Thursday, March 26, 2020

A Quantum Poet: A review of Tiny Kites by Lucien Zell

A Quantum Poet  ( Dos Madres Press)

A review of Tiny Kites by Lucien Zell

Reviewed by  Aidan Andrew Dun

I flew home—
then I flew from home—
having found my home is flight.

Translocating Plato's cave of shadows to the modern world we find its exact analogue in a movie-house. Here self-incarcerated prisoners are installed in a large darkened room in which pseudo-images flicker on screens of consciousness. Here is the domain of relative reality. But outside the darkened room is the absolutely real. We, however, have forgotten about its existence. We sit in the 'cinema' of the world with palms sweating and heart racing almost completely submerged in the relatively real. We edge forward in our seats with hands clenched in response to artificial images, utterly engrossed in false appearances, completely involved in ‘preloved’ emotions. In some dim corner of consciousness we know there is a world outside the movie-house but - while a good film lasts - we willingly conspire with illusion.

Visionary poetry engages with the absolutely real and yet this artform must find its resources in the relatively real, in the concrete images of this limited world. Music, as a more abstract artform, does not have this bimetallic quality. Yet no matter how much literature may concern itself with shadowlands, with endlessly interesting juxtapositions of dualities, with shiftings of perspective and persona, with self-referential exercises, with conditioned responses, the greatest poets are all metaphysicians of the absolute. Relative reality may be a highly-combustible fuel but the fire itself is of another dimension. I believe Picasso was closer to the truth than Leonardo when he said: The artist does not seek, he finds. (Da Vinci had famously - and erroneously - stated In order to love we must know.) In all visionary artforms a mystical state of unknowing and non-seeking should precede any given process of expression. Visionary artforms are the by-product of an inclusiveness so vast that it annihilates all difference. 

Lucien Zell is a visionary poet working inside gnostic and cabalistic traditions. He is a maker of verses which entrain a metaphysical approach to poetics. Yet he conceals his seriousness behind images both playful and sensuous, making the coded word accessible. A large number of modern poets concern themselves with encrypting subjective formulas in shrouded language incapable of conveying universality. Zell skillfully avoids this pitfall and offers us significant concepts in simple language. But his simplicity should not be mistaken for a lack of sophistication. After all, Racine constructed his literary universe using a stripped-down vocabulary of only a few thousand words, always heeding Aristotle's dictum: Too brilliant diction frustrates its own object. To be moved by a poem is much more important than to be impressed by literary pyrotechnics, and Zell often moves us in this, his first American collection, Tiny Kites, published by Dos Madres.

Take the double helix of a poem like Wind to Wind. Here is the literary equivalent of a Moebius strip where one easily negotiates interior and exterior dimensions without any sense of transitioning between the two. Zell transports his reader from the elemental to the emotional and back again in the space of two elegant and breathtaking stanzas. This piece represents unity deconstructed and resynthesized, and as the opening statement of Tiny Kites, pilots us confidently into the skies of theopoetics.

The same theme of interchangeability pervades many of Zell's verses.

To be so grateful for poems
that you honor both the cracks in the poet's heart
- from which they've emerged -
and the cracks in your own heart through which they've entered.

Once again, with a quick half-twist which echoes the structure of our own DNA, Zell has introduced his reader to the never-ending surface of a unity which escapes perception. He is commenting on that equivalence also expressed in an ancient Maori greeting which says I am in truth another yourself. 

Another poem, Involved in Autumn, is concerned with the alignment of fate's windows. Here, acceptance of existential loss is framed in a classic autumnal trope. But the poem kaleidoscopes towards a Blakean fourfold construct in which the seasons are superimposed on a map of consciousness, a mandalic diagram of poetic ordering. These are the colors true to so many of the sun's wishes of the first stanza. A problem faced by esoteric verse is that formulas may seem didactic, but any such tone is avoided as Involved in Autumn builds to its climax since while the poet attributes birth to spring, life to summer and death to autumn he leaves winter's attribution blank:

as a mysterious country
anyone can visit when they want to forget time.

If art is an attempt to inoculate all people with spiritual disenchantment, then quatrain XXXVI - in a sequence of quatrains - is true to that objective. In four lines the coordinates and certainties of the relatively real are capsized. A measurement of things invisible is being attempted here.

The ghosts! The ghosts!...

We seem to be counting the sum total of the dead of all time. Some kind of census of astral multitudes is being taken. Are we numbering the aggregate of the deceased of all possible worlds? The poem goes on:

The ghosts! The ghosts! 
We think that they're our guests
while the truth is
they're our hosts.

