Heaven from Steam, Carol Light (Able Muse Press, 2013)
Friendship is one of the conversant pleasures of a literary life, and has rarely been reason (historically, at least) not to offer words of encouragement for a long-anticipated book. Carol Light is a friend of mine, one whose poems I’ve read, enjoyed, and argued with for years. Disclosure aside, it’s not familiarity with the poet which prompts me to report that Heaven from Steam, Light’s first book, is a keen-eyed sonic boom of a debut. It is, rather, an appreciation for the assiduous, soulful orchestration of technique that makes this book stand out. A book of days unfolding over decades, Heaven from Steam is a substantial achievement—a sometimes searing, often soaring interrogation of love and longing in all its forms—carnal and maternal, devotional and divine.
Comparison with Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, which explores similar themes in an altogether different register, is inevitable, and revealing. Each demonstrates the remarkable patience of the long view—of the gradual, focused accretion of a body of work—that I find more and more valuable in books of poetry in our quick-take, snapshot, tweet-addled age. There’s also a fascination with the motif of annunciation in Light’s book—and for the corresponding power of art to conjure and cajole the miraculous from the mundane. Light prefers to work within a form—the sonnet, primarily—and to pound away at it until transubstantiation takes place, from wish to will to the wisdom of acceptance. In that regard, the influence of Hopkins and other sound engineers is more obvious in Light’s poems, though she catches a note of wryness all her own.
Propelled from “the rote grace of every tempered life” into more tempestuous circumstances, Light’s poems demonstrably question, argue, and prod their way toward illumination, gathering their steam out of dreams, portents, signs and ruptures, encounters with Etruscan figures and baroque Italian art, the landscapes (floating bridges, storm-tossed hemlock and fir) of the Pacific Northwest, as well as her native Midwest (“Prairie Sure”). As it moves through seven calibrated sections, the complications of romantic love—marriage, divorce, remarriage, childbirth—crescendo in a closing sonnet sequence (fourteen of them—a crown) titled “Vicolo del Divino Amore”—which probes with astonishing dexterity the landscape of both divinity and love, spelling out a “map of courage” marked with the polarities of attraction:
… What’s animal
then and what’s divine? A torso flames
and opens, sacrum to crown. The moan became
the aum, climbing the coiling column, lamina
lucida, flushed with heat, back arching
in sacramental bliss. What’s love but God’s
Liminal and luminous, Light’s book is built, section upon section, to offer enduring discoveries. A mature vision decades in the making, it should attract devoted readers for years to come.
– Kevin Craft
What Is Amazing, Heather Christle (Wesleyan University Press, 2012)
Simultaneously sober and whimsical, plain-spoken yet elusive, this third full-length collection by Heather Christle (What Is Amazing) powerfully jumps, swerves, and circles around its spiritual, psychological, and ontological concerns. Again and again, Christle, through her signature ingenue act, accesses wonder, epiphany, and profound sadness by way of her unique ear and keen sense for illuminating paradox: “Oh people You have to love / people They are so much like ourselves” one poem poignantly ends; “Unlike an island we wake up,” she later adds.
Throughout the collection, (and as she’s done before), Christle sets to work her formal inventiveness in order to enact the tension and release of poetic experience and realization. Her short punctuation-less lines and rhetorical engines collide, fragmenting syntactical and musical phrasing. Quirky titles avoid yoking the poems, instead freeing the ideas and figures to roam—titles such as “I’ll Be Me and You Be Goethe,” “It Feels Like It Is On Purpose,” and “The Angry Faun.” But Christle’s mock wonderment, playful titles, and non-sequitur don’t merely serve her desire for humor. Instead, her levity opens opportunities, even more so than in her previous volumes, for startlingly candid self-reproachement: “Why is all the beauty in the wall and not in me,” she writes in the book’s first poem; “I would leave behind devastation in the organized shape of my body,” she later writes in “To Kew By Tram;” “and elsewhere two people hold one another close in a darkness they have created” (from “Moss Does Not Love Other Moss”). These are not the statements of an entertainer; these are the statements of a mind engaged and invested.
Part child, part metaphysician, the speakers in “What Is Amazing” are complicated and sophisticated. Critics of Christle often fail to take seriously her frivolity, just as the critics of her mentor James Tate failed to take seriously his humor. Though often masked, deep seeded suspicion, irreverence, and a haunting melancholia seem to link both poets and their respective projects. As she writes in “How Like an Island”: “Just to exist takes much concentration.”
