book review

Talking Pillow by Angela Ball

Talking Pillow by Angela Ball
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Review by Lynette G. Esposito

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Talking Pillow by Angela Ball a professor of English at the Southern University of Mississippi, takes the poetry reader on a contemporary ride arounda block of modern subjects represented in both literal and figurative images.

Published by the University of Pittsburg Press in their Pitt Poetry Series, this 55-page soft cover tome offers reflections on universal themes such as love, loss, death hope and grief.

The poems are divided into three sections:  Lady of the House, FBI Story, and Bicycle Story. The sections are thematic. In Lady of the House, the focus of the poems is on relationships and the myriad subjects that make them.  In FBI Story the theme switches to discovery and realization using contemporary images that are both representative and logical. In the section, The Bicycle Story, the reader rides with the narrator through locales, timelines passing through remembrance and grief.

In the lead poem in the first section, Society for Ladies of the House. the situation is set in an ambulance ride to the hospital and the desire for the patient’s recovery The surprise ending is sweet but not sentimental  and shows how love transcends every day minutiae to survive and make one recognize how glorious love is.  After the trip to the hospital, the last lines show the true purpose:.

        …It parades the sky in its windows, admits
         the opera of passing sirens, the swerving, rocking
         ambulance with the brave young driver, determined
         to reach the hospital in time to save the patient
         to let him heal and return home, tentative
         but upright, to his own true love, the Lady of the House
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The poem I favor in FBI Story is the last poem in this section on page 37 entitled An Attempt.  Ball uses a dead bee..
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           For us, all that’s left
           is a dried bee, tilted
           onto one wing.
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The narrator says you cannot touch anything without water.  I like the perception of death during An Attempt, and the stillness represented by the bee caught trying but left unmoving.  It is a visible image in nature that asks the reader to understand action projected and action paused…probably without warning.  The last lines speak of the bee dust in the flower and the sad realization that the “we” of the poem will still not be any closer.

In The Bicycle Story, two poems attracted me: Lots of Swearing at the Fairgrounds, and Intercourse after Death Presents Special Difficulties.

          At the fairgrounds even children
          were full of curses, scrawled across mornings.
          What was denied, open pasture,
          the perfection of a stallion covering its mate.
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The comment on confined spaces obscuring the beauty of nature is subtle but clear.

The lines that struck me in Intercourse After Death Presents Special Difficulties, beside the title, involve a congeal visit to the after life. Ball handles the desire without sentimentality but with intensity and possibility. .

      Nights I ingest the pill
        that lets me seem awake while in motion
        at home and at work.  I note
        today’s horoscope
       “a far-fetched hope is realized.”.  
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For those who have lost a lover or a loved one, Ball suggest that there is shame in the need to touch and be touched by the lost one and how the narrator of the poem deals with the reality and perception

The book is a pleasure in its direct simplicity as well as its subtlety.

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You can find the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Talking-Pillow-Pitt-Poetry-Angela/dp/0822965151/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives with her husband, Attilio, in Mount Laurel, NJ.

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American Parable by Sonia Greenfield

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By Richard Nester

Sonia Greenfield’s chapbook, American Parable, should receive a trumpet fanfare upon being opened. It pioneers a style, a method—not so revolutionary as Whitman’s breathtaking leap into free verse perhaps—but worthy of notice both for what it says and how it says it. Greenfield’s verse is fiery, packed with lived experience and whetted by an imaginative grit that is emotionally concrete, accurate and incisive. She manages to join Whitman’s vigorous engagement with public issues with Dickinson’s lyric genius for private mediation. Greenfield’s poems are not only important in themselves as individual explorations of significant human questions but also for what they accomplish in terms of method, which is to explore civic questions in poems that have a complete right to be called lyric poems, something long thought impossible. In American Parable, Greenfield successfully closes the considerable distance between the styles of Whitman and Dickinson and their subject matters.

To better understand how Greenfield operates in American Parable and why her method is so fresh, we need to look at a poem from her first collection Boy with a Halo at the Farmer’s Market. This poem “Nafsicrate Considers Bruegel’s Famous Work” reacts to W.H. Auden’s famous “Musee des Beaux Arts” from the point of view of a character who might have appeared in Auden’s poem but doesn’t, that is the mother of Icarus. Greenfield will use a similar approach many times in American Parable as she establishes a point of view that has been overlooked or disregarded and then uses that point of view to close the distance between the reader and the poem’s subject. Providing readers with these kinds of insights is a classic trope of lyric poetry, but one that has rarely found its way into the rhetoric of civic discourse.

One of the things we notice about “Nafsicrates Considers” is that Icarus isn’t named until the poem’s last line since to his mother he is simply “my boy,” a real person, who is both intensely special as well as typical of all children. She has passed her unique knowledge of how to dive to him—a detail that ironically references the painting—while acknowledging her anxiety for his safety. As she says “you can’t trust children to make good choices.” Icarus remains somewhat unreal to us since we don’t encounter him except in his mother’s report. In this respect, we are still “turned away” from him, to borrow Auden’s figure of speech, but Nafsicrate is certainly a real mother suffering the anxieties of a real parent and not the generalized, emotionally distant spectator of Auden’s poem.

Developing this fresh point of view enables Greenfield to dispute Auden’s opening claim in “Musee,” which is  “about suffering they were never wrong / the old Masters.” Auden continues, deftly producing his evidence both from life and from Bruegel’s painting, so that we tend to accept authority of his argument and his verdict that indifference to suffering is the default mode for humanity. What other opinion could there be? Auden is apparently cocksure about its truth, but is it actually the only truth available? Is it so universal after all? Or is it rather the wisdom of a particular set of “masters” (with a small m), painting in a particular time for a particular audience, singularly devoted to commerce. By including an observer who is also a vital—but usually disregarded–participant Greenfield is able to challenge the hegemony of the expected, a classic move in lyric poetry.

As far as Yeats was concerned, poetry and rhetoric could not exist together, and his distinction between them is famous, poetry arising from “quarrels with ourselves” and rhetoric from “quarrels with others.” After Yeats, poetry took an inward turn away from public engagement and persuasion toward explorations of inner conditions and their imaginative traffic with the material world. When public engagement did occur as in Auden’s oft-quoted “September 1, 1939,” it exhibited a reluctance to linger with the personal. Within the space of a few lines, Auden moves from his seat at the bar “uncertain and afraid” to a place at the lecture podium delivering a geo-political sermon about what every schoolboy should have learned about the propagation of evil. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t great poetry, but it is not in the lyric mode of exploration and discovery. In American Parable, Greenfield closes this distance as we become more fully engaged with the people and issues she offers us.

Another means she adapts from the lyric vocabulary is what Matthew Zapruder in his recent book Why Poetry calls “associative leaping,” a form of imaginative seeing. This method is on vivid display in “Snapshots of Pluto from New Horizons,” a poem that skillfully combines exposition with lyric grace as Greenfield examines how embattled language is in the current political climate. She includes situations from gender politics to the distorting power of language without once seeming strident or accusatory. Humans may “default to optimism” as we imagine a heart shape emerging—like our own lunar man-in-the-moon—from Pluto’s “variegated terrain,” but the poem’s sadness is unmistakable, sadness for emotional resources squandered because of a lack of the clear seeing that poetry offers.

She provides a poignant update to Williams’ claim that “men die every day for lack of it [poetry],” as she focuses our attention on the women, workers, and children that are diminished by our failure to offer “new horizons” to our most vulnerable citizens. Her images have an associative power that belies their plain spoken sense. A case in point are the leaking “sandbags” of the poem’s last line, which remind us of our inability to insure against disasters political and emotional as well as natural.

A poem that pairs well with “Pluto”—in that both involve journeys that are in part hopeful and in part forsaken—is “Refuge” where Greenfield portrays the contemporary refuge experience through the eyes of a character she calls “melania” (spelled with a small m). “Refuge” fuses the refuge experience of women and children fleeing war or political crisis with the immigrant journey of the First Lady of the United States—a decidedly more well-known Melania—as it juxtaposes material barriers of “brambles” and “walls” with emotional barriers of “tinted windows” and “blue pills.”  The fusion completes itself as the “tinted windows” of melania’s exile existence “roll down” the way / Slovenian woods pull their / shutters closed at the end / of the day” and melania is eventually pointed to her “bed over there.”

Woody Guthrie, in his classic protest ballad “Deportee,” recognizes that namelessness is a signal trait of the economic and political exile. He sings “you won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane,” reminding us not only of how dangerous anonymity is for the exile but also of how anonymity can be weaponized by the powerful. Greenfield, by ironically naming the principal character of “Refugee,” throws the humanity of the exile into stark relief. She will insist that the world look now even if it was not looking during the earliest stages of the world refugee crisis.

Accurate, insightful seeing is a crucial component of Greenfield’s lyric approach. In poem after poem, the visual details pile up, calling on us to witness what on many occasions we might prefer not to see. Sights, detailed on Greenfield’s moral canvas, places and events where the seeing is inward as well as outward, include those associated with lynchings and abortions. She notes in “Yours,” where the subject is unsafe drinking water, that moral toxicity usually accompanies physical toxicity. Twice she goes underwater, once to survey drowned Confederate statues, noting that “if you want to touch / this history bad enough you can dive for it” and again at “The Miami Museum of Water” where Trumpian artifacts submerged by global warming mingle with detritus from Cuban restaurants. Even when a poem’s overall message is inspirational, as in “I Believe, in the End, the Dogs Will Save Us” suffering is evident, a reminder that our real heroes are ones who survive trials—in this case a mutt whose leg is caught in a trap and not the kind of dogs—herders and bomb-sniffers—that are more likely to get credit for heroism.

