One could describe DeWitt Henry's Visions of a Wayne Childhood as both a delicate and detailed memoir in prose/poetic form. One might say "delicate" because I suppose that one could easily topple Henry and his Proustian devotion to a time and a place through some sort of harsh class-based (maybe Marxist) analysis or critique. Or, perhaps, if one's orientation is more towards Center City, one could fault Henry's at times seemingly quaintly textured descriptions of suburban Philadelphia's Main Line for their absence of a sensationalism or street corner excitement that one might develop the taste for after reading a good amount of Philadelphia free journalism, or even the Inquirer.
But to do so would be to miss out on at times subtle lessons, distinctions, and ironies which develop as the story of Henry's young life unfolds on the pages of this short book. Henry is the son of a candy manufacturer and one of the founding editors of the journal Ploughshares. He currently lives and teaches in the Boston area. But his story is one that strikes closer to Philadelphia as it is a scene-by-scene and topic-by-topic-by-topic unfolding of his youth as spent at a couple of different locations in Wayne, PA during the 1940s and 50s.
Yes, one might say that his story of upper-middle class life is one that is marked by insularity, as it is largely one of a collection of WASP family members, growing up or old more-or-less among their own, as they join their golf clubs and swim clubs, attend their Presbyterian Church, and go about their daily and yearly rituals of life. DeWitt, or his older brothers Chuck or Jack or sister Judy, get caught in some mild trouble driving a car dressed as an adult woman, attend movies at the then segregated Wayne Theater, and play with their somewhat more rural Wayne brethren. But what may seem as still a description as the surface as one of their swimming club's ponds, proves to provide some depth as well. Perhaps it takes a second glance at some of Henry's scenarios to comprehend that his project is, as he regards it, "an affirmation of distance and growth."
What might be most compelling about these stories are what goes on at the edges of them - the one about their "colored" maid, for instance. What was this life like from her perspective? And what was it like in relation to the life she faced after she was taken to her "home" in urban Philadelphia after working hours? And what was the rich, old, blind, retired prizefighter's existence really like? The one who also lived in Wayne and who also seemingly lived to give young DeWitt and his fellows' candy and caress their faces? Isn't older brother Jack's gun "hobby" more than a little unsettling? Also unsettling is the necessary-seeming role of Civil Defense preparedness, indicating a somewhat faraway, yet menacing set of historical and geographic limits to the upper-middle class haven (or is it heaven?) that comprises DeWitt's childhood.
In the end, the world does change. Young DeWitt grows up and is exposed to talented teachers at Radnor's High School who widen his somewhat narrow world and encourage his critical thinking along the way. He and his brothers and sister go off to college. And society is somewhat transformed to the point where Henry and his friends and classmates are no longer so easily the exclusive heirs to power and prestige in a broader America. And what are left are the memories - and Henry's finely textured and largely successful attempt to reconstruct a world marked by youthful innocence, and more than a little marginal oddness, that, by and large, no longer exists.
Into the Wilderness is a journey into the perilous unknown of the normal, day-to-day of living. Ebenbach captures both the difficulties and joys of life in the moment—that time when simple problems are impossibly hard. The title, a reference to Jewish heritage of the past, but also a metaphor for the present, begins with a young, single Jewish mother in Philadelphia. Judith brings home her newborn for the first time, and we (Judith, Ebenbach, and readers) are in the wilderness of the present wondering how to move forward to the next moment and all moments that follow in the ever-grinding and intimidating future. In Judith's first evening home, with the bustling of her parents helping them settle in, the tension replaces air as one of life's transitional moments makes itself far too obvious. When her parents leave, the growing up moment ensues. We (Judith, Ebenbach, and readers—all feel too close to parse apart) realize the baby is a real baby, not the idea of a baby, but a real baby. Ebenbach brings the full tender-terror of this moment through, and compels us to empathize. All the stories of Into the Wilderness revolve around empathy and basic day-to-day human reality and struggle. It reminds us that we love to live but that it's also hard to live. The natural question is "How do we move on from here?" Or more directly, "How do we navigate the wilderness?"
