Tuesday, November 24, 2015
by Mark Pawlak
Cervena Barva Press
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Pawlak
34 pages, softbound, $7
Review by Zvi A. Sesling
About two years ago in a review of Mark Pawlak’s Go to the Pine: Quoddy Journals 2005-2010 I wrote that, “Pawlak’s poems are more than just poems, they are paintings, a verbal presentation of what an artist would perceive….”
In his latest chapbook of poetry Pawlak again returns to paintings and nature that puts
him on a par with the best of poets who write about these subjects, particularly nature, which include Gary Snyder and Taylor Graham. This is not to say that he imitates anyone, he certainly does not. Pawlak has a keen eye with an acute sensitivity of what nature is really about and he can relate his observations in short, clear verse.
The first part of the books is done in panels, as in the panels of paintings common among the Japanese, Chinese and some Orthodox paintings. The first part of the chapbook is titled “After Utamaro’s Chorus of Birds and Insects” and portrays in words 11 panels.
In “Panel 1” for instance, he presents a six line view of a field of grass as an ocean that when closing one’s eyes presents a clear image that to some readers would seem to be ocean waves:
Undulating green sea
of weeds and tall grasses,
bordering train tracks,
with flecks of white foam –
Queen Ann’s Lace –
at the wave crests
In Panel 5 the animal world seen as the precursor to the battle soon to be joined and the reader can feel the tenseness and twitching that precedes that engagement:
Ink-black thumb smudges
on otherwise white fur,
this crouching cat,
gray squirrel, its tail erect –
two trains on a collision course –
fur soon to fly.
Pawlak has an unerring eye for detail, even the most minute ones he sees the
carpet of bluebells, spread/beneath forsythia’s golden crown (Panel 6) or Ancient
backyard cedar,/whose tippy-top tickles the clouds (Panel ) and finally underwings
showing to advantage/the concentric bands (Panel 10)
The sequence “Admonitions” is written in eight sections and begins as follows:
You stand on the pedestrian median between lanes of traffic,
waiting for the walk light,
gazing down to where rain has washed up
winged seeds, flotsam of sodden leaf-litter,
the butt ends of cigarettes, crushed under heals…
paying no mind to the Chicory sprout
that has put on just for you,
this display of pinwheel petals
under an echoing blue sky,
with not a single cloud in sight.
Here again Pawlak has brought the reality of life to a scene. You can picture it – all of it – as if you are there, as if you are waiting for the walk light, looking at the washed up seeds and cigarette butts. It is what makes Pawlak’s poetry often magical to read as in his haiku like poems in Natural Histories:
Fly on windowsill
wringing its hands –
are fly worries
Ah, Pawlak also has a sense of humor as the next poem also shows:
Windfall apples and overripe grapes
litter my patio;
stagger amid the bounty.
Each of the poems in Natural Histories takes on views of the natural world be it a fly or wasps, cats, snails, dragonfly or even an insignificant ant that suddenly does not seem insignificant.
Two other sections – “Cupid’s Dart” and “Audubon Calendar Pages” close out the book and I particularly enjoyed the latter in which each month has a four line poem of which I have selected two:
Retracing my steps
after putting out trash in a snow squall
have already vanished.
Hiking in this grove
of towering white pines
planted in another century,
my posture has improved.
I have enjoyed Pawlak’s poetry for long time and in fact have published him in Muddy River Poetry Review as a feature. I suggest to readers they spend time with his poetry not only for entertainment but also to learn about writing poetry that engages, teaches and in
the end leaves readers satisfied.
Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, King of the Jungle and Across Stones of Bad Dreams
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Muddy River Books
Saturday, November 21, 2015
Christopher Busa, the publisher of the Provincetown Arts Magazine, gave a lecture at Endicott College. Here is the text:
I am here today to talk about the idea of the art colony, an idea that is not just about art but about the milieu in which art is created. Artists and writers are often altered by excursions to a place elsewhere, stirring new desires or concentrating a vague impulse into a determined sense of purpose. Historically, the rural art colony began in France in the late-19th century when the Impressionists fled Paris for open air in the forests of Fontainebleau or the seacoast of Britany. Adapting to the community, the artists socialized freely, mingling with local farmers and fishermen (sometimes choosing them as models), and creating an atmosphere that attracted tourism. In the United States, the same phenomenon reappeared in Cape Ann, Provincetown, East Hampton, and other unique pockets scattered around the country.
In my remarks, I’ll be drawing on my experience as editor of Provincetown Arts, which a partner and I founded over three decades ago. I will be making comparisons between the artists and writers who were attracted to Cape Cod and Cape Ann, both locales that have fostered two of America’s most notable art colonies. It is significant that the Walter Manninen Center for the Arts at Endicott currently has on exhibit Provincetown Artists: A Survey of American Modern to Abstract Art, and that members of Doug Holder’s creative writing class were assigned to write about a work in that exhibition. Happily, this dovetails with my theme of how writing about art is an excellent way for new writers to learn to write. I have brought extra copies of Provincetown Arts to leave with members of the audience.
Modernism and abstraction are not necessarily the same things. From the point of view of abstract reduction, there may be more consequence in drawing ordinary letterforms that in the study of anatomy or leaf forms. Abstraction is virtually a synonym for the creative process. To abstract is to reduce to essentials, striking the bull’s eye of the target. If artists keep looking up the word “abstract” in the dictionary, it is because they keep forgetting what it means. Some prefer the definition as the structure of pure thinking, like a dynamically balanced mathematical equation. The isolation of the problem as subject matter, distinguished from the subject matter of the object, creates another problem: painting itself becomes recognized as more about painting than writing about painting. The art critic Clement Greenberg assumed that abstraction could be assimilated rather than being left on the margin. He worried that the pursuit of a purely abstract art might result in work that is arid, decorative, and dehumanized. He perceived the genesis, the turning point, through which the abstract became manifest. He wrote, “In turning his attention away from the subject matter of common experience, the poet or artist turns it upon the medium of his own craft. In one of his notebooks, my father, whose work is included in the Endicott exhibition, wrote, “Ever since the ‘40s I have understood abstraction in art as the basis for revealed feeling. All works of art have structures that reduce experience to forces. The only thing of value is what touches you in your own experience. When history is written we’ll look back on Abstract Expressionism as being one of the most naturalistic efforts of our century, not only in terms of the image but also in terms of the invention of forms tied to tradition.” The point is that, rather than rupturing its link to the art of the past, modern art offers an instructive continuity.
Like the artists who populated Cape Ann, the early artists of Provincetown drew their inspiration from the people who surrounded them: a fisherman’s son embarking on his first sea voyage, a woman sewing a button on a child’s jacket, a down-and-out derelict who knows he must escape Ashcan angst and be strong. These artists awakened to an understanding that they shared a common cause, a desire to transform a personal ambition into something transcendent, utilizing the power of their medium to concentrate the available into something equal to their aspirations. Their wants and wishes, their utopian desires, and their ultimate satisfactions sought realization by overcoming a blank canvas or sheet of paper with mark making displaying rhyme, music, and emotional resonance.
The most painful example of obtuseness, illustrating the lingering resentments of this cultural war, may be the legacy of Hans Hofmann, one of the key figures of postwar American art, both for his own paintings that had absorbed the influence of the Fauvists and Cubists he knew when he lived in Europe and as the legendary teacher of generations of artists in Germany, New York, and Provincetown, many of whom became prominent during the period of Abstract Expressionism. In his teaching, Hofmann often cited stellar passages in the paintings not only of Matisse and Picasso, but in historical masters such as Titian and Tintoretto. However, when Hofmann died, he was thwarted in his desire to leave a portion of his estate to the Provincetown Art Association; there was such resistance that he ended up donating the collection to the University of California at Berkeley, where he had first taught after arriving in the United States. Now, of course, Hofmann is rightfully lionized in Provincetown.
I understand that Doug Holder took his class of creative writing students to view the exhibition at the Heftler Visiting Artist Gallery, and to pick a painting to write about. I learned that one of his students wrote about a powerful painting by Selina Trieff depicting two pale figures, who appear quite androgynous except for the faintest tint of their clothing, one slightly pinkish, and the other sheathed in a whispered hint of blue. The student asked, “Do you think the artist was trying to suggest a gender difference?” This is an excellent observation, which I had not heard noticed before, especially because the title of the painting is Two Women in White. It signals a subtle but perceptible difference in gender. Trieff’s figures do look more like women than men, but they reference a variety of costumed personages such as court jesters with an undertone of cynicism or shrine seekers with personal agendas. Wearing porcelain expressions, unmoving, serenely poised, calmly purposeful, with zones of otherworldly energy registering in their eyes, they huddle together, as if whispering conspiratorially. Their tight-fitting costumes, revealing slender, athletic bodies, suggest performers at ease, however prepared to tumble and leap. Slim at the waist, her figures remind us that boys played women in medieval and Renaissance plays. Much of the meaning of her portraits depends more on the gestures of the body than the mask of the face.
Let us briefly compare Trieff’s painting with another painting in the exhibition, Charles Hawthorne’s Girl Sewing, painted seventy years earlier in 1923. Hawthorne was the founder of the Cape Cod School of Art, which is credited with stimulating the stream of artists that early on made Provincetown the “biggest art colony in the world,” as the Boston Globe declared in a headline in 1915. Hawthorne was famous for teaching students to build up structure by placing what he called “spots of color” side by side, so that shapes derived not from drawing outlines but from the musical intervals emerging from patterns of deftly daubed color. He often held classes outdoors on the beach, the face of the model shrouded from the blazing sun by a wide parasol, so that the features of the face were obscured. These learning exercises became known as “mud heads.” In Girl Sewing, through the subject is indoors, her face is hidden, tilted so that she may concentrate on the task of sewing.
The history of artists and writers working in Provincetown has been tied to a long list of mentors with extraordinary gifts who passed on their knowledge and taught by example that the life of an artist was a noble calling. Charles Hawthorne urged hard work and a humble mind, encouraging students to be bold, free of timidity, and go for the expression of big emotions. Today in Provincetown teachers of talent offer classes at the Fine Arts Work Center, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro. Developing artists fail without knowledgeable feedback; they wrestle with doubt as to whether their work is significant or solipsistic, whether they are making a meaningful contribution or adding only redundant rubbish. Authentic art cannot mature without being nurtured. As Stanley Kunitz, the renowned poet and a founder of the Work Center, said, “Art withers without fellowship.” Important art is cultivated by an exchange with its audience, stimulating conversations that define a community’s social identity. The solitary efforts of artists in their studios and writers in their rooms must be shared with an appreciative public, offering the dynamic back-and-forth that pushes achievement into social validation.
Perhaps anything that we call art achieves a condition that is an intensification of the real. Even when children produce what may look like an abstraction by Miro, their work is rooted in the reality of their feelings.
When painting, I am in what I am doing, not doing what I am . . .
When painting, I am not doing, I am my doing.
Yau also teaches two days a week at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He shows paintings and ask students question about what is modern painting. He shows films and introduces them to various things they may not know about. He gets them to write about art and how they see it. The next semester, they go to New York and write reviews of shows they’ve seen.
In his interpretative biography of Pablo Picasso as a young man, Norman Mailer writes that Picasso’s early work hints at his future progress, through psychological description to rough, primitive, carved expressions of form. Mailer says, “It could be argued that there will be a direct line of development from the Blue Period, soon to appear, into the vast aesthetic range of Cubism. Picasso had entered the world of visual equivalents.”
Mailer continues, “One can ponder the concept. An artist’s line in a drawing can be the equivalent of a spoken word or two. The bend of the fingers can prove equal to a ‘dejected hand,’ or the outline of the upper leg muscles speak of an ‘assertive thigh.’ Form is also a language, and so it is legitimate to cite visual puns—that is, visual equivalents and visual exchanges. No matter how one choses to phrase it, artists, for centuries, have been painting specific objects, only to discover that they look like something else.”