American Parable’s title poem is probably the least lyrical of the collection, not because it lacks the quick movement that we usually associate with lyric, but because it is in fact a parable, a parable being a narrative tale designed to illustrate a universal truth. The universal truth in this case is the powerful negative impact of fear on a country and a people. The poem begins by describing the reasons that the country has not to be fearful: “weapons & open / spaces, prairie grass & forests / river runs & rolling golden / mountains.” But fearful this country is, shockingly so, and without rational explanation.  Rumors of “terrible creatures” spread, but there is no evidence that they are doing anything “terrible.” Rumors are all the evidence offered. A “golem” appears to be lurking and a “fog of plagues,” but whether these dangers are the reasons for the fear or its consequences, goes unsaid. All we know is that a “prophet / who lived in a golden tower” tells the people that he can save them, provided they will throw rocks at those he says are to blame.

The allegorical nature of the narrative is too plain to bother recounting. Nonetheless, it is expertly told, and its truth about the consequences of fear is hard to question. Creating an allegory is clearly a way to steer the poem away from topicality and toward universality, and Greenfield is successful in doing that. “American Parable” is not a political lyric of the kind I have been examining, but it serves the collection the way the pole of a circus tent serves the spacious area underneath it—a three-ring circus of political poetry that illuminates our current crises and points a way toward new forms of poetic discourse. That these poems will constitute acts of resistance and survival is a hope profoundly worth hoping.

You can find the book here:

http://www.autumnhouse.org/product/american-parable-sonia-greenfield/

Richard Nester has twice been a fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He has published essays on social justice topics in The Catholic Agitator, a publication of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, and poetry in numerous magazines, including Ploughshares, Seneca Review, and Callaloo and on-line in The Cortland Review, Qarrtsiluni and Inlandia. He has two collections of poetry, Buffalo Laughter and  Gunpowder Summers, both published by Kelsay Books. His reviews of poetry have appeared in North of Oxford.

Welcome Distractions- Accessible Poems for Time Strapped Humans by Carol Wierzbicki

wel dist
By g emil reutter
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The first time I read a poem by Carol Wierzbicki was in the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.  Wierzbicki was part of the Unbearables with Thad Rutkowski, Hal Sirowitz and many other poets, who at the time were were active in challenging the established literary elites and elites in general. Unlike many movements, the Unbearables continue. In the case of Wierzbicki, she has released an excellent collection of poetry. Welcome Distractions – Accessible Poems for Time-Strapped Humans. Fittingly the book is part of the Unbearable Series published by Autonomedia. In these unadorned beautifully written poems Wierzbicki writes of poets, politics, her beloved Brooklyn and much more. In the second stanza of Ode to Brooklyn she captures pre-millennial Brooklyn.
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You, with your rusting smokestacks,
your vigilante block associations,
chain-smoking beauty salon owners and patrons,
over the top Christmas displays crowding your
postage stamp-sized front lawns,
marketing slogans that breed like flies
your brass-knuckle childhoods,
your forsythia stubbornly flourishing
beside the grimiest warehouses,
your incongruously ultramodern gas stations
your overpasses and viaducts,
a thousand negative spaces for neighborhood kids
to unfurl their evil games,
lawnmowers, awnings your thwarted attempts
at upscale suburbia.
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These images stay with the reader as a photograph in words, intense realism.

In the poem Champion Cat Breeder, Wierzbicki shows her humorous side in reflecting on poets.

“So you’re big in the poetry world/Who Cares?/ It’s like being a champion cat breeder/ You move in weird, fussy/ little circles/ where ego’s erupt like cat-spit …”

Wierzbicki takes on the elites in the poem, My Apology to Saks 5th Ave. In the second stanza she writes:

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I don’t deserve to be here
I feel out of place
wandering among your white walls
and shiny black shelves
and unforgiving light
and angular salespeople.
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And again in the fourth stanza:
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…My guilt at being here cuts both ways:
I don’t earn enough money to shop here,
but I can still browse the sale racks
to comfortable anonymity;
no security personnel
will suddenly appear alongside me,
grabbing my thin, lily-white wrist.
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She ends the poem, Unincorporated Township, in beautifully unadorned verse with images that once again stay with the reader.
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The town hall stands unfinished
over earth that is brown and cracked
to match radon-soaked brick
of the hastily knocked-up dwellings
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The snow that falls here
turns beige on contact
and the people that die here
do so in midsentence.
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Wierzbicki writes poems of love, family, neighborhood, injustice. She reflects about the times we live in the poem Age:
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We’re living in a disposable age, a polemical age, a laughable
age, a tragical age, a changeable age. An age of individuality that
curls back toward conformity like a snake eating its tail. A digital
age of tweets and posts and texts and yet an age where we crave
face-to-face contact. It’s an age of excess and yet not having
enough. An age of hate and yet of radical love cradling the hated ones.
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It’s an age of extreme weather: fires, floods, tornados,
hurricanes and intensely beautiful days. An age of jealously
guarded privacy and unprecedented surveillance. An age of
space travel and deep drilling. Of discovery and discovering
how little we actually know. Of unstoppable development and
naturally reclaimed land, flowers blooming above sludge.
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A paradoxical age of rural lifestyle movements within cities:
beehives and tomato plants on rooftops, crops of corn and herbs
in parking lots – where we’re both locavore and globally
connected. An age where the city has no future and IS the future.
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Where we all speak different languages and yet push the same
buttons.
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If you are a lover of poetry, of realism, of intense rhythmic poetry you should pick up a copy of Welcome Distractions- Accessible Poems for Time Strapped Humans.