A strong melody of Into the Wilderness is the feeling of being "alone in pairs": mother and child, husband and wife, father and daughter, mother and son all have to experience the world inextricably tied together. Always the feeling is two people against the world, but just as often it begins as "me" against the other person and the world. But Ebenbach's simply message of the wilderness is "we have to work it out." In an interview with Ebenbach, I asked him "What would you say to encourage beginning writers?" His response was encouraging, but also best summarizes his stories:
"I'll tell you the same thing my six-year-old son said to me when I was heading off to a writing retreat this summer. He said, 'Don't worry about getting it right. Just don't give up. Don't give up. Never give up.' Best advice I ever got."
The wilderness is vast. But the secret to navigating through is simple words, if difficult in practice: despite the difficulty of life, never give up, and never go alone. The other part of our particular "pairing" will bring his or her own troubles to add to our own, but working through the wilderness together makes it easier to endure-or maybe the only way to endure.
In Colosseum, the poet Katie Ford sleepwalks – as perhaps in a voodoo trance – through the life and death of a great American city, of God, and perhaps even of civilization itself. With a highly scholarly touch, which is not obtrusive but deft and masterful, Ford takes on the big issues: life, death, love, sickness, nature, the Bible, and even the Roman Empire.
In her poetry, death always seems imminent – as in her exploration of the brief life of mayflies in the title poem “Colosseum.” Deaths are delivered by Hurricane Katrina to her former city, New Orleans, or brought on by the biblical flood itself, the fault lines below ancient Rome or the ash of Pompeii, by the fall of Saigon or the crises of Beirut or the bombs of Nagasaki. Among these reminders of mortality, Ford also gives us the spectacle of rebirth. Discussing return or non-return or the Messiah in “Easter Evening,” she writes: “This is what we ask the dead god to rise into.” However, these reincarnations are often fraught with change. Seaglass survives the turmoil of the ocean but only does so newly burnished by the water, a plague of snakes follows Katrina into her city, a car is defaced by a knife but, despite being disfigured, drives on into the foreseeable future carrying its markings the way stone deposits and mountains are marked by geological eras.
The world that Ford illustrates is that of the Old Testament, governed by “the astonished law of water, / law that can pull the heavy dead back / or push them away, / but never by any human wish” (“Crossing America”). Like the Lord revealed himself to Moses as a jealous God, the laws that govern a post-Katrina (or post-Roman Empire for that matter) world are backed by massive forces that are unknowable and not immediately understood by the human eye, ear, or mind. Think of the disasters encountered by Job without the final divine blessings.
For perhaps cogent reasons, Ford’s poetry in this volume reminds me quite directly of the recent movie The Beasts of the Southern Wild. In that movie the most disenfranchised among us become aware, spiritually perhaps but also through their direct experience, of the huge seemingly blind elements at work upon our environment. These forces that can beckon the rise or crash of communities and civilizations, man , and the natural world. Behind the calamities involved, one might intimate, in Ford’s book or the aforementioned movie, that there is a fallen caste – the movers and shakers of an industrial and post-industrial landscape – for whose sins the ordinary among us are paying. But in both book and movie, what is most directly encountered is the immediate catastrophe the makes up so much of life today – a life that has been ultimately transformed so that we may be talking about a new era in time with new “rules” or the lack thereof.
Is there any type of salvation to be found given this new hand we have been dealt by these new fates? Ford seems to convey that, however evanescent among the ruins , there is the possibility of human closeness - if only for a moment, as when a hand reaches out to another resting on a hospital bed . A merciful kindness bestowed upon one person by another who is also scarred by the fierceness of nature and life. In these things, like a rising balloon in her poem “Spring Wish,” Katie Ford seeks release, if only transitorily, from the scourges of 21st century American life.
Jane Cassady has a distinctive speaking voice: sweet and unforgettable. Her voice is generally soft and inquisitive, bordering on wistful. Such a voice can surprise a listener as it conveys the kind of ache and desire that it frequently does. Jane's poetry is never better than when she performs it aloud, though reading For the Comfort of Automated Phrases [Sibling Rivalry Press] approximates that experience. Throughout the collection, Jane employs a conversational tone -- weaving bits of dialogue, snippets of songs, and memories and ultimately creating what feels like a scrapbook or a diary of very personal moments curated and carefully adorned.