In an interview in 1999 for Provincetown Arts, I asked Mailer about discussions he had had with artists he knew. Robert Motherwell was a next-door neighbor. Mailer replied, “Motherwell was an immensely intelligent and cultured man. But we never had a serious discussion. There seemed a kind of tradition among painters never to talk about art. There were forums at the Art Association, but I don’t remember anything remarkable being said. What mattered was the presence of artists. Maybe one reason I never got into a discussion about modern art with artists is that I always felt such discussions never led anywhere. How far can words carry an artist? To this day, I find most writing about art to be poetic explorations that depart very quickly from the experience of looking at the painting. The writer goes off on some inner collaboration with her or his own experience. The painting becomes like a distant object from which one is receding at a great rate in one’s vehicle of metaphor. I do think that to write about painting, you must involve yourself with the life of the painter. Painting does not lend itself to critical language. Rather, it’s a springboard to all sorts of sensations, emotions, metaphors, indulgences, new concepts, but it is as if each of these people is exploded out from the work. That is the excitement of the painting. You go to see a painting to be shifted, startled, moved into new awareness. Whereas very often with a work of literature what you are looking for is more resonance than one’s own thought. To a degree that we learn about the life of someone else, which you can get out of a good book, we understand the life we would otherwise never have come near to. So we are larger, more resonant within.”
As a banker who had the resources to acquire the collection on view here at Endicott, Walter Manninen is also aware of the monetary value of art. When I grew up in New York, I would go to the dentist and see my father’s paintings hanging on the walls in the waiting room, learning later that my father bartered art for dental services. I came to understand that the art world survives in part by trading in what I call the “gift” economy, where art works can be substituted for assets and investment. In the poetry world, prizes and recognitions have value especially for belated benefits, such as making one qualified for a prestigious teaching position.
Ironically, teaching can also become a pitfall for the artist. Sometimes my father would make more money from teaching at a university than he would from sale of his paintings. Not infrequently, he was audited by the IRS, who, noting this discrepancy, might suggest that his painting was more of a hobby that a career or profession, and that the money he deducted for materials and painting expenses might not be allowable. “No, no, no!” my father replied. “We am going to have to change how I file and call my painting a disease, so I can take a medical deduction!” A true artist, psychologically, is compelled to create out of necessity. No choice exists in the matter. Mr. Manninen said that if people like him get up in the morning and reach for their toothbrush, the artist first reaches for his paintbrush. Therefore, money may be akin to abstraction in art. The government makes money and says this is money because they made it. Likewise, an artist says the art that he made has value. He may offer to trade his drawing for a television being sold in a store; I know artists who arranged for this sort of barter. The artist may buy $50 worth of oil paint and sell the painting for $500. This is how symbolism works, and the power of its magical transformation is the source of its delight. Picasso said that when he ran out of blue, he used red.
One of the essays in the exhibition catalogue, written by Robert Anderson, who teaches at Endicott, emphasized the importance of cross-disciplinary education in the arts. I could not agree more. All the arts possess a restriction that leaves out what is essential to other mediums. If the narratives in fiction require the passage of time, visual art substitutes the immediacy of space for sequential pacing of time. If painting concentrates on the flatness of the two-dimensional surface, sculpture accentuates the third dimension. If art and writing are solitary studio activities, theater and performance are shared communal experiences.
***** This lecture was given as part of the Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Visting Author Series.
***** This lecture was given as part of the Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Visting Author Series.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Cervaná Barva Press
Review by Mary Buchinger
Belly holds the story of loss—loss of a father early in life, followed by later loss of a chance at fatherhood. Along the way, a tick latches, a flock of tulips cannot speak, another man fathers the longed for child, and we are served “a plate of quartered hearts” in “little regions of blame” within “small countries of expectation.”
This is a poignant and moving collection of poetry narrating a thwarted desire for parenthood in light of a difficult and largely fatherless childhood. The beginning poems compose a stark picture of a child’s life that contains a father’s funeral and the sharing of a mother with an explosive and abusive stepfather.
Within this frame, the quest to become the missing father figure turns into a tale of frustration. The title poem, “Belly” is a harrowing account of attempts to procreate with medical interventions:
You set up another syringe
which I flick and tap
to dislodge air. Your part, to be
beyond the pain I bring.
You make me promise
to glide this ice
against your belly
where it burns
until you feel numb.
I pinch you
with one hand, with the other
uncap the needle
to reveal the 45˚ bevel
cut as in a marrow bone
sharpened to a point,
turn it so the spear
will pierce your skin.
Then I draw back for blood…
What are they doing to you?
Lately you feel sexless.
They are ripening you.
Eventually, this woman bears a child, but not the child of the narrator, though he visits her and the baby in the room they once shared, “the father lounging in silk…in the next room.”