You can find the book here:

https://bookstore.autonomedia.org/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=75_71_22&products_id=779

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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found here: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/ 

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The Infinite Doctrine of Water by Michael T. Young

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By Larissa Shmailo

William Carlos Williams famously wrote: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” And the poet Anna Wrobel demanded, “If poets aren’t prophets, / what are they?/ If poets aren’t prophets, /what good are they?” More than any other art, we expect wisdom from our poets, even as we also demand the usual things we want from the arts: beauty, inspiration, elegance, connection, revelation. Dickinson, Whitman, and Frost delivered on those scores, and in an intimate, deceptively simple way, so does Michael T. Young, who takes up the mantle of poet as philosopher and fabulist in his rich collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water.

Young’s wisdom is paternal, and its source is nature, and the advice of natural history is couched in lyrical language full of subtle twists and delights. In “Advice from a Bat,” our Aesop adjures: “Hunt only at night. Fly erratically. Defy even your own expectations / . . .  Cultivate the myths about you . . .”  Many poems of Doctrine are like unexpected gardens in the center of lower Manhattan, replete with catkins, beech trees, lemons, dandelions, bioluminescence, chameleons, and gingko trees. And water schools us through the title poem’s prosopopeia:

Go around, it says, or through or under or over,
but go on.
Stand still for no one and no thing,
because when you stop,
your breath will thicken and grow dark,
the life swimming in you
rot. The stones will not preserve you,
their hands will not endure; in fact, you will grind
them down to pepper the way for those who follow.
Whatever trinkets you pick up,
soften them in your hands, shaping them
with the gentle art of friction . . .
                                    –“The Infinite Doctrine of Water”
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Like the water which carves a way for those who follow, Young’s natural history explores, or more aptly, carries the past, a theme signaled by the epigraph from Stephen Dunn, who terms it “unfinished work . . . seductively revisable.”  The elegant lyrical sestina “The Generosity of the Past” shifts light, memory, and a changing relationship with subtle chiaroscuro.
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In our apartment there was always light
splitting through the windows like mercy,
illuminating bookshelves and what we thought,
our conversations or our glasses of wine
lifted to toast each day of generosity:
the quantity surpassing what we knew.
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The poet walks the streets of lower Manhattan and nearby Jersey, an observer of its denizens and architecture, the tacit memory of 911 always at the tip of the lyricist’s tongue. In his peregrinations he declares, like Borges’s Funes the Memorious, “that is to truly live—be a master of minutiae, every  marginal  memory,” but realizing “part of me was missing.” In “Birdwatcher,” he surveys his ground zero home, finding that coming to terms with tragedy may not always be possible in the “shadows it can cast but never catch.” But the poet notes growth attributed to the homo fabers of all epochs:
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Years later, as I pass a construction site
and each morning, there’s a little more cement,
a few more girders, wiring and steel,
fused under acetylene flies,
I realize all those hands, all those minds
pick their way through halls of carbon and fly ash,
trace potentials down molecular paths of iron,
water and gravel, bits and pieces like breadcrumbs
trailing all the way back to subterranean lavas
and prehistoric furnaces, the inhuman fires
that go into making every habitation and home.
                                      —“Breadcrumbs”
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In The Infinite Doctrine of Water, bridges and subways and the station at Journal Square and Wall Street’s narrow lanes become an ecosystem full of flora and strange fauna, strangely haunted and strangely hopeful, connected viscerally to the past, animated by a lyrical pen that brings its fond transcendental musings to it, and luckily, to us.

You can find the book here:

http://www.terrapinbooks.com/newmdashthe-infinite-doctrine-of-water-by-michael-t-young.html 

Larissa Shmailo is a poet, author, translator, editor, and critic.

Winters of Content by Osbert Sitwell

winters

By Ray Greenblatt

The Sitwells were an aristocratic and talented family; they were eccentric but all accomplished writers. Sister Edith (1887-1964) wrote poetry; younger brother Sacheverell (1897-1988) became an art critic. Osbert (1892-1969) was multi-talented as a poet, art critic, novelist, and best-selling autobiographer of five volumes.

The Sitwells loved the Arts. They attended gallery openings, concerts and hosted what became historically famous artistic soirees. They financed the young musician William Walton; Edith, especially, encouraged the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew.

When Osbert wrote travel books, he was able to break free from any cloying family pressures to write in his most free style, a richly poetic one. In Winters of Content (1932) he takes the fresh approach of traveling in Italy in the winter months, often comparing the northern and southern climates. First he gets us onto the train.