I imagine crushes I've had as a teen and as an adult. I remember making
mixtapes for the people I wanted to like me: spending hours selecting
the right songs, then more hours decorating the case with photographs,
glitter, and letters cut from magazines. There is tremendous faith in
such an exercise, and tremendous risk. Jane Cassady has created such a
mixtape, presented in homemade gift wrap and a sweetly unironic card.
Many of the poems in this collection are love poems for people and places:
Philadelphia, Orange County, Austin. Love is declared over and over --
Jane is nothing if not generous with her affection. The poems
themselves are directed towards a varied and disparate collection of
"yous": "For Slim Wallace, Tour Guide at Sun Studios, Memphis, TN",
"Love Poem for Tech-School Testimonials", "Dear Ladies of the Plano,
Texas Zumba Class."
As easy as it might be to take Jane Cassady's poems at face value -- the
open-hearted addressing her beloved(s) -- Jane finds ways to keep the
poems from becoming formulaic or expected. Using form such as the
pantoum and cutting and pasting the lyrics of pop songs, Jane collects
the elements of her biography and offers a collage that juxtaposes light
and dark, frivolity and profundity. No scrap of feeling is too awkward
Reading Jane Cassady's poetry feels like being trusted with something valuable
and vulnerable though many poems refer to pop culture: Lost,Twin Peaks,
Lady Gaga, and Beyonce. The poem that opens the collection, "For
Those About to Plan Weddings, We Salute You" takes its title from the
AC/DC song. Rather than celebrating loud music and militarism, "For
Those About to Plan..." celebrates the quietest and simplest aspects of
domestic life: "There's someone to make you into the bed,/someone to
make the coffee." But even such sweetness comes with a cost:
(Unconditional love is shocking,
can make you feel invisible:
look in the mirror a lot.)
And what else does a poet do, really but examine the self and its
contradictions? The threat of losing oneself to goodness seems to be as
great a threat as any other -- self awareness and close monitoring
preserve the lover even as she seeks her own dissolution in the
I look forward to rereading this collection once the weather turns. It
encourages coziness and cuddliness. Jane Cassady writes poems that
invite the reader to seek out the places, things, and people that are
most beloved. There is a geographical journey depicted in For the Comfort...,
but also a quest to identify sources of and vessels for love. Casting a
wide, awkward, and sometimes faulty net, Jane Cassady charmingly shares
the pleasures and frustrations of desire and love.
I reviewed Jane Cassady's chapbook, Adventures of a Lazy Polyamorist (Turtle Ink Press) in April of 2011 on the PS blog. I really enjoyed that collection and its ability to weigh love against its inherent dangers. For The Comfort... builds on Adventures'... complicating and deepening Jane's discussion of her desires.
Throughout her 2012 collection, What Ordinary Objects, poet Liz Chang employs a foggy, elegiac quality. The poems seem to fall under the changing shadows of clouds: a moment of heightened clarity and directness is followed by a moment shrouded in layers of misunderstanding.
Taken individually, many of the poems are alternately lovely, dreamy, and surreal. Taken as a collection, they remind the reader that the child so desperate to "know the body of red" that she jams a crayon up her nose in "The Acquired Knowledge of Childhood" eventually becomes the woman seducing (threatening?) a lover: "I am red. I am cayenne.... Taste me, Daniel, you will burn" in "Weathering." That echo of red helps shape this collection as it underscores the variety of desires that Chang's poetry struggles with here.
Just as the desires presented by Chang are varied, the voices present in this collection are mutable and sometimes capricious. They include Chang's speaker/heroine as a child, a daughter, a friend, a lover, and so on - but another voice powerfully represented is that of the late French poet, Claude de Burine, whose poetry occasionally interrupts and seemingly comments on Chang's original poems. Other poems are created using materials from emails, websites, and art exhibits.
