, carried toward the highest pine.”
In addition to rich natural landscapes, Allman explores the cluttered human landscape as a link to personal histories. The speaker of “In the Gullah Flea Market” finds an old TV Guide from 1980 that opens “to programs I must have seen, my mother in ICU, / the flexible tube of the respirator in her mouth.” In “Outlet Mall,” the toggles of a coat “don’t quite interlock, because / in her last hour on the line, the worn Chinese / woman making it was thinking of her feverish child.” The art objects in “Trio” take on pasts of their own: “a bronze Russian mother clasps her child in 1927, ten years after / the Revolution, the mobbed streets, the smoke.”
Lowcountry offers vivid scenery and losses, “where a bald cypress / exposes polished knees like someone used / to kneeling.” These lush poems engage the secular world with religious intensity, reminding us of “our senses / born in the shadows of cherry laurel and / sassafras, the sun beating through the dust / that had left such a grayness over face and eyes.”
Cold Work, by Cecily Parks (The Poetry Society of America, 2005)
In all their intensity and witchy verve, Cecily Parks’ poems are meant to be read aloud, and evoke a vivid sense of place, much as Allman’s poems do. Also, like Keats, famously “half in love with easeful death,” Parks seems half in love with winter in all its ominous manifestations. The themes in this award-winning chapbook, Cold Work, strike me as very cohesive—lots of cold water, ice, early-spring wilderness (and wildness), and her own strong identification with it. The poems’ marvelous sense of “in-betweeness,” noted by Li-Young Lee in the book’s introduction, implicates a peripheral menace that oscillates between barbarous and playful projections of the self.
Parks’s series of self-portraits in Cold Work might seem overly cryptic if it weren’t for her strong sense of timing. In the first, “Self-Portrait with Field,” she balances her lyric inventiveness (“Ending’s emissaries / are shy as tigers”) with more direct statements, such as “I expected nothing less / of happiness.” In “Self-Portrait as Angler’s Damselfly,” Parks boasts the power to disarm with her wry assertion, “It takes a certain type to be devoured / daily, to slide into each fish’s jaw // with no song in my throat.”
Parks weaves sound and sense, making good use of her flexible Plathian vowels and vivid imagery, often so slyly that one almost misses the fact that some of these poems follow classical forms: e.g., “The Widows of Pepacton Reservoir,” a villanelle, and “Trapline,” a sonnet. Both music and menace haunt “Beast-Lover Variations,” the long sequence placed at the center of the chapbook. The speaker, “Always watering burdock and thistle, / Bundling butter-and-eggs bouquets,” misses “the immaculate angle” of her mysterious lover’s approach. The lover at times seems an elusive man, at other times, a shape-shifter out of the Brothers Grimm, or perhaps winter itself. The speaker addresses him with ambivalence, the one who has “filled rivers / With salmon”:
The speaker in this sequence projects strung acorns as barbed-wire, and gently chides herself for “lapsing / Into love.” This engagement with nature, or “cold work,” has the power to strengthen, as the season itself necessitates loss and transformation.
Parks knows no limit to inventive uses of language that elicits or at times, eludes, meaning. In Cold Work we learn, among other things, how frostbite may be as seductive as a lover, and “How to Read a Mackerel Sky.” Surely the landscape would be dimmer without these bold poems celebrating beauty in the season’s harshness.
In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words, by Barbara Tran (Tupelo Press, 2002)
The title of Barbara Tran’s chapbook suggests that her poems speak in an otherworldly voice and that they have stories to tell. Like Parks’ work, Tran’s meditative lyrics conjure a landscape that is threatening despite its beauty. In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words is filled with injured birds and fish, exotic fruit, and opium smoke, and Tran’s recurrent dual themes of faith and her Vietnamese heritage.