Eliding ghosts into guests the poetic experiment in cosmology shifts into phase two, referencing standard anthropocentric myopia. (Dostoyevsky says somewhere that ghosts are shreds and fragments of other worlds, the beginning of them and of course apparitions play an important role in the redemptive experience of Raskolnikov, catalysing his conscience when nothing else will.) The use of hosts in the final line is interesting since the word has both biblical and military resonance. It implies that a superior force is laying long siege to hearts and minds. The assumption has always been that human-beings are in charge but the territory actually belongs to a secret army. This understanding leads in turn to the idea of ghosts as guerillas, an underground organization fighting unconventional warfare, triggering psychological explosions at subconscious levels, awakening obscure truths (as with Hamlet) stirring up self-analysis (as with Raskolnikov).

She danced me to the edge of the cliff
Broke my heart into a thousand birds
Then leaping off without a word
She taught them to fly.

In the sequence called Threshold Poems (Threshold is the poet's name for the city of Prague where he is based) poem VI betrays the bitterness of the unpublished poète maudit. In the context of Zell's powerful present collection perhaps this voicing of distress might have been omitted so as to avoid any atmosphere of self-commiseration. But any such mood is quickly exorcised by an adjacent poem which discusses a friend's solitary confinement, and where the closing couplet runs:

Are there wings we can't lift
till we drop our hands?

A chain of haikus finalizes Tiny Kites. These are small-scale poems which say a great deal without wasting breath. (The kites are only tiny because they fly so high!) In fact this form was invented by Buddhist poet-monks who wanted to democratize an artform reserved for those who could afford paper and pen, aristocrats with the luxury of time on their hands. Who can forget that the affluent Lord Byron told the working-class Keats to go back to his metier as a chemist because the writing of verses was only for gentlemen?

reading in the rain
a good book is destroyed
by how good it is.

If rain here means adversity and reading signifies experience refined into art then the formula implies that acts of literary creation are transcended at some point. To illustrate: if one looks at the work of Rabindranath Tagore - the laureate of Bengal - and compares his poetry with that of his lifelong friend, the enlightened master Paramahansa Yogananda, one immediately detects a significant difference. Of course Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi is a great masterpiece but the beautiful poems of the realized saint are quite bland compared to the vivid utterances of Tagore.  So Zell seems to be saying that with the complete acceptance of suffering comes the state of having nothing more to say. Another great renunciate - Arthur Rimbaud - in a sense took a vow of silence and 'destroyed the book' at the age of seventeen. But his case is mysterious and unique.

once showing her her
a mirror cracked in moving
shows the street the street.

Now we return to the Moebius strip, tracing a crack which runs through many dimensions, binding all in a brokenness which is irreparable until difficult inclusiveness is acknowledged. In the third line of this plangent haiku the ability of the street to look at itself is a charming invention, highlighting the sentience of the dust we describe as inanimate. But deeper layers of meaning emerge with further reflection. If the mirror cracked in moving signifies a broken relationship, now the sense of the final statement alters accordingly. To show the street the street is to reveal the episodic nature of the relatively real. Where bewildering change entrains further confusion the street is symbolic of the human condition. Here is a lovely gem of poetic compression.

An initiation rite in ancient Tibet apparently involved loading a large box-kite with monks and flying it from a mountain directly into a thundercloud. The experience would confer enlightenment on those who survived electrocution or simply hung on for dear life. Tiny Kites is replete with gold won from grim times, with auras of hard roads, with electricity harnessed from dark places. The essential signature of Zell's first collection is something like reverence in a setting of timeless melancholy. Reverence for this universe and all it contains cannot belong only to quantum physicists (though such feelings may have been abandoned by post-modernists). Such reverence belongs also to quantum poets. And Zell is one.

AAD, January 2020

Aidan Andrew Dun made his debut on the literary scene in 1995, when his publisher, Goldmark, decided to launch his epic poem, Vale Royal, at the Royal Albert Hall. Allen Ginsberg was invited over from New York to participate in the launch, and sadly this was one of the great American poet's very last readings. Vale Royal (which took twenty-three years to write and is concerned with the psychogeography of Kings Cross) has been acclaimed by Derek Walcott, Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and many others.

AAD has gone on to publish five more volumes of poetry with Mike Goldmark, one of the most visionary publishers in the world today. Their collaboration continues, though Dun has also published with Skyscraper, who put out Unholyland (in 2014) a verse novel in 1,000 sonnets set in the Middle East and surveying the rap-culture of the region.

In 2012 a triad by AAD was carved in granite along one side of London's newest open space, Granary Square. The poem runs 70 feet in length under a grove of miniature lime trees in front of the University of the Arts, the largest arts faculty on the planet.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

She-Giant in the Land of Here-We-Go-Again

She-Giant in the Land of Here-We-Go-Again
by Kristina Andersson Bicher
MadHat Press, 2020
67 pages

Review by Lo Galluccio

Every so often one comes across a stunning new poetry collection, a book that leaves you a little dizzy, one that beckons to be re-read, so rich and fascinating its verse.  Such is the case with Kristina Andersson Bicher’s debut book, She-Giant in the Land of Here-We-Go-Again. Even the title delights, a kind of clue to the book’s grounding in both mythic and modern worlds.  This work swells and delights like the hooks of a good pop song, but its textures and tones are more like the fantasia of a dark classical symphony. Kristina takes us through the perilous chambers of her “sloppy heart” and through the channels of an episodic tale of loss, madness and new-found identity. There are bereavements and confessions and rants as well as poems that run a few scant lines of powerful epiphany or cryptic message.  One of the masterful joys of this collection is the range of form and content – one cannot stay attached to any one style of poem—Bicher leads us along a forest of many kinds of trees, some bearing ripe fruit, some stripped bare to winter’s austere and frigid touch.