Throughout this book, with its striking pink cover and letters crayoned in childish script, we are treated to gorgeous language and images, such as:
The birds are windows that open
after long seasons rope creaking
up a windless well.
Schreiner notes, in this chronicle of yearning:
Death is that day on which
it makes no difference what
you choose to imagine.
The life imagined, projection of self into the future on the wing of offspring, thwarted—
how many years of such quiet emptiness
will it take my life to arrive?
—is the hurt from which this pearl of a book, Belly, has formed.
Mary Buchinger is the author of Aerialist (Gold Wake, 2015) and Roomful of Sparrows, (Finishing Line, 2008). She is Associate Professor of English and Communication Studies at MCPHS University in Boston, Massachusetts. Website: www.marybuchinger.com
Friday, November 13, 2015
|Lainie Senechal--New Poet Laureate of Amesbury, Mass.|
I want to fall,
let go of everything;
like last lazy leaf of laurel,
drift aimlessly; no desire
to soar with eagles,
rather a feather from
to zig, zag through space
on slightest zephyr.
I want to fall
through layers of light,
sunrise to sunset,
steadily deepening into dark.
A languid meteor
sparkling slowly to earth,
holding on to nothing;
never heeding where I land:
on softest snow of season,
among spring’s cheery crocus,
with summer’s daily dandelions,
along autumn’s silent stream.
For I am all of this
and from all
I have been released.
For more about Lainie Senechal go to
Selected Poems: 1971-2001
Jesse Mavro Diamond
© 2015 Jesse Mavro Diamond
Wilderness House Press
Sofbound, $15.95, 71pages
Review by Zvi A. Sesling
On the back cover of Jesse Mavro Diamond’s book Judson Evans writes, “Mavro Diamond forges a voice from crucial elements of Jewish, lesbian, and feminist identity.”
Indeed all these elements are in Ms. Mavro Diamond’s illuminating collection of poetry which is personal and intimate, presenting poetry which is not often covered in mainstream poetics and brings to mind the work of Marilyn Hacker.
Here is a poem which presents a feminist perspective of body:
The Beautiful Mystery
may be a disappointment to bra gents
who look or perfection in balanced flesh
and corset men who search for symmetry.
Sisters know human hips were made to extend
for arms whose hands reach, trembling, for security
that comes from witnessing another’s chest
imperfect as her own.
Let’s leave disillusionment to the lingerie lads:
a woman’s body remains perfectly gorgeous
because it is.
Perfection does exist—
In imperfection move the beautiful mystery.
Now follow that with a poem that reflects with her Jewish heritage and a past in which being Jewish was always safe:
Ode to a Lute
In April, at the bottom of the stairs, we found a stringless lute.
I saw it first, you claimed. Besides, you joke, you’re Sephardic,
a horse thief, whereas I, Russian, Ashkenazic, am no criminal.
Take the lute, I said, and take this story, too:
If a person steals a horse, she may be on the run
from worse thieves, they may be chasing her
out of her own country. Imagine she has no alternative
but to grab the first horse she sees, jump on it
and gallop hundreds of miles into a strange land,
changing her name s she rides, covering her face with a rag
even at night, so the moonlight will not reveal
her true identity. Understand? I asked.
But you had fallen asleep in my lap, cradling the lute.
There are the missing strings, I whisper.
This is a riff on biblical Talmudic wisdom and teaching, yet it is in its way a beautiful mystery of its own, while Ode to a Lute 2 is a different tale with a moral of a different sadness.
Swimming the Hellespont is a 30 year odyssey for Jesse Mavro Diamond, In it she packs 31 of her best poems, including the title poem, which travels from the past at the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau to a hopeful future which she sees on the horizon.
Whether the reader is female or male, Jewish or non-Jewish, LGBT or straight there is something for each reader to absorb and cherish. In other words it is a book to keep and reread when you want to remember the exigency of the weight of societal reality.