“Men in blue uniforms push trolleys, deal in clean, white pillows for night-journeys; pillows that are suspended in rows from a rod of a hand-wagon . . . drag behind them rattling tables on which are hot macaroni, under a silver shield, cold macaroni, grey railway chickens, every kind of sausage, edible and inedible, and bottles of red and white wine, all the time loudly hymning the names of their delectable commodities.” (112)

“The mind of the train-goer, therefore, must employ itself in other, interior directions, engage itself with remembrances, hopes, or the material difficulties of keeping clean, since to look out of a rattling and dirty window, through the smoke of a fast-moving, mid-nineteenth-century factory, quickly palls.” (15)

This gives him time to muse about northern winter in his city of Scarborough, Yorkshire: “Day followed day, and the ice still spread its flat, colourless flowers at the edges of the drive. The grass all round had been struck, as it were, by winter, that doleful magician, into the blades of knives and scissors . . . The empty flower-beds, frosted mounds, resembled freshly dug graves in the foreground of this dead expanse of country, and the frost could be seen lying white on the farther, bigger hummocks wherein are thrown together the bones of the first Danish invaders, killed so long go, when this land was all forest and fen.” (31)

In stark contrast he remembers grapes on sale in Italy during the winter: “A display of grapes, for instance, at the time of the vintage was a thing never to be forgotten; grapes of a thousand different species, unimaginable in their beauty, of every shape, round, oval, or pointed like the ears of fawns, showing an infinite variety of invention, even in the way the fruit was clustered on its wooden stalk, while in colour they ranged from emerald and azure, to dark blue and purple, mauve, maroon, and almost primrose yellow, but all translucent, and thus conveying a warmth of tone denied to all other fruit save red currants, until one wondered why they were not grown, like flowers, for their beauty as much as for their flavour?” (95)

He, likewise, finds beauty in an Italian winter garden: “The garden, deficient in summer qualities, acquires a fresh merit in this patient, spiritual waiting for new birth, while the trees, although bare, except for the cypresses, have assumed a more intricate beauty. Now, as we passed on our way to the picture gallery, ice crackled round the feet of the goddesses in the wide fountains, and the last, few, yellow leaves drifted slowly down through the still air, turning over and over, and seeming to flash as they fell. “ (198)

He then compares the Palladium architecture used in England: “Not only must they Palladianise their homes, but the very landscape itself. And in this respect, with their parks and groups of trees, their canals and statues, they were more successful. They must build their grottoes along the river, their stucco, pagan shrines on a knoll, their pillared bridges across the end of a lake.” (74)

While in Italy even though the Palladian villa is old, “The original mouldings of window and door, the ceilings, garlanded and vaulted, and all of the most exquisite order, the painted balustrades and painted columns, have been allowed to remain in the state to which time has reduced them, and in the world which these things frame, unhindered by furniture and bric-a-brac, exists a whole mythology called back to being after a century’s neglect” (78).

Sitwell posits an important factor why fine art was so abundant in Italy: “An enlightened discernment in such things then increased the prestige of a royal person more than any individual prowess in the killing of beast and bird; and an eye that at once detected a fine picture or a rising artist was recognized as being of more value to the State than one which, with an alarming and blue-rolling rapidity, immediately discovered any aberration in the matter of buttons upon a single uniform in the whole army corps.” (294)

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Venice is such a unique city built upon the water: “Composed of gigantic stone rafts, weighed down with marble and white, cut stone, as it floats on the green, flat surfaces of the lagoons, of necessity Venice supplies its own landscape and offers no other. Here slender towers and top-heavy Venetian chimneys replace trees, domes compensate the absence of hills, and the facades of palaces form the most shining and precipitous of cliffs.” (17)

“Although it may have been an exception for this time of year, Fortune sent a series of golden days, sequined with sunlight but cold enough to make walking a luxury rather than a fatigue, while in the narrow streets the crowds, inspired by the weather, jostled and laughed, and even in the smaller canals there would be little green waves, flopping and fluttering with bird-like wings under the gondolas and traghettos.” (48)

Sitwell sits at Florian’s café where winter alters the scene:“Here it was very pleasant. The café had reverted to being Italian. There were no foreigners, but Venetians of all ages sat hunched for hours over a small cup of coffee, or played draughts or chess in corners. The little rooms, which with their painted glass panels so delicately resemble Victorian bon-bon boxes—and are thus most appropriate to their use—could, now that the glass doors were closed and frosted by breathing, be admired in all their minute and delicious proportions.” (58)

Many mysterious buildings wait to be explored: “That exquisite little patrician Casino which lies just off the Merceria; a place which, though so near, is hard to find and difficult to see. Here the rooms are very small and of the finest, jewel-like workmanship. One lovely little apartment bears, high up on a wall, over the space between two diminutive doors, a bellying gilded grating, behind which the musicians—two of them at the most—could ensconce themselves.” (53)

Churches play a special role in man’s life, like St. Mark’s:  “They created this great church, set in the white spray of fretted stone that so well expresses its origin, to protect and assure them. And this fabric contained in it every colour of the earth and of the sun, and was full of growing things—trees, leaves, and flowers—but ones enduring day and night, winter and summer, because fashioned of gold mosaic, agate, alabaster, or marble; and singing, light, and incense were no doubt exhaled from it unendingly, then as now, into the void outside.” (90)