In “Afterwards” Tran walks the fine line between sentiment (“Life is a reflection / that ripples with each memory. / The sea is lifted with each kiss”) and anti-sentiment (“I saw the scythe in his smile”). Finally, the speaker avers that, when called “darling, / sweetheart, honey, mother,” “I answered to nothing.” By the time we reach “Fairy Tale” near the end of the chapbook, we are almost prepared for the shock of the speaker’s five-year-old brother, who hasn’t yet learned to walk,
In the prose poem (and ars poetica) “Fire,” Tran’s mynah bird is afflicted with the gift of language:
This obsession with “original states” and purity recurs throughout Tran’s poems, often, if predictably, in the form of white objects (her groom father’s “white jacket,” “the little white beads” of her mother’s rosary). Tran uses hot colors like red and orange to connote sexuality: “the red / lingerie rolled inside her dirty / school uniform,” and “the slow peeling of an orange” that offset “the gull with the pure white underside,” and “the pearl rosary her mother left behind.”
“Rosary,” an ambitious sequence of prose poems, examines the narrator’s conflicted stance toward her devout mother, philandering father, and opium-smoking, old-world grandfather. In the last section of “Rosary,” titled “epilogue,” the speaker portrays her mother captured in time: “Brush stroke number forty-nine / and her hair shines like a black cat’s.” This moment ostensibly occurs before the mother counts her Hail Mary’s “off / on the heads of her seven children, / counting herself as eight, / and her husband, / as one and ten.” Writing, for Tran, becomes a type of faith (unlike that of the hypocritical Christian mother in “Fairy Tale” who steals “a quick / four-finger swipe / of peanut butter” from her G.I. neighbors). In “Faith, Whether in New York or Abilene,” Tran writes,
If, by the end of In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words, all the birds with pierced beaks, fish stuck with hooks, and overt color symbology make us wish for a little less willed orchestration, the book retains an eerie sense of prescience that is arguably hard to ignore.
Elegy & Collapse, by Patty Paine (Finishing Line Press, 2005)
I sometimes get the feeling that it’s too easy to write furious poems about father figures, and, conversely, that incest proves a subject in need of delicate handling. (I’m thinking here of Sharon Olds’ best poems and worst respectively.) However, in Elegy & Collapse, Patty Paine confronts loss with an unflinching gaze, both with compassion, and without sentimentality. Like Tran, Paine often writes about her Asian heritage. Her poems examine the complexities of an identity fractured by being biracial and abandoned; the biggest betrayals being the neglect and abuse perpetrated by family members. In a sense, all the poems in Paine’s collection are elegies.
In “Half-Korean,” Paine’s speaker laments a language her mother forbade her to learn, recalling how she “would slip / out of bed to listen to her [mother] and her friends play Hwatoo,” and how “English staggered from their throats, / but in Korean words burst / open like ripe fruit.” In “Shrapnel,” a sequence of prose poems, Paine alternates personae to explore a family history punctuated by violence and dissolution, as the fragile mother pleads for understanding: she “was like a Yi Dynasty tea bowl. Imperfect, misshapen, cracked and kiln scarred.”
A redeeming quality of Elegy & Collapse is the way Paine gracefully zooms in like a lens on the particulars of violence and then propels the poem outward with atomic intensity. In “Vantage” we watch a convict trail sugar on his cell floor to attract ants to drown in a pool of Tabasco sauce: “Some die, and then more / Until the pile of dead becomes / A bridge.” Paine’s shift from jail cell to the mass destruction of Hiroshima is disturbingly apt as a man, like the ants, excuses
Throughout the chapbook we get a sense of Paine’s gift for unsentimental, if not downright creepy, portraits of family members. For example, in “Vision Serpent,” a child stumbles upon her stepfather’s mother perversely breastfeeding her “doe-eyed Chihuahua.” Paine’s disclaimer at the end of the poem that certain details included are untrue subverts the ostensibly “confessional” nature of the narrative by creating doubt in the reader. An uncomfortably “American” father “flown in from ‘Nam” is portrayed mostly through negatives, as an absence souring the lives of his abandoned wife and their two children. The “beer breathed, sneering, son-of-a-bitch” stepfather abuses “The Second Girl” (the younger of two stepdaughters), while her screams “echo into nothing as TV sets were turned up in all the houses around the street.” The mother’s penchant for breakdowns and throwing herself down the stairs provokes the EMT’s “running bet, / how many trips to the Paines’ per month.”
