Friday, June 08, 2012

The Value of Discouragement in WHAT I SAW, poems by Jack McCarthy

                                                                Poet Jack McCarthy

The Value of Discouragement in WHAT I SAW, poems by Jack McCarthy

by Michael Todd Steffen

Every now and then the question pops up: What’s the difference between poetry and prose?
One answer has occurred to me: It’s not rare for writers of prose to produce long narratives. Novel after novel appear regularly on the New Release shelves in the libraries and the bookstores.
     Reading Jack McCarthy’s poems from his new book WHAT I SAW raised that old elusive question for me, not that McCarthy has attempted a continuous long narrative poem. Yet the poems do show a primary interest on the poet’s behalf in telling stories, in an impressive variety of narrative registers, from (MAGNUM ITER) the theme of the initiation of young men to manhood through the spiritual-demonic character of a never-to-please Latin teacher, to (THE ACCOMODATION: ADAM’S RECOLLECTION) the amplification of our Biblical etiological parents, Adam and Eve, discussing sexual desire with unexpected maturity and candor, poison to the Serpent absent in this version.
     On opening McCarthy’s book, the reader will recognize that this is different poetry, evidently in the allowance of the length of the poems, most of them running 3 to 5 pages, a tasking yet inviting challenge to readers of contemporary poetry whose expectations probably tend toward poems of half a page, if not shorter in our media-inundated culture. So in a very real sense, McCarthy is formally bold in his patience to use the undetermined paragraph strophe, foregoing obvious concentration on word play and arrangement, to set out in relatively simple language the elements of his narratives:

            We were ripe for intimidation
            and the more inimitable intimidator
            of all was Mister Hatch. He taught
            Latin and his classroom was right
            next to the marble portal inscribed –
            Huc venite pueri ut viri sitis
            “Come this way, boys, that you may be men.”
            The road to manhood ran past Mister Hatch.

Galway Kinnell in his master work of elegies, THE BOOK OF NIGHTMARES, excused his composition, with a stroke of humility, as “cut-up prose.” While reading McCarthy’s narratives,
I could hear the acutely technical reader of poetry wonder, Why doesn’t he just write these anecdotes in prose paragraphs? (Though I’m 100% behind the poet’s answer: Because I conceived of writing this in lines of poetry.)
     McCarthy’s lines do convey a sense of purpose: the delivery of one definite idea or image at a time, producing an overall clarity which many poets don’t so much strive for.
     But these are not na├»ve poems. McCarthy bears a strong sense of the value of discouragement and everyday mishaps, failures and disappointments. Like Shakespeare, he is not about to vaunt the beauty of his mistress’s eyes as comparable to the brilliance of the sun. He uses ordinary instances in an unassuming way to relate elusive depths of wisdom, such as the peril of doubt and hesitation:

            I was heading south on Route 97
            and in the opposite lane I saw
            a chipmunk dart out in front
            of an oncoming car.

            He had room to make it,
            and the pickup truck in front of me
            was already hitting his brakes
            to let him cross our lane

            but when the chipmunk
            turned his head and saw the pickup
            he hesitated one fatal second,
            then spun and darted back toward home

            right under the left front wheel of
            the northbound car. (CHIPMUNK BOOTY CALL)

The subtle prosodic elements in the simple narrative make for great pleasure. The verb tenses in the first two lines, past progressive and past simple, depict a setting for the event and then the physical and psychological development of it. I like the equation of the victim and the agent of distraction, chipmunk and pickup, both spondees, words of dually stressed quantity, of syllabic identity  i  and  u. And then the semiotic possibilities of the word of distraction, pickup. Was this just an ordinary four-wheeled pickup, or could it have been a different type of ‘pickup’ that brought about the scene? Is the simple story an allegory of some other sort of pickup?
     The run-on line-breaks, or enjambments, moreover – out in front/of an oncoming car    under the left front wheel of/ the northbound car) aptly convey the suddenness of what happened.
     This little parable is at once terrible and trivial, poignant and passing, like life itself. McCarthy is masterful to be so undifficult in his manner with language and so profound in his suggestions of meaning. Like a wealthy man of fable in the disguise of a beggar testing passersby, these poems risk detaining you with their casual, gradual and quiet presentation, yet will reward handsomely for your patience and consideration.

