Thursday, September 05, 2019

Except for Love New England Poets Inspired by Donald Hall

Except for Love
New England Poets Inspired by Donald Hall
Edited by Cynthia Brackett-Vincent
(Encircle Publications, 2019)

Review by Lawrence Kessenich

No doubt inspired by the 2018 death of well-loved New England poet Donald Hall, this anthology pays tribute to Hall through poems about him and his beloved wife, Jane Kenyon, poems dedicated to him (or them), and poems responding to Hall’s work. At least half-a-dozen of the poems are inspired by specific poems Hall wrote, such as Scott T. Hutchinson’s “Wild Honey,” after Hall’s “Self-Portrait as a Bear”; Tricia Knoll’s “Obsessed Haiku,” after Hall’s “Distressed Haiku”; and Kyle Potvin’s “Waiting for the Results,” after Hall’s “Her Long Illness.”

Some of the poets here seem to have known Hall and Kenyon, their poems providing specific images from their life together, while others admired the poets’ work from afar. Kenyon is secondary in this anthology, of course, it being dedicated to Hall, but the two poets, married to each other for decades, were so intertwined, that it would be nearly impossible to put together a book about Hall without including something about Kenyon’s significance in his life. For example, Steven Rattner’s poem “All the Time in the World,” dedicated to “Don and Jane,” appears to be written from Hall’s point-of-view, saying things about their life together such as:

One morning we taste salvation
in a swallow of milk.
There is frost scaling the bedroom window
and we take it for heaven.

These beautiful lines give a taste of the imagistic treasures to be found in this anthology. Here are a few others.

From “Lunatics” by Sherry Barker Abaldo:

You gather me again
and again in your arms
like kindling,
our moonlit skin blue as India gods.

From “Seapoint Beach” by Mary Anker:

The last winter storm
our apple tree
in half

the wound
orange and raw
against her dark bark
points to the sky
hands in prayer…

From “Whisper” by Andrew Periale:

I want to hear the soft explosions
of humpbacks surfacing; cold, salt spray
soaking our clothes; dark men poised,
their great harpoons held high, waiting.

But there are more abstract poems as well—a place where Hall, for all of his New Hampshire country concreteness, would also sometimes venture, such as in his poem “Advent”:

When I know that the grave is empty,
Absence eviscerates me,
And I dwell in a cavernous, constant
        Horror vacui. 

Wally Swist’s “A Wild Beauty” speaks of how a scent:

nurtures us through what
are calculated avaricious
rants, vortices of disorder,
with what serves us
as an uncanny sustenance
its own inexplicable elixir.

The abstract is never far from the concrete in any of these poems, though (even Hall’s and Swist’s above begin with concrete images, an empty grave and a scent, before they delve into the abstract) so all of the poems feel grounded and vital. There is a lot about loss and decline, but even more about love, bounty, and the uplifting qualities of natural life.

In “Ancient History,” Dawn Potter’s character Baby tries to forget the loss and decline around her mother, but finds it difficult: :

Forgets her skinny fingers
            their skinny sharp nails,

her stare like a chain
            yanking him under
                   Forgets how bad she smelled.

But in “Over Breakfast” Tricia Knoll imagines Hall and Kenyon talking to each other about creativity in language peppered with uplifting natural images:

Did you hibernate last night? Is now when your nut
breaks open? Does your wild aster seed fall
on cracked silt? Your fruited branch bend
under pears?

Maybe a murmur in green waters
lapping ashore as one
or going separately. If we must.

This is a book of powerful, varied, vivid poems that don’t shrink from the darker side of life, but which, on the whole, come down on the side of love, creativity, and a deep appreciation for the beauty and richness of nature. Hall and Kenyon would both appreciate it and be proud to have their names associated with it.  