Zvi A. Sesling
Author, King of the Jungle and Across Stones of Bad Dreams
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Publisher, Muddy River Books
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7 & 8
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
“Our ghosts are always with us, / their stinks, their bad habits, always / as much as we’re with them,” Cammy Thomas writes in her poem, “The Other You.” Thomas’s poetry collection Inscriptions is haunting, yet comforting, and is deeply rooted with sharp, vivid images. This collection, like people’s lives, is broken up into three sections : I. SWEET BROKE DOWN, II. POEMS IN MEMORY OF ELEANOR THOMAS ELLIOTT, and III. A WINDY KISS, for Elly. Our sections in life—past, present, and future—make up who we are. Thomas’s poem “The Other You” seems to be the heart of this collection, describing how our past selves live inside of us. Each poem in Inscriptions reads as if they are various versions of Thomas—only now, the poems also exist within us as she reveals the way she sees people, loss, and nature.
The last line in Thomas’s “The Other You” reads, “You can’t forgive the one who hurt you. / Only the-you-from-then can do that, / and she will never be ready,”(p.12). This powerful line makes me think about closure and forgiveness differently. Sometimes past relationships feel like they happened in another lifetime, yet the hurt remains. Though, if you understand that you are a different person now then you were before, you are separating yourself from this pain—The pain is no longer yours—It belongs to the old you. The old you will hold onto the memory and stay in the moment so that the new version of you can move on from it.
In addition, in Thomas’s “On the Island of Staffa,” a woman is climbing a hill, gasping as though she is both exhausted and devastated. When she surrenders her husband’s ashes to the wind on top of the hill, the reader can imagine the wall of grief that hits her. We are not left feeling empty, though. Thomas writes, “Yes, yes, it’s dust, /yes it is. /It could be anyone, / and could there be anyone/ who wouldn’t want this kind of love?” (p.31). This line reveals that the kind of love that’s most painful to lose is the best kind to have. Rather than the woman facing the absence of love, she is encompassed by the presence of it when the wind picks her husband up. The feeling of this poem reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee.” In English class, my classmates and I remarked about how sad and tragic Poe’s poem is, but my English teacher had a different take on it. She said, “Imagine being loved like that, though. Who wouldn’t want that type of love?” This sentiment resonated with me, and now when I read Thomas’s poem I feel like the grieving woman’s love trumps her sadness.
Also, Thomas’s poem “Without Talking” has an deeply impacting ending that not only makes the reader want to hear more, but also makes the reader want more out of life, relationships, and themselves. Each line is spaced out so that the poem reads like a conversation—It has the feeling of a pin-pong match. On page 13 Thomas writes:
He said don’t use
what saves you,
your wall, the words
(do it without talking),
the words defend
and don’t open—
again, again, again,
but they keep…
oh and without them
Instead of being in a straight line down, the poem itself is breaking out of its comfort zone and is letting the feeling of the words shape it, rather than letting the actual words shape it. I feel like this poem is applicable to the process of writing especially, because in order to successfully write an effective, moving, and authentic piece you need to write “without talking.” If you reveal your scenes and feelings with urgency and passion your readers can understand you without you explaining yourself to them.
Throughout Inscriptions it is not necessary for Thomas to explain herself for readers to understand her. In her poems about death or disappointment, she weaves in some hope, making us feel like it is possible to move on and find new things and people in life to focus on and to love. Also, when writing about love, Thomas reveals the ugly, raw truth, but this makes the relationships feel more accessible, honest, and real. I hope to emulate Thomas’s authenticity in my own writing, as she has become a poet that I can identify with on both a human and creative level.
Sunday, November 08, 2015
Paradise Drive, Poems by Rebecca Foust
There’s nothing braver or more startling than a poet having the guts to write a book of sonnets, and nothing more giddily delightful than reading one that works—Welcome to Paradise Drive, Rebecca Foust’s Petrarchan jewel-box. The turns these poems take and the narrative twists in the course they travel are high voltage volta. You’ll be amazed at the speed with which you traverse this book’s course, and the degree to which you are torn between the desire to forge ahead and the insistent urge to pull to the side, breathe and examine with care the compositional masterwork that each poem represents.
