Saturday, July 26, 2014

After the Hunt Poems by Devin McGuire

Poet Devin McGuire

After the Hunt
Poems by Devin McGuire
Encircle Publications
Farmington, ME
31 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Horsing around in a hostile world, waiting out the parts that suck, Devin McGuire writes his poems with nerve and punch. Describing McGuire’s first poetry collection as down-to-earth would be an understatement: his apartment smells and his women sweat. The poet’s persona drinks Pabst beer, not because it won a blue ribbon at the Chicago Exposition in 1893 (it probably didn’t, although for years each bottle had a blue ribbon tied around its neck), but because his hard-working grandfather drank it. Seems about right to me.

In the opening poem, Clean Plates, McGuire learns a useful lesson about unpleasantness—you can usually wait it out. As his long-suffering mother tries to force feed him liver, McGuire clings to TV theme songs as a way of determining the winning time frame of his protest. The downside is that he will go hungry. Still, he’ll win. The poet describes his predicament this way,

…liver always tasted like shit, but
my parents made me eat it all anyway.

It was like eating soggy chalk drenched
in catsup, my head propped in hand
as the minutes rolled by
into quarter hours
onto half hours

dad now retired to recliner
mom rinsing dishes
sisters upstairs playing,
a calf’s cold organ on my fork

Intent upon going through life the hard way the poet, in his piece titled At twenty years old, relates how as a young man he eloped with his girlfriend to a backwoods trailer park, complete with a JP and welcoming pink flamingos. Would you guess marriage bliss? No? You’re right! The poem concludes this way,

But at twenty years old
you don’t know yourself.
At twenty years old
we were two horny
dumb kids
with no clue
of what we wanted.
We thought we’d figure that out

It never really went down that way.

One of the more surprising poems in this chapbook McGuire calls After Dad’s Heart Attack. Somehow the passing on frozen packs of meat from father to son becomes an act of love. There also seems to be a conversation, albeit a wordless conversation, on the nature of mortality going on between the two generations. Here is the heart of the poem,

I drive home with fifty thousand grams of cholesterol
and a new book titled The Bad For You Cookbook.

At home I toss the animal flesh and lard into my freezer
but set the ribs aside.
As instructed I slow cook them
in clay covered Pampered Chef dish.

Hours later my apartment smells like small town Texas.

I eat this dinner like most
alone over the kitchen sink
but smile because it could be worse.
I count my blessings
happy that others love me

Insomnia closes in on the poet in his piece Awake (5 A.M.). He jousts with his alter ego over the solitary life and his past relationships. Notice that his female phantasm is a composite, not a singular memory. The poet says,

I think of the women that have lain with me there.
How when sleep wouldn’t mute
my dervish of thought,
I had the sweet nape of a neck
to nuzzle
to drown softly
in her smell.

How all I have to wrap my yearning
arms around now are these thoughts.

Sometimes I smile,
my thoughts small, comfortable,
safe and warm
alone, without the chaos
of another’s
floating in the air above my bed

Wasting Time in Western Maine, a poem which rails against the powerlessness of man to shape his destiny and create future solidity, disregards the reality of measured time. McGuire’s persona, nevertheless, leans his shoulder into the misfortunes of life, hoping against hope that all is not wasted. The poet opens the piece by denouncing objectivity as illusion,

wasting it
as if it had some tangible reality
not measured
not warped
or twisted
by perception

so if time’s not being wasted,
perhaps I am

Living life can be a messy affair with its missteps, its trauma, and its shuddering end. McGuire conveys this complexity through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy in his very fine poem entitled How To Kill a Fish. In the first stanza the poet skillfully details the panic and hesitancy of the youth by the halting exterior details of the building horror. Something very different happens in the second stanza, something in some ways more unsettling.  Replacing the boy, a knowledgeable observer describes an alternative killing method in almost scientific terms. A calmness and curiosity replace the aforementioned panic. Innocence lost for sure! McGuire ends his poem brutally,

the rest of your hand
round its head with your
other around its
speckled brown body
pull back till you hear
the snap and maybe
a cold dead fish eye
pops out a bit but
that’s not the worst of it
you will feel the death rattle
that last violent shudder
a shock like electric
life force leaving
your hands.