So many buildings in Italy are superb like the Castel del Monte: “The rooms are high, and the vaulting of their marble roofs is most graceful, for it springs lightly from above groups of three slender marble pillars clustered together. The windows, both the larger ones facing the country, with the smaller ones, giving on to the court, are exquisitely lovely. The walls are, again, lined with a square pattern of dark marbles, while the floors are composed of alternate grey and black marble, or of slightly contrasted stone.” (138)

In another palazzo: “The paintings match the architecture in a truly amazing fashion, for they represent arcaded galleries, from which people of a past age and of the utmost verisimilitude are gazing down, in front of niches in which stand tall statues, upon the interlopers of today. These frescoed figures, although they must be considerably over life-size, appear completely natural, absolutely real.” (48)

Sitwell theorizes why elephants are included in the architecture in southern Italy: “Fifty or so miles away is the site of Cannae, where Hannibal, doubtless with the aid of his African elephants, inflicted a fearful defeat upon the Roman troops. And the sight of these fabulous beasts, imported by the Carthaginian armies, may well have abided, between dream and nightmare, for many centuries in the folk-memory, and thus, after a period of digestion, have found its strange perpetuation in stone.” (130)

He also intuits how the painter El Greco was influenced by the landscape: “From the window of his house, noticing how the ashen and cinder-coloured hills, so improbably streaked and dappled, altered the shapes of the muleteers, of the townspeople strolling into the country, and even of the beasts that were trying to find pasture on these bare humps; and how, further, the strong light, pouring down, changed utterly in its turn the forms of the hills and of the crenellated walls and sharp, dog-toothed towers of the city.” (226)

Books of that era were also superlative: “Nearly all of them contain, in addition to countless full-page engravings, often the work of the most distinguished artists of the day, other ones which open up from the centre of the book, leaf after leaf, growing and diminishing like an ancient dining-room table . . . Because of the talented artists employed on it, because of its massive, even cumbersome, proportions, exquisite binding and the lavishness of its printing, the expense of any volume of this kind must have been very heavy.” (236)

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Sometimes touring was a chore and a disappointment:  “Not a soul stirred. Across the side-streets, a line or two of patched and mended clothes gaped on the air. The sky above, too, betrayed in its tone a peculiar blue vacancy, the sun, round and distinct, appearing to be its sole inmate, just as, below, the Renaissance warrior prince, posturing so solemnly—and quite alone—in the centre of this deserted square, would seem to be the only occupant of his realm: a realm frozen by some curious plague.” (273)

Sitwell wonders what Dickens, whose books are his sole companions, would do: “Rising from my chair, I looked out of the window down into the long and empty street, wondering how he would have begun a story here, with the footsteps sounding out far away under a distant arcade in such a staccato and frightened pattern; footsteps walking briskly for the comfort of their owner, in the same way a man may sing to himself to ward off the terror of empty places, and only muffled for an instant in the moaning of a bitter wind.” (109)

Wind can play tricks on a traveler: “Sweeping up here, high into the air, a piece of paper, and here lifting a journal out of one traveller’s hand and dashing it in the face of another, snatching the breath suddenly out of one man, or ventriloquist-like, carrying some word spoken by him many yards away, so that his companion cannot hear it, and then depositing it of a sudden where it will startle and affright a stranger.” (112)

“Every now and then comes a spell of the particular clattering, jingling rain of these latitudes, its long, grey strings dangling past the windows of the bedrooms down into the high, narrow street for three days at a time, until they seem to form one of those curtains, composed of hollow portions of bamboo, alternating with beads threaded upon a number of cords, that are peculiar to jugglers, mediums, and the cheaper kind of public-house.” (156)

But one day it clears: “The extraordinary and unexpected vision of this enormous range lying so lightly over the blue and marbled sea, so distinct, each mountain veined where the streams flowed down it, the contours so plainly marked, and the snow appearing from here as though stained to various intensities of colour with spilt wine, almost compensated us for the wasted weeks.” (163)

Sitwell has learned to relax, unlike others: “What ideals of sport inspiring the rich young Englishman to face the tsetse-fly and malaria in order to kill animals, striped, elegant and lovely, or armoured and grotesque, in their native swamps and jungles, and to wonder what hardships they will endure, what sandstorms, siroccos, and agues, what typhoons, monsoons, and hurricanes? . . . All these reflections lend a contrasted serenity to the onlooker.” (119)

In peaceful contemplation, memories are triggered: “Rings of light, moving with the particular fluttering, as of butterflies, that is their rhythm, flickered in swarms across the low, painted ceiling of the dining-room next morning. The presence of these tangible, golden insects in itself repays the longest of cold journeys: for, wherever you are sitting—let us say, with your back to the window—each of them is a continual and instant reminder, just as much as would be the most exquisite view of canal or church, gondola or lagoon, of the city in which you are staying.” (36)

He revels in the fact that real life is never far away from the past captured in art: “Thus, while I looked round, examining doors and widows, plaster reliefs and painted ceilings, and realizing with delight the subtle, melodious planning of this house, the golden afternoon was slipping away outside, so that sometimes it called me to the window, to watch the lengthening shadows of the trees, or the tall, thin-waisted, Paleolithic shadows of the gardeners.” (79)

