Saturday, September 08, 2012

And We’d Understand Crows Laughing – Poems (1997-2010), W. Nick Hill

And We’d Understand Crows Laughing – Poems (1997-2010), W. Nick Hill (Loveland, Ohio, Dos Madres Press, 2012), 83 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-933675-69-5. 

Review by Joanne DeSimone Reynolds

The title of Nick Hill’s new collection, “And We’d Understand Crows Laughing,” is a little cryptic and invites a question: What does one have to do to gain the ability to understand crows laughing? The title of the first section of the book, “Belongings,” made me wonder: Do we need to own or carry some thing or things in order to understand? The title of the first poem, “Skip The World,” seemed counterintuitive and begged yet another question: Skip the world and what, skip life?  But then I read the poem and began to catch on:

Tell yourself to value the notion of stone over water,
and whisper, Pick it up, and then just let it go.

Heft with the right, warm the arm.
Take bearings, estimate the curvature.

Feel the hand come around behind the ear, coiling,
releasing torque at the elbow,

snapping forward until it is
gone, its skipping course for a moment seen.

Throw into the waves
what you have endured.

Try to be the same each time,
hold fast against the zephyrs.

Throw hard into the angry waves
shoving forward with their burly shoulders.

The brute stone turns belly up and sinks,
its own dumb marker.

The dream, of course,
to skip it right out of this world.

Hill suggests we engage with the natural world wholeheartedly but with a touch of calculation in order to be fully of the world, to belong to it in an elemental way. Value possibility, the triumph of stone over wave and wind. Value perseverance; learn from what you have endured. Rely on steadfastness; believe in dreams. But the assumption of the last couplet leaves  a feeling of unease, a foreboding. A few pages later is the poem “Ars Peonensis,” with sensual, vivid images of a personified peony: “In March she was a honeyed knob, / an ant laden pincushion of promises, / a veined lollipop on a springy stick. / And then with cumulus in the blue / one afternoon she opened like a greeting, / a near chaos of tissues / bounded by a breath held and then released / soft as a chime . . . //  To keep her I cut her down, too late / to take back my error, once again.” Funny and a little heartbreaking. The narrator ends up with the wilted bloom in a compost heap, then fashions a simulacrum from paper and muses on “sapient cleverness // (monuments, tall ships, splitting atoms) . . . [how] compost // will need to teach me and guide me // . . . [to] watch the dark knife // of hubris become a shard // in the loam with the worms.” Fair warning to all stone-skippers! Late in this section is the very moving poem “Shakkei Memorial” about planting a cypress to “reverberate evergreen beside that massive sno-cone,” Mt. Baker, which lies in the distant background. Hill notes that “Shakkei is a Japanese term for a borrowed landscape in which a planting is located such that it participates in the distant view of a great feature of the landscape.” One need not know this to feel the deep reverence in the poem: “I don’t often address a tree so personally, / … I have noticed our kinship many times before, arms out / stretched, reaching, feet near clay, / eyes harder to discern, soul everywhere from bark to cone.” I found the first stanza to be too informational: “This time the deadline happens to be the first real winter storm / blowing south from Puget Sound sideways across the bay, / not some academic thing” and it detracted from the poem’s distilled beauty. But the first line of the second stanza, “And you bare in your root ball, cypress” really draws in the reader.

The second section, entitled “The Tides” is one long poem: the musings of one lover as the other comes and goes with regularity. Time, present time, when the lover is near, casts a kind of spell on the speaker, rendering him unable to capture the whole of the lover as he might like to. In the flesh, the lover can only be taken in in pieces: “It’s now that you seem most absent, ethereal, a fluttering / at the seed bin . . . a hand that must / be yours and I think I see you flaring there at close / range—though maybe I’m mistaken—the moments / passing through tinged eyebrows, then droopy / doubts . . but / where are you?” And further on “Sometimes the closer I get to you // The more you come apart, the sharp // Touch of a foot with toes, cold / And discrete.” It is a compelling theme, and Hill delves deeply to explicate it, but at ten pages it gets bogged down and hits too many off-notes: “If I held your skeleton any closer / you’d be me.” Or this: “Promised time fashioned itself into a mechanical bird.” The poem runs to the sentimental and risks cliche: “When you lie in bed together after twenty years / And you can still think to say, “That was super, sweetie.” Also, the poem is not served by the title “I Miss You Already,” which is then repeated as the first line to little effect. The section title, “The Tides,” is more apt and less telling, although the tidal imagery dries up. The reader feels buffeted about as the narrator swings between imaginings, past scenarios, and the present state of affairs with and without the lover.