In Elegy & Collapse, the act of writing becomes an act of bravery and affirmation. In the last section of “Shrapnel,” the mother observes of her maturing daughter: “She talks faster than I can understand, and all the time writing, writing, writing . . . .” Paine’s collection moves with clarity and grace; her bizarre particulars of a broken home provide successful foils to the poems’ overall gravitas.
Animals of Habit, by Catherine Pierce (The Kent State University Press, 2004)
Similarly to Paine, Catherine Pierce doesn’t mess around. Thus, some advice before reading Animals of Habit: these poems go down straight, without chasers, and their cumulative effect makes the dark queen of fairy tale look like Goldilocks. I love the bravado, quick wit, clarity, and precision of these lyrics. Pierce’s complex female speakers can play the victim as versatilely as the femme fatale.
The sardonic tones and apocalyptic imagery of a series of seven “love poems” make them seem anything but: Moons fall from the sky and are swallowed, houses crumble, the sky breaks to pieces; the poems are addressed “to Sinister Moments,” “to the Word Lonesome,” “to a Blank Space,” “to Doo-Wop,” “to the Phrase Let’s Get Coffee,” “to America,” and “to Fear.”
In “Love Poem to Sinister Moments,” Pierce writes, “You are, when I’m driving, / the sweet smell that may / or may not be poison / gas spilling over the city.” The sense of melodrama is heightened wryly in “to the Word Lonesome,” as the speaker “pines” for
Another winning aspect is Pierce’s dauntless wit. The sassy woman in “Love Poem to the Phrase Let’s Get Coffee” proclaims: “I adore / your elegant manners, / one hand on the car door, / the other on the ass. / You don’t mess around.” In “Love Poem to America,” the country “fell[s] me like a redwood,” then rolls over and snores after lovemaking.
In part II, “While You Sleep, I Watch Myself Die” begins with a hypochondriac’s fantasies:
The woman’s imaginings move from grandiose visions of physical ailment to a quieter contemplation of mortality: “when is it closer than now, our bodies / glistening, the old-book smell of sex / still on us? I’m not nearer / to the earth, or ethereal, or holy.”
In sharp contrast, “Nor Hell A Fury,” features a misanthropic mistress chanting: “Darling, // when your wife wakes / as you creep into bed, I’m / the hush she doesn’t recognize // announcing you like fanfare.” Elsewhere, a twenty-four year-old bandit leads a group of Plains Indians into the forest simply to see what it’s like to kill them. The moment before the murder
Ultimately, the speaker finds the actual act disappointing, “just like / any movie I’d seen a hundred times.”
“Italy by Pieces” presents fragments, like vacation snapshots that hint at a couple’s dissolving union. She juxtaposes picturesque landscapes in which the speaker wakes “to plums and gold light,” with indictments like “Listen. I will not / ask you again; I saw you / in the piazza.” The reflections of stars are “like small, trapped candles.”
The poems, which consistently visit themes of betrayal, only increase in their apocalyptic gravity as the book progresses. In “Several Days Before the End of the World,” “the sky “has gone milk-blue, desert still,” while people strangely “walk old hounds.” “Instinct,” from which the book’s title is taken, is a skillfully compressed, disturbing “love” poem with a vengeance:
Pierce’s speaker claims “This is a love poem” “It isn’t about the cat or the raccoon,” but about the loved one sleeping, “breathing / evenly and guiltless, and me awake / and fascinated.” She imagines her lover “could pull / so many triggers behind [his eyes]”, and concludes, “We are animals / of habit. We shut our bodies down together, / wake each morning gutted and hungry.”
Whether Pierce portrays Gustav Klimt’s once-youthful muses aging and “glowing” with that truth, or adolescence as a time when the speaker becomes a witch who “conjures smoke / and poison,” her work hits hard and resonates. These highly accomplished poems burn with a fierceness that is almost too much to bear but turns out to be exactly what one craves in the event of such suffering.