If you prefer your beer bold and unpretentious and your lovers smoldering like burning autumn leaves, read this book in one sitting and mull on life’s bloody wreckage and offbeat grandeur.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Knotting for Suggestive Unity in The Net by Daniel Tobin by Michael Todd Steffen

Knotting for Suggestive Unity in The Net by Daniel Tobin

by Michael Todd Steffen

In one of several echoes of the beacon image of his new book, The Net, Daniel Tobin gives us a laden six-line poem, here quoted in full:

            WRIT IN WATER

            Language is a net
            In which the world is caught
            Skittery in its scales.

            In the Book of Nought
            All lines are marked stet.
            Is prevails.

The simplicity of the lyric makes it verbally palpable, even as the second tercet falters in word difficulty, abstraction and truncated meter. Because of the necessary stumbles of the second tercet, it falls short of, yet gestures at, forging a word-thing for memory, like The Lord is my shepherd…, To be or not to be…, Jack be nimble Jack be quick, My country ’tis of thee…, or We all live in a yellow submarine… Because in our time memorable lyricism in written poetry is looked away from, for singsonginess, oversimplicity, Tobin crumples that second tercet with its intellectual challenges of the Book of Nought and the editorial Latinate trade term stet (also okaying “Nought”), its meter scuffing.

     The thing about construing a really good lyric for readers of poetry, which Seamus Heaney understood so well, is to beset the surface simplicity of the language with riddlesome meaning or suggestions. Why in the world would Jack jump over a candlestick? (We seldom ask, because the rhymes convince us of this improbable performance…) Buried in our psyches, Freudians might argue, a candlestick is anatomically deep-seeded, archetypal: every kid already possesses it in their consciousness of joy and trauma. All it as an a priori phenomenon needs are the words of the nursery rhyme to light it up in our minds. It signifies not just any concentration point, but an isolated, passionate, possibly dangerous one, holding fire, being consumed—yet giving off light, illuminating the darkness.

     Tobin’s net is also archetypal: in this poem nothing less than the world is caught in it. Yet to temper the compass of that statement, the poet succeeds it with an amusing description, Skittery in its scales, reminiscent perhaps of Dr. Seuss, Roethke’s The Lost Son or one of Wilbur’s children’s verses. The word “scales” ties in with the idea of an ordinary net for fish. Yet with the word’s association in “the scales of justice,” that language is the net here begins to make its sense. Jesus, one associated with ultimate judgment or justice, we remember, told his seafaring apostles that he would teach them to be fishers of men. There is, further, in the Book of Revelations reference to a Book of Life, in which the names of the blessed are enrolled, and this book may lead us in Tobin’s poem to think about what this Book of Nought might mean. Yet in this book conjured by the poet, all lines have been edited to be deleted, so they have to be reconsidered again to be marked not to be deleted: stet. Tobin’s Book of Nought makes

sense as, not the biblical Book of Life, but as the observed Book of Actuality, of everything that is, whether it’s been affirmed by writing or not. No such book exists, of course. Though we have heard of such books before. I wonder wonder who, who who who who, Who wrote the book of love? The Monotones sang the question. Loftily Henry David Thoreau, condensing the figure of book to poem, reflects:

            The true poem is not that which the public read. There is always a poem
            not printed on paper, coincident with the production of this, stereotyped
            in the poet’s life…

then the saint of Walden offers a summary couplet:

            My life has been the poem I would have writ,
            But I could not both live and utter it.
(Walden and Other Writings, Henry David Thoreau, The Modern Library, New York, 2000,
p. 440)

It is the poem, or back to Tobin, it is the book not of ideals or shoulds, not of considerations of morality or taste or of trends, but of one sole editorial reflection—stet, let it stand—the real thing, wonderful beyond, more terrible than, inconceivably just as things are, where (whatever) Is prevails.