The third section, entitled “Red Truck,” is an exploration of a landscape, a ruin of a truck, and someone referred to as “Somebody” who used and then abandoned the truck among the bramble. “Somebody” is Hill’s “Everyman,” whom the speaker in the poems sometimes refers to as simply “S” to imply a real but hidden person and to underscore that he/she is any one of us: you or me or a “ veteran of many wars, [a]street poet,” even the narrator himself. In the poem “Humanism Unveiled,” the speaker concludes the poem with the line, “But who is S. if not all of us between deeds and dreaming?” In the first poem “Red Truck,” the truck is referred to without an article to create a sense of persona, its first stanza – right justified – is quoted here in its entirety for its affinity to a certain wheel barrow:

                                                                                                    rise on
                                                                                                    red truck,
                                                                                                    on a

Red truck is “…A one-ton ruin / That built the world as we know it / Remains of illusion // Not a pyramid or Xanadu / Not a poster for Communists or Capitalists / Not a glossy pin-up calendar // No landmark though it signifies / Rusting stolid, pistons seized … Satellite pictures a hunk of metal / Cousin to space debris / that falls in flaming chunks / bringing down / petite gods dreaming / from deep in heaven.” Red truck stands for America and for Americans, in fact for all of humanity, for dreams, for pursuit, for what we leave behind, for unintended consequences. In the poem “The Other,” the speaker pushes the concept of “Somebody” to a farcical conclusion, becoming “Nobody” as in “Nobody is somebody you could get into, like a part in a play. / Nobody lives here would be something like beachfront / property on a remote island. / Some of my best friends are nobodies. / We attend the yearly convention where everyone stands / around at the cocktail party looking at each other’s blank / name tags.” Somebody, everybody, nobody: who takes responsibility? In the poem “Blackberries In The Cold,” the epigraph “Come back to me is my request” brings to mind the primal fear of a parent sending a child off to war. In it, red truck seems a companion to the speaker: “Walking the trail beside red truck the blackberries taunt / from thorned labyrinths… In another season they will have covered your shape / completely in a barbed bower. / Their sweet tart taste but a harbinger of the grip of spines / about the heart, when we heard the names not coming / home.” Fitting, wrenching, and beautiful language.

Each section of Nick Hill’s collection is distinct in voice and tone. Intimate and awe-struck when engaging with the natural world in the first section, searching and self-reflective in the second, and social-political and authoritative in the third. Each replete with natural touchstones: soapberry, sedum and creeks; humus, tidelands, and volcanoes; salmon, salmonberry, and chickweed to name a few; and with off-beat places like Red Dog Farm, Cry Baby Hill, and Kah Tai lagoon. Hill uses Portuguese, Spanish, and a little French in some of these long-lined poems.  He is emeritus professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature at Fairfield University, and from the tender poem “Dona Alice’s Baked Apple,” about a mother and her recipe, one can surmise that he lived in Brazil as a child. I took my time reading this collection; it is dense and could have benefited from some pruning. But Nick Hill’s collection is intelligent, heart-felt, and varied in the best sense of the word. Poems such as “Thistles On Goleta Highlands,” “Water Tapestry,” and “Whale Creek, Near Queets” are engaging, lush lyrics. And as for crows laughing, it’s all in the poem “Seed,” which you will have to read, maybe while carrying one in your pocket “for guidance.”

Thursday, September 06, 2012

War All The Time John Bennett

War All The Time
John Bennett
Vagabond Press
605 E. 5th Avenue
Ellensburg, WA  98926

Review by Rene Schwiesow

In a 2011 interview, David Hoenigman, described John Bennett in this way:  “. . .John Bennett has always stood up for what's right and wrong in us, this country, the world. Big heart. Loud voice. Immense mission—to get it all down. For you to see what he sees. Like it or not. Think about it.”  In “Contact is How We Know We’re alive” Bennett punches it home.  And though “War All the Time” (part of a trilogy that includes “The Theory of Creation and “The Birth of Road Rage”) is copyrighted 2005, the words ring as true today:

Rugby, football and war.  Freeway carnage,
beaten wives, drunk drivers.  Elementary –
school shootouts, industry gone berserk in the
Congo – contact is how we know we’re alive.

