Poetry’s Month

Seven lyrical masters for April

Many assertions—blood jets and blue guitars, convex mirrors and dogs from hell, blackbirds and wheelbarrows, lilacs in the dooryard and houses trying to be haunted—can be gathered under a single rubric: poetry. A working definition of it might be that the line breaks are specific, not arbitrary as in prose. Here for National Poetry Month are seven volumes worth considering.

Saving Daylight
Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon Press)

Earthy, fueled with passion, lyrical evocations of who he is and what we’ve become. Water and birds run throughout, as do ruminations that come with age: There may be conclusions to be drawn, but he can’t do it anymore; belief weighs nothing but refuses to cease to exist; things we desire become more beautiful receding in the rearview; if you divide your death by your life, you get a circle. Elsewhere, a young boy dies in a Montana river; he assays drinking in bars where the topic of conversation is always Lucent; and a school for young writers keeps the kidneys of Hemingway and Faulkner in the back room. He used to think space was the problem—the miles between him and the diner waitress—but now knows it’s time that withers the moment. Harrison calls his poetry “the true bones of my life.” The cartilage of his concerns: sadness at the loss of the natural world, salty assessments in well-tuned lines, and a low tolerance for bullshit—political or otherwise.

Black Box
Erin Belieu (Copper Canyon Press)

Drawing upon both the data-analyzing device and music of AC/DC, these attempt a raw visceral exhumation of the whys and wherefores of a crashed relationship. She recalls her youth—coke was not addictive yet, men just practice for a Russian novel—then slingshots us into the present: The sea is horny noise for wrong holidays in cobalt rooms, football and torture are equally adept at breaking the soul, the ecstasy of Bernini’s St. Teresa is of her own doing, and the paintings in the world’s great museums are manuals of chaos. The seething vents of her elliptical, apostrophic lines are brought to a boil when performing in a red dress at your funeral, salt shaker holstered in her garter belt, rooting through your remains looking for the black box. Although the truth doesn’t win and offers little room for forgiveness, it does make an appearance on behalf of disquieting redemption: Now demolished, she might slip away free.

Path, Crooked Path
John Balaban (Copper Canyon Press)

He sets off down Highway 61, spins out to the Acropolis in Athens, the Romania of his ancestors and juxtaposes his experiences in Vietnam with clearing away the chaos of Hurricane Andrew. His journey suggests a moral urgency—the soldier mugged in the bus station, the legless vet in the nowhere gas station, the exiled Slavic poet tossing back vodkas in Paris—and is conveyed with a wry narrative lyricism, one that juggles light and dark. Miami, Vietnam, Romania, and our Southwestern borderlands are devastated, but against this drift we get people with the courage to leave bad situations, the sudden growth of plants as nature’s reply to wreckage, finding a book by Anna Akhmatova that spent the night on the beach, and dinners that offer ease, respite at the end of the day. The poems encompass both our bleakest times—the going of others—and the fugue of intertwining spirits, charged music we long to hear.

Insomnia Diary
Bob Hicok (University of Pittsburgh)

Irreverent soliloquies of the everyday and of those just getting by that build into eerily unreal moments of wonder and epiphany. His quasi-enjambed lines are conveyed in an idiosyncratic language charged with shifting eclectic energy that in the blink of a line take off for parts unanticipated: wrist-snapped Zippos, halos in Italian Gothic paintings and that of a cheap Beaujolais; meteors as the only shower he takes each year; a promise to remember how to roll a joint while driving with his knees. Mundanities—taking a walk or teaching American Studies—become platforms to launch Surrealistic juxtapositions: boys licking maple sap, girls playing with Barbie parts, the importance of bouncing breasts in Baywatch. His self-conscious and self-referential musings are edgy, often funny, and hint at the metaphysical: contribution to the common good as anarchic playing with the alphabet.

Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds
Eleanor Lerman (Sarabande)

Equally remembrance and unfolding of the present, these poems fuse a first-person witnessing of the ‘60s with saucy conjurations of the ironies and congruencies of a rock ‘n’ roll survivor. New days are the old days. They’re starting now, and she’s still wondering if the coast is clear. She hears the channel’s full of starfish and wonders what is going on beneath the surface. There’s hash on 10th street with boots saying the hell with everything. Time is short, and we still have some living to do, the implications of the Magellanic Clouds notwithstanding. There’re questions about JFK’s death, the desire for things underground, Japanese and tickets to Burning Man. Angels of the inquisition hover in the alleys of Hollywood. Dinner is burning, and the eternal is proving to be temporary. Her insistent narratives suggest symbolism is an interesting but unwanted gift, that the key at the end of the day is knowing when and who to wait for at evening’s door.

Apropos of Nothing
Richard Jones (Copper Canyon Press)

Addressed to those who believe there is nothing to say, these terse lyrics acknowledge that but also ask if you hear nothing. He accomplishes this by careful attention to ephemera that all too often slip by unnoticed: how the heft of words is similar regardless of their meanings; the need for thrift shop lamps to flood rooms with light; and the importance of microwave tea ceremonies. In this rendering of fleeting moments, tone becomes as important as content: the reserved wistfulness of considering a spoon as all we might need; the misunderstood joy of his mother’s cherries-in-the-snow lipsticked tissues. Elsewhere, tragedies political and personal are transformed into sly affirmations: flirting on a field trip to the Holocaust Museum or looking through books for the answer and then forgetting what was sought on the way to the nighttime car in the snow. Luminous and deceptively simple mind music.

Bellini in Istanbul
Lillias Bever (Tupelo Press)

Combining an assaying of Bellini’s being hired as court painter for Mehmet in 1479, notions of Cesarean delivery, and archaeological excavation with memoirs of a love affair between a visiting American and a Turk, the poems spin a web of overlapping allusions. There are gift horses from Troy, an excavation of a desk drawer, wondering whether artifacts guide or protect us. Objects in the museums begin to speak, and she makes speculative assertions about what happens during decapitation, how Bellini undressed the Madonna to make things a little more erotic for the sultan. The metaphors take on personal resonance in evocations of the cultural clash in contemporary Istanbul, her doomed romance across the straits that separate us and meditations on the presence of blue in everything: evil eyes, the breath of possibility, how memory becomes mnemonic.