Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Sunday Poet: Llyn Clague

Llyn Clague

 Llyn Clague's  poems have been published widely, including in Atlanta Review, Wisconsin Review, California Quarterly, Main Street Rag, The Avalon Literary Review, Ibbetson Street, Hiram Poetry Review, and other print and online magazines. His seventh book, Hard-Edged and Childlike, was published by Main Street Rag in 2014. Visit


The voices of the children
absorbed in a game of magic
skip and skitter onto the porch,
an abstract, free-verse music.
The sun, not yet above the green,
shines through gaps in the pines
onto bare brown earth and a lone birch,
its dead limbs crooked as bones.

On the porch there is a trinity
of screens, north, west, south, the house
behind, the outdoors a two seventy
spread out in front of me,
with an inch of faraway lake
visible below a wooded peak.
Cries of loon and grouse
drift through the air, creating
a fleeting sense of serenity.

The voices of the children
conscious only of game magic
skip and skitter like a brook
rapidly following gravity
to make its unique music,
rhythmic and fractally repetitive,
mesmerizing me like the bones
of a gambler going for broke

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

New & Selected Poems By Michael Casey

New & Selected Poems
By Michael Casey
Loom Press
Lowell, MA
ISBN: 978-093150742-7
162 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

When understated, casual, colloquial poetry—you know, the type that anyone can write—jolts winsome expectations with subtext after insightful subtext, watch out. Michael Casey has been writing this type of poetic narrative at least since 1972, when Stanley Kunitz chose his book Obscenities for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Casey’s new book, there it is New & selected Poems, chronicles his inspired career with lyrical monologues like no others. His poetry lures you in with its blue collar simplicity and sets you up, sometimes within a single piece, sometimes cumulatively. 

The collection’s opening poem, and one of my favorites, the last Yankee, packs a wallop. Casey narrates the travails of a house-poor elderly lady as she negotiates the twists and turns of life’s labyrinth. Her attempts to keep up appearances elicit the reader’s sympathy. On the other hand, her flaws conjure up consternation and an interesting tension. Consider these lines,

… she stood outside
pretending her bags
were filled with groceries
she said the City of Lowell
made an offer to give her
so much a month if only
she’d sign over the house
the owner of the Irish nursing home
tried a similar deal too
but she didn’t like the idea
the politicians and nursing home owner
were trying to steal her house
and she wanted me to understand
that two things ruined this town
unions and Catholics

One of the hallmarks of first and second generation immigrants in the now old industrial towns such as Lowell was rote learning. Catholic nuns often provided the delivery system. In his poem, severed head, Casey mixes brutality with venomous wit. Sister Superior, doubling as a substitute teacher, and a defensive one at that, asks the question, What did Marco Polo discover? Louie, the usually quiet student, answers, polo. The enraged Sister Superior assaults Louie with a metallic edged ruler (all Catholic school students of that era know the ruler I’m talking about) and opens up a blood-spewing gash in his head. There is not a little irony here. Additionally, Louie was correct. Marco Polo most probably saw buzkashi, a Central Asian game, played with a goat’s head, during his travels. In fact polo was most likely named after him. Here’s the piece’s denouement,

he bled all over
had to go to the hospital for stitches
his mother takes him
out of St Michael’s
transfers him to the Varnum
I see him much later
and says to him
Lou, why’d y’ever raise your hand?
why say Marco Polo discovered polo?
and Louie goes
he did didn’t he?
he goes you know
Mongolian horsemen with a severed head

Many of Casey’s mill poems drive home the inevitability of human nature in labor calculations, as well as survival traits.  Laugh out loud funny and stupidity does not entirely cancel out the underlying employment danger. The poet explains,

this new guy
he throws a bucket of the stuff
into the kettle
it splashes back
his ass was on fire
runnin all over the dye house
Walter chasin after him
it was Alfred and me caught him
and Walter helped us
throw him in a soap barrel
same fuckin guy
was gonna bring home
industrial peroxide
for his wife to dye her hair
Walter caught him then
just in time

Elevator transport holds the key to business success or failure in the factory world. Casey puts an exclamation point on this dictum in his poem entitled forklift driver. Humorously, the poet pins the sins of the world or at least its endangerment on a single multiple offender, the all-powerful forklift driver. In the heart of the piece the poet details the infraction,

he tried to drive the forklift in it
when the door was closed
that is the third day in a row
something like that happened
I’d say to him
don’t even bother ta punch out
just leave
it’d  be worth the week’s pay or so
just to get rid of him
do you know how important
that fuckin elevator is?

