Saturday, November 30, 2019

Softly Glowing Exit Signs By Georgia Park

Softly Glowing Exit Signs
By Georgia Park

Softly Glowing Exit Signs is a book of poetry with three longer pieces included: one of non-fiction, one of fiction, and an excerpt taken from Georgia Park’s writing catalog.  The takeaway from reading Softly Glowing Exit Signs, is that the writing is real life, and that overall poetry is real life, and that real life can be measured and unmasked within writing itself. When reading Softly Glowing Exit Signs I felt I was left in a room with Georgia Park, and she is telling me everything with a vulnerability she has not shown many people. It left me needing to read more, or sit and listen because anything else would be unjust.

Ms. Park, a professor at North Shore Community College takes the reader through her life, from the beginning to the end, the years running through the pages. The first poetry section, FIRE!, is not about the recent fire which ran through her apartment and left her homeless, but rather some snippets of her early life totally exposed. There is a Grease Fire where her brother causes the kitchen to ignite and the narrator is left frozen and doesn’t flee until the firefighters arrive, which rings true to some of the other poems where she is left counting daisies in the outfield when a fly ball is coming, or in emotional pain when a piece of glass is imbedded in one’s heal which causes pain and discomfort in every step. These are all metaphors used deftly by Ms. Park. I was stricken by the how real objects or things are personified into visceral feelings….old broken down Volvos that are named, dead fish in a tank, and even a morning cough, are all wounds that are open inside the vision of this work.
As in the opening essay, What Happens in the Maloka, an attempted expulsion and exercising of demons via Ayahuaska, the book also travels down the battleground of spiritual growth and the feeling of being whole.  As there is growth, there are mistakes, and lessons---and sometimes outright defiance of the world we all live in. We see choices made in the poem The Last Reunion, where the poet who felt small, bookish, and invisible in High School is made to feel that way again, by a “now known/famous classmate,”  who is her date for the evening. The poet then hooks up with two of her past bullies at the event to take back some power.
The next section, EVERYBODY RUN!, starts out in Costa Rica where there seems to be an awakening. The poems which take place during times of travel, in general,  show new strength and acceptance with the ability to look back at the past. How Stupid I Was and Lost, looks at past behaviors and the growth into new ones. Other poems in EVERYBODY RUN!, explore Koi Fish as an unexpected solution to decrease angst, and anxiety, and the spiritual serenity written about in the poem Buddha’s Lap:

I am so warm
in the Buddha’s lap the Buddha
and there is buzzing
in my ears
moths and dragonflies
are settling
here and there
my cheek warms
on his stomach
and like a statue
I think of nothing

The section then morphs into some dangerous adventures featuring alcohol and lust-making followed by a repeated theme of therapy, and therapists. The jury is not out on if it is actually helpful or not, but the most hope of all is found in thinking about the possibility of running into a daffodil,
and there’s a little daffodil
I can’t see it, but I know it’s there
its strong, wild and vibrantly yellow
and someday, I’ll pluck it from somewhere

            This section is followed by what is called an excerpt, but what I would call a strong, stand-alone, twelve page story called Hot Pink Iron Lung. It is pure magic, where the metaphors can be believed, and the truth be told in metaphor, much like the underlying technique of the entire book. Poetry books can often be books people read in dribs and drabs, rather than cover-to-cover, but during any time a reader’s brain might need refreshing, I would strongly recommend jumping to Hot Pink Iron Lung immediately.
            The book ends with the final titular section, Softly Glowing Exit Signs, where we do get to the poet’s recent fire. This time, instead of being frozen, the poet continues to live and work wearing smoky clothes, and the bare minimums---the message being, she is stronger, functional, and getting through this. This is reflected upon in the poem, Spiraling Questions where the most treacherous act is What if I recklessly wrote three or four poems a day?  Near the end of the poem there again is growth, and it is shown with such beautiful self-discovery:

                                                   Could I possibly
forget what happened to me (was it me, really, even back then?)
or at least stop talking about it and just go quiet
could mine pass for a brain that’s not short circuiting?