The poet is widow, divorcee, lover, sister, prophet, folksinger, mother, daughter and goddess.  From the first poem, “The Widow Sings a Love Song,” she writes:

praise the nape of you where/dark bee of my mouth goes troubling/the plum swale
let me sink through some small bore…
                                                                                    P 1.

This bee somehow alerts me to Sylvia Plath’s work but is not a direct allusion.  One feels sure the poet has read Plath and Sexton and many other poets whose techniques she adopts and wields, always in the service of creating something original and new.

In “Unborn” she sizzles with rhyme:

I am mar    scar    flat star

eat and heal
pig’s squeal

I verve and flash
verse when I slash…     

      p. 4

There are several poems with Icelandic titles, Bicher’s ancestry is Swedish and she peppers the book with references to places and myths in Scandinavia.  In the poem Kirkjubaejarklaustur, she writes:

This is how you break the children—
This is how you sever the husband

with ice and flame.

This story of wrecking, breaking, abandoning is one of the threads that run through this book like a fever chart.  In a poem with the contemporary backdrop of NYC, Bicher overlays Biblical references.  Her endings are generally powerful and surprising:

In “Ode to Restraint in a West Village Bar” subtitled (“Or other gods I have invoked” she ends with:

Slither me up the white calf/of Atlas to burn that bright scapula/blade blue. I would rip the sky/to fill my mouth---

             p. 8

In the short poem “Eve Dreams” she blasts:

her son is a child
in the desert
has no skin
is lonely
and no longer hers

          p. 15

This is a poem of consequence, the dreaded consequence of leaving children behind, of striking out on one’s own, where dreams turn into emblems of brutality.  Kindled in the crucible of elements, these poems are often primal awakenings and the writer is an icon of womanhood. She is not only herself, she is Eve, the woman who supposedly caused mankind’s fall from grace.

In a poem that takes on the largess of mythology, it’s source an Icelandic Rune poem, Bicher inscribes a series of bold statements:

Sadness is the toil of the steed.
Fear is the leavings of the wolf.
Comfort is a god with one hand.
Divorce is the pickaxe of the doomed.

    p. 21

And yet, despite the nightmare of divorce, Bicher is far from doomed.  She writes a love poem to a present-day lover, in “One Year In,”

He continues to talk in circles
I do nothing to improve my life
I still come to him with the hunger of a junkie
Our night-dreams are kaleidoscopic and encyclopedic
It has become impossible to sleep without his hand on my belly.

      p. 38

The hard edges of desire nevertheless ends with this simple sentiment:

I buy him heatproof spatulas; he buys me handmade paper.
He’s gained weight since we met.  I think this means he’s happy.

This is a book that oscillates and travels, from Arizona to Bellevue (where her brother Krister lies in a hospital bed) from NYC to a countryside where we would expect to find Hansel and Gretel’s witch. The book’s shifts and swells are deftly achieved with brilliant syntax and phrasing. There are three poems titled, “Prophecy” and two labeled “Lament” these numbered and each one a tale of beauty and woe.  The poet also introduces Antietam (famous battleground of the Civil War in Maryland) in a poem called “Missing” about she and her ex-husband driving to the mountains to leave her brother, Krister, behind. Later in the book the poet writes two shorter pieces, “Antietam I” and “Antietam II” which deconstruct the situation, in the first piece, referring to Kirster as a “ghost” and in two stanzas of disjointed verse embodying the traumatic pain of leaving him behind.

We left him in amid red hills
Swings empty and sitting on it
Krister is him in the doctors’ rightness
So a hollow swing
Krister is.

    p. 54

Bicher uses compression and space well.  In “The Famine that Follows” she writes:

We die not
from fire
   But its quenching---

         We will fall
upon each other
           with forks
               and fingers

we will eat our very names

        p 48

Bicher rarely lets the intensity flag in this collection.  These poems are brazen and lustrous, well-constructed and brave.  She is constantly aware of absence, neglect, passion and the aftermath of human connection.  In “Then” she writes:

When you are gone, for good
From me, irrevocably gone,

Will you be sun-dust risen
From nowhere, insubstantial
Dissolving in shade
That cannot enter me

Or will I burnish our story into myth
Harden you to marble
Will I put you on a horse?

   p.  50

I urge you to order a copy of this book.  It upends, terrifies and delights.  There is a plethora of excellent poems – too many to reference. Kristina has through her imagination and passion transformed her life into an object of reckoning and pathos. A truly beautiful work.