poems by Jack McCarthy
is available for $15
from EM Press
24041 S Navajo Drive
Channahon, IL  60410

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Bye-And-Bye Selected Late Poems by Charles Wright

Selected Late Poems
Charles Wright
Farrar Strauss Giroux
New York, NY
Softbound, 365 pages, $20.00
Paperback ISBN 978-0-374-53317-5

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

I sit where I always sit, in back of the Buddha,
Red leather wing chair, pony skin trunk
                                                                under my feet,
Skylight above me, Chinese and Indian rugs on the floor.
1 March, 1998, where to begin again?

So begins Looking Around from Charles Wright’s A Short History of the Shadow
by the poet described in the Poetry Foundation’s website as, “…often ranked as one of the best American poets of his generation.” He is a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets and Souder Family Professor English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards.

Bye-And-Bye contains about a half-dozen of Wright’s books, and as the subtitle states they are “Selected Late Poems” and in one called Transparencies you read an older, wiser poet recalling a mystical past:

Our lives, it seems, are a memory
                                                      we had once in another place.
Or are they its metaphor?
The trees, if trees they, seem the same,
                                                                and the creeks do
And the clouds, if clouds they really are,
                                                                  still follow us,
One after one, as they did in the old sky, in the old place.

So much one can read into these lines, which, after reading the poem’s entirety he explains in the final line:  If it is an explanation.

In Sestets the poem “When Horses Gallop Away From Us, It’s A Good Thing” Wright takes us further into his view of death:

I always find it strange—though I shouldn’t—how creatures don’t
     care for us the way we care for them.
Horses, for instance, and chipmunks, and any bird you’d name.
Empathy’s only a one-way street.

And that’s all right, I’ve come to believe.
It sets us up for ultimate things,
                                                    and penultimate ones as well.
It’s a good lesson to have in your pocket when the Call comes to call.

When compared to lines in an earlier poem, “In Praise Of Thomas Hardy, one can see where Wright is headed:

Transcendence is a young man’s retreat,
                                                                 and resides in a place
Beyond place, vasty, boundless.
It hums unlike the beauty of the world,
                                                       without pause, without mercy.

And perhaps the final poem in the volume, “Little Ending,” tells us what it’s all about:

Bowls will receive us,
                                    and sprinkle black scratch in our eyes.
Later, at the great fork on the untouchable road,
It won’t matter where we have become.

Unburdened by prayer, unburdened by any supplication,
Someone will take our hand,
                                              someone will give us refuse,
Circling left or circling right.

Charles Wright’s poems are full of wisdom, full of truths that we must read carefully because though some seem easy, there are deeper meanings which are there for us to discover. 

This book by one of America’s great poets is well worth reading.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Deleted World Poems Tomas Transtromer

The Deleted World
Tomas Transtromer
Farrar Strauss Giroux
New York, NY
Softbound, 41 pages, $13.00
Paperback ISBN 978-0-374-53353-3

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Once again we encounter the question of translations. On the cover of Tomas Transtromeer’s The Deleted World, for example,  the phrase “translations by” has been abandoned for “Versions by Robin Robertson.” Indeed in the introduction Robertson states: “In his introduction to Imitation (1962) Robert Lowell writes that ‘Boris Paternak has said that the usual reliable translator gets the literal meaning bus misses the town and that in poetry tone is of course everything.’”

Robertson goes on to state  , “In my relatively free versions of some of Transtromer’s poems, I have attempted the middle ground between Lowell’s rangy, risk-taking rewritings and the traditional, strictly literal approach. I have kept the shape of the poem, opened out its more clearly, and tried – as Lowell rightly insists one must try—to get the tone.”

