selected poems

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.

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A Fire Without Light by Darren Demaree

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By g emil reutter
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Darren Demaree is a singer of poems. His latest collection, A Fire Without Light, is a series of polemic poems aggressively written, contentious in nature, written in the present. Demaree walks into the fire without fear. The fire he writes about is the Trump Presidency.
 
He opens the book with a dedication.
 
This book is dedicated to every person that believes empathy is our most important strength, and that those that believe it to be a weakness are the weakest among us. Those people that rally against love and acceptance we will remember, but we will never raise their names in song without the anger
they forced into our hearts.
 
Demaree tells us in #3, I like song. I will get used to these short songs. I will learn what I need to do. I won’t waste a single breath. I will sing as often as I can.
 
Sing he does and often throughout this collection not in fear but in his view of the reality of the Trump Presidency. Such singing as this:
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A Fire Without Light #12
New sorrow, old accuracy, we all arrived outside the
community center to say his name without teeth, to
let bounce it around our mouths, to have it be chewed
up while it left that cave, to see it injured in the world
before it was ever heard by another soul. Such a chaotic
thing, his name, such a weight, a violence in image and
repetition, and now we’re forced to taste it. Nobody
wants to taste his name, but we must if we’re going to
mangle it properly
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In #30 he tells us … We know all of his moves. We know he waited for the darkness, so that he may be the light. We know he is not the light… We offered him the world. We know he means to consume the world. We offered him the world. We know he means to consume the world. We offered him the world. We offered him the world.
 
Demaree tells us that we are all responsible and in this no one is blameless. He continues throughout to yawp.
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A Fire Without Light #41
I didn’t have it in me, to seal my mouth like Berryman
suggested, keeping the air of my anger inside, and
dancing so little that I might be mistaken for a fearful
American. I am not afraid. I’m quiet. There is no list
making in my heart. I’m writing these poems all of the
time, and I’m smiling while I pile them behind every
Ohioan that voted for Trump. I won’t have to push
them over this horse-high collection. They will turn
naturally, and have to swim through the thousands of
pages. Most of them will give up, and turn back to my
stillness. They will hold me. We will never talk about
why. We will know, but we’ll never have to talk about it.
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In #76 he sings, The sweat of hate makes us all think we need to be
rewritten into elegy… Humanity for all. Humanity for Donald J. Trump.
May he find humanity before we are forced to rest against the zero.
 
Demaree is not one of those folks who talk of leaving, there is a strength to him to speak out no matter the strength of the wind, no matter the damage. He has his doubts but is holding onto his country.
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A Fire Without Light #655
How lucky I am to be greeted with the wind as I
smack back against the ribs of America. This is the
era of bruising. Those of us that survive will look like
survivors. Those of us that are buried will be buried in
numerous plots. This is the shredding of the tendons of
the American hopefuls. I have no intention of leaving. I
have no idea if I can hold on to my country.
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These poems are daring, dusky and intense. Demaree reveals a moral strength standing not wallowing in despair; writing of the ongoing fires lit by Trump over 2017 desiring to document and extinguish as many as he can. He boldly walks through the storm under the dark clouds that dwell above America telling us in these poems that there is hope, we can survive, and freedom of speech is the most powerful weapon we have.
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You can find the book here: A Fire Without Light
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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter
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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

Drowning Like Li Po in a River of Red Wine – Selected Poems 1970-2010

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Review by g emil reutter
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I plucked this volume published by Bottle Of Smoke Press back in 2010 from my library to have another visit with the poet A.D. Winans. I have several of his chapbooks but I am always drawn to these selected poems for a good read. Winans is at times plainspoken and as he says you won’t need a dictionary to figure out what he is saying. He brings the heart and soul of America into his poems that reflect the hard times people have and some of the good times. As plainspoken as he is in his realism, he is at his best with images such as this from the 3rd stanza For William Wantling:
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The night rolls back its wings
Teeth as cold a naked bone
But neither the night nor
The poet dies quietly
Only the flesh expires
The word linger on welcoming
The taste of ash
And morning comes as no loss
For wherever you are
You survived the pain
Refused to surrender
Earth’s flesh removed from reality
Here in the wakening of dawn
Where the mist smells sweetly
And one can hear the throats
Of birds singing like cannons
In the hour when the spirit
Collects its visions
Replaying them on old walls
Gatsby shots from another era
Stills to fill the void
In a world of runaway tongues
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Winans is a poet of the working class, the disadvantaged. He lives among them and understands them when they pass into the forgotten world of the jobless such as the first 6 stanzas of The System:
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There are old men and women
Who have worked all their lives
Who have put in thirty-five
And forty years for the right
To a pension
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There are old people who have
Worked twenty years
Only to be laid off
Without so much as two weeks
Written notice
Abandoned to seek a living
At half the pay
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There are old people
Who have worked
Most of their lives
Only to witness
The company go belly-up
And find there is no pension
Fund left
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You can find them
On park benches
Or wandering lonely supermarkets
Or sitting daily
At neighborhood bars
Nursing their drinks
Like a blood transfusion
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They come in different flavors
Like lifesavers
Some thin and balding
Some fat and sweating
Some complaining bitterly
Some too proud to let the
Pain show
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So proud that they eat dog food
And find desert in back alley
Garbage cans
Trapped by false promises
Trapped by a belief in a system
That has abandoned them.
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Winans is the direct link to the Beat/Meat poetry movement and thus its child the Outlaw poetry movement. He writes of Bukowski, Ferlinghetti, Kaufman, Micheline and Burroughs, of politics, his time in Panama and visits to Mexico, of his mother and father, of lost loves, of hard times, of haunting memories such as in the poem. I Kiss The Feet Of Angels:
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dark starry night
fog creeping in
over the hills
raindrops falling
on the window
I see the faces of old friends
staring at me
ghosts from the past
freight trains steam ships
subway trains carrying their
cargo of death
Rimbaud the mad hatter
Baudelaire
Lorca fed a dinner of bullets
Kaufman a black messiah
walking Bourbon Street
eating a golden sardine
Micheline drinking with Kerouac
at Cedar Tavern
Jesus wiping the perspiration
from his forehead
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the foghorn plays a symphony
inside my head
I hear the drums
I feel the beat
I kiss the feet
of angels
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Winans is the last one left in the rodeo when it is all said and done. He has lived the life of a poet. A poet, publisher, performer, promoter of other poets, Winans is dedicated to the craft. At the age of 80 Winans is still creating his art. A new book is forthcoming this year, keep an eye out for it. Until then give yourself a gift and pick up a copy of Drowning Like Li Po in a River of Red Wine.
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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter