Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Open Letters by Carolyn Gregory (Review by Lo Galluccio)

Open Letters

By Carolyn Gregory

Copyright @ 2008

Windmill Editions

82 pages

Carolyn Gregory creates a collection reverberating with greens that are hot and cool, with waters that signal renewal, with metamorphosed stories from everyday work life and poems to friends who she can’t let escape her vision and devotion. Gregory is not a “language” poet but there is not dearth of texture, metaphor or color in her texts. One of my favorite poems in the book is “Siren,” a Plath-like ode to solitude and demons held at bay or rather, put away, but still palpable, like the pain in “the middle of her back.” The Siren appears at night, with her “lover snoring lightly in a dream” – thus, of no help.

“Smiling, she mentioned the empty bottles

hidden in my closet.

She praised the narcotic, alcohol.

Perfumed poppies tumbled from her red lips

and fell across my blanket.

My back throbbed.

The moon grew big in its black egg cup”


The Siren it seems, is part of Gregory herself, the poet in her, the artist that awakens in the mysterious dark, and can lure sailors to their deaths. It is as if her double has appeared in the room reminding her of how she has become what she is. The Siren is also dangerous and must be let out.

“Instead, I opened the window

and let her float out

as ghosts do,

taking the pain with her

though I knew she’d be back.”

p. 3

In “Sea Wish” it is a tumbling dark green lake or ocean which Gregory swims and finds “in the space between the waves” her muse, her lover. This becomes a vision of a real couple whose “wife bobs in the green, fifty yards off.” As a happy Shakespearean play, the couple will lie beside each other, happy, “one cool as a seal.” And Gregory affirms that:

“Her arm will wrap his back

as the waves tumble nearby,

as unbroken as love should not be broken

if there are vows of constancy and good faith.”

p. 9

In a surrealist mode, Gregory offers the poem, “El Station Interior”

Wherein two men and a woman wait as snow falls for a train that never arrives.

One senses a Hopper-esque feel of the 40’s in her descriptions, a Chicago of the mind. It is a poem about a kind of mundane repetition, when one is going nowhere, dressed, nevertheless, for work and the City:

“Nothing moves through the turnstile.

No one joins these three at the elevated.

They have waited at this spot

every day for twenty years or

maybe fifty….

Steam drapes the glass panels

Of the exits

As the falling snow dissolves.”

P 10

For some reason this scene reminds me of an ART play about two women and a man in hell with only a Porter to help them in a slanting room, or about the day in Chicago when I walked out into the frost to see a sea of dead pigeons on the lawn. One could say it leaves one with a sense of disturbance or unease, but like in Hopper, the matte aloofness of the figures leaves them, also, somehow alone.

Gregory’s poems always sustain with graceful detail and emotional balance – never cliff-hang or become too precious or baroque. In this sense she walks a taut line between deep sentiment and keen observation.

There are a string of “office poems” in which she delves with sarcastic wit into the weird plane and painful hierarchy of the work-world. In “Office Mother” the mother is literally the son’s – or ship’s Captain’s – protector. In prim gray she watches over the fax and opens the door as her son tries to command his post. Beyond duty,

“She prays quietly all is right

for her son, the captain,

head of the crew,

throwing emails into Outlook,

and quelling rebellion.”

P 29

In taking on the voice of Robert Mapplethorpe, well known in New York circles as artist, sculptor and close friend of Patti Smith until his death in 1989, she paints some brilliant imagery starting out with the wry line: “Sure, I’ve always said that what’s erotic lives in the eye of the beholder.” Well, Patti Smith was much more than a “college kid “clutching a tiger lily” in his photos. They were close mates, confidantes and deeply influenced each other’s work. Besides, Patti Smith never went to college in the conventional sense but ran away from home to the Chelsea Hotel at a ripe young age. (See recent bio-pic “Dream of Life.”) Her ode to him, “The Coral Sea” – a poetical picture book – came out a few years ago. That’s my one bone to pick with this portrait of Mapplethorpe’s thinking and his art.

“My brown-toned irises open

like the body under light,

The red orchid flares like a sex badge

on palmetto spikes.”

It’s fun to pretend to get inside his head as his audience looks upon his work:

“My black nude leans on a pedestal,

curved muscles frozen in time.

Because he was so beautiful,

I loved him

But do the onlookers understand?” p 13


In ending his ghost ruminates:

“Looking down from death,

it’s hard to say what

these gallery people really think.

They see William Burroughs and Laurie Anderson,

they recognize Andy Warhol

by his pale vacant stare

but most of them ignore my humor and despair,

shocked instead by water sports.”

P 14

This is a rich collection, carefully crafted, and filled with beauty and wit.

There are far too many good poems to mention, but among my other favorites are “Hands,” “The Sea with No End,” “Raga,” and “The Night the Church Burned.” Carolyn Gregory works earnestly and patiently on her craft, with less bravado and compulsion than most poets poison themselves with. It is to her extreme credit that she has produced a whole book of wondrous treats.

Lo Galluccio

Ibbetson St. Press

Lo’s next chapbook, “Not for Amnesia” is due out in the summer on Propaganda Press.

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