Lo Galluccio

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Walking Six Feet Apart in Harvard Yard

Well--I was going a little stir crazy in my apartment. My cat, Ketz and I were involved in a staring contest, and I was putting off developing my online courses to sometime later this week.
Being the walker in the city that I am I took a shorter-long walk this afternoon. The weather was crisp, a classic early spring sort of day. I stopped at the Dollar Store on Somerville Ave and grabbed the last traces of dental floss, the rare of gem of toilet paper, and paper towels. I noticed while walking many people were following the six foot rule as they swerved away from me like I was a leper. Harvard Yard ( as pictured below) was pretty deserted, and the cops told me the Widener Library is closed for the foreseeable future. That's understandable--but it has been a haunt of mine for almost 30 years--back when I was in graduate school obsessing over Henry Roth's trilogy. Well, I will miss it--great place to do work and study. The cafes like the Tata and Pavement were open but very few folks were in there--and some of these venues spaced their sparse patrons far apart. There were a few people with masks, but they really part of the virus landscape as of yet--The Harvard Coop was open-- but there was a handful of patrons. I ran into a Bagel Bard--Doug-- my namesake, and we shot the shit-- he wants to get a job with the census. I said, "You will be exposed to a lot of people." " I'm not worried," he replied, as the long shock of his gray mustache nervously twitched. I stopped at the poetry section browsed through Merwin--he had a great poem about a woman trying to domesticate a fox, Neruda--a fine poem about when one closes a book- and then-- only-- the world opens, Mary Oliver's dog poems,and Frank O'Hara Lunch Poems. My hands were all over these tomes--I guess I should be ashamed of myself. I walked back to Somerville--the air had a strange feel to it--the birds chirping seemed a bit ominous to me now, people looked at you like they were asking you a question. I hope this passes soon. Stay well my friends.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Review of Donald Wellman’s Crossing Mexico: Diario Mexicano

Review of Donald Wellman’s Crossing Mexico: Diario Mexicano, Dos Madres Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

Donald Wellman’s new work, Crossing Mexico: Diario Mexicano has transported me to Mexico, a place I’ve never physically set foot (except for a brief, five hour sojourn over the border to Tijuana in 1976). As Wellman explains in an introductory note, his work is “an art of crossings and hybrids as well as an art of traversing a continent.” As such, the poet’s role constantly shifts and overlaps: he is a guide, an explorer, an explainer, an analyst, a tourist, and an “experiencer.” These multiple identities sometimes complement one another and sometimes conflict. As such, the poet himself is a symbol of the complex culture he describes in a journey rendered not only through poems, but also through photographs, historical notes, and personal reflections from diary entries.

Mexico is “profoundly a Christian nation, more so than I had anticipated,” Wellman writes in “Mexico a travers de los siglos,” but also “an indio nation, make no mistake.” The hybrid quality is accepted as a fact of Mexican life, as a truck driver the poet meets on his travels illustrates: “For him, the bonds between ‘indio’ [referring to indigenous Mexican inhabitants and culture] and mestizo peoples [referring to the combined European and indigenous, culturally mainstream Hispanic America] are facts affecting housing, diet, commerce, and spiritual health. Wellman the poet-observer becomes the poet-experiencer, seeing, as described in the poem “Valladlid”: “People of so many shapes and color that my instinct/ is to protect myself by merging continuously/ with disparate forms.” Pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Mayan and Aztec, contribute gods such as those listed in “Ceremonial notes”: “Tlaltlecuhtli: earth monster, death disk./ She has mouths at her knees and elbows/ Her upper half becomes the earth/ Her nether parts the sky, from her body come plants that nourish.” But the ancient religions and deities have become intertwined with the Catholic culture initially imposed by European invaders, such as the figure of the “Black Christ,” which is “an amalgam of Christ and Ik’al, a pre-Columbian cave dwelling deity.” In the poem “Road it Isamal,” Welman notes, “Catholic and Mayan Yucatan meet at Kinich Kak Mo, sacred/ to the sungod, maker, modeler, bearer, begetter, Itzamana,/avatar of the Madanna of Izmal/ The Convent of Saint Anthony of Padua, founded upon/the ruins of one of several pyramids . . .”

But the history of indigenous culture is imbued with violence, including not only human sacrifice, but also in sports with deadly rules, such as “[d]ecapitation when the play of the ball went counter to the direction of the sun,” as Wellman references in the poem “Rivera’s Murals.” Wellman also depicts the juncture between European culture as defined by violence in “Retablo: Genocide,” first transcribing in his notes how Europeans of the 1500’s “came upon resistance in the jungles of Guatemala and caused all the inhabitants to be slaughtered,” then describing the circumstances in a poem: “In the hilltop jungle/ a raising of wood and feather shields against the onslaught of pike/ and armored bodies.”

