Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review of MAKER OF SHADOWS, by Joshua Coben

Review of MAKER OF SHADOWS, by Joshua Coben, Winner of the 2009 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press, Huntsville, Texas, 2010, $14.95

By Barbara Bialick

Joshua Coben’s new book, Maker of Shadows, is a find, a Boston find, a find of a poet. He speaks with tightly-edited elegance to the ugliness in the world, which is nonetheless presented beautifully. As the poet X.J. Kennedy himself wrote for the back of the book,
“the poems are wonderfully fresh…with a superior music going on.”

The poet, who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, lives in Boston with his wife and three children, and teaches elementary school. He may be influenced by children, who say what they say when they say it, but this is no children’s book. although it can be called lyric and imaginative.

He quickly gets to you by page 5, if not sooner, with poems such as the “Rat Killer of Mumbai” and “The Instruments”, a funny title that implies music, in such a morbid poem. The instruments are the household things that could kill or maim you: “Who was first to fall/on the point of the pen, flay/a finger in the window fan/or trail a bathrobe sleeve/into the cooking fire…”

He also finds art in the awful music of nature and the earth: “He poured the ink/of self into the lake/but left no stain;/he was indelibly blank” (“Invisible Agent in Clear Medium”). He describes the movements of the earth in “Crust and Core” –“One plate overtakes another…and then the blows, the stifled groans begin/that send tobogganing the hilltop houses…” but concludes “Earth is merely earth and we’re the matter/moved or melted, worrying the crust.”

Some of his poems made me say “wow”, such as those about banking, tornado watches or a virus. Read them for yourself. Original topics right out of the daily news and yet well done and edited down to the bone. Even a brochure makes him reach beyond the obvious.

In “Come to the Islands”, he writes “Come before the harbors drown. Buy up/ our trinkets and our land. The oceans rise;/each island is a ship that’s going down.”

Don’t get fooled by these little line snippets. When you read each poem as a whole, as a growing, expanding metaphor, the book booms bigger and louder in both its depression and its art.

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