By Greg Bem
“We’re all working hard every day on composing seventeen or so words that will decorate our headstones.” (from “Bitter Pills,” page 41)
Thomas Walton’s a poet’s poet. But not only in the ways you might think. He writes poems with allusions, with complex symbols, and with a literary imperative, but his writing also expresses a more automatic, emergent language, a language reflecting a growing relationship with the surrounding world. And Walton’s latest book is a poet’s book that captures this, but it’s also difficult to pin down, challenging to categorize and understand, as we are sometimes wanting to do with poetry. All the Useless Things are Mine—the title is bearably funny while also being deadpan. When it comes to the poems, this is a collection with a name fittingly accurate and inaccurate all the same—there’s a lot here, and it might be useless, and it might be useful, but to Thomas, it’s a matter of taste and curiosity, the poet finding their self and their voice emerging from a world that is inconsequentially available.
Let’s step back. Let’s see this availability in form. The book, on the surface, is a collection of Thomas’s 17-word aphorisms, loosely packed and fitting nicely into rigid and flexible sequences of theme. Thomas is following up last year’s investigation of marriage failings, dutiful fatherhood, and a relentless commitment to Gertrude Stein, The World Is All That Does Befall Us (Ravenna Press, 2019), and the previous year’s collaborative investigation of art history in Rome, The Last Mosaic (with poet Elizabeth Cooperman, Sagging Meniscus Press, 2018). To say Thomas is on a roll would be underwhelming; Thomas’s newest release flows (or stems) from both of his predecessors. Each aphorism is a statement. It harkens to the lyrical essay. But each aphorism lives on its own in a slightly more liberated (open?) circumstance.
“Concentration is a kind of levitation, and when you’re in the clouds it’s easy to love indiscriminately.” (from “All Poets Are Lunatics,” page 63)
The titles of each sequence, each “poem,” tend to be wayfinding tools if anything. Each adds subtext to the aphorisms within. “At the Crack of Up” and “All Poets Are Lunatics” and “I Guess I Don’t Travel Much” are a few examples of Walton’s layering of humor. “Love and Sex” and “Birdsong” and “The Afterlife” balance things out. And this is a book of balance, despite its sprawl and flexibility. The poems are compacted nicely into a book that feels nice. Like the others mentioned above, this collection is also a relatively small physical shape. It can fit in most pockets. It can be pulled out and examined in a flash, or a breath, and repocketed for future engagement.
Or, for readers like myself, it is a book of deception. The book feels small, but the print is as well. And the aphorisms keep on coming. I devoted an entire evening to reading it—and it took the entire evening! Such is the way of Walton’s latest works, which drag and twirl mesmerizingly. The lack of any narrative structure, any overall argument, entraps the reader further. Stepping into All the Useless Things are Mine is a visit to the poppy field, a long beach with ceaseless tidal crashings, a labyrinth not of “how” or “why” but of “when.”
Time, duration, mortality—the nature of our beating hearts—these qualities blossom within this text through the inclusivity of Douglas Miller’s etchings and drawings. The images are straightforward—household objects, animals, insects, trees—each page-long visual is presented in stark black and white. The materials used feel rough and emergent. There is a flow to the scrapes and scratches upon the page. Some images feel rough, even resembling drafts through the presence of outlines. But the they are also hardly such; as documents of the creative process, Miller’s visuals resemble the fixity of Walton’s seventeen-word form. Whether they contain everything or only part, they are complete and gorgeous. The sense of emptiness, of incompleteness, juxtaposed with the reality of finality instills a haunting (or chilling) effect: it is existential. This is what we have, and this is when we have it—the now, the immediate, the temporary.
“I walked out with her, looking hard at things, hoping to break into living with my eyes.” (from “Do Your Job,” page 26)
The temporary is linked through the visual, and the visual is mighty in Walton’s aphorisms. It is a construct, a poet’s world, remembering, assembling, forever revisiting. It is moving; this poet’s world is a space, a field, ever-expanding and ever-enveloping one and the same. What often does not translate into a book-length work, which is often confronting form on a large scale, with distinct purpose and message, is how that world’s expansion and envelope is fluid and in flux. Walton’s previous works alluded to the phenomenon of the everyday poetic practice, and All the Useless Things are Mine dives right in. While not a daybook or journal, it still reminds us that the notes, the scrawl, the scribbling existed to lead into the book. There are roots. There is the prototypical core.
Intimately, Walton’s latest work allows the reader to feel like we’re walking down the block, resting in the park, holed up under some bushes in a garden, or off in some shadowy nook of a house. But not to linger—to merely capture the moment, to create a literary impression—and then to move on. Walton’s work is once again spirited, and balanced within the two covers that hold it close. And yet the fluidity and sprawl of the world Walton has documented, like the haiku of Matsuo Bashō, the walking poems of Frank O’Hara, or the contemporary American Sentences of Paul E. Nelson, insists on the “something more” of process, of origins, and of linearity’s charm.
You can find the book here: https://www.saggingmeniscus.com/catalog/all_the_useless_things_are_mine/
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.