Sitwell observes the people with as much interest, such as an ancient waiter: “This wizened, whiskered old man was so much the epitome of his profession that it is impossible to summon up his image unless one allows it to materialize, as might a spirit, out of the steam issuing from the dishes he uncovered; an amiable but obstinate little phantom, thus for a moment drawing sustenance from the food he carried but never ate.” (247)

Or a mock argument between two old friends: “They were immensely enjoying a row; nothing dangerous or vital, but a delicious, forensic quarrel, packed with rhetoric and gesture, a tear melting in the eye, a sob, or, more rarely, a snarl of anger. Either of them, moreover, was liable suddenly to interrupt his pace, and stand stock still, as though rooted to the spot by the fervency of his own argument, and  would then proceed to harangue his friend with passionate eloquence.” (150)

He even loved the sound of the names of towns: “Cremona, a bone-thin, lemon-coloured city of music, assuming in the mind the shape of a three-arched bridge, of which the middle syllable forms the chief span; then follow Guastalla, like Gonzaga, the prouder of sumptuous Spanish names, cities of tents, pitched, it seems, for conquering grandees, of black and sepia velvet heavily encrusted with gold; Mirandola, most perfectly balanced of musical sounds, associated for ever with poetry.” (269)

Osbert Sitwell wrote three other travel books, all with poetic sensibility: Discursions on Travel, Art and Life (1925), Escape with Me (1939), and Four Continents (1954). Being the men of the family, Sacheverell’s son inherited the English family house “Renishaw.” Osbert Sitwell was given the Italian palazzo his father had renovated “Montegufoni,” in a country where this book Winters of Content proves that he was most at home.

You can find the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Winters-Content-More-Discursions-Travel/dp/B000OKVPOQ

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.

Darwin’s Mother by Sarah Rose Nordgren

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By Lynette G. Esposito

The soft cover volume of Darwin’s Mother by Sarah Rose Nordgren published by Pittsburg Press is a delight. It is so good, even the acknowledgements are interesting.

The book is divided into three sections: Origin of Species, Material, and A Moral Animal. I have favorites in each section. In the first section, my favorite is Mitochondrial Eve on page 9. The first two stanzas set up the poem and the last single line closes it. 

                                     Please go down and thank her
                                      under the arched branches
                                      where she sits on her heels

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                                      arranging a circle of leaves
                                      for a good bed.  And on the inside
                                      of her skin thank the mosaic.

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The seven-stanza  poem is both visual and logical. The structure is regular until the final stanza which stands alone as a single line: always with the door open.  The reader is spoken to in direct address and then is presented with a picture of our original Eve as she puts everything together from the inside out while resting in nature and at the same time being part of nature.

In the second section, Material, my favorite is on pages 28 and 29 entitled Reservoir.  The poem begins It is the nature of data,,,, The poem progresses to discuss

this dry subject in fresh and wonderful images of “things.” Norgren relates data to water and the gathering of it.  In stanza three and four, she presents how this gathering works:

                                        It takes a staff of thousands
                                        traveling on foot with tin buckets
                                        under their arms to collect                                        
                                        even a fraction of it, empting it all
.
                                        into the reservoir we’re building
                                        for this very purpose.  

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She uses the image of water as data through the rest of the poem discussing the uses of information and the broad expanse of it, and ends the poem in two lines: as they stare and say, My God how beautiful. One sees in the poem the digital blue lakes and not the dry numbers of information we observe in landlocked pages. The poem transforms informational data into a lovely useable waterscape.

In A Moral Animal, Nordgren presents poetry with subjects including The Kiss, Moral Animal, Achilles and Mary at the Museum and Simulation. My favorite in this section is

Movie Night on page 54. The title suggests this is a fun poem. If you think watching a horror movie on an Easter Sunday is fun, then add giving birth and trying to stuff the baby back in as a leisure activity and you have a rather twisted vision of what to in your spare time.

The one stanza poem ends with the lines:.

                                      …This time
                                      you play the distant voice while I
                                      heave myself up, heave myself up
                                      from the bitter lake.     

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As in her other poems,  Nordgren creates not only visuals, but contrasting perceptions in how reality can affect us and in this poem how an old horror movie affects our Sunday afternoons.

The book feels honest, simple and complex as it explores the exterior and interior of the author’s view of the human condition in a timeless exposure of how the past, present and future intermix.

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The book is available from The University of Pittsburgh Press at  www.upress,pitt.edu

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Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.  Her articles have appeared in the national publication, Teaching for Success; regionally in South Jersey Magazine, SJ Magazine. Delaware Valley Magazine, and her essays have appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her poetry has appeared in US1, SRN Review, The Fox Chase Review and other literary magazines. She has critiqued poetry for local and regional writer’s conferences and served as a panelist and speaker at local and national writer’s conferences.  She lives with her husband, Attilio, in Mount Laurel, NJ.