     What kind of “book” could this be? A set of encyclopedias? But no bound compendium keeps up with time where Is prevails. Only the human mind keeps up, haltingly and protestingly albeit, with day by day, minute by minute reality. No single human mind does this, though collectively we sort of do by talking with one another, reading news articles, listening to the radio, observing birds, watching television. Still, to keep coincident with the production of things, we would need to communicate almost everywhere simultaneously. The only possible correlative for Tobin’s Book of Nought, though evocative of something profound, eternal, perhaps ancient, has actually only been available to us for the last three decades or so, and it is inscribed in Daniel Tobin’s book title: the (Inter)net.

James Merrill in his epic The Changing Light of Sandover liked to exchange terms in a catchy phrase to describe his undertaking: the poem of the world and the world of the poem. The inverted phrases in this sequence have the effect of building tension (how read, write or even conceive of the poem of the world ?) and relieving that stress: the world of the poem, okay. There is a sifting, back-and-forth interaction between them, maybe at the origin of a lot of poems. You read and read a poem that captures you, you absorb its world and language. You look around yourself at the present ongoing world, with the poem’s world in your mind, and the two worlds begin to strike a deal. If you’re lucky, you write an original poem, maybe slightly echoing the poem you’ve been reading, a new poem between a poetic tradition and the individual talent and that talent’s time.

Seamus Heaney saw that riddles were a traditional way poets drew interest in their works. With his characteristic turn of mind, Heaney applied the notion of a riddle (enigma) to a sort of tool or utensil also called a riddle, a large sieve used to separate soil or compost particles, or to separate soil from vegetables. But depending on whether you’re using the riddle to purify soil or to separate dirt from radishes, what you’re using the riddle for poses the riddle itself:

            You never saw it used but still can hear
            The sift and fall of stuff hopped on the mesh,

            Clods and buds in a little dust-up,
            The dribbled pile accruing under it.

            Which would be better, what sticks or what falls through?
            Or does the choice itself create the value? (The Haw Lantern, page 51)

A net like a riddle separates. It takes fish (and other strange things) from the water. Empty nets to fishermen are omens, when nothing’s being separated from the water. And a little ominous is Tobin’s first personal reference to a (fishing) net, in the opening poem of the collection “The Jetty,” a wonderfully patient meditation between ebb tide when this basin wall “reaches, a stone sentence, across the bay” and some lost time later

                        while the tide sounds
            the length of this transit, susurrant

            fountain, a summoning from under,
            and all of it gone by evening.

In a sense, crossing the jetty, “a stone sentence,” is a metaphor for writing poetry, with its required sense of displacement, venture and curiosity,

            its jigsaw syntax entered like hopscotch
            from Lands End,

                                          entered the way wrens
            step, step on sidewalks, crushed shells    
looking for seed,
                                       as if unsure of earth—
            until it feels natural to be outside
            the known scope,
                                        and you follow
            the jumbled puzzle out farther

            than you first expected, toehold
            by toehold…

In an interview about the new book with Doug Holder earlier this year, Tobin comments on his approach to poetry, of being thus wooed by the poem, with its other mind:

            I allow my form to lead me to a broader perspective. I let the poem lead.
            I follow clues it gives to me. I see the poem as a path beyond the self. The poem
            wants something from you. (The Somerville Times, July 9, 2014, p. 23)

But allowing oneself to be led out and out, as on a jetty susceptible to the tide, can bring you woefully to that fine, fine line between curiosity or faith and one’s gullibility. If the tide starts covering the jetty before we make it back to the shore, and this is a kid’s meditation on a kid’s adventure, the situation could get dire. And it is this sense of quiet despair and endangerment that is conveyed by the speaker of the poem when, among

            shallows of moon snails, welks, skate eggs,
            these currents like sandcoils redoubling
            in pools where shucked pilings, scarified
                         brace to colonies of rockweed
            that flail in sediment’s plangent ooze…

