Deep feelings: deal with them!

Four new poetry collections prove tensely satisfying

Michael Chitwood wrestles with angels so you don’t have to.

Michael Chitwood wrestles with angels so you don’t have to.

As Buffy’s Hellmouth lured vampires, so Sac’s nexus of reading series, bookstores, journals, workshops and small presses (not to mention the Sacramento Poetry Center) attracts poets. We’ve got a lot in common with those other creatures of the night: late hours, pale faces, an affinity for blood (they drink it, we write about it). But since we cast reflections in mirrors, we’re much more easily distracted.

Even if not everyone in Sacramento is a poet (it just feels like it on Thursday nights at Luna’s), most SN&R readers are, well, readers. We’ve got data that indicates almost half of SN&R readers buy 12 or more books a year, which puts you, dear reader, among the most literate Americans.

That’s all the reason we needed to offer up this quick tour of the best of this fall’s new poetry collections, including a couple from the local poets.

One of Joe Wenderoth’s former students tells a story about how he began the first session of a poetry writing course by swinging a club in front of the slightly nervous students. “This is language,” he informed them.

The UC Davis professor is more subtle than that anecdote might suggest, but don’t take that to mean he’s a gentleman. Wenderoth takes as his subject the absurdities and outrages of the world. He laces his language with the tension between studied emotional distance and an urge to sentiment, and uses it both as a weapon and a means of attracting attention.

In Wenderoth’s new collection, No Real Light, due from Wave Books on September 1, his club is more like the primary tool for a game of stickball—complete with catcalls and infield chatter. Despite the playfulness of his language, the intent is deadly serious.

He seems to take most things seriously, with the exception of his own career. Wenderoth pokes and prods at “poe-biz”—the ever-expanding world of “professional” poetry, with its workshops, MFAs and academic jobs. Literate snark abounds, as in the wonderful short poem, “At the AWP Hotel Bar” (for those outside the world of academic poetry, “AWP” stands for Associated Writing Programs, and the annual conference is a major job-hunting extravaganza for poets who want to live by the academic calendar). The poem begins with an epigraph from Jacques Derrida, the late, much-adored saint of postmodern theorists: “No one remains: a priori.”

Wenderoth’s response is short and to the point:

Even so …

some agony aunts do seem

to stagger out.

Let them all be stacked.

Hardly the attitude for a “serious” poet, but Wenderoth is all ’tude in this collection: Poems target the dissertation, the wisdom of attending poetry readings (and anyone ever forced to sit through a marathon torture-session known as “undergraduate open mic” will feel drawn to “Regarding the Intentional Attendance of Poetry Readings”) and the academy itself. He’s not afraid of biting the hand that feeds him.

But most of his teeth-baring is saved for more serious subject matter, like the U.S. war in Iraq. One of his poems about the war, “The Home of the Brave,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2007 (also due out in September). Originally published in SN&R’s first War Issue (March 13, 2006), “The Home of the Brave” responds to the video of the decapitation of American Nick Berg, which was posted on the Internet.

It is one of several poems concerned with the war—and with the misuse of language to describe it. For example, the short poem “Operation Enduring Freedom” sets up a Fox News image of America—an eagle soaring over an open field—but Wenderoth cuts the image off with the invocation of the field’s “bone-fed grasses.” And, when idling in the constant parking lot of California traffic (in “Sitting in Traffic”), he notices how the troop-support magnets on the cars around him are fading: “transparency after transparency / adorning whatever it is that moves us / no closer to knowing.”

The overarching presence of disaster is one point of the tension in Wenderoth’s work. The other is a sentiment-filled (not “sentimental”) attraction to the little things that deserve a chuckle and a nod. Two poems, “Eurydice’s Complaint” and “Wedding Vow” take a panoramic and frankly ironic view, for instance, of marriage.

The first poem approaches a myth much-loved by traditional poets, Ovid’s tale of Orpheus’ descent to the underworld to rescue his bride, Eurydice, from the grip of Hades. Wenderoth’s take, dripping irony and rage, allows Eurydice to speak for herself. She’s not all that impressed with Orpheus’ self-centered determination to have her at any cost. “Why carry on with this hellish trek?” she asks. “Look at me already. / Look!”

“Wedding Vows,” dedicated to “Kevin and Britney,” also brings with it a full bag o’irony: “cleave you / unto this here / promise of nothing.” It’s a slam, yes; but certainly not the last word on marriage and family.