Wellman observes another form of hybridization, as cultural traditions merge with the facts of daily economic life. He notes of the commerce thriving at historical sites: “My desire was brocade or applique, fine details,” he writes in “Tribute,” “shining threads, I found these on dolls sold in the streets of Merida and Valladolid, replicas/ or indigenous costumes/ as in the anthropological museums./ . . . warehouses and racks of blankets and crockery, with Mayan or Aztec emblems, offerings not to be despised or possessing consumer value.” In “Kuanon of the Pyramid,” the merging of ancient culture with a tourist economy are shown to be obvious: “On the paths between sacred sites/precisely where/flayed virgin remains/filled the cistern/were displays for pilgrims, abundant/ masks and retablos, solar disks,/ miniature pyramids of brilliant hues/in plastic and hand-carved forms./ Attention to detail/gives magical authority/to the object./The carnival play of the vendors/who occupy winding paths /among monuments,/as integral to sacred space.” Catholic shrines also adapt to consumerism, as in “The Convent of San Bernardino,” which “has become a family center, sacred to a Madonna/ who is herself a doll in a pretty dress,” or in “Symbols at a crossroad,” where Wellman notes “[a] Totanaca child, hand in hand with her mom, selling dolls to tourists in San Miguel de Allende.” A woman selling dolls poses for photograph: “For her, the taking of photographs/ was an aspect of doing business . . . / Her costume like that of her dolls,/ a selling point/ . . . Marketing enters the imagination/ as a fascination/ to those children whose mothers/ bring them to the Jardin. It’s in the blood.”

The heritage that is “in the blood” is recorded by Mexico’s most noted artists, such as Diego Rivera, whose works, seen by tourist-poet Wellman in a museum, “express a brutal history, identifying hope with a recovery of an indigenous humanity . . . The nation/ and its cultures, a project, both political and aesthetic in it shaping stratagems,/ unresolved, incomplete.” But as with objects based on sacred shrines, even the work of an artist like Frida Kalo is subject to consumerism. Wellman writes, “In Frida’s garden, I considered the purchase of a blue cat/ . . . She is present in decorative elements, patents for flatware, small bowls/ Café furniture: sunflower yellow chairs with tangerine and olive finials.”

And Wellman, too, recognizes the complexity and the interconnectedness of the many roles he plays. Referring to his journey as, in one sense, “a video of my life,” he records without commentary images that strike him, such as “[c]hildren on a turquoise and aquamarine mattress washed ashore by the tsunami,” or a pleasing memory in which “[w]e shared Turkish coffee on a second story/ balcony overlooking the ornamental garden.” In the poem “Children,” Wellman, conscious of his role as observer, records “an impulse to rest against a sunny wall/ and photograph human forms:/ vendors and their children, close together,/ boarding a bus. Mapmaker poet swept up, inundated.” Mapmakers observe and record, but Wellman cannot ignore the economic conditions in the country through which he journeys. In the poem “Uxmal” he defines “my status:/ consumer without identity in an impoverished land.” And it is difficult for him to simply record imagery without commentary: “Does manufacturing cloth or leather/ also fascinate the cross-legged child/ sitting at a loom with crippled feet/ or endlessly sanding/ mahogany mask, salad bowl, totem.” Wellman encounters  “ . . . young soldiers [who] force me to step from my car./ They are impatient, in newly pressed uniforms,/ black M-16’s click against their shoulder straps./ The dark smell of gun oil as cars and trucks speed by.” The imagery is vivid, redolent of his description of the “pike and armored bodies” that easily defeated the “wood and feather shields” that failed the indigenous populations centuries earlier. The poet becomes analyst, but “[m]y fear and personal revulsion/ at tyrannical politics/ does not carry any weight/ with those who fill the streets/ and bus terminals./ Better to keep silent . . .”

What, ultimately has been the role of the poet traveler? He has observed and absorbed. His experience shapes his way of looking at the world, as “New England reflections merge with notes taken in a hotel.”  We join him as his “diary loops between notes/ from among the high hills and low mountains of Weare, New Hampshire/ (listening to “over the Hills and Far Away” from John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera)/ and solitary wandering to pilgrimage sites in the Yucatan and Bajio,/ employing baroque methods/ to approximate a redemptive confusion.” As Wellman creates an experience for himself, he creates one for us as well, reminding the reader of the associations forged in the opening poem of Diario Mexicano, “Tiempos mesclados”: “inexplicably, a photo of an expedition to Lovewlle Mn./ . . . as if dispassionate fate had chosen to forge a unity between/Thoreau’s Concord and Merrimack/ and this project, diary of intercut Mexican spaces.”