Historian Bernard Lewis, who edited Music of a Distant Drum, Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems (Princeton University Press), in his introduction to the book cites Arthur Waley, known for his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry as follows: “He would, he said, lay down only one firm rule for translators: never introduce an image which is not in the original. If you can use the original image in, well and good. If you can’t, leave it out, and don’t try to replace it by some equivalent. It won’t work.”

Concluding his introduction, Robertson lets us know that Transtromer “…could not have been warmer.” Meaning he approved of Robertson’s efforts.  And so do I. Perhaps because in other books by Transtromer the translations were often more difficult to find meaning.

With Robertson’s versions the poems are clear, delivering a message of humanity.He places living creatures and nature in juxtaposition to each other and their interaction. For example, the six line poem Ostinato:

Under the buzzard’s circling point of stillness
the ocean rolls thundering into the light; blindly chewing
its straps of seaweed, it snorts up foam across the beach

The earth is covered in darkness, traced by bats.
The buzzard stops and becomes a star. The ocean rolls
thundering on, blowing the foam away across the beach.

Many times I have seen such scenes, never quite like Transtromer; the ocean chewing on seaweed or snorting up foam, descriptions most individuals would not consider as they step over seaweed on a beach or see sand-stuffed foam.

These translations are of Nobel Laureate Transtromer’s shorter poems, which perhaps makes more pleasing in the reader’s ability to grasp meaning and images

Another of Transtromer’s poems deals with death:


The calendar is full but the future is blank.
The wires hum the folk-tune of some forgotten land.
Snow-fall on the lead-still sea. Shadows
            scrabble on the pier.


In the middle of life, death comes
to take your measurements. The visit
is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit
            is being sewn on the sly.

Simple words, yet the truth is out there for all to grasp.We can read this book time and again, and like a good movie in which you see something new every time you watch it, you will get something new from this book each time you read it.

Zvi A. Sesling is author of King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010), Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011) and the soon to be published Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva). He is Editor of Muddy River Poetry Review and Bagel Bards Anthology #7.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Organ Builder Austin MacRae

The Organ Builder
Austin MacRae
Dos Madres

Review by Rene Schwiesow

Despite listening endlessly to Axl Rose sing “November Rain” in the early 1990’s, I would never have thought that one day I would read a sonnet about Guns ‘N Roses.  Austin MacRae brings the music of “Sweet Child of Mine” into the present moment and Axl, despite his less than savory reputation, is remembered again, for just a moment as a god:

Axl was my god in seventh grade,
a bullied small kid’s king of balls out rock.
I screamed “I wanna watch you bleed!” and prayed
that Slash would murder every asshole jock.

This sonnet is not a token to meter and rhyme in “The Organ Builder.”  MacRae, who teaches English at Tompkins Courtland Community College, has filled the book with form poetry.  By the end of a first reading my iambic tongue was most definitely awakened and that first taste, delicious.

In a villanelle entitled “Mowing” MacRae brings humor to the form:

The man across the street is mowing.
He smiles and waves at passers-by.
He has no clue his crack is showing.

In a nod to writing in form, MacRae talks about accepting slant rhyme in the craft with a sonnet entitled “Graceways,” which is also the title of a previous chapbook:

I crumpled up my quiz on verse that term,
an eighth-grade student who denied that “grace”
could rhyme with “ways.”  My teacher, though, was firm:
“The answer’s true.”  I turned and made a face.
That night my mother tried to smooth thing out:
“She’s right, the rhyme is what we call a slant.”

The couplet ends the work with:

The rhyme still echoes, showing me the ways
that imperfection leads a soul to grace.

The volta a nice turn toward the application of the work to life.

My favorite work of the book is a poem entitled “The Luthier at his Window.”

He turns his back on her, tries to forget
her perfect curves, sleek neck he fussed and fretted

over for so long, arched like a lover
against the wall.  Outside the first drops start

to fall.  He needs this distance from his craft
a moment to compose himself before

the turning of pearl, the tightening of steel. . .

Beautiful.  The last poem of the book does not disappoint us, offering that final sweet morsel of form in “Bee Season:”

Nectar-driven day burns down to evening
as light-swarms crumble to ash, vanish with day,
and endless summer, at its height, is leaving. . .