This is where the tension comes in, for in spite of Wenderoth’s urge to distance himself, language keeps pulling him back into the depth of feeling, as in a poem about waking his young daughter in the middle of the night for a trip to the bathroom, then putting her safely back to bed. In “Where I Lie,” the ironic distance is closed with this:

I look at her there, touch her face.

And I ask myself the same old question:

would it have been better

to have never been born,

to have never come into the needto lose this face?

The poem ends on that tightrope between overwhelming love and the desire to avoid its inevitable pain; Wenderoth moves on to pick up his next club. Or stick. Or whatever he’s calling language these days. It doesn’t much matter; he’s really, really good with it.

Mary Kinzie isn’t a Californian, though you’d never know it from reading her new collection, California Sorrow. Kinzie is the author of, in addition to six previous volumes of poetry, a book on poetics (A Poet’s Guide to Poetry) which is flat-out the best available—and California Sorrow proves that she practices what she preaches.

Evoking California in these poems—beyond the title and the fact that so many of them are placed here—is a sort of edge; a California attitude; an impatience; the sort of hurry to get somewhere else that marks so much of the zeitgeist here. Yes, more tension.

Motion is the key. In the opening poem, “The Water-brooks,” the streams are the endless black-topped roads, so like a network of navigable rivers. “to halt is fearful,” Kinzie writes,

nobody stops to see the moon

Mary Kinzie cops Cali ’tude.

nobody pleasantly ambles forth

into the inland empire

chest high

arms free

to take this air of cash and cadmium

and air force base perchlorate

into the flesh

She quickly demonstrates that we dwell in a contemporary landscape nearly opposite those of the meditative Emerson, the grateful, yawping Whitman.

Kinzie mingles blocks of prose poetry with sections of lined poetry throughout the book. She weaves throughout all these poems bits of story—fragments of apocryphal knowledge about this poet or that, references to film, what seem like thoughtful snippets of journal (not the boring kind that begs to be skimmed) and the ever-present landscape. It’s not linear, but then neither is the landscape. And neither is life.

Michael Chitwood is perhaps one of our most undeservedly neglected poets. I became a fan after picking up a copy of The Weave Room during a bookstore-browse; what attracted me is the precision of his language and an attention to narrative. Narrative poetry isn’t much in vogue, but there’s something in us that cries out for story: make meaning of life, shape it into something that makes sense, let the tension be dramatic.

An impossible task, but Chitwood undertakes it. Call him Sisyphus.

Spill, due in late September from the fine little independent Tupelo Press, opens with a resonant innocence-and-experience narrative. Although each of the poems in the Finding the Dog section stand alone, together they depict a transformation to an adult yearning for faith. While the “he” of the poems never is completely identified with the voice of the poet, we learn the name of the dog: a collie, Star. “Dog” equals “God” in the language of the poems (not as dyslexic as it sounds); the series is a twist on a conversion narrative. Instead of faith, in the poem “Finding the Dog,” the boy is confronted by the rank, physical reality of death.

That discovery is rapidly followed by “The Morning After Being Saved,” and it’s a fantastic hangover poem: “That he woke up was wrong.” It’s a first line that anyone who’s ever experienced a screaming blue-purple any-morning-is-too-early hangover will surely believe is holy writ.

But it sets a standard for all the faith-and-grief poems that follow: How can we accept God as infinite and loving, then remain trapped in the oh-so-finite-and-harsh everyday? Chitwood’s book, from “On Being Asked to Pray for a Van” to the title poem, “Spill,” to “Dog’s God,” is all about belief’s conflicts. There’s envy of those for whom faith comes easily, yes, but also sadness at what those people miss by electing not to wrestle with angels.

Tom Miner, who teaches at Sacramento City College (full disclosure: He’s also a frequent contributor to SN&R’s Poet’s Corner), is the latest local poet to have his work featured in one of Rattlesnake Press’ fine artisanal chapbooks.

Miner writes short narratives and even shorter lyrics, often with a sharp humorous twist. Infused with a sense of gratitude, unashamed of sentiment and only occasionally falling into sentimentality, the poems celebrate a life lived simply. While he taps into the landscape in poems about time spent out of doors (hiking at Tomales Point or Clear Lake), Miner’s true landscape is much closer to home: his family.

Like Wenderoth, Miner is pulled into the world by sentiment; unlike his colleague, he revels rather than rebels. For example, the poem “Quiet Love” makes the best out of sex in a house with young children: “For their sake, since we love them so, / we curb our natural warbling.”

Miner’s poetry is less thought-provoking than gratitude-invoking, perhaps because he’s uncovered gratitude’s source: an ability to be surprised by the miracle of the everyday.