 

Leaning into the Infinite by Marc Vincenz

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By Larissa Shmailo

I am not a fan of the unadorned vernacular in poetry, no matter how sincere its sentiment or pertinent its message. In my book, what a poet should do is invent wonderful turns of phrases, new syntax, head-turning semantics. There should be a dialectic of differences which interacts to ­­create the magical, entirely new, entirely necessary synthesis. A poet should bring brilliant LANGUAGE to the reader, by which I more nearly mean semiotics, meaningful, culturally rich, innovative signs that the reader gets to deconstruct time and time again. If you are tired of reading monosyllabic laundry list poetry, then you will be delighted by Marc Vincenz, a poet who trucks in the unpredictable and unexpected, and who conjoins words like gems for jewelry.

In Leaning into the Infinite, Vincenz displays a magical imagination that mines from three continents and a dozen cultures. The language is literate and sparkling. Look at a typical title: “When Uncle Fernando Conjures Up a Dead-Bird Theory of Everything,” where Fernando is “Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa and his many alter egos . . .  written under more than seventy heteronyms.”  Other inspirations are Li Po, Wang Wei, Kafka, Paracelsus, Heraclitus, and Robert Bly. If Auden multitasked, if cummings studied alchemy, if Borges reincarnated into a Hong Kong-born British-Swiss living in America on a green card, you might get a Marc Vincenz.

 If Auden multitasked, if cummings studied alchemy, if Borges reincarnated into a Hong Kong-born British-Swiss living in America on a green card, you might get a Marc Vincenz.

Vincenz’s Infinite is a poetry of mind, a garden of images and ideas and characters that is uncannily aware of its reader. Perhaps all good poetry has this in common, this drawing of the reader in, like an accomplice to its art. Vincenz’s poetry engages and questions, implicitly and explicitly: “How?” “Should I?” “Who?” In “Unreliable Narrator,” he asks “Should I be / stumped / by the greatness / of God . . .”

Who then is

the protagonist

when trillions

of single cells

all think

for themselves?—or together?—

The poet asks and the spare Basho–like verses —and rich longlined poems later in the collection—wait for answer. The poet’s elegant use of line breaks and sculpted white space seem to invite readers to reply, to mark Leaning into the Infinite up with all kinds of marginalia.

We have a tradition in the European canon of the philosopher-poet, in which a poet offers insights into the human condition. Modern poets do so ponderously as a whole. Vincenz’s touch on this is so light and his language so original that you scarcely know you are being enlightened. His temporal range is from the nascent prehistory of cave paintings to the post-relativistic twenty-first century. His worlds are populated with extraordinary beings, including the aforementioned Uncle Fernando and his interlocutor, the oracular Sibyl. In “Uncle Fernando & Sibyl Exchange Curt Words,” Fernando asks for “that mythical moment” and the oracle replies, “Hush,”:

Carbon first.

Then light.

Sibyl, Vincenz’s untamed muse, also appears in dialogues between Prometheus and Orpheus:

 

Orpheus:                                             Prometheus:

The voice                                             & what

of time                                                 is that perfume—

 …                                                       . . .

within the planes                                 the word made

of being                                               Thing

…                                                        . . .

Sibyl:

whenever I start

to try & explain it

I forget words

altogether

My favorite characters in Leaning into the Infinite include a finch singing to his mate from a tree-top which he thinks is a mountain, the Tree God Saluwaghnapani, and Milen, a Filipino wet-nurse who sings a song she “claimed drove off demons that grew within Javan / smog clouds: Ai-Li-Ma-Lu-Ma-Nu — . . . “

Leaning into the Infinite ranges from Olympus to “The Penal Colony” and is vivid and visceral:

Not from the gagged mouth—it knots & tangles in the larynx

& the chain simply groans: ‘Have done it.

Have it etched to the bone.

 It’s all in the pointed nib of the writers’ dark truth.

 In an enlightened moment the Bewildered gasps alone—

The Orwellian/Kafkaesque boot stamps:

Just                 Be                     

             a        

      good Citizen 

Be                    Just

And then the poet escapes to his natal Asia:

O to be born reforested in Borneo

 where water doesn’t run off in disappointing sloughs,

 but cascades & careens within the bejeweled heart

of a single fruiting tree, where a child is a rambutan

(or the fleshy dumpling-pulp of a mangosteen)— . . .

Vincenz speaks to the childlike longing in us to have a storyteller/mentor introduce us to the world’s mysteries, to share its secrets:

If only I had a good uncle to sit me down at an uneven hearth

with a hot cup of mulled wine, a twinkle in his eye

& this background whiff of ancient pine:

To hear how the world begins green, fresh, tabula rasa:

& late at night or early morning through air still as glass,

to eavesdrop upon the grasses & their endless philosophizing.

You have this uncle in Marc Vincenz. Drink up.

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You can find the book here:

https://www.dosmadres.com/shop/leaning-into-the-infinite-by-marc-vincenz/

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Larissa Shmailo’s latest novel is Patient Women and latest collection of poetry is Medusa’s Country. www.larissashmailo.com