In one of the volume’s concluding poems “On an Evening,” the reflective poet, returned home and to his daily routines, finds his perspective altered by his journey, which has also become our journey: “In New Hampshire, I slice citrus. Fresh juice has become a fetish/ . . . My mornings are too hurried,/ now that I am teaching./ I set the table with tangerine and lemon yellow china/ made incidentally in Mexico./ The pattern is pleasing. I find patterns among the elements tossed together, verbal ensaladas, / A sketch of a possible score in several parts . . . / The song is an intimation of an end . . . / Learn now to appreciate a simple transition, a fortunate interim/ in which to meditate upon dishes and beverages.”

I am thankful for Wellman’s Diario Mexicano: I’ve followed his map; I’ve examined the photographs; I’ve absorbed the experiences, the historical information, and bursts of inspiration he’s shared; I’ve ruminated about his analysis of the cultural and economic interrelationships within the country. And the experience of losing myself in his volume has blotted out the nearly fifty year old memories that lingered from my brief trip over the border: of Elvis paintings on black velvet, of dirty streets, and of handbills inviting me to bars featuring abominable acts. Wellman has enlarged Mexico for me, physically and temporally, deepening its significance with his words and images. I encourage others to partake of his journey. Viva, Diario Mexicano!

Monday, March 02, 2020

The Last Mastodon A Chapbook by Christina Olson

The Last Mastodon
A Chapbook by Christina Olson
ISBN: 978-1-931307-43-7
Rattle Foundation, Studio City, CA 91604

This collection is the consequence of an invitation Christina Olson received to serve as poet in residence for a paleontology conference and exhibition, “The Valley of the Mastodons,” at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. The resulting poems have a jumble of images and subjects because as she puts it in her concluding poem, “A Story About Bones”:

as it turns out, paleontology & poetry
            are not all that different
both the excavating of a shard
            here & there, an attempt to see what fits
the painstaking assembly of meaning from fragments
            maybe if you get lucky: a tooth, pointed –
the people in their practical clothes & boots
            sometimes even the same tiny brushes
& at the museum I keep calling the collections stacks
            but instead of poem let's just say word cage

            While many of these word cages have been published individually and may be enjoyed in isolation, I think The Last Mastodon should be approached as a poetic sequence, as “a single poem composed of a number of movements which, as often as not, are fully comprehensible only by their relation to other movements and to the poem as a whole.”[1] When it is read as a sequence the poem’s organizing metaphor is a natural history museum and each poem a different diorama. Fittingly this museum tour begins with a “Catalog of Damages;” if the specimens had not been damaged, turned into fossils, we wouldn’t be visiting a museum, but a zoo.
At the beginning of this catalog Olson implicitly invites us to admit that we share her ignorance and, possibly, some of her arrogance, an arrogant indifference that comes along with a conventional history that is white:

All these years not knowing
the difference between mammoth

and mastodon: just another
human so proud in her indifference.

That her proud indifference is “white” become clear when halfway through the catalog Thomas Jefferson appears among the teeth and bones of those extinct pachyderms:

Jefferson thought the West still crawled
with mastodons, sent Lewis & Clark to thin the herd.

and he quickly becomes a major exhibit:

Jefferson owned Sally Hemmings,
I could never make small talk with my father

I told you this was a catalog of damages.
Oh god, the mouth is such a weapon.

Because of his interest in mastodons Jefferson’s inclusion flows naturally into the paleontological theme of the poem, but Sally Hemmings seems extraneous at first. However, as you continue through the exhibits the reason for the inclusion of the Jefferson/Hemmings relationship becomes obvious: once Jefferson turns up in this paleontological poetry along with poems like, “Origin Story: Max the Mastodon,” the Hemmings’ skeletons in his closet naturally turn up with him.
            In the second poem of the sequence we are told that a collection of human bones is a cemetery while a collection of fossil bones is a museum. Both examples of bone collections get a major introduction in the third poem of the sequence “Who Gets to Be a Fossil.” The simple declarative sentences of this poem’s 18 stanzas are mounted like bones on the armature of a museum skeleton.  The first two of them are statements of lithic equivalency:

Max the mastodon gets to be a fossil.

Thomas Jefferson gets to be a fossil.

The poem ends with these three bones:

Max the mastodon belongs to the Western Science Center in Hemet, California & people pay to look at him because he is a very impressive mastodon fossil, the biggest found west of the Mississippi River.

Thomas Jefferson is buried at Monticello, behind a wrought iron fence that prevents unwanted visitors.

Sally Hemmings was buried in a site in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, which is now covered by the parking lot of the Hampton Inn on West Main Street.

Don’t those bones make you question, if you weren’t already, what Mrs. Studebaker taught you in high school about American History/

Olson has so many references like those to Thomas Jefferson and Sarah Hemmings (because she was his slave Sally was the diminutive address used by Tommy for Miss Hemmings) that I began to suspect she had read The Hemmingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed. If so, she has reduced that book (worth a reading of its own) to some of its essential bones. They are powerful bones; here are three more of them from the seventh poem in the sequence, “Animals Doing Things to Other Animals”:

Sally Hemmings was Martha Jefferson's half-sister. Jefferson never remarried after Martha's death at age thirty-three.