Austin MacRae’s fine-tuned work has brought high praise.  He is clearly a poet dedicated to the way in which words fit into a poetic puzzle.

Rene Schwiesow is co-host of the popular South Shore Venue, The Art of Words.  The wearer of many hats, Rene is thankful that writing helps her to remain grounded and sane.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Elegies for Michael Gizzi by William Corbett

Elegies for Michael Gizzi
by William Corbett         
Copyright 2012 by William Corbett
Kat Ran Press Cambridge MA
ISBN 978-0-9794342-3-5
Softbound, unnumbered, $20.00

Review by Zvi A. Sesling


Roethke in a swimming pool
Schwartz outside his hotel room
Jarrell walked in front of a car
Berryman from a bridge
Lowell in a cab
Bishop at home
O’Hara, Olson, Wieners,
Whalen, Creeley—hospital
Michael, you in your Providence bed

This poem is about Michael Gizzi who is dead. William Corbett’s Elegies for Michael Gizzi makes me wish I had known him because the poems in this volume are a touching tribute to the man Corbett says in one of the poems, “You want to make laugh.”

In March Glare you understand the pain and of a friend’s death:

Michael: I’ll believe
You’re dead when you
Don’t show up for
Trevor’s birthday dinner.
It’s March 26th this year
He’ll be sixty-six
We’ll argue as always
Over how many years
He’s come to Boston
To celebrate. Thirty-five?
He missed the year
His father died.
Called on the phone,
“My dog is dead,”
Broke down and passed
The phone to Billy.
His dad. Trevor meant
His dad had died.

As written in the inside dustcover flap, “You can get the facts of Michael Gizzi’s life and more on the Internet. From these you may guess that he was one of those generous souls who served poets and poetry.” More than that you may also surmise a gentle man who wanted to give poets an audience and, vice versa. Place and size didn’t seem to matter. Poets and poetry did matter.

On the Internet is Michael Gizzi’s obit. It reads in part:

Michael Gizzi 1949-2010 Poet Michael Gizzi died Monday in his home in Providence, R.I. He was born in 1949 in Schenectady, New York to Carolyn B. and Anthony J. Gizzi. He received his BA and MFA from Brown University. For seven years he worked as a tree surgeon in southeastern New England, before moving in the early 1980s to western Massachusetts. He taught for several years at Lenox High, and later returned to Providence to teach at Roger Williams College and Brown University. He was the author of more than 10 books of poetry, including "Bird As," "Avis," "Species of Intoxication," "Continental Harmony," "My Terza Rima" and "New Depths of Deadpan." He also worked as an editor with Hard Press, "Lingo" magazine, and Qua Books. He is survived by his daughter Pilar and grandson Hollis of Portland, Maine, his brothers Thomas and Peter, and his former wives Ippy Patterson and Barbieo Barros.

So many poets have died who are not remembered, but Corbett’s tribute will serve to remind us that here was a man worth remembering not only for his poetry and the poets he helped, but for his own worth. We have Corbett and Kat Ran Press to thank for this

Zvi A. Sesling is author of King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010), Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011) and the soon to be published Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva). He is Editor of Muddy River Poetry Review and Bagel Bards Anthology #7.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Soutine By Rick Mullin


By Rick Mullin

Dos Madres

ISBN: 978-1-933675-68-8

183 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Book length narrative poems in rhyme and meter do not clutter the shelves of many poetry aficionados these days and there are good reasons: the audience is non-existent and the skill level requires a technical competence attained by years of writing failed doggerel. Many short formal poems that go sour usually do so because of one or more false notes in an otherwise technically sound performance. Think of a violin soloist. Longer poems lose it when the technique and the competence become the point and poetic moments become scarcer and scarcer. In my recent readings I can think of only two contemporary verse narrative books that truly soar: Michael Lind’s historical epic, The Alamo, and Vikram Seth’s verse novel, Golden Gate. Now I know of three.