Tobin spots the book’s title image and leitmotiv in a state of abandonment, an image of the poet’s identity:

            you are an earthstar tumbling in spores
            into the living waste,
                                                the risen pleroma,

            your name a net caught in the hollow
            between stones…

Language is a net In which the world is caught, the short lyric has told us. Our names, also language, are nets. To see one’s name “caught in the hollow between stones,” though the stones are not personal enough to name, say, Chelsea and Charlie, magnifies the poet’s identification with an imperiled object and the feeling of ungovernable helplessness at not being able to disentangle this “net” for its ordinary beauty and use again. It is a moment of doom perceived.\

     The true longing of such a moment is for the moment to pass, for the grace of time, a longing that inspires the prayer that forms the title poem, “The Net,” found about midway in the book.

            God of the first waters, Ea, listen,
                 You who parsed chaos with a net from the day:
                      Unfasten your knots, let the swells replenish
            From subtlest channels, from the seams of flesh.

Here again the individual body, “the seams of flesh,” is extended through metaphor to the “subtlest channels” of the earth’s waterways parsed with chaos in a creation myth, we are told by the poet, Translated loosely from a lost Akkadian tablet, no longer even belonging to history, since the tablet is lost, but to human consciousness of eternity, ongoing time with its arrivals and departures.

More often than not, books of poetry are organized with a lot of grace for topical coherence. With exceptions, we read poetry for its unrestrained delivery of concentrated expression, for its surprises and odd persuasions, its advocacy for the easily forgotten or condemned. Maybe for something like 95% of collections, coherence is an afterthought. It gets invited to the Prince’s ball in the eleventh hour and, without a tailored gown or suit, throws itself together with intuition and serendipity from odds and ends. Readers don’t necessarily expect more. Some books of poetry for their thematic rigor fall too easily into predictability. Sequence and feel, rather than topical or argumentative order, are key in building resonance within a collection, so that beyond individual pieces, poem to poem, the book as a whole bears further amplified meanings that make it unique in its binding to have and to preserve, as a separate thing, not just a content nested in fragile software to light up on an anonymous screen.

     This new collection by Daniel Tobin achieves a generous balance between suggestive unity and thematic laissez-faire. He uses the “net” in a very wide cast or broad sense indeed, almost like glossers of Dante, at the four levels. The net as the thing itself, literally a fisher’s net. In its contemporary historical sense as the Internet. In its metaphorical sense as language, the elusive knotted mesh of our convictions, and of our delusions like Othello’s entanglement in Iago’s net of lies. And anagogically, cosmically—intimately?—we are bound in the net of our being, by every limit we knock against and at which we are refused or constricted, in Ea the god of the first water’s net.

     I set out in this article with so much to say about other poems in the book. I wanted to mention the progress of our romance with technological media to habit-forming, sleepy ritual traced in “Ovid in the Age of Tin.” I wanted to say something about Tobin’s vatic warnings for our society’s presumed vast stranglehold on events in “A Starry Messenger” and in “And Now Nothing Will Be Restrained from Them.” I loved being weirded out by “Parasitical” with its Kafka-esque epigraph, and the comparison of the German pronunciation of “Rilke” with the guttering kickstart of a motorbike. Along with the haunted music of “The Turnpike” and the combining of intelligence and feeling cultivated from the 16th- century metaphysical poet John Donne, a good variety of formal poems and observer poems, the amplitude of pertinent and poignant thought delivered by Tobin’s language make The Net one of those rare books of poems that easily endures re-reading after re-reading, plays its own protean slip on our want to grapple it into this or that. It both invites and frustrates that effort. The book attests to Tobin’s patience, to so much volleying with the stubborn, intimate yet blind and unpredictable raiders of our psychological territory, which poetry vigorously defends against settlement or ownership.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Walk Through The City: My changing landscape By Doug Holder