Drawing from his experience in the military police, the poet narrates with a combination of horror and black humor. The pieces themselves are insightful well-cut diamonds. Casey’s poem frisk especially sparkles. After the arrestee lets loose a torrent of verbal abuse, the MPs take action. Then the piece, noting the response, concludes with three punch lines. Take your pick,

who taught you how to talk tat nice?
guy replies
your mother and his sister
Harry and I didn’t say a word to him
we just looked at reach other
and then kicked
the drunk’s feet away from the wall
his face fell nose first
flat on the concrete
his neck actually cracks and snaps up
and I would not have cared more less
it was Harry’s fault anyway
he should a kept quiet
I don’t even have a sister

War equals death. Those who engage in it better understand its unbounded bestiality. Good people become good soldiers by killing. In fact both good soldiers and dead soldiers share certain traits. Casey’s persona in his piece Victor poses with an explanation,

… they back up the jeep
to take the picture looking down
and that is why the ground
is the actual background for the picture
except for that and the flies
the picture they took
makes both of us look alive

I’ve never seen sheer power and keen intellect and down-to-earth humor fused in just this way. Once again Casey’s poems detonate our hitherto artistic calm with their dangerous uniqueness. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry Edited by Qin Xiaoyu Translated by Eleanor Goodman

Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry
Edited by Qin   Xiaoyu
Translated by Eleanor Goodman
White Pine Press 2016


Iron Moon, An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry originates from the documentary of the same name directed by Qin Xiaoyu and Feiyue Wu. This collection gives voice to the voiceless—unknown names penning a “sharp-edged oiled language of cast iron…language of tightened screws.” (Alu, “Language”). To be a migrant worker in the 21st century is a calloused portrayal of rural residents voyaging into the city for the first time, abandoning their autonomy and transforming into human machines:

“The name blank is easy to fill, each time there’s no need to think about it.
I can write in the color
of mud that my parents use for a name.” (Ni Wen, “Filling Out Job Applications”)

This new reality, the shift from self-sustaining individual to a substratal interchangeable number, renders an uncertainty and spiritual yearning that is exhaustive. “How can trash become holy and pure?” writes, Bing Ma in “Cleaning a Wedding Gown.” Chen Nianxi writes in “Demolitions Mark,” “I don’t often dare look at my life/ it’s hard and metallic black.”
To shift from thought to action for extensive amounts of time can bring about a grave personal crisis. The anthology does not bridle the dark confessions of self-destruction, and some poems hit with the brute force of a plain spoken secret: “You will never understand what I have suffered,” writes Li Zuofu in “Like a Horse at Full Gallop.” “After work, the handwriting gets fuzzier/why not just turn to ash?” writes Hubei Quingwa in “Moon’s Position in the Factory.”

The “iron” in Iron Moon is an image that fuses itself coldly and frequently. It is the ear splitting sounds of cutting gears and kinetic friction. Other times, iron is a metal deeply unheard, “Covered by twilight the huge cooling chunk of iron/gives off a darkening silence.” (Alu, “An Elegy for C”) Iron is an all-consuming crude symbol of broken dreams; the ethos of metal and machinery that is a heavy hit on one’s intelligence and artistry.

The term “Iron Moon” comes from Xu Lizhi, who was born in 1990 and was an assembly line worker making Apple products up until his suicide in 2014. To Lizhi, suicide was the only inevitable exit to what felt like a vagrant life stuck indefinitely in an assembly line. To end one’s life is the ultimate heartsick sacrifice to modern industry. The anguish of “iron” is perhaps best described best Xu Lizhi in “I Swallowed an Iron Moon”:

I swallowed an iron moon
They called it a screw

I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms
bent over machines, our youth died young

I swallowed labor, I swallowed poverty
swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life

I can’t swallow any more
everything I have swallowed roils up in my throat

I spread across my country
a poem of shame

The translations by Eleanor Goodman are an impeccable achievement of negotiating two linguistic landscapes. Multiple layers of artistry are at play here, integrating the raw spirit of the original poems while also strategically fitting language into larger aesthetic dimensions. This collection reminds us of the many human complexities of industrial life, and the exceptional literary value in working class poetry. This book should be a staple in every poet’s respected collection.