In her (charming) author's note, Chang tells her reader "So let's stipulate that this is not a book about death." The collection is not about death or alienation or intimacy or whatever - these are all clouds of fog that drift through and complicate the collection. Liz Chang professes an interest ("less generously, obsession") with what she calls "the life behind things." Through her use of translation, form, collage, etc., in What Ordinary Objects, she digs at surfaces obscured by inclement weather, sleep, language, sex, etc., in order to take her reader beyond the things of daily life.
Nature provides an illustrative template upon which Grant Clauser casts his moving collection The Trouble with Rivers. The earliest poems consider the effect loss has on a couple and their domestic experience. As the collection progresses, the inherent threat of nature and the instability wrought by grief are countered by an evolving family and by a surer relationship with the outside world.
The first poem in the collection, "Settling In" creates a tension surrounding the coming winter: will the house survive? What must a human resident do to stave off further ruin? Mention of a child's death and a wife's thoughts of suicide assure the reader that the house in question represents more than just the architectural building. The later poem "Cabin" suggests the permeability of the domestic space: "Even as I dislodge every spider web/in the cabin, we will still find/something caught and dying..." This relationship between the outside and the inside spaces reminded me of Claudia Emerson's collection Late Wife in which domestic grief is represented by snakes in cutlery drawers and other incursions of nature into the home. There are things of nature that cannot be kept out of the home, despite the precautions and preparations of its residents.
Clauser's poems include journeys outward -- to Japan and Dubai -- but even these poems ground themselves in the friction between nature and man-made conventions, beliefs, and structures. The further into nature the poems take us, the stronger the family seems to grow -- daughters are fretted over, a wife is desired, and all are loved. The poem "Mantis," fairly late in the collection, underscores the poet's concern with language. While the poet reads by the pond, "Trying to do less with less. Fascination with simple words -- /wind, wing, want," the natural and domestic worlds carry on in both sweet and dangerous ways.
Creating a home in nature -- embracing the sweetness and the danger inherent in any such endeavor -- seems to be the central struggle in this collection.
Hugh Gilmore’s noir crime novel, Malcolm’s Wine, revolves around Brian Berrew, a divorced man who works at an antique bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Stephen Tow's The Strangest Tribe: How A Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge is a detailed, well-researched account of the Seattle music scene
To Alexander Long, author of the award-winning collection of poems entitled Still Life, the intellectual realm is only worth visiting if he is guided by emotion and hunger. The volume was awarded the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and published in 2011. His poems seem, at first glance, aggressively disinterested. Names of historical importance emerge from the page far more often than anyone Long might have known personally. “Still Life with the Atlantic Ocean and Nina Simone as Soundtrack,” “Still Life with Lenny Bruce in Jail,” and “Still Life with Frederick Douglass Learning the Alphabet, Stopping for a Moment at O”—in these poems as paintings, Long places his contemporary persona somewhere in the scene, most often as a hidden observer. The effect of such intellectualization on, for example, someone who isn’t familiar with Adolf Eichmann or his execution, while reading “Revelation in Slow Motion,” whose first line, “Eichmann has blue eyes,” relies heavily on the name to set the scene, can be disconcerting, as if a joke has gone over the reader’s head.
Perseverance in reading, however, reveals that the historicity of these poems only serves as a kind of screen to make what might look absolutely unthinkable from one angle—devastating loss, suicide, all-consuming depression—into a studied composition. Like finding a skull in a basket of Cezanne’s apples, these poems only barely contain a surge of primal, raw emotion behind their intellectual façade. In “Still Life with a Grain of Rice,” Long demonstrates how he attempts to restrain or dampen the bluntest of confessions:
I used to like the way things went together
Chopin and Auden; apocalypse and abyss;
Given and give in; disgust
and discussed. Chopin’s
“No. 3 in B Major,” at the end,
For instance, how he reaches
As far as he can across the piano
With both arms—as if hearing himself
For the first time—
Like Icarus, maybe.
