book review

Magnesium

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
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John Stuart Mill drew a shrewd distinction between eloquence and poetry. The former, he said, is heard. The latter is overheard.
The best of the poems in Ray Buckley’s Magnesium demonstrate the soundness of Mill’s observation. Take this one, for instance:
I was mistaken when I said
those things to you.
I’m apologizing now.
For being wrong and for
being very sure I wasn’t.
This sounds exactly like something you might hear in the booth next to yours in a restaurant, and it reminds one of how poetic the fragments of ordinary discourse can often sound — and be. Like many of the poems in this collection, this one’s first line serves as its title. None of the poems is titled “Magnesium,” though many of them and many of the lines that compose them bring to mind that experiment one did in high school chemistry class, when you set alight a thin strip of magnesium wire and watched it sizzle. “Who will reveal us to what we are thinking?” has just that sort of sparkle.
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Poems are not the only things here. There are prose interludes, and what are best described as playlets, fragmentary dialogues. One of these, “Piccadilly Circus,” has two guys in a phone booth at the London landmark trying to reach a girl to tell her where to meet them. It would make for an effectively absurd skit a la Samuel Beckett (who is referenced from time to time in the book). There is a sort of narrative at work here, defined largely by a sense of disaffection and the need for apology. This can be wryly self-deprecating, as in the conclusion to “One Too Many Things”:
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I work very hard to be considered significant.
I have intentions of having a very elevating photograph taken of me
at some point so it can accompany the paragraphs I’ve written
dedicated to my abiding attention to my own immortality.
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It does seem that the speaker in these poems has much to be apologetic about. There are the references to drugs: “I’d be in better shape to say something to you/if I had something other than 2631 in my system.” Cyclobenzaprine hydrochloride, known by the number 2631 on the pill, is a muscle relaxant, which would seem no big deal. But a later, one-line poem announces “I ran out of narcotics. But I have this bottle of muscle relaxers.” And the very next poem, also a one-liner, notes that “It’s very good for one’s career to affect a drug problem.” So we may well be dealing with a less than reliable narrator, which might be a problem were it not that the speaker himself sometimes doubts his reliability:
I’m sorry I made you believe I was a liar. The strangeness of my honesty was a red herring. … I don’t know how to properly explain to you how false everything you believe is.
The recurring sense of unfulfillment grows trying at times, but one never doubts its authenticity. It would appear to be a common mode of being these days. And every now and then there is the exultation of “Be Grace”:
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Tell us how you started it all.
Grow roots in us which we’ll
Wish ourselves the prisoners of
Reach in like all there is is reaching.
Be grace, and tell us your secret.
Like eternity, shine like eternity.
Go into us, contain us.
And be grace. 
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Ray Buckley is worth keeping an eye on.
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Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.
 
 
 

The Philosopher Savant

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Review by Stephen Page

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In the first poem of the book the narrator, as a young boy, skips church and wanders the countryside, discovering new truths, learning he is able to think for himself, coming to his own conclusions about himself and the world, and finding out he is not bound by non-secular dogma. This is where the Philosopher Savant comes into being.

The book follows the remembrances, dreams, fears, evaluation, assessments, and vision of the Philosopher Savant. He is an average person, a father, a householder with a job—but he has a vagrant soul and the fugue vision of a shaman.

Larson writes in the veins of Whitman and Shakespeare. Some of his poems read as contemporized sonnets, and they have as much genius entwined as Shakespeare’s.  While reading the poems, I had a feeling of transcending my self, a oneness with the “all”. The thesis of the book parallels and paraphrases the consciousness of the diffused identity, an identity much like Whitman’s—putting that in other words, “If you want to find me again, look for me in the silence between your thoughts.”

Larson’s intention with the book is to hold the consciousness of the reader, and never let it go, completely—as the images and stories of the poem remain in the minds of the reader after the book is read. Larson wants to say to the reader that everyone and everything share the same consciousness, they always have, and there is only one being in the universe.

What works wonderfully in this book, aside from the brilliant poetics, is that the reader becomes aware that linear time is insignificant. Similar to how memory works. The Philosopher savant is allowed to say what he wants, when he wants, the way he wants, wherever he wants. He remembers things in an anti-chronological manner. He remembers between lifetimes, previous lifetimes, the present, the past, and he forecasts the absurdity of the future.