Paradise Drive, a journey from grief and alcohol soaked origins in rust belt Pennsylvania to the painful perversities of life inside the headlands of Marin, follows the narrative arc of a sometimes actor, sometimes observer, Pilgrim, who tellingly decomposes progress as premise. In notes to the volume, Foust tells us that Pilgrim is inspired by the life of Ann Dudley Bradstreet, part of the 1630 Winthrop fleet of Puritan emigrants, and “a seeker among seekers…in love with the world and struggling to maintain the piety demanded by her faith.” Though Pilgrim may be Bradstreet, the Colonies’ first published female poet, transmuted into a contemporary witness to broken pieties, painfully questioning her own, Pilgrim echoes and silently inverts John Bunyan’s travels in Pilgrim’s Progress from the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City,” Mount Tamalpais a material substitute for Mount Zion; the surrounding towns, Belvedere, Tiburon, Mill Valley, Ross, capsules containing the empty promise of transcendence through comfort and affluent hedonistic bliss, leaving their inhabitants crushed and empty, dropping into the river of death in a “straddle” and step from the red ochre rise of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The stakes could not be higher, nor the wire more tightly strung, yet Foust gives us to understand that these tragic emptyings of lives are unnatural, creations of the self-destructive and very human desire to reach beyond what is given, as if in that we will find love and safety, satisfaction and perhaps fulfillment. And so, as preface, she places us in nature, “Purple against orange, maple and sage…Trout lilies and wild Iris. Mount Tam mantled/ each dawn in fog. Then naked and lit…” before delivering us, through Pilgrim into the abyss.
“Her dreams/ —Macy’s-parade-balloon-sized dreams—/now lie,
a tangle of downed silk and line.” (from Meet Pilgrim)
Pilgrim, seeker, visitor and possibly introvert, has mastered the art of inclusion. She has found her way into money and into the rolling party to which those of us born with noses against the glass on a Winter’s night dreamily aspire, and yet internally she remains an outsider, knowing that the passed hors d’oeuvres can feed, but not fill her.
“Cowed by all those straight-white teeth,
Pilgrim ran for the bathroom, not for coke
as others supposed, but for something
more covert and rare: a book… (from Cocktail Party)
She is party to this life, complicit, but not fully in it, and it is this ambivalent complicité that opens the tale to the quality—torn empathy—that lends it gravity and makes successive sonnets appropriate vehicles of transmission.
To work, a sonnet must embody acute, original, and sensitive observation that extends beyond the features, primitive motives and behaviors of its subject to that individual’s psyche and spirit. To rise to grace a sonnet must do more though, it must implicate the observer in the agon and in the outcome, and it must make readers feel the blood, pulsing or spilt.
Through Pilgrim, Foust complicates the empathic connection and the possibility of bond that the best sonnets trouble and provoke. Her character mediates between the poet and the anxious characters (“Marin man,” wives left bereft by divorce and those who ultimately take to the bridge) for whom the poems invoke empathy. But where does this empathy lie, is it with Pilgrim, or the poet, both? Foust doesn’t give us simple answers, she doesn’t fully disclose, leaving us instead with the beating pulse, the feel of the blood, one-step, perhaps, removed.
In this mediation, Foust expands the possibilities of the form and elevates Paradise Drive above the level of an Ice Storm in verse; she and Pilgrim are working deeper channels, and their effort to bring something (someone) new to the party extends to the making of the poems themselves. Foust’s sonnets embrace, honor, violate and expand on Petrarchan form, unfolding with a turn over fourteen metered lines, ending in a couplet, but dispensing with strict iambic meter and formulaic end-rhyme over each poem’s body. Her sonnets offer us instead powerful, telling, urgent and contemporary internal rhyme and varied meter, the meter of poems pulsing with life, palpitating at the edge of death and never forced to form.
It is through her undoing of that expected by the form that Foust, via Pilgrim’s search for truth, gives us the sonnet as something new, as a once more viable container for yearning inchoate, conduit to loss and instrument of grace in beat and rhyme varied by necessity rather than clever calculation. And so, the lives, the suicides, the guilty participation and the being other that she knits together through Pilgrim’s character in the land of excess tears through the surface, puncturing the familiar, revealing the price of Paradise less than celestial.
I admire the quiet bravery Rebecca Foust expresses through this channeled flood of sonnets. As I read, I had the sensation of water, unexpected, pouring through an arroyo, and then gone, leaving me in dazed awe. This is not a book for children, and thank god!
Marc Zegans is a poet. His most recent collection, The Underwater Typewriter, was published by Pelekinesis Press in September of this year.
