Pomes all sizes

National Poetry Month is coming right up. So get educated, sophisticated, elucidated. You don’t want to be a shmuck.

April, cruelest of months, approaches. it’s National Poetry Month—an annual attempt to draw lilacs from the dead land, spur interest in a supposedly languishing art form. But in reality, it’s flourishing, varieties sprouting everywhere. Here’s a handful from various climes that suggest we should—as Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, notes—"more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”Pleasures of the Damned: Poems 1951-1993 (Ecco) is a hefty selection of Charles Bukowski’s distillations of life lived (and imagined) freely, the music of the streets. His wickedly funny, direct narratives located straight-forward, first-person, simple vernacular story-telling at the heart of the genre. His darkly comic world, where you can see loneliness in the hands of the clock influenced an entire generation of writers. Arranged without regard for chronology, the poems form an anecdotal sprawl—oldest cohabiting with some of the last—and range from earlier intoxicated metaphorical rants to the later, and shorter, almost-but-not-quite, lyrical barbs.

A Red Cherry on a White Tiled Floor (Copper Canyon) by Maram al-Massri combines selections from two sequences which collectively assay the nature of desire. While each short lyrical poem is succinct, the sequences use accrual to plumb who is seducer, who seduced; who is predator, who prey; what is stated, what implied. The personae are alternately dominant and submissive, naively hopeful and resiliently resigned. The lyrics are direct, erotic, attuned to the conundrums of mutual attraction: No matter how foolishly, the heart opens when it hears a knock, smell perfumes regret, malgré is the embalmed bird of our dreams. The poems speak to the dilemma of Arab women in the modern world; their ardor and humor speak to us all.

After the Fall: Poems Old and New (Pittsburgh) is an overview of Edward Field’s career from early movie poems recasting the icons of our cinematic youth—Joan Crawford, Frankenstein and his Bride, Gwendolyn and the Countess, Mae West—as near mythic metaphors for the lives we lead, to more recent works dealing with the perils of aging, remembrances of bygone Greenwich Village bohemian days, sadness at never having slept with Allen Ginsberg, dismay at the fall of the Twin Towers and outrage at the Bush administration. These deceptively refreshing poems are honest, playful, sassily conversational, yet witty and compassionate, filled with self-deprecating humor, and an off-key pathos that is deeply affecting.

Letters to Yesnin (Copper Canyon) by Jim Harrison launches the press’ series of Classics—re-presentations of essential formative poetry texts. Though better known for his fiction, Harrison has authored more than 11 collections of poetry including the collected poems, The Shape of the Journey. This 1973 collection of epistolary pieces to a Russian poet who hanged himself was written during a hardscrabble time in Harrison’s life, what he describes as acts of desperation and survival. In the “correspondence,” his concerns—thwarting of early ambition, dying relatives and dogs, wondering what wounds love heals, family, politics, sex—become our concerns, our predicament, a plumbing of how to live in a world that says no in 10,000 ways, yes in only a few.

Famous (Nebraska) is the debut collection by Kathleen Flenniken. A plumbing of the mysteries of the ordinary incidental life forms the web on which these wryly comic nuggets are strung. Her observations of the sorrows and indignations of our over-looked-ness—trapped in a league of minor characters or the International House of Pancakes; pondering why nature abhors a vacuum, but God loves a good vacuuming; trying to pass for Mormon in a motel off I-15; trying to wang-chung tonight with overdue bills and the war on TV—suggest that, without warning, truth will roll right at us like a head of cabbage. The experiences are contemporary, familiar, but her understated ironic questioning of them makes the everyday shimmer with possibility.

Dan Gerber’s A Primer on Parallel Lives (Copper Canyon) weaves together the parallels of in-here and out-there, making both not only visible but also interdependent. A bodhisattva panhandling on State Street in Santa Barbara, watching women laugh through a restaurant window, looking out of the plane six miles up, and the moon’s eclipse as a bruise on the sea of tranquility, cohabit with the recollected fears and epiphanies of childhood. His evocations are clearly and simply rendered with a kind of meditative transcendence, one world, one thought flowing into another: the stone, the grass in the field, the cattle, the sky above, eating squid in their own ink, regret at being right, the face in the mirror, are all layers, waystations, subtly affecting allusions, the rustling of leaves saying, see.

The Human Line (Copper Canyon) by Ellen Bass, is homage to transient moments of recognition: motherhood, grief at her own mother’s death, the perils of genetic engineering, species extinction at the end of the Cenozoic. She sets these off with portrayals of life’s small (and not so) absurdities—asking for directions in Paris, high school tattoos, why she can’t stand the color orange—all rendered with wit, an eye for the salient detail. The poems on her mother’s death are particularly affecting—sleeping in her bed, watching twilight in the hospital room, remembering the rituals and moments of a life—but all the pieces are characterized by directly voiced images suggesting comfort might be found in the plain and surprising.

Marvin Bell’s Mars Being Red (Copper Canyon) answers his self-imposed question: how to put the news into poems, answer the hairy aesthetic questions raised by the overtly political. In this series of often furious rages and outrages, he asks, “What/shall we do, we who are at war but are asked/to pretend we’re not.” What is the sound of the blade on its way to the soon-to-be-beheaded, what are the rules of interrogation, what gained from 24-hour coverage, what are we to do when we’ve outlived our insurance but not our future. A combination of laconic delivery and a simultaneously all-too-engaged while yearning for resolution perspective gives these meditations an urgent resonance.

Present Company (Copper Canyon) is a selection of 100-odd poems by W.S. Merwin, each beginning with the word “To,” addressing a range of things—a feeling, a person, an idea, a place, an aspect of the self. The range of concerns is impressive: wondering if the soul is singular or plural; if forgetting is traveling backward; abandoned bicycles, blue storks, mosquitoes, dust down the road; and his teeth as the lost companions of Ulysses. Merwin’s language is simple—often bemused by the mundane—but, like the repetitive motion of waves finding silence in the sand, opens some complex allusional windows, perceptual fenestra where the reflections of what once was, or might have been, shimmer in the grass of the here-and-now.

Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (Illinois), edited by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer, is an anthology of 67 “neglected” poems, each selected by an American poet and accompanied by a commentary on why it was chosen. This curatorial process has resulted in a wide ranging selection—(the whys of the choosing become interesting here)—Billy Collins/Tom Clark; Amy Gerstler/Bert Myers; Mary Jo Bang/Sylvia Plath. There are poems by both knowns—Man Ray, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson—and many, many unknowns. The process and resulting collection is not only orchestrated clamor, but also a glimpse into the extent of the genre’s diverse and unruly thicket.