A while back, I read an earlier book written by Larson, “The Wine-Dark House,” and I was mesmerized. Each poem in “Philosopher Savant” is packed with as much detail as a short story.  Larson’s writing style is multifarious.  In the great library of the universe, this book would be there on the top shelf. If the great library of Alexandria still stood, this book would also be there.

I look forward to reading Larson’s next book, “Pavement”.

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Rustin Larson’s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Iowa Review, North American Review, Poetry East, and The American Entomologist Poet’s Guide to the Orders of Insects. He is the author of The Wine-Dark House (Blue Light Press, 2009), Crazy Star (selected for the Loess Hills Book’s Poetry Series in 2005), Bum Cantos, Winter Jazz, & The Collected Discography of Morning, winner of the 2013 Blue Light Book Award (Blue Light Press, San Francisco), and The Philosopher Savant (Glass Lyre Press, 2015). His website is: https://rustinlarson.wordpress.com/

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Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

Frank Wilson on the poetry of Marion Deutsche Cohen

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
The second of these volumes takes its title from a course Marion Deutsche Cohen developed and teaches at Arcadia University. The subtitle of that course is “Mathematics in Literature.”
Cohen’s day job is teaching math, and math figures a good deal in her poetry. Lest you think that might be off-putting, fear not. When it comes to math, I am without a trace of comprehension, and I had no problem at all with the references to sets, theorems, and the like. That’s because Cohen manages to communicate what it is like to have a passion for mathematics.
“Memoirs of a High-School Math-Brain,” from Closer to Dying, begins thus:
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“The Parabola,” I announced.
“She would choose that one,” whispered three regular teenagers in the back row.
Yes, alas, I would.
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The final stanza makes clear why:
 
Plenty of regular teenage girls got A’s in math.
But they didn’t prefer working on crossing polygons to going to a party.
And they didn’t write little squiggly geometry and algebra shapes in history class.
And they didn’t choose the parabola.
“Not as Much as Before,” one of the poems in Truth & Beauty is a response to students lamenting that they didn’t enjoy math in college as much as they had before college:
“… before college, I was like a kid in a candy store with math … The profundity of math could make me cry.
But in fact I didn’t really need the candy store … Candy was still candy even without the store and fifty years later I’m still a kid with candy. … Loving can come in spurts and it can come back ….
The poems in Truth & Beauty  are based on homework questions and classroom conversations that students and their teacher have shared. They are prose poems. Now, the prose poem has not had much success in English. Cohen’s work precisely because she does not go out of her way to make them “poetic.” The “prosy” parts of “Not as Much as Before” provide just the right context for that “loving can come in spurts” phrase.
While the profundity of math may make people like Cohen cry, it is life that brings heartbreak, and math is no help for that, as “Proof Theory” makes plain:
Like when my third baby died, and the students all know about that, I tried to prove that she couldn’t possibly have died, I said things like “But I ate so healthily”, “I already had two successful pregnancies”. Prove it, God, how did you do it, how could it POSSIBLY have been done?”
Heartbreak itself, though, never dies:
A grave once opened for me.
It was so big, so wide, an entire small house.
And she whom they were lowering was twenty inches
six pounds, fourteen ounces, small enough
To have fit inside me.
The dispassionate precision of these lines only makes the grief more palpable. In “Dreams about One Way in Which Life Goes On,” we learn that the child’s name was Kerin: “I have another baby named Kerin and she also dies. / I say I lost two babies named Kerin … / Another night I lost yet another baby named Kerin. … How many nights can I keep this up?”
And then there is growing old, which means growing “closer to dying,” while visited by insomnia, insinuating dreams, together with pain and memory. Here is “One Brand of Insomnia”:
By day I play Mozart and Bach on the piano.
I play pretty well. I sort of conquer them.
But by night they’re back.
By night they’re conquering me.
This suggests, rather startlingly, that the two conquerings work in synergy. Something akin animates “50-Year High School Reunion”:  “encountering my sixteen-year-old self. … I am hugging her, comforting her, advising her … Yes, I am advising her. And she is listening. She listened.”
Time to go shopping — or, more precisely, thrifting and that is what Cohen does in a good many of the poems in What I’m Wearing Today. Math tags along, of course. In “Math in the Thrift Store,” an “ethnic hand-embroidered top”  prompts interrogation:
What theorem are you? I ask it.
What is your proof?
What’s your Gödel number?
What’s your Gödel name?
But more than number resonates here. The speaker in “What I See in Thrift Stores” claims to seek space, time, “my past.” As in ”What I Wore in the 70s”:
I didn’t dress sexy.
I dressed arty.
I wasn’t a sex object.
I was an art object.
What it all adds up to is a fundamental mathematical truth: the terms on either side of an equal sign are just different ways of expressing the same thing. Cohen’s poems inevitably prove equal to their quotidian details. This is poetry not merely as a manner of speaking, but as an actual way of living.
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. — The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.