Peace is for pansies.  Give us drill teams and frat
houses.  Sumo wrestlers, drive-bys and Mike
Tyson.  Bite the ears off of Jesus, cop a plea.  Talk
shows where we give vent to our grievance.

The face in the mirror turns its back.  We
shatter into a lifetime of bad luck.

Yeah.  “The truth,” Bennett says in “Drugs & Wars,” “claws at our backs like a woman in the throes of a climax” and then, “Historians dip their quills into blood” (“Flat-Line Reptilian Brains”).

You get the point, Bennett doesn’t wrap the ugly up in a bow.

Throughout the work he alludes to great writers, texts and individuals and each time the allusions jump from the page and grab you in the intellect, ask you to consider or re-consider the original thoughts.  For example, “Every child is Moses in a basket made of reeds that we bulldoze to make room for urban sprawl.”

He ends a work entitled “Pax Americana” with:

Are we having fun yet?  Good.  Now raise that
flag and snap to.  Mass graves full of children.
Tall buildings in rubble.  Genocide with a smiley
face.  You get the picture.

Myths to live by.

The hero’s journey.

It’s likely that Joseph Campbell did not have the above in mind when he told us to “follow your bliss.” 

Two last thoughts, read the book for the rest:

On a 10:00 am Sunday morning, church bells ring
whole families out into their cars, and just
outside the atmosphere, a huge bat circles the
earth, casting a shadow that covers whole
continents.  We call it stormy weather and
build solariums in the rain.  Giant buildings
come crashing down. . .

And we do not wish to pay attention, grasp the dire situation for ourselves, then for the children:

Our town.  Two kids sitting on a ledge, a boy
and a girl with white holes for eyes, untouched
by anything, kicking their feet in a world where
the clocks have stopped ticking, dreaming the
impossible dream, waiting for good things to

*****Rene Schwiesow is a poet/writer/reviewer/editor and co-host of the wildly popular South Shore venue, The Art of Words, in Plymouth, MA.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Theory of Creation by John Bennett

The Theory of Creation
John Bennett
Vagabond Press
605 E. 5th Avenue
Ellensburg, WA  98926

Review by Rene Schwiesow

“The Theory of Creation” is part of a trilogy.  The other two books are “War All the Time” and “The Birth of Road Rage.”   In the forward, Bennett tells us: “The shards in ‘The Theory of Creation’ were written over a span of time ranging from the mid 1990’s until late in 2004.”  As you read the shards you may find that some appear to be written after 9/11.  In fact, Bennett says they were written years earlier.  His explanation:  “. . .if you’ve got your finger on the pulse, you can hear the beating heart of the future.”

A crowded bus making its way through Manhattan.
People packed into seats and standing up
jammed together.  No one speaks.  Everyone’s
eyes are the same.  There is a faint knowing, an
even fainter surprise.  They’re detached from
illusion until it’s their turn to get off.  There’s
nothing to act on.

This may sound devoid of hope and while Bennett also offers us end lines such as:  “Dry-sperm floats thru the air like cottonwood in a postpartum world,” we are not left hopeless:

Expectation is the readiness to burst into light
in a pitch-black existence.

In “The Business of Luck” all hope seems at an end and yet, from my personal perspective the end three lines of the work remind me of the final scene in “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Rose of Sharon is devoid of hope after the stillborn birth of her child, yet is able to provide sustenance to a starving man on the floor of a boxcar by offering him the milk of her breasts.

You arrived on the scene rolling snake eyes.
You’ve been huddled in boxcars forever.
You’ve gone tits up in the business of luck.

And still, perhaps we are able to offer something of value, to offer hope to someone, somewhere.