You can find the book here: https://rosemetalpress.com/books/audubons-sparrow/
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is) –http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf
By Lynette G. Esposito
The book is available from www.upress.pitt.edu
By Maggie Paul
A sharp intellect coupled with compassion contributes to the wry yet tender tone of The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky Press, 2020), the fifth collection by poet, translator, and author, Lynn Levin. Levin’s new collection contains a trove of poems that courageously traverse a wide range of subjects including, the seduction of a drug that removes a patient’s fear of death, a criminal finally turning himself in “for a bed and some chow,” and the practicality of habits (organizing, offering small kindnesses to strangers) that structure our days. An alchemy of ordinary gestures, pieces of memory, and echoes of a pre-digital world rise up in poem after poem to reveal who we really are, what we value, and ultimately, what we call our lives. In Levin’s world, form and meaning are intertwined. There is nothing trite in the execution of these poems.
Levin’s work incorporates traditional form and word play to great effect. She is adept at rondels, villanelles, ballads, lyrics and narratives. Her use of end-rhyme, off-rhyme, and internal rhyme is delightfully embedded in the music of the line. Yet these techniques are so skillfully handled, they do not obscure the edgy subject matter and multiple layers of meaning in each poem; rather, they enhance it. In this poet’s hands, form and meter are not constrictive containers, but vehicles barely visible carrying the reader to surprising and evocative ends.
When addressing the challenges of living in the virtual world of cell phones, online dating, and social media, Levin, with a unique un-pedantic approach, explores how 21st century devices alter the nature of relationship – both with one’s self and others. To do so, she calls upon such predecessors as Allen Ginsburg and Walt Whitman, as in “Song of My Cell Phone,” a play on Whitman’s “Song of My Self.” Here the narrator proclaims, “I sing the life electronic,” and invites the reader to enter into the poem with echoes of Ginsburg’s “Howl:” “I saw the best minds of my generation,/clunking into buildings and strolling into traffic….” Marianne Moore’s poem, “Poetry” provides the impetus for Levin’s “Sex:” “I too, dislike it,” as the poem proceeds to explore the primal yearning of the body and ultimately turns to conclude, as Moore did regarding the art of poetry, that the value of sex is ineffable.
Some of the poems elegize aspects of a former time. In “Writing in Longhand,” the narrator, after “decluttering” Maria Kondo-style, discovers hand-written letters she’d not looked at in years: “And there I found my old friends alive/in their script.” It is not just finding the letters that moves the narrator to fondly recall the old art of letter writing, but the way the cursive style of each friend reveals their personality: “Exuberant Nancy/with her flourishes and bubble-dotted i’s./Tammy, her cursive half-sized/as if the soul witheld.” Emails and texts notoriously exclude the unique individuality of their correspondents. One must sometimes guess at tone and meaning, and therein we find a loss.
One sign of a strong collection is the desire to turn to it again and again. Successive readings of The Minor Virtues yields more than the number of pages in the book. The poems never fail to re-open, like water lilies known to open at day and close at night. The undeniable magic of multiple meanings and witty conceits occurs without clutter or fluff. Each poem delivers; the possibilities are laid plain.
Among the most moving poems in this collection are those in which the narrator addresses and examines the self, both specific and general, from a philosophical if not existential point of view. The Lilith poems are a carry over from Levin’s previous books. In The Minor Virtues, the Lilith poems continue to mythologize the experiences of a female persona. These poems address the power dynamic between men and women as in “Lilith and Adam,” the writer “before a keyboard and screen” who remembers fondly the writing implements of stylus and quill in “Lilith, the Scribe,” and the trials and tribulations of seeking the intimacy of love in the public sphere of online dating in “Lilith Tries Online Dating.” These poems are at once humorous and yet, full of pathos. As post-modern elegies for how humans communicated in the past, they shed light on a type of beauty the digital world has all but erased.
Is the speed of the digital, technological world worth the sacrifice of in-person relationship, the touching of hands that occurs when a customer pays with small change, the kindness of a woman sharing her breast milk with “…a new mother who is not producing enough milk for her infant?” a new mother whose milk is not producing enough for her infant? Has it enhanced or deepened our awareness and appreciation for how we spend our time? In “My Hours,” the narrator drives these questions home: “All my life I have passed/through curtains of mist./When have I lived and why?/I have spent so much/of my life in aimless hours—lost in weeds, lost in flowers.” How many of us privately hold these same questions? It takes a tightrope walker, a dancer of both classical ballet and hip hop, to weave examinations of our eternal nature with those of the edgy, fast-paced post-modern world we find ourselves in. Levin’s poems perform a seamless duet between the physical and metaphysical, humor and tragedy, joy and loathing.
It is satisfying, no gratifying, to read poems that so eloquently and astutely address the issues of our time. When you enter the poems in The Minor Virtues, prepare to travel the full spectrum of experience lived, lost, and still to come. You just may find yourself…dancing.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1933974354/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2
Maggie Paul is the author of Scrimshaw (Hummingbird Press 2020), Borrowed World, (Hummingbird Press 2011), and the chapbook, Stones from the Baskets of Others (Black Dirt Press 2000). Her poetry, reviews, and interviews have appeared in the Catamaran Literary Reader, Rattle, The Monterey Poetry Review, Porter Gulch Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and Phren-Z, SALT, and others. She is an education consultant and writing instructor in Santa Cruz, California. For information on Maggie’s publications go to: https://dasulliv1.wixsite.com/hummingbirdpress