– Justin Boening
Lullaby (with Exit Sign), Hadara Bar-Nadav (Saturnalia, 2013)
In Hadara Bar-Nadev’s third full-length collection, “to be alive is to be Haunted; to be dead is to haunt,” and language is the means of this possession. These poems embody the complex, often conflicting feelings—grief, relief—that can accompany the death of a child, a father’s failing tongue. The book’s cover, which reproduces Alison Schulnik’s painting Skipping Skeletons—one oil-stroked skeleton chases another through a riot of flowers—suggests these emotional strata rather aptly. Over the course of four numbered sequences, the book alternates compact prose poems and lineated, sometimes spare lyrics whose images expose and then transfuse these forms (“Dismantle the legs, knees, toes. Internal pillars, scaffolding of bone…Soul picked clean of self”). They move toward a restoration, in language, of what makes us alive to one another especially when we are not. Although the tone can be as somber as this would suggest, the poems vibrate with a Dickinson-like strangeness—indeed, that poet’s phrases appear italicized throughout the book—that gives these images little organs around which to develop, and there is a sharp, glossal levity in lines such as “Little Woe Weep has lost her sheep, or a hack on pills went up a hill to fetch a pain of daughter.” The loss of language and the language of loss—of words cut and recast—sutures the poems and enacts the struggle to understand “That hollowed space whispered full of pleases, groping like hands.”
– Aaron Barrell
Becoming Judas, Nicelle Davis (Red Hen Press, 2013)
“He understands/these are the answers/without knowing the birds/I’m pronouncing.”
Nicelle Davis crafts Becoming Judas around answers without questions and questions without answers. The character list is chaotic and the threads are knotted in the sort of tangle you tease at again and again, unable to abandon. There is a frantic energy in these pages—a spilling of story untamed. A Jesus Lennon Judas dance with three different selves tapping the time. It’s confusing and it’s staccato but beneath it is a fiercely strong pulse, pulling you along.
This is not a book of simplicity. A list, a letter, a reimagined definition—Davis takes up and discards forms like a dress. She leans on biblical passages and Beatle’s lyrics as she constructs a story of love, abandonment and mortality. She finishes the poem “My Mother’s First Orphaned Christmas” with the lines “There are few acts/still left within our control.” and you feel this throughout her book. Control and the loss of it. This is not Nicelle’s first book but there’s something freshly born about it—you can still feel the fresh stain of afterbirth across the Victorian rug, where the speaker was born and is being reborn, continually. There is a sorting out that is left unfinished.
I’ve read this several times over and I’m still uncertain where one person becomes another. A woman becomes her mother, becomes her son, becomes her grandmother. Judas in there, somewhere. Jesus and Lennon. There are Mormons. It is confusing. So I’ll go back again, because I trust in her words and the feathers she’s dropped for me to follow. If you want something that is easy, walk away now. If not—trust Nicelle Davis. And watch her. This is a strong beginning, and worth following her uncertain steps into the desert.
– Alexis Vergalla
Pause, Traveler, Erin Couglin Hollowell (Boreal Books, Red Hen Press, 2013)
The human need for companionship and love often involves suffering through loneliness, accepting the impossibility of totally merging with another person, and learning to reimagine ourselves in relation to others. The poems in Pause, Traveler trace this journey in an artful, five act arc, through pain, doubt, frustration, and disappointment, leading us to an epiphany, but one that is firmly grounded in experience.
Hollowell’s poems inhabit a wilderness, even when the setting is an urban one. The first section, “New York Echo”, includes references to the detritus and dirt of the city, such as these lines in “Salvage on the Lower East Side”: “Angel, eyeless, one wing lashed on with rope./Arch carved in flowers once white, now slate./Bathtub with lion’s feet, painted completely sky blue.” Subsequent sections are set in more rural settings or smaller towns, and contain vivid imagery that is both beautiful and striking at the same time, like these lines from “The Week of Coprinus Comatus”: “Fragrant ghosts of mushrooms/with their fragile white fins of flesh.”
Throughout the collection, the narrators of the poems seem to be more observers than participants, both when the setting is a place or person they don’t know, and when they relate scenes from their own lives and relationships. Whether it is the narrator observing herself interacting with her partner at a farmer’s market, or the narrator observing a stranger eating at a diner, these poems evoke a sense of place while at the same time illustrating how the characters feel out of place or out of synch with one another. What changes as the collection progresses is the reaction of the narrator to this dissonance, moving from discontent to neutrality to acceptance. While the narrator is ever-present in the poems, this is not a collection of poems that focuses on the self in a distracting way, but one where the voice and spirit of the poems involves a quiet commitment to observe people, places, and objects in order to achieve greater understanding and insight.