A Walk Through The City: My changing landscape
By Doug Holder

  There is something that I used to do frequently but now hardly at all, and that is walking through the streets of Boston. I had a dinner I had to go to recently, so I decided to leave early from my home in Somerville, grab the Red Line to Park Street, and got my dogs on the hot pavement. I have been around Boston since 1973 , from the time I entered Boston University as a freshman. One of the things I noticed some 40 years later is the change in Boston and the change in me.  I am no longer looking at the city as an adventure; I am looking at it nostalgically. While walking down the street in Downtown Crossing I saw the ghost of the Barnes and Noble store that I used to frequent and picked up, by mere chance, “On the Road,” simply because the book cover looked cool. That started me on a Kerouac reading binge that had me devouring everything he ever wrote, and made me realize how exciting life and literature can truly be.

    A mere block or two away I remembered the subterranean Filene’s Basement that used to reside on the street. I had a short-lived job there as a security guard in women’s wear—of all places. In the bowels of the earth, amidst the roar of the subway, I was also one of the denizens of this store, rushing the doors the  first thing in the morning for the slightly irregular Arrow shirts and the discounted suits hawked by wisecracking and world weary salesmen and women.

  Still further down I saw that a favorite haunt of mine Borders Books has been replaced by a giant  Walgreens that even houses a Sushi bar amidst the health and beauty aids. I remember reading there at a poetry series my friend Harris Gardner hosted back in the day. I also can recall the thrill of seeing books I published or wrote myself on those shelves.

After passing through the tourist mecca of Faneuil Hall, I took note of all the street singers, and of course that brought up an idea for a poem, which I composed on a bench looking out to the waterfront in the North End.

The North End also has a special hold for me. I lived on Salem Street in the mid- 80s with a girlfriend of mine (She threw me out protesting that she couldn’t stand all my eating—hey! -- we were in the hub of Italian cuisine after all!), and I can vividly remember the large men sitting outside the social club, and yelling: “ Hey, twinkle toes!” at me as I jogged by, my skinny legs flailing on my morning run. As I walked down Hanover St. and Salem St., the smells of the Italian bakeries brought back that image of couple across the way from our apartment who played Caruso recordings, and invariably get into loud operatic domestic arguments. They were punctual—the fireworks always seemed to start at 5PM.

The late poet Jack Powers (who I was friends with), lived in the North End during his later years, after his long stint on Beacon Hill, known to his crowd in the 50s, 60s, and 70s as Beatnik Hill. I remember interviewing the poet Lyn Lifshin at the long gone eatery DA’s Italian Cuisine—Jack was at the table too. He lived behind the restaurant, in a dark, damp, gone to seed apartment. Rotting in his basement were letters, etc… from the likes of Ginsberg, Corso, and Ferlinghetti. I tried to get him to archive the stuff before it decomposed. I asked Mike Basinski, of the University of Buffalo Poetry and Rare Books Collection to come down to take a look at Jack’s archives. Basinski came down, but Jack did not want to give it up…it was like a vital appendage he couldn’t bring himself to sever. Jack’s backyard was full of found art sculptures –built from tin cans, cigarette butts, rocks he salvaged from construction sites…you name it. This space was now covered with a wooden structure, and his apartment was gone—it is now used for storage space for a new restaurant on the scene.

Finally I stopped at the Parker House on Park Street-an old haunt of mine. I had a drink at the Last Hurrah (Once in the basement of the hotel, now a diminished version is on the lobby level). I grabbed a table with a window view, my schoolboy notebook at my side, and proceeded to write this essay. With my view of the rush hour crowds careening down School St., I felt like I was home. And I was. Believe it or not this was one of the best days I had in a longtime.