In one version of the truth, Jefferson did not remarry because he loved Martha and honored her deathbed promise.

But this is also true: Jefferson did not need to remarry. He had Sally.

By now, because of this poetry, I think we should begin to question our views of Thomas Jefferson, wonder how much of what paleontologists would call reconstruction errors they contain. In her penultimate and title poem for the sequence, “The Last Mastodon,” she has a section devoted to describing those kinds of errors:

 I have been collecting reconstruction errors – the early, wrong assemblies.
The first mastodons on display had the tusks facing the wrong way, like
digging tools. A giant rodent who tumbled underground.

The Niederweningen mammoth had its tusks pointed outward, like the enormous mustaches fashionable at the time.

In yet another early drawing, a mastodon is trunkless, earless, looks like a boar with killer teeth splayed.

Our imaginations run wild, fail us. We are constantly revising.                               

Because of her fascination with reconstruction, she invented a poetic form, which she calls “the mastodon,” and she illustrates it with a poem, “Reconstruction Errors, Part 1 & 2,” near the center of the sequence. Part one begins:

all day I've tried and failed to write
this letter to you. Do we deserve anything
for our feelings, our clumsy fumbling's
in the dark? I have no excuse
for this dizziness, the sober way
I lurched from truth to truth.

and Part 2 ends:

I have no excuse for this dizziness, the sober way
I lurched from truth to truth. We were a long time ago,

you & I. That summer, I visited La Brea twice.
It gave my pain some geological perspective. I weep
because our dog is dying, because I haven't smelled water
for such a long time. All day I've tried & and failed

In her acknowledgments for the chapbook she tells us that we can find more about the form, and its rules, at Superstition Review’s blog: Those rules are a too complicated to include here but when you reach the blog put “mastodon” in the search box on the right side of its home page and you will be taken delightful essay, “Guest Post, Christina Olson: Reconstruction Errors,” which examines the relationship between poetry and paleontology, complete with graphic illustrations of reconstruction errors.

The Last Mastodon has a wealth of detail and a pleasant surface, which is often witty and which makes for an easy first reading, yet the several themes introduced in the opening poem, “Catalog of Damages,” are woven into the woof of the following poems so deftly that by the concluding poem, “A Story About Bones,” the poetic fabric acquires a complex texture that demands a rereading. To put it another way, I found this collection to be like a good stew that is better on the second day; these poems are even better than that stew because, unlike the stew, they do not diminish as they are consumed.

[1] Maximum Security Award, by Ramon Guthrie, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1970, frontispiece

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Review of Mary Harpin’s poetry collection Shadowrise, Dos Madres Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

Review of Mary Harpin’s poetry collection Shadowrise, Dos Madres Press, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

            Mary Harpin, author of the excellent new poetry collection, Shadowrise won my heart through her treatment of birds. As a devotee of poetry since hearing my first nursery rhymes, I’ve long been aware of the importance of birds to the concept and history of poems. While other animals struggle for attention (such as Robert Burns’s mouse and louse, the tortoises of D. H. Lawrence, and Maxine Kumin’s gassed woodchucks), it is the bird that is without question the go-to favorite creature among poets. Where would we be without Shelley’s “blithe” skylark, Keats’s hypnotic nightingale (“Do I wake or do I sleep?”), Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner’s bad-omen albatross, Hopkins’s “dapple-dawn drawn Falcon,” Dickinson’s “side-wise” hopping friend, and Stevens’s thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird”?

            The thematic attractions of birds in poetry are obvious: birds inhabit the air, experiencing reality in ways we can rhapsodize about but never fully understand; they sing transducing songs; they force our attention upward, off of the earth into the heavens. But isn’t reliance upon our feathered, flapping friends a bit too easy? Too often the traditions of “bird poems” inhibit originality: the mere mention of birds flying or singing or nesting might seem sufficient to convey a satisfactory poetic experience. Mary Harpin’s subversive treatment of birds in Shadowrise provides an antidote to such a misconception. Her bird poems fracture expectations and create new ways to see a familiar world. As such, they not only lead us to the kind of experience originally sought by the canonical composers of bird poems, but also teach us how to appreciate the art and wisdom of the “non-bird” poetry in her collection.