The Diviners

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A Mini Review by Stephen Page

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The book is a single poem divided into five chapters, each chapter a different decade, the total chronicling a family’s beginnings, growth, problems, separation, and reunion.  The device of chapter/decade works well. Even though the world doesn’t go through any major changes at midnight when the calendar flips over to a year with a zero on the end, we as human beings have the habit of measuring our existence in decades—what we were like and what we did in the 70’s, the 80’s etc.—what fashions were like, how people behaved.  Readers relates to decades well.  Especially in remembrance.  The events shown in the poem are ones that most everyone can empathize with in one way or another. The language and form are prosaic yet poetic.  The result is an accessible poem that reads like a novel.  Most of the characters’ relationships are dramatic, but some are humorous—especially during the haunted house scene.  
 
Buy the book on Amazon.
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Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

The Absent

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Review by g emil reutter

 

Rosalind Palermo Stevenson’s, The Absent, brings the reader on a forty nine year journey of the life of William Wright Martin. Stevenson’s research is outstanding as the book begins and ends in Philadelphia during the late 1800s with stops in the Wild West and Southwest territories of the United States. Martin and his wife Lucie are photographers, have their own studio yet live with his mother and aunt. Lucie and William are obsessed with the art. Lucie with portraits and what the images she creates reveal about people, he with structures and space.

…what silence speaks of…there is that apt gesture of silence, the hand closed in a gentle fist, the index finger raised and placed over the lips. It’s silly to stand there, the voice says, when you can lie down and rest. Yes rest. Enough time has passed—too many days. How many. Do you remember? You look worn. You look tired. It’s time. You agree that it’s time don’t you? 

As a child, William Martin and his mother are taken west from Philadelphia by his father. There at a young age he is being taught to be man by his rough and tough father although the mother is always protective. His father hears danger and throws the boy into the bushes where Martin witnesses the brutal slaying of his father by a gang of men. His mother brings him home to Philadelphia and his life begins again. He matures into a man who lives two lives, one in the reality of who he is and the other dominated by hauntings of what he has seen. Sleep evades him although he and Lucie are close in their marriage there are somethings, as the author says, you don’t share. They work in a studio where Lucie spends most of her time as he walks and photographs Philadelphia. They spend the off time at their mother’s house where Aunt Lavina also lives. Spiritualism and bird watching dominate the house. Suddenly his marriage is broke asunder, he is at a loss for Lucie is gone. He is there but is not. A haunted man, Martin makes seamless transitions from his real life to his dream state while awake or asleep. Martin is a man of tragedy who listens to the voices that haunt him.

Stevenson has a unique ability to develop the supporting cast in this work. The ever present mother and aunt, The Fell family who work at the studio and the interactions the complex Martin has with others in Philadelphia. During his mourning for the broken marriage he travels to the Mid-West on a photographic journey to the place his father was murdered. Stevenson provides a wide cast of supporting characters both in his journey to the Mid-West and again when he is surveying the Southwest. Native Americans, cowboys, hunters even a hermaphrodite who Martin oddly bonds with. New hauntings come to him, yet when he is returning to Philadelphia from his first trip to the Mid-West he meets Dr. Stiles and his daughter Angeline at the depot. The three travel to Philadelphia on the train as the civil war breaks out. Fell continues to manage the studio and over time his daughter Lucie is assisting him. A courtship begins between Angeline and William and they soon marry and live with Dr. Stiles. The couple remain childless and the ever patient Angeline lives with his love of the ever present first wife, Lucie, in his mind. She accepts his long term physical absence from her during his trips and walks about the city, although they as a couple also walk and go on carriage rides. There is a closeness between the two that is as bonding as is the absence.

You look worn. You look tired. It’s time. You agree that it’s time don’t you? 

Martin is a photographer of the era, always aware of the light and shadows. In The Absent, Stevenson has provided the reader with images of lights and shadows, of loss and love, of violence and peace. Of the complex nature of the mind and relationships. All of the characters come to life from the page in vivid detail in the haunted mind and life of William Wright Martin.