In a shard entitled “Plain Speak” Bennett says: “Something much worse has transpired than what Orwell (in “1984”) foresaw.”  Yet, the juxtaposition between despair and hope that he has kept going throughout the book ends with an awe-inspiring hopeful moment:

Overhead a hawk is gliding on the wind against
a clear sky.  I switch off NPR and silence swoops
down over us like the hand of God.  James slides
his earphones down around his neck and leans
over the front seat to look out the windshield
at the hawk, and for an instant, in that silence,
we all three know exactly where it is that we
came from.

Life is a paradox.

Rene Schwiesow is a poet/writer/editor/reviewer and co-host of the wildly popular South Shore venue The Art of Words in Plymouth, MA.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Elizabeth Searle: A Writer Fascinated With the Dark Side of American Culture.

Elizabeth Searle: A Writer Fascinated With the Dark Side of American Culture.

By Doug Holder

  Writer Elizabeth Searle talks with a rapid-fire cadence, has an engaging laugh, and an optimistic sparkle to her eyes. But beneath this lies a writer who is interested in the darker side of American culture-the side obsessed with competition and winning at all costs. According to her website she is :

“ …  the author of two works of theater and four books of fiction: CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE, a novella and stories; A FOUR-SIDED BED, a novel nominated for an American Library Association Book Award and MY BODY TO YOU, a story collection that won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and a 2011 novel, GIRL HELD IN HOME. The New York Times Book Review called her novella Celebrities in Disgrace “a miniature masterpiece.” Elizabeth Searle's and Michael Teoli's Rock Opera, TONYA & NANCY THE ROCK OPERA-- as well as her and Abigail Al-Doory Cross’ original opera, TONYA AND NANCY: THE OPERA-- have drawn worldwide media attention. Searle’s short stories have appeared in magazines such as PLOUGHSHARES, REDBOOK, NEW ENGLAND REVIEW AGNI, and KENYON REVIEW and in anthologies such as LOVERS and DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME. Elizabeth has taught fiction writing at Brown, Emerson College, Bennington MFA, Stonecoast MFA, and the University of Massachusetts (Visiting Writer, 2007-08). She served for over a decade on the Executive Board of PEN/New England and founded the Erotic PEN readings. She teaches at Stonecoast MFA…”

 I talked with Searle on my Somerville Community Access TV show:  Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder:  You are a novelist, and playwright. Which do you identify with the most?

Elizabeth Searle: I like to jump. I am a hyper sort of person. For years I would have said fiction right away. But theatre has always been an interest of mine. And I have spent a great deal of time on the Tonya and Nancy opera. It is a show based on the famous knee attack on Nancy Kerrigan that Tonya Harding was suspected of being behind. It is one of the top rated sports events of all time. It is a scandal that I followed breathlessly. To me it has so many themes of America. It is an Only in America story. We created it as a sort of black comedy. We produced it  both as a rock opera and an opera. Both productions seemed to get a lot of media, and we have gotten good reviews too. The Boston Herald gave us a very good notice, and a lot of good media outlets like The Boston Globe covered us.

DH: How did you get the idea for this opera?

ES: My niece was studying at Tufts University. And she wanted to do a short opera as her final project. She asked me for help in coming up with an idea. And I came up with this idea partly because I have written about Tonya and Nancy in my novel Celebrities in Disgrace. So when I thought of an opera—I thought that their story has all the emotions—the whole range. We had greatly talented and professional people involved with this. It was presented at the  Zero Arrow Theatre  in Harvard Square—a theatre associated with the American Repertory Theatre. So now I relate to a lot of theatre writing. Now-this may not make the Met, but, hey, there are a lot of strange operas out there by Philip Glass, John Adams, etc… Recently some people invited me to the Tony Award ceremonies—which was thrilling—so who knows?

DH:  Some writers say teaching detracts from their work—others say it adds to it. Your take?

ES: I think it is a great job to have as a writer. You can’t beat the hours. Yes, it is a lot of work, a lot of reading. But luckily I have taught at programs where the students are talented so I can enjoy the reading of their work. Stonecoast where I have taught for 10 years is great in this way because we get students of all backgrounds, ages, and they are talented. Sure it takes a lot of creative energy to teach, but the hours are such that I can be with my husband and children.

DH: You studied at Brown University—any mentors that you can mention?