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Dennis Daly’s new book The Devil’s Artisan: Sonnets from the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, A Settler of Scores

Dennis Daly’s new book The Devil’s Artisan: Sonnets from the Autobiography of
 Benvenuto Cellini, A Settler of Scores

article by Michael Steffen

History and art are the orders of the day in the new collection of sonnets by Dennis Daly in the persona of Benvenuto Cellini, 16th-century master goldsmith and sculptor who won the praise of Michelangelo. It is à propos for the Boston area with its great traditions in the arts. Also because one of Cellini’s extremely rare coins, and not many coins survive, is housed in a glass case in gallery 209 in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Page in and page out a voice emerges and takes hold, urgent in its trochaic cadences. Yet Daly, a poet noted for his ability with forms, knowing what goes where in a line, surprises also with a seeming lack of footing, which had me wondering as I read through the book if I were reading trochees (DA-da) or anapests (da-da-DA), or whether we were in a standard pentameter, as with the fourth line of the opening sonnet:

            Some gold, some silver things that men applaud…

The same sonnet’s first line, however, skips off on an eye-opening anapest, unless we’re going to call it a trochee, which would be truer to a 5-beat line scheme:

            I confess my faults to Almighty God…

The point is these are not translations, the poems are entirely in Daly’s hands, and throughout the license taken with the measure of the lines had me both grinning, for the ingenuity of it all, and at a loss, as a reader of Renaissance poetry, wanting a regular iambic pentameter. Here is an example of an early translation John Milton did from an Italian Canzone:

In love, young men and ladies crowd and share

a laugh at me "Why write this? Why
write in a strange tongue we know not, and strain
yourself in verse of love? How do you dare? 
Speak plain, if you'd have your hopes not prove vain,
and your ambitions fall a shattered lie."
They mock me so "you've other shores to try
other streams, other waters in your reach
upon whose greening beach
now, even now, sprout leaves that never die
to wreathe your locks as laureate.
Why load your shoulders so with foreign freight?" 
I tell you, Canzon. Give them my reply: 
My lady says, and her words are my heart:
     This is the tongue love boasts of as his art. 

The Original:


Ridonsi donne e giovani amorosi
M'accostandosi attorno, e perche scrivi,
Perche tu scrivi in lingua ignota e strana
Verseggiando d'amor, e come t'osi?
Dinne, se la tua speme si mai vana,
E de pensieri lo miglior t'arrivi;
Cosi mi van burlando, altri rivi
Altri lidi t'aspettan, e altre onde
Nelle cui verdi sponde
Spuntati ad hor, ad hora la tua chioma
L'immortal guiderdon d'eterne frondi
Perche alle spalle tue soverchia soma?
Canzon dirotti, e tu per me rispondi
Dice mia Donna, e'l suo dir, è il mio cuore
Questa è lingua di cui si vanta Amore. 

We certainly can’t be asked to stand up to Milton. But here’s a  point about how Italian poetry has been translated into regular English verse. Nor does Daly omit the occasion to use archaic language for feel:

            Out in the open air at the ruins
            Of old Rome I escaped the dreadful plague.
            In ways circuitous and oddly vague
            I entered the jewel trade, eating pigeons… (page 26)

The Preface and the Biographical Sketch opening the book are worth the cover of this most handsome book issued by Dos Madres Press. Cellini’s was a highly dramatic life entailing murders, prisons, the rich patronage, society and opprobrium of popes, as well as significant time in France under the patronage of the French High Renaissance monarch Francis I, who was also a generous benefactor of Galileo.

Daly’s a master of sequence and thematic strategies as we saw in his previous books Night Walking with Nathaniel and Alisher Navoiy Twenty-One Ghazals. As Rick Mullin points out, “Daly gives us the story as he receives it personally from Cellini.” And we sense this as we read through the poems to a chilling degree. It is absolutely visionary, if difficult to score. Speaking of which, you would not wish for Benvenuto Cellini to have a score to settle with you.

It’s a paperback that could easily sit on your living room table.
Dos Madres Press, Inc
P.O. Box 294  Loveland, Ohio 45140
ISBN 978-1-948017-46-6