Thursday, January 30, 2014

In the Museum of Surrender By Jeri Theriault

In the Museum of Surrender
By Jeri Theriault
Encircle Publications
Farmington, ME
ISBN: 10 1-978-1-893035-20-1
24 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Generating strength from weakness tricks the gatekeepers of our fanciful lives, changes their logic, and opens a multiplicity of doors. Through the magic of her empowering poems Jeri Theriault explores where each of these archival doors leads and conveys both soul-searching wonderment and buffeting sadness. Her chapbook collection, In the Museum of Surrender, is well titled and chock full of antiquities and miscellany.

In the opening piece the poet tries to make sense of life’s impediments by using a very modern tool. She googles “heart.” Then she googles an old lover. Then a defining moment in time. The poem ends with that timely moment, which also doubles as the source of her strength. Theriault explains,

…I google resilience
and joy—only a little surprised
when that same moment
comes up: that summer
day, me, the children,
the flowers. And a plant
I missed in the Peterson’s

Sanguinaria Canadensis
Bloodroot, its petals winking
and waving white flags,
while the taproot,
its buried strength—
the very size and shape
of my own heart—
reaches deep
into the dark.

The poem entitled Gloves contrasts cultures of indulgence with cultures of necessity. The poet’s persona buys herself a pair of impractical but nice looking gloves. The Chinese manufacturer’s tag sets her imagination in motion. First she considers the young factory girls who stitch the gloves and their work life. Next she considers Zhihuong, a Chinese student she knows. Her simple description rivets the readers’ attention to the desperate need to better oneself, to rise from weakness, that balances off the purchase of frivolous but needless items. Theriault describes Zhihuong this way,

the Chinese girl in English 10, wearing
pink corduroys, pink sweater—awkward,
dyslexic, her voice bowing. She bends

over crooked letters, her nails startlingly
red. She writes: in my country  
75 pupils in class. Teacher may not

Like you. You sit side-by side, almost
On top of. You try to learn
As much as you can.

My favorite poem in this memorable collection, Once Upon a Dress, sparkles off the page.  Each line seems to wink at you. Theriault’s Cinderella awkwardly wands herself and winds up enclosed in a glass dress. So how does she get to the ball, you may ask. By forklift, of course. At the heart of the piece the poet pretty much does a number on the Prince. She says,

Next morning, in the way of such tales, they are
            married.  No one mentions the problem
            of her dress, ice mountain, glass

casket. What this bride needs is a hand-on
            Prince, or, better yet, her own tool belt, ice
            pick, hammer. (Look at him dashing

and daunting, all straight teeth and epaulets.
            He doesn’t have a clue.)

The story ends happily ever-after with artistic puns on Cinderella’ s name. I won’t spoil it, but—La, la, la!

Describing the metamorphosis of an artist, Theriault’s poem Fox Heat breathes out rejection, depression, and the rawness of creation with verve and imagistic wisdom. After the poet’s protagonist fails at art and she is dubbed a no-talent, she paints her windows black and turns her world into a fox den. A natural artist emerges, a primitive force. Theriault continues the story,

She calls the spirit of other foxes.
She kills chickens, eats them raw
and paints the walls of her cave
                                    with their blood.

Trees grow near her bed,
            willow and oak,
            mushrooming through the ceiling
            surprising her parents.

The wind is just another
   fox, dreaming
            fox dreams
            in the dark cave
            of fox heat.

Beyond the artistic world reality and truth sometimes intrude and sometimes comfort. Theriault’s flirtatious poem entitled Retrieved makes this very point in a startling way. The poet chronicles the love nods and winks of an unstrung artist and her resulting retreat into a solitary but indulgent world. She struggles to maintain balance by grasping at the sharpness of a fading light. The poet concludes,

   I will deny myself nothing.
Night is the pet I trained,
   fox is my tamed space,
fierce and quiet, a true companion.
That’s no way to live. My mother’s words—
   slivers I retrieve—my own
                           scarce light.

Theriault’s poem entitled Kintsugi ties this touching chapbook together. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold, thereby gilding weakness with wealth. The poet does the same thing with her art. She sews together faded words, notes, diaries, letter, and recipes of family members with her golden thread. Here’s how the poem opens,

My mother has left me
                        a box of yellowed
            paper—her poems, Memere’s
                        First Communion note,
                                      Aunt Bern’s
                        tourtiere recipe, letters,
                                       diaries, all
                        these faded words: God
            and make do.