While the content of the poems and the arc of the collection is quite impressive, so is the evidence of seamless craft. These poems use space and line to create pacing that is exact and musical. Whether written in couplets, tercets, quatrains, or longer stanzas, each stanza functions much as a phrase does in a piece of music, setting itself down slowly, inviting a pause — and allowing the next stanza to pick up the pace, moving towards another resolution of content and form. This effect is evident in the first two stanzas of the poem “Practice”:
The morning that I dedicate myself
to looking at the world more closely,
I wake to find everything covered by fog.
The nearest cherry tree still holds
hard fists of green fruit. Its neighbor,
five feet farther away turns in tatters.
Pause, Traveler by Erin Coughlin Hollowell contains elements of both story and song, evoked through a uniquely contemporary lens. These poems show us how time forges us into the kind of human beings who are capable not of merging with one another, but of complementing one another in a far richer sort of relationship with ourselves, others, and the world.
– Kris Bigalk
Between Page and Screen, Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse (Siglio, 2012)
Reading is a vulnerable behavior. As a reader shifts her gaze towards some particular text-world, she simultaneously draws her eyes away from the outside world. She becomes unguarded, unaware, unselfconscious. A reader is like a seal pup who hides by closing its own eyes.
Open Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s square red book Between Page and Screen, and you’ll discover not poems to read but block-print hieroglyphs that must be translated via computer software. A webcam pops up on the book’s site and you’re instructed to hold the first page up to the monitor. “We can’t see you,” the website promises in a message off to the side, guaranteeing us privacy, anonymity as we fumble around in front of the camera trying to get the text to pop right-side-up on the screen, but what that message really seems to be saying is “Can you see you?”
Even in a voyeur culture like ours, most people have never watched themselves read. Between Page and Screen questions the shape of the act of reading by torturing that pose (“torturing” as in twisting, winding, wringing, distorting), forcing us to watch ourselves do something ordinarily unwatchable; it takes the private, often downturned gaze of the reader and blooms it, outfacing.
You could write a very long essay about the experience of taking up and inter-act-ing with this square, red book-object before ever reading the conversation enclosed in it, but by the time you decoded the first page you’d know you’d like to spend time with the poems. The concept behind this project is so visual, and yet the texts themselves sing with sound. The sounds slip and lap, invert and controvert, burp, pale and highlight. Near-anagrams wiggle in and out, as if naively. The word “lied” becomes “idle” becomes “side” becomes “slide.” Sound slides.
On the very first page we find a letter penned by someone called “P” (Page) that’s addressed to a certain “S” (Screen), composed of a polka of P-sounds: “Let’s spread out the pentup moment, / pentimento memento”, says P in this first letter, suggesting the pair unpack their relationship, try to patch it. P and S, then, correspond back and forth throughout the book trying to do just that. On the third page “S” debuts with lots of jabbing S-sounds—tiny cutlasses that could pierce a piece of paper or perhaps an eardrum. Listen: “I prefer arras to arias, / you’ve guessed, a bard of scabbards, / a chorus of cuirass”, writes S, in an attempt to carve a self-portrait for P.
Usually, the repartee between P and S feels friendly, apologetic, curious, searching, even flirtatious. As it turns out, and as the text more than eludes to, the word “screen” is derived from an Indo-European root meaning “to cut” while the Indo-European root of “page” means “to fasten.” These opposing origins seem to define the conflict and the dance that P and S do–a conflict that ultimately seeks a peaceful resting point rather than a mutual undoing.
If it’s not already obvious, Between Page and Screen is a scrutiny of the erotic—concerned with longing, distances, spaces, concerned with that which cannot be gathered, said, assimilated, or seen. “Why this mania to name what’s between us?” P asks S flat-out. In the end, just as the book must be held up to but not up against the screen to be read, P and S remain at a distance—Intimate only in letters. My own initial attempts to resolve the disconnect between the page and the screen by photo-documenting each decoded poem were thwarted by the time I’d reached the second one. What I found was that the second page (and soon others) moved, and could not be simplified to a flat surface. A word appeared—a pseudo-portmanteau—that lifted up and spun, making of language a carousel. Ride me! said this poem. And I did.
– Elizabeth Cooperman