Eleanor Goodman is a writer and translator. Her translation of work by Wang Xiaoni, Something Crosses My Mind, won the Lucien Stryk Translation Prize. Her first poetry collection is Nine Dragon Island.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Doug Holder’s Last Night at the Wursthaus A Review by Neil Silberblatt

Poet Doug Holder

Doug Holder’s Last Night at the Wursthaus
A Review by Neil Silberblatt
Ever since Lot’s wife cast that fateful glance over her shoulder, nostalgia has been an irresistible (and often highly risky) proposition.  It must be noted that – whereas Cain’s life was spared even after murdering his brother – Lot’s wife was executed for the “sin” of looking back.  Whether one is recalling egg creams, madeleines or past loves or civilizations, nothing tastes as sweet as that which has passed.
It is no less true in poetry.  Whether Homer is recounting the beauty that was Troy, or Philip Levine is rhapsodizing about his brother (“… We were twenty / for such a short time and always in / the wrong clothes”, from his poem, You Can Have It), poets – no less than Mrs. Lot (we never do find out her first name) – cannot resist casting nostalgic glances.  (I have yet to read a really good poem which seeks to predict the future.)
In this short poetry collection, which is quickly devoured (but should be savored slowly), Doug Holder avoids the pitfalls of nostalgia, while traversing its streets carefully.  The opening lines of the title poem, Last Night at the Wursthaus – “How I miss / that hush from the Square / the dark oasis” – could have been uttered by that nameless woman looking back at her home in Sodom, just before she was salinated.

There are some delightful references buried in these poems, for example, to the headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar” (perhaps the greatest headline in that tabloid’s history), which ran on The New York Post’s front page on April 15, 1983.  (Trust me, Holder’s poem The Newspaper is far less graphic.)  In his poem, I Am Willy Loman, he doffs his hat (a well worn Fedora, one presumes) to the “attention must be paid” soliloquy spoken by Linda Loman – after her husband’s suicide - in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

There are bits and pieces scattered about in these poems – as one might find in a thrift or vintage clothing store – which immediately evoke a time and place now lost, except in memory: an Arrow shirt; the “Dashing Dan” logo for the Long Island Railroad; double-breasted suits; a priceless Neil Simon-like exchange between his grandmother (“You went all over Europe, you were a playboy!”) and his father (“Ma! I was in the army – World War II”); and even the late “Professor” Irwin Corey (29 July 1914 – 6 February 2017), an American stand-up comic often billed as “The World's Foremost Authority” (on what – like Lot’s Missus’s first name - was never specified).

He even manages to resurrect, or pay homage to, the great alliterative phrase "Nattering nabobs of negativism” which Presidential speech writer (and, later, grammarian) William Safire wrote for former Vice President Spiro Agnew (remember him?).

But, far more than a sense of nostalgia – which can evoke a “you had to be there” feeling, which may be lost on those who were not – Holder’s poems evoke a humanism which transcends time and place.  His poem, Death of a Homeless Man – putting aside the brutal title – is heartbreaking in its plea for a little human warmth: “Oh! Cradle me / Cradle me / in your arms! / I am not a stick / or merely a bone. / I was a boy, running through a meadow ….”

His poem, My Mother Prepares Me for Death – which put me in mind of William Carlos Williams’ The Last Words of My English Grandmother – captures that grey period between the light and its opposite, “She can’t understand / what ails her.”

As one battling cancer, his poem Lung Cancer: Stage 4 hit home with a special resonance and brought to mind (not that they are ever forgotten) my own ongoing struggles.  But, the poem’s effect would be felt even by those not yet acquainted with that monster.

It is always dicey to choose a favorite in a collection like this, but I would have to give that spot to My Father’s Fedora, as beautiful an homage to his dad’s “weathered Stetson”  - “I swear / I could feel / the brush / of his / warm, / ancient, hand” - as the character Colline sings to his beloved worn overcoat in the aria (“Vecchia zimmara senti”) in Puccini’s La Boheme (just before selling that overcoat to pay for a doctor for the dying Mimi).

Ultimately, these poems work for anyone with the gift and curse of memory, and – like Lot’s wife – are to be taken with a touch of salt.

Neil Silberblatt
10 September 2017

 Neil Silberblatt was born and grew up in New York City.  His poems have appeared in several print and online literary journals including Verse Wisconsin; Hennen’s Observer; Naugatuck River Review; Chantarelle’s Notebook; Oddball Magazine; and The Good Men Project. His work has also been included in Confluencia in the Valley: The First Five Years of Converging with Words (Naugatuck Valley Community College, 2013), an anthology of selected poetry and prose; and in University of Connecticut’s Teacher-Writer magazine.  He has published two poetry collections: So Far, So Good (2012), and Present Tense (2013).  He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and one of his poems – Recycling Instructions – received Honorable Mention in the 2nd Annual OuterMost Poetry Contest judged by Marge Piercy.
Neil is the founder of Voices of Poetry and, since 2012, has organized a series of poetry readings – which have featured a diverse array of accomplished poets and writers and talented musicians – at venues in New York and Connecticut and on Cape Cod, including The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT; New Britain Museum of American Art; Hartford Public Library; Katonah Village Library in Katonah, NY; Eldredge Public Library in Chatham; and Brewster Ladies’ Library.