April is National Poetry Month. Get reading.
Poetry, probably more than anything else, means many things to many people. So, for April, National Poetry Month, here’s a handful of recent works worth checking out.
All-American Poem (Copper Canyon) by Matthew Dickman, assays symptoms of our age—drifting, looking for meaning, tumbling through a filled-to-capacity cascade of impressions, trying to take it all in: snow angels and suicides, supermalls and ma and pas, Chick Corea and “Stairway to Heaven.” The big, wacky poems have narrative hearts. They spontaneously bop across feelings, torments and pleasures as if you were trying to leave everything you could think of on someone’s voicemail. Black is both licorice and bra strap, there is a country road where country songs come from, he’s buying another round, wanting to take you home, because we are “all-American, broken in half and beautiful.”
Beth Ann Fennelly’s Unmentionables (Norton) combines meditations on things perhaps too bold to bring up with explorations of what can’t be said. The finely-woven poems use sly shifts in narrative to get at one thing from another. Watching male students jog through a college town on the first shirtless day becomes epiphany for the poet’s own awareness of aging. Youthful cow tipping leads to musings on terrorism and the terrified. High-spirited and veering in unexpected directions, the poems collect moments with implications: sequences on Berthe Morisot’s paintings, Gothic Southern morés that creep like kudzu, the opening of the Sestina Bar, whiskey Baptists, Hank Williams’ ghost, and the midnight motorcycle ride behind the babysitter’s boyfriend that prompted a career in writing.
Dark Thirty (Arizona) by Santee Frazier is a series of tough, unflinching, often harrowing, snapshots of lives in the margins, on the other side of the tracks. Rendered in an invented and compelling dialect, the matter-of-fact, blues-infused narratives tumble on top of one another like bar stories as night crawls toward dawn. These are tales of getting by, struggling with everything from making a living to finding a purpose, looking for a dim moon over the treetops, the glow on snow in the back alley. Set in backwoods towns—amid Buck knives, TransAms, Mickey’s big mouths—where cops knock on doors, boyfriends bail on pregnant girls, root juice is brewed, sex is traded for flour, deer are hung and gutted, Frazier creates a world that sucks you in.
Edward Hirsch’s Special Orders (Knopf) is a series of tightly-crafted elegiac ruminations. The orders here are deeply personal—a self-portrait of always living between: heart and head, right and wrong, laugh and scowl, Dionysus and Apollo. Driving, highway signs suggest happiness. Truck stops, stations on the pilgrimage. He watches his father throw dice at 1 a.m. in Vegas, eats cotton candy with his grandfather, imagines Orpheus’ butchered head forever singing above the choppy waves. Meanwhile, living across the street from the Minimalist Museum, he broods over Cage and Satie for decades, ponders his minor triumphs, major failures. These moving, clear articulations of emotionally salient moments suggest that even though he had no idea where the ship was going, he was lucky to see it off, bereft when it left.
Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) developed what he called “picture poems,” fusing poetry and painting. The Walking Away World (New Directions) collects pieces from three previously published volumes—Wonderings, But Even So, and Hallelujah Anyway—long out of print. He used watercolor, inks and a variety of media to combine images and words as neither illustration nor caption; a chicken and egg situation. There are strange beings making strange utterances. The poems are clumsy, yet imbued with sophisticated naïveté and a loony sense of humor. Patchen’s short, aphoristic notions bounce between joy and despair, between observation and allusion with heartfelt simple diction: Snow is the only one of us that leaves no tracks.
Ka-Ching (Pittsburgh) by Denise Duhamel takes its title from both the cash register sound and the poet’s attempt to meld the ka-boom explosiveness of recognition with the balanced opposites of the I Ching. The poems are conveyed with panache and humor; money-shaped prose pieces rendered to fit on the back of thrift store play-money bills. Elsewhere, children are divided into those who torture and those who rescue. There are near fatal accidents on casino elevators, sonnets on eBay, terms banned by the language police, The Da Vinci Code recast as porno movie plot, and a poem written wearing her Maidenform bra. Her off-kilter humor and out-of-synch worldview forge a wunderkammer of contemporary consumerism and celebrity.
Joseph Stroud’s Of This World: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon) combines 50 new pieces with an overview of work from the last four decades. The poet’s “self” is found in various geographical locations—literal and otherwise—from the Sierra Nevada to the Solomon Islands, the paintings of Goya, Brueghel and Cezanne. Both lyric and narrative, the tone and form—prose poems to epigrams—vary to suit the subject and context. The poems suggest we pay attention to the world, here, now, see it anew for the first time, like the mystical Martin Johnson Heade painting on the cover. Particularly impressive is the suite of elegantly balanced six-line lyrics on a variety of topics: quantum theory, cathedrals, skinning goats, mockingbird songs, the difficult translations of love.
Factory of Tears (Copper Canyon) is the first American publication of the Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort. Presented in a bilingual format, the poems juxtapose her own growing into maturity with that of her country; manifesting lives you’ll never see in movies, even though she does use cinematic jump cuts to conjure them. It’s a country where even mothers do not know how their children are born, where you can talk with only your eyes, the department of transportation is breaking heels, the department of heart affairs is beating hysterically, and the factory of tears is working late. Her brittle, ragged fusion of the personal and political is visceral, skillfully combining the melancholic and elegiac with the wistful and bittersweet.
Michael McGriff’s Dismantling the Hills (Pittsburgh) is a collection about blue-collar life, its complications and contradictions. Set in an Oregon milltown, his characterizations call up people and a world wobbling on the edge of ruin, teetering on the brink of collapse. The pieces bounce between place, natural settings, the forest, and the generation and its tools—tractors, chainsaws, Cats—that worked the place. The poems are both narrative and meditative, compressed, lyrically intense with an occasional surreal flourish. McGriff knows both the beauty—dust of stars, grain of timber—and the realities of work—filthy water pools that suck light from stars, burning tires for $10 a day, a three-on-the-tree Chevy careening down ash silt roads, and also knows “beauty and oblivion never ask permission of anyone.”
All-Night Lingo Tango (Pittsburgh) by Barbara Hamby is a word-smart, barely contained, wretched excess of overflowed verbiage—an opera by Donizetti with lyrics by Groucho Marx—hyperkinetic odes, sonnets marching like soldiers through a variety of concerns, and nods to the existential torrents of late-night TV movies with cameos by Betty Boop, Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ganymede. Humor whirls throughout and keeps things flicking back and forth, channel surfing our media-saturated existences. Olive Oyl pontificates on quantum mechanics; Nietzsche converses with Lois Lane; airheads discussing hairdos have brains so vacant the Loch Ness monster would be eternally lost; her laundry and Lester Young bump into each other as she wonders if we knew what the years held, would we alter our course?