Paradise Drive, winner of the Press 53, poetry award, is available through Press 53, here http://www.press53.com/Bio_Rebecca_Foust.html
Thursday, November 05, 2015
Poems by Karen Alkalay-Gut and Ezra Gut
Simple Conundrum Press; Tel Aviv, Israel, 2014
ISBN: 978-965-7600-023; 69 pages; $25.00
Review by Joanne DeSimone Reynolds
In a mortar and brick bookstore, this volume would be an island among the aisles.
Part poetry, part pictorial. A travelogue, yes, but, with splashes of diary. A natural science text, Darwinian, a dose of Bible. And a parallel to Melville’s novella of the same name. The accompanying photographs, stunning in both color and range.
Imagine one of a nubby-skinned, spike-crowned, citron colored iguana, up close. Or another, of a Blue-footed Booby. Some of the earth’s oddest creatures staring out at you.
And the many images taken from greater distances, showing a netherworld natured Galapagos of “immense deluges of black naked lava” (from an epigraph courtesy of Charles Darwin). In a Shel Silverstein kind of way, the photographs, presumably taken by Ezra Gut, enhance the poems and entrance the reader.
But, the poems, floating aside the color-burst photos as they do, have an insistence all their own, much like the tourist-tame creatures they evoke. Included here, are two of the poems in their entirety. One from the lighter side of the collection that elicited a chuckle from this reader, followed by the introductory poem, a forthright look into the speaker’s mind:
You wish it would be wiser than it is.
You wish the eyes to be hiding a deep truth.
But sometimes the status of “ancient”
does not accompany the actions we admire.
The amazing feet of the blue boobies
are not even important enough to be moved aside
when the bird shits. And a chick looks as smart
as the mother who just hatched him.
I wouldn’t want a paradise.
Even in the Holy Book they knew
it’s too simple just to be
good, without judgments
to make each moment
a new encounter to encourage
revision and insight. Living
as I do, equidistant from
Armageddon and Gehenna,
and not all that far from where
the Bible places Eden
my dreams teeter
like a dinghy in high tide
but with no shore in sight.
But dream I do
How many Boobies have we met in our lives? How often have we wished one to be wiser? For “eyes to be hiding a deep truth”? Chuckle or no, we have seen the Booby and He is us! in Pogo parlance, unable to get out of the messes of our own making. And as for the paradise the poet conjures, it is wholly rejected as a place of stasis in favor of the world as we know it. A place of choice. Of duality and ambiguity. Tensions out of which dreams arise and art is made and we become more fully conscious and human.
Many of the poems in this collection rely heavily on anthropomorphism. Dolphins “smile” from afar in the poem White Bellied Dolphin. Iguanas “clearly [listen] attentively” in Idle Gossip. Sinkers at best. But, to skip them would be like dismissing a child for less than stellar behavior. And it would be a shame to mistake something wondrous for a stone. In the poem Shells, for instance, the enormity of an animal’s armor evokes primal feelings, sending chills up the spine, “How the weird reptilian fear overtakes me.” And even in poems of lesser note, the reading experience opens up like a crevice under pressure when considered in relation to well chosen images. A Myriad of Constellations offers such a moment. The first lines “Behold:/a myriad of stars/appear in the equatorial sky” sound magisterial, even biblical in tone, but, deliver little in the way of the new, and the poem bobs somewhat in the doldrums. However, when our attention turns to the facing page, a photograph, Escher-like in its play of interlocking iguanas, spiny backs tipped in Van Gogh yellow as if electrified, sends us sailing.
Karen Alkalay-Gut is an award winning poet, a professor, and an editor. Born in London and raised in New York State, she now lives in Israel where this book was published, first in Hebrew and now in English. Having been involved in collaborations of a far flung nature, for instance, with the fashion enterprise Comme Il Faut, and one with the avant-rock musicians Roy Yarkoni and Ishay Sommer which produced an album entitled Thin Lips, this project, tethering the cross currents, the outcroppings, and the strange inhabitants of the Galapagos into a collection of poems as taught as nautical knots, makes perfect sense. I hope you consider it for its navigation of the formidable, fragile, frank, and fanciful. But, do not feel guilty if you find yourself lost in the glossies. And for heaven’s sake, don’t hide it from the kids! The book is meant to be shared, with its eye-popping photographs and thoughtful poems, as enchanting as the archipelago it describes.