Rick Mullin paints you into Soutine chapter after chapter. The pace and detail of the book matches the feverish passion and changing colors of the artist’s life. The terza rima works wonderfully, threading you through the densest scenes and functioning as a link to others. Half way through the book, exhausted, I stopped and took a break, read a bunch of other books, and then came back. Intensity sometimes does that

This poem limns the life of Chaim Soutine, but it also does much more. Sections of the author’s personal and artistic life are injected into the narrative creating a strange texture.  Mullins is additionally an accomplished painter and in a real sense lives the life he writes about. Also central to, and concomitant with, the narrative, art theory and technique seduce the reader into an ever-deepening understanding of the expressionistic art world.  A self-portrait of Soutine stares out at you on the front cover, while on a back cover a similarly expressionistic self-portrait of Mullin eyes you suspiciously. 

Born in an eastern European shtetl  (a small Jewish town), the tenth of eleven children, Soutine’s childhood lacked any romance or charm. His parents lived a life of drudgery. Here is Mullin’s description of Soutine’s father,

At the end of the road he sees his father

sitting in a window sewing rags

and davening.  Factortum to a tailor,

poor as gravel, Soutine’s pere reneges

on any promise of Chagall nostalgia

that the shtetl might suggest. He sags

over a pile of scraps in a neuralgia

of repetitive despair…

Because of his sketch of a village elder he is beaten within an inch of his life by other children egged on by their parents. The incident is so serious that his family receives a settlement payment for his injuries.

His art not appreciated and dangerous, Soutine escapes early, by way of Lithuania, where he attended the Vilna Academy of Fine Arts, and then settled in Paris among fellow Russian Jews in Montparnasse, an artistic community on the left bank. The famous painter, Amedeo Modigliani, becomes his closest friend. Or, more accurately, dies his closest friend; since Modigliani’s professional life is a suicide of sorts.

Mullins guides his readers past a multitude of seductive lovers and flamboyant and self-destructive fellow artists, keeping his central focus on Soutine and his work, not an easy task, when dealing with early twentieth century Paris. Like most of his fellow artists Soutine lives hand to mouth, supported by art dealer Leopold Zborowski. That is until Alfred Barnes, a butcher’s son, decides to splurge his new found fortune on an art collection and buys sixty of Soutine’s paintings. Soutine takes the money and runs, abandoning friends and supporters but he doesn’t get far. Mullins is at his best detailing motivation and especially artistic passion. And since real passion envelopes him, there is no exit for Soutine.  

Mullins nails the ecstasy of a working artist in his description of Soutine painting a side of beef.  The story begins with Soutine bargaining for an entire side of beef, which he somehow maneuvers up a flight of stairs into his apartment. There he hangs the bleeding flesh and begins to paint. Days pass and Soutine, sleepless, would not stop. He paints and paints and paints over again. Mullins versifies it this way,

in the heat as Soutine layered splay

on splay of tortured meat between

the scratchwork ribs to end the second day.

And sunrise found him scraping back the green

he’d laid in semidarkness. Hours passed.

The colors changed. The carcass wore a sheen

of viscous rot, its rind a venous blast

of atrophy. It cracked in hieroglyphs

of morbid skin. The painter, slouching, cast

his shadow on the sagging monolith.

By 12 o’clock, the neighbors were amassing

in the hall..

After a while and shouted insults, Soutine replies, “Go away” and then “I paint.” When the police are finally called they unaccountably side with Soutine and he continues for three more days and ten full canvasses—a series!

Henry Miller penned his Tropics upstairs from Soutine and Anais Nin lived just down the hall. These were interesting times and Mullins verse rises to the challenge throughout.

 Of course this story does not end happily. The Second World War starts. The Nazis march into Paris. And Soutine leaves Paris and goes into hiding. His artistic obsessions continue unabated. 

Ill health plagues Soutine and finally a perforated ulcer kills him in 1943, while being moved from location to location, hidden in a hearse, in hiding from the Gestapo.  

Fascinating, exhausting, and an ultimately tragic story.

Splendid poetry.