These poems are thoughtfully written and lovingly set. Even the poetic shapes (see above) of these pieces fit their context. Wonderful little book. Surprising big-talent author.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dancing at Reds: Poetry by Tom Miller

Dancing At Reds
Poetry by Tom Miller
Production by Jordan Rich
Cover Art by Joe Kevin Coleman

Review by Dennis Daly

Spoken Word materialized magically and immediately in front of me one night at a little coffee shop in Lynn Massachusetts called the Walnut Street Coffee Café. One by one Patrons recited their poems, told their tales, and spouted their jokes. Most of it was non-academic and very down-to-earth. Some of it was memorized, but much of it was read. And virtually all of it, especially that first time, compelled room-wide interest and riveted attention.

At the time I had little interest in performance poetry, never mind spoken word. Now I appreciate both genres, if spoken word can even be compacted into a single genre or type. Take for example Tom Miller, the subject of this review. When Tom reads the audience listens; the very timbre of his voice demands it. And what a voice he has!

Quoting sections of Tom’s poems will not always do because they are not built that way; many of them cling inseparably to Tom’s voice. He seems to modulate the words to match the voice delivering them and vice versa until the two are harmoniously intertwined. In Miller’s introduction he says, “What I try to do is choose words that allow readers and listeners to visualize those images in their minds and in their own way.” Exactly, just like the faceless waiters and waitresses on the CD’s jacket, Miller’s sparse wording is open to personal interpretation. It’s no wonder that his first professional publication is a CD rather than a chapbook. The CD adds a sound tract with a musical background provided by Jordan Rich, a consummate professional at such things. The music emphasizes Miller’s voice patterns rather than adding or subtracting from the tone and rendition of these poems. The artwork on the jacket of the CD, done by the apparently multi-talented Joe Kevin Coleman (also a Spoken Word poet), fits perfectly.

Miller’s first two pieces, Speak Out and Gathering of Poets pay homage to the particulars of the Walnut Street Coffee Café venue as well as the Spoken Word movement that originated his shtick. He praises the multiplicity of voices and the immediacy of the performance. In effect he says you have to be there. In Gathering of Poets Miller puts it this way,
You can not touch it
If you have not been there
And felt the passion
Of the expression of their minds.

You can not know the bond
If you have not been there
Of craftsmen who work with words
And are driven to be heard.

Poems, stories, songs.
One and the same.
Portraits, landscapes,
Melodies on the wind.

Miller hammers out many of his poems from the raw materials of life’s ups and downs. He exudes the vocal confidence of an oracle in his method of delivery. He has travelled life’s endless roads and knows the geography of which he speaks. Consider these lines from his poem The Roads,

I have been to the deserts in the west.
I have seen the formations and white dunes
And winding dry valleys and tasted cactus
And seen the ball of fire in the cloudless sky
And heard the movement of quiet things all around
And felt the hot dry wind sear and sought shelter.

When Miller’s voice adds itself to the universality of the above lines, it grounds them with character in a counterpoint of dance. Another poem with a similar effect Miller entitles Dancing at Reds. The poet sets this piece in a popular townie breakfast joint in Salem, Massachusetts.  Miller’s assertive voice rises to a crescendo above the percussive background noises common to these type of restaurants. The poem reads well on the page, but, again, in order to fully appreciate it you must hear it in Miller’s unique vocal interpretation. Here’s the heart of the poem,

They sway this way and that.
Backsteps, sidesteps, sidesteps and twirls.
Their costumes of black
Accented by aprons decorated with grease.

They play percussions with spatulas and presses.
Their movements are well practiced
And executed with consummate skill.

Eggs spoonwhipped in a metal bowl.
Pools of batter poured out on the grill.
Splashes of yellow sizzle into omelets.
Steaming peppers and mushrooms, layers of cheese
Folded with a finishing flip of the hand.

Vocals of “behind you”
“Carrie, Laurie, Donna, pick up please!”

Dancing at Reds doubles as the CD’s title poem and, with The Wolf, one of the two masterworks of this collection.

Miller’s last poem, the aforementioned The Wolf, builds its strength on an unmoving central image, delivered in simple phrases as only this poet can deliver them. Unmistakably a metaphor for death, The Wolf is neither morbid nor morose.  The piece presents death as a psychological construct entering reality in a dream and vanishing in the sun’s glare. Miller’s persona comes across as stoic and intense and, above all, patient. The poet says,

He sits not far from the porch
Resting back on his haunches.
Beyond, the sunlight filters through trees and brush
And the day seems pleasant and bright

His fur is thick and full.
Shades of gray and white and black.
His eyes are yellow and bright.
They look at nothing and everything.

He is strong. Confident. Quiet.
He is waiting for me.
I can feel it.
I know it.

He waits.

Now available and worth every cent, Miller’s CD offers entrée onto the stage of the Spoken Word phenomenon with its modulated rhythms and soothing wisdoms. It’s a great starting point. Then go to the Walnut Street Coffee Café or a venue like it and speak out.