I used to think I’d love
To plunge like that
This is not the only poem that functions like this, trying to introduce readers slowly to a painful idea, like trying to tell a child that Santa Claus isn’t real. Long seems to have imbued himself with a great deal of responsibility towards the reader; so many of the poems have a “you” in them, and even though that second person is rarely explicitly defined, readers can’t help but try to immerse themselves in the scenes as fully as Long himself has done.
Long’s writing walks the fine line between obsessive temporality and timelessness. Strewn among the historical references and literary allusions are strange lapses in the narrative. Lines like, “Truth is, it happened year/Ago or it hasn’t happened yet” in “Spilt Coffee in Slow Motion” question the nature of truth and memory, history and being. This line works because it is anchored in a concrete moment—a woman spilling coffee, having forgotten herself in anger and indignation. Other lines are not so fortunate; in, for example, “Still Life with Issa at the Gates,” Long runs away with his ideas, leaving the reader vaguely dissatisfied: “Let’s say we make a new line inside/The heavens inside the veins/Inside the salts inside the oceans’/Air giving way/To a place where nothing makes us free". By and large, though, it is his bravery, his willingness to face something as large and terrifying as the heavens, and his enthusiasm to try to describe it for us, no matter the consequences, that define and elevate his work.
The Pennsylvania poet Tracy R. Franklin’s volume of poetry, Angst, Anger, Love, Hope (JMS Books, 2010) makes me glad that I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma. Not too many things can make me say that. A lot about that place did have a constricting small-town feel to it. It’s an environment that I have been largely happy to escape by living on the east coast. But I say this because growing up in that vast territory between Reno and Reading has led me to appreciate a certain sort of woman. Proletarian? Perhaps. But also intelligent, sensitive, knowledgeable – almost encyclopedically so – when it comes to the stuff of relationships between women, fellow workers, and probably most of all between women and men. One may at first fail to think that there is wisdom out there in middle America–among its middle and lower-middle classes–when it comes to such complex social realities. But just listen to a Tammy Wynette or a Bobbie Gentry song and then tell me that it takes a Ph.D. to understand the kind of spark that is involved when men and women encounter each other. Out there among the pole dancers, the cashiers, the women who have achieved Associate’s or Bachelor’s degrees all the while balancing family, marriage, jobs, and night school there is indeed a vast wisdom. And Tracy R. Franklin’s poems reflect this.
Here are poems about working (“Company Coffee Mug”), women and other women (“Visit with my Girlfriend”), motherhood (“Grace” and “Prayer for my Golden Child”) but, above all, poems about the eternal variegations of sexual attraction and love. Here Franklin seems to be most at home. Take a poem such as “Down the Shore,” which uses the metaphors of the seagoing life to discuss male/female relationships where:
My thoughts have become as tousled as his hair, as fragile as the
skin at the hollow of his neck. If I am guilty, condemn me also
when my eyes tear because they have been stung by the salt air.
As for myself, I could no more understand the sweetness of his
kiss through imagination than I could comprehend the vastness
of the Atlantic by taking measurements.
Or lines from “My Baby, He Is Hurting”:
My Baby he is hurting,
and he’s hurting desperately.
My sweet baby’s hurting,
and he might be hurting me.
In both poems a kind of brilliant country song ethos bathes Franklin’s writing. An ethos which bespeaks a great sense of elaborateness but also of the deep truths and complicated symbioses found in relationships. Another example is a passage from “Orange Moon”:
I said when it was almost over,
you would not look at your life
and count your money or your status,
but, instead, you would remember
who’d been with you when you’d looked upon an orange moon.
Yes, this is togetherness and these are the incalculable things that form the nuts and bolts of life. It is love and the loss of it that constitutes Franklin’s métier.
Franklin is not a perfect poet. At times she struggles with wordiness and vagueness. At other times there appears to be an over-reliance on rhyme for such a sophisticated writer as herself. But in Angst, Anger, Love, Hope, a piece that is further separated and organized into chapters with such piquant titles as “An Ordinary Revolution,” “This is How it is,” and “Stripped Poker,” Franklin does indeed seem to speak for the emerging silent majority of women, somewhere between the coasts, between Hillary Clinton and Sara Palin, between resignation and revolution.