You can find the book here: http://rainmountainpress.com/books41.html

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter

 

 

Libro de lectura

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Review by Stephen Page

Angela Pradelli’s Libro de lectura is a book-length essay on teaching in Argentina based on the accounts of a writer who has taught in Argentine public schools.  Up until 16 years ago, attending a public school was free and unbiased to all students.  Teachers were paid a livable salary and the level of education was high.  Even the very rich sent their students to quality public schools.  All that has changed—since 2001, public school teachers’ salaries have risen very little, or in some cases, diminished, so many of the talented teachers have chosen to move laterally to instruct in private schools, where the pay is higher.

This book is about the children in the schools as well as the teachers.  The essay is divided into chapters.  Each chapter tells a different story.  Most every chapter opens with a poignant scene of one of the kids, his or her everyday life before or after school.  Then each story moves to the classroom where the difficulties and erudition are shown in a society where class often decides how well the students learn.  Poor and lower middle-class students come to school without their books, their paper, their pens, and their desire to learn. One student repeats the sixth grade because her neighborhood has no high school and she has no safe and viable means to arrive at any other outside her impoverished neighborhood. Another student uses pages of her textbook to wrap her feet so she can walk to school on a winter morning (what a wonderful metaphor you could make with that). As Pradelli humanely points out, it is up to the teachers to change that—make the classes interesting, encourage the despairing students, and pay for some of their supplies from their own lint-lined pockets.  In classes where you have a student of superior intelligence and/or another who was socialized in an inferior environment, special assignments and subtle attention are given.  Some of the solutions I mentioned from Pradelli’s book seem simplistic, and the dilemmas seem familiar worldwide, but anyone who has taught knows that a large percentage of teachers (and school administrators) in the world just don’t care.  Apathy and putting in the required hours in order to draw a paycheck are abundant in the teaching world.

Pradelli’s book touches the sentiments of people who are not aware of the pitiful public-school syste m, and encourages those who are aware from losing hope.  Each chapter of the book introduces loveable characters—upturned childish faces begging to be taught.  Pradelli’s outstanding story telling brings sharp focus to an often looked-away problem.

You can find the book here:

http://www.aristipolibros.com.ar/libro.php?cr_pid=MLA573098790

Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings

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 Review by Stephen Page
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 I’ve been thinking lately how most of my life I dreamed I would live in a shack in the mountains without telephone or T.V., walk the woods, eat berries, drink snowmelt, and write about place.  I would of course visit a city on the weekends, for culture, you know, and sit on an unmade bed in an inexpensive hotel in the afternoon and watch soap operas on T.V.  Seriously though, the culture part of the dream includes art, ballet, theatre, cinema, fine cuisine, wine, friends, a love interest, a once a week teaching job—then back to the shack for a week of writing and communing with the natural world.  When I lived alone and single, which I have most of my life, it was easy to continue the shack dream, because by living alone, I was closer to that person on the mountain.  Since I have been married though, the hermit of me has hid, or should I say, reclused, but did not completely disappear.  He lurks among my cortical synopses, resides in my hippocampus.   He and the shack where he lives will be a part of my life’s work.  For a writer, there has to be a balance between writing and life.  Some writers need more of one than the other.  They way I see it, a writer may try to live a full life and write, but when the time comes to write, he needs to write, and only write.  The writing has to be more important than life when he is writing about life.  And (now I am getting away from the topic, but drawing a parallel), depending how private the writer is, a writer may want to edit, exclude, or delete his life from history and leave only his writings.  Sooner or later, though, someone is going to tell his story—that is, what he did, how he treated people—and that someone may be his mother, his sister, his spouse, his child, his friend, his enemy, or his dumped lover (any of whom may not be very kind); so why shouldn’t a writer keep a diary, talk to people, interview, write letters—tell his side of the story.  If he lived a good life (and that is, of course, a subjective phrase dependent upon cultural mores, subcultural trends, parental teachings, etc. etc.), he shouldn’t be ashamed about people knowing about his life.  He shouldn’t be afraid.  Not if he has courage.  Anyway, along those lines (and I have to focus on the shack—place), let’s see how life develops, you and I, the reader and the writer, let’s see how our poems appear, how we diarize and how we are biographed.  On those notes, let’s look at a book:
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Last week, I read e.e. cummings’s 100 Selected Poems.   He’s a god of course who visited this earth to show off and play with people’s heads.  Anyone could aspire to write half as well as him.  He breaks downs language only to rebuild it to high art.
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Stephen Page is a poet in Argentina via Detroit Michigan. He can be found here: Stephen Page