ES: John Hawkes—the great American writer. I was in a small class with just five people—so it was memorable experience. I also was influenced by Robert Coover. I did my undergraduate time at Oberlin College. Field Magazine was situated there and it was a great time to be a creative writing major. This was a time when a lot of programs didn’t have a presence like that.

DH: I know back in the day you were in writing groups with writers like Debra Spark, and Jessica Treadway. Both are writers that I have interviewed. How important were for you? Are they still?

ES: My writing groups are still important to me. In my heyday of writing groups I had two great girl groups that included Debra and Jessica. I am involved with a writers’ group that has two members from the program at Brown University when I attended.

DH: You were the Vice-Chair of PEN NEW ENGLAND for a while. What was your role there?

ES: I was on the Executive Board for  10 years. I was also secretary and I helped run the children’s program they had. We had a book fair at the Boston Medical Center—and we gave free books out to the public. We had this event where we sat at a typewriter and would type up things kids would dictate to us—and then make them into books.

DH: You often write about ambitious women that are preoccupied with fame and hunger for attention. Is this in anyway like you?

ES: Oh sure. I am a very practical person. So I realize fame is a very rare thing in the literary world. I am an ambitious writer—I mean I published four books. In my own life I wouldn’t act out in the ways my characters do. However those dark emotions are very American, and I am fascinated with them.

DH: How are these dark undercurrents American?

ES: Our culture is obsessed with winning and competition. I think in a way it runs the American engine, but in another way it is out of control. There is a yin and yang-a good and bad.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Red Buddha Maia Penfold

The Red Buddha
Maia Penfold
Hocolm Press
ISBN 987-0-9776783-3-4
2010   $15.00

“it leaps out
that afternoon
in saskatchewan in the brilliant sun
pedaling my bicycle over the crunch
of gravel road
the world was all around me
and i was in it i was entirely in it
and then a car approached slowing down
a man and a woman their arms out the windows
waving wildly they yelled the war is over
the war is over
they never stopped
i was stunned
to hear it...”

Penford places herself, like a cypress tree, in the middle
of a field. Each poem spot-lights her humor and the need
to poetize her view. In the poem above, “having reached
three score and ten,” the poet, Maia, takes us where we have
already been and continue to be, on a path, under the sky,
where cars approach and war is over. Where the dead names
remain engraved in stone and the world continues to battle-

“mass murder in yugoslavia in east timor
in africa killing in ireland in palestine and
the children killing children

we've landed on the moon we've got e-mails
you and I can readily fly to hong kong
or new york the world has changed
it's so much smaller than it was
when I was ten...”

This poem is about sadness, about the reality of living a long life.
The book relates in minute details, people and place, “all the men
I know have slivers in their hearts,” and the poet is able to show
us, the political stance people take, by just sitting on a chair on a porch.

“...this tiny planet looks so peaceful
so beautiful from outer space...”

Penfold is a master of her craft, the poems' revisions help
the reader to sit easy with each word, each verse flows
into us like a summer mountain stream.

“ nothing much has changed
women’s magazines continue to put
good and gooey dark chocolate cake on the cover
right next to the promise you can lose ten pounds
in time for bathing suit weather with the added
promise to reveal bedroom secrets to please
your man and how to prepare the perfect
lattice top blueberry pie how to inflame
his desire with the right perfume the right
bustier how to tempt him luscious desserts
it's still so much all about him...”

The poems unfold like a novel, a life grown straight-up
out of the rich soil of seeing and relating what the poet
experiences. There are small truths that lead to the big picture.

“i take out our maps and
I show him look I say
crow flying it's twelve miles
straight across but for us it's two
hundred miles do you realize that?
It's a two hundred mile drive through the
desert we have to loop around this
way he smiles at me he knows I can't
say no this time he smiles his smile
of sweet victory

the next day
we are driving by dome-shaped dirt-colored
hogans in the desert
we are driving through the kaibab
plateau of utah and it does look
like canada”

The Red Buddha, re-enters us into the world of poetry by being
there at the exact moment the sentence turns before the reader
realizes there is a pause but there is no pause no capital letters
there is only the promise of a poem and that is enough
for us to continue to read these wonderful poems

irene koronas
reviewer: Ibettson Street Press
poetry editor: Wilderness House Literary Review