            Let’s begin with the simplest example: In “Haiku,” the first line of Harpin’s poem is “Cliché, poem with crane.” Harpin knows what she’s about. The haiku is a Japanese poetic form, and cranes are associated with Japanese art and literature. But having established that “crane” poems are so common as to be clichés, Harpin attacks the reader’s expectation with the “But” beginning the second line, which draws our attention to the bird’s “murderous beak,” and finally to “Her/Bridal Veil, tattered.” The violence of the concluding image, contrasting with the positive associations often connected with things “bridal” jolts with its hidden back story in much the same way as the “shortest” story attributed to Hemingway (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”)

            The title of another of Harpin’s bird poems gives away the poet’s subversive intent: “Must We Pen Another Poem with Birds?” The bird in this poem is a stunned sparrow, which was unceremoniously “whapped” by a car windshield. The poet struggles to create a narrative for this bird, at first searching for a better name then just “sparrow”: “Let’s use the word flycatcher,” and later “Let’s call her/ swamp sparrow, or clay, and say she’d/ come in from the orchard.” The bird was handed her by a colleague who “didn’t know what to do with her and/ handed his problem to the first woman he saw.” Eventually, the “trapped creature” in the narrator’s hands recovers enough to speed “as far away from the corporate park as she could get.” “She flew South./ Yes, let’s agree on south,” the poet concludes, having shaped a story for the bird: “A smart bird doesn’t look back,” Harpin writes, true not just for birds, but for all who have suffered a traumatic experience.

            Harpin reveals her technical skill and inventiveness in another bird poem, “A finch leaps from a window box,” in which she leaves blanks among the lines, inviting the reader to choose the word or phrase that will dictate one of several possible directions the poem might take. The poem increases in intimacy all the way through to its final stanza, in which a child hugs her pregnant mother, asking her questions, always answered in the affirmative:“If we hug, does that mean/ I’m also hugging her?/ Yes./ Do you think she knows me, Mama? Do/ you think she wants to know her sister?”

            What is beautiful in the poems of Harpin is the honesty and simplicity of images that depart from cliché while imparting truths about life, death, and love. There are poems in Shadowrise about impending birth and motherhood, such as “Geophagy,” which describes how the narrator’s sister collects soil “from the riverbed in the town of our childhood,” to feed the narrator, who “who ache[s] with early labor,” the miracle being that the sister is somehow “teleported from a thousand miles away” to offer spoonfuls of the dirt: “This will help you, she says,/“Open up.” The complex miracle of parenthood is captured in “Walk with Sobbing Toddler on the Longest Day of the Year,” which contrasts the abstract wonder of a child’s existence: “Incarntation: a contradiction, an/ imploding star in reverse—/ stellar and brilliant. Sometimes/ white with fire” with the daily struggles and joys a mother encounters. After being told “You are the/ meanest mommy of all the/ mommies I have ever had,” the child, when asked to tell a story, begins “Before I came here/ I was a really old lady/ and daddy was a little boy/ . . . He always/ picked me the tastiest apples.” In “Quiddam Woman” the narrator contemplates her complex identity as a mother. “Am I the/ porcupine mother from my child’s book?/ . . . I may be the witch in the cookie house/ . . . Perhaps the stepmother, horrid and gorgeous . . ./ I could be the dead mother expired before the/ story starts . . ./ the one who hears at a bar,/ She doesn’t look like a mother.” But when she directs her child’s attention to the pink clouds, “For a minute, I’m the mother who is/ magical.” And though the experience is momentary, and the “sun has vanished,/ [t]he pink clouds returned to gray,” by poem’s end the potential for beauty is revealed as something that is always imminent.

            Harpin portrays Death and the absence it creates as memories collected in a series of images that bring one to a kind of transcendence, as in “Gifts as You Leave this Shimmering Planet,” which progresses from the concrete to the spiritual: “Here is the cactus, golden flowers next to a thousand/ fine needles. Here is a cup of gelato made from its/ fruit . . . There is the memory of you diving in, diamonds rolling/ into the water. Here I am, waiting for a sign from you, anything.” Eventually, the narrator asks the departed to share a memory of a foal “searching for his creator.” In “Transubstantiation After Aneurysm,” Harpin describes, “From then on, you were the/ clink of the chalice on the chain, the puff of flour on the/ cutting board, an albescent flag iris rising from under unseasonal snow,” contrasting these simple but vivid images with the story in the poem’s second stanza of a farmer who described a return to life after a near death experience as “putting on/ a pair of muddy overalls, rustling back in that old/ body before dawn . . . chores to do.”

            Through simplicity and specificity of image, Harpin’s love poems teach the reader by example where to find meaningful experience. In “Origin Story,” the narrator translates an abstraction into an observation: “It is you,/ loving, that builds/ the universe, you,/ looking at me/ this morning, as/ profoundly common as every morning/ for twelve years, you, not looking away/ because you’re listening/ to me talk, you, stirring cinnamon/ into foam with our fingertip.” In “It Comes to Rest,” a series of familiar yet evocative images portray the comforts and security possible in domestic life as another day draws to a close. Father, mother, and children drowse after baths, books are left “half-read,” drinks unfinished, as “The dryer chimes. The click of/ zippers and buttons stops./ The last load of the day stops spinning.”

            Again and again the poems of Mary Harpin’s Shadowrise remind us that we can achieve transcendence, wisdom, and satisfaction through the careful observation of even the most mundane details of our lives. With open minds and hearts we can be transported even if we can’t find a clichéd bird to take flight with our imaginations. “Nevermore.”