            Perhaps the tenderest piece of Park’s occurs in the poem, Bits of a Butterfly, were vulnerability isn’t hidden or camouflaged, it just is.
I kiss you because I see
softly glowing exit signs
in your eyes

Conclusively, Softly Glowing Exit Signs feels exactly like spending hours, being up all night, with a person bearing their soul, to which all you can be is silent, and listen, and all you can say is, “Thanks for sharing all of this with me.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

If MenThen by Eliza Griswold.


The intersection of style and content in poetry can be powerful and effective — a way poets can help their readers find order amid the chaos of our current era, to paraphrase Robert Frost. The trick is to arrive at the right balance of aesthetic and content. In art, the aesthetic must come first. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold” is, after all, prose. The line works because it builds on an opening metaphor. And because the statement’s succinctness reverberates with us (still) in an age of “alternative facts” and “truthiness” — when any general pronouncement is suspect. Eliza Griswold walks this tightrope, sometimes successfully, other times, not. But because her poems often take place in war zones, she’s always provocative — even when she is tendentious.
If Men Then is Griswold’s third book of poetry. She is well-known for her nonfiction. Her book Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction this year. She has also written about Afghanistan, The Kurds, Christianity and Islam, Ethiopia, etc. In short, she is a very interesting, and engaged, person.
Here’s a short poem of hers called “Reflection” that appeared in The New Yorker:
I is a lion
who snarls
at the lion
in the water
who snarls.
How’s that for a fresh perspective? In just a few lines it captures an empowered woman’s point of view yet, though she snarls, she snarls at her own image. It’s kind of an anti-narcissus poem. She is no flower. The use of the first person to explore a split identity fits these self-involved times of ours. Just be yourself, we are told, an army of one, take the journey of self-discovery (along with countless other invitations for omphaloskepsis). Is it any surprise that many of us today feel a certain sense of dislocation? Griswold examines this perspective in a number of poems. Here is another short one entitled “Green”:
I shouldered her hobo sorrow and soldiered on.
She was warden of an angry garden,
guarding against what hoped to grow.
The bitter bud that never opens hardens.
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” asked Antonio Machado. Griswold answers the question, again capturing our Weltanshauung. We are all a little angry these days, just ask Elizabeth Warren. The poetry here is dense, alliterative, and assonant, with internal and end-stopped rhymes. The aesthetic reinforces the content.
Griswold opens the book with a “Prayer”:
What can we offer the child
at the border: a river of shoes,
her coat stitched with coins,
her father killed for his teeth,
her mother, sewing her
daughter’s future into a hem.
In this poem Griswold takes on the heart-wrenching problem of undocumented children crossing the border. The problems immigrants encounter here in the U.S., and in other nations around in the world, is an increasingly tragic concern.  In some ways, poetry, making use of imagery and metaphor, is able to express more of the despair than newspaper reports. Here is the last stanza:
Nothing is what we can offer.
The child died years ago.
Except practice a finer caliber of kindness
to the stranger rather than wield
this burden of self, this harriedness.
The process of humility involves less us.
Griswold’s point of view rings true, but in the last line she has crossed a Rubicon from poetry into statement. She is telling us directly how we should feel and, because of that, the verse becomes less effective.
Another poem “Good-bye Mullah Omar,” takes place in Afghanistan. It begins: “Charlie says when Afghan men get together, / the number of eyes is always odd.” Griswold’s unique perspective — because she has lived in a place so few of us will ever go — combines reporting with a poet’s eye. And that makes her perspective very compelling. Although, when she ends the poem with the question (“Where are your scars now, wonderboys?”)  the devolution into prose pops up again.
“Ruins” manages to balance on the tightrope pretty well.
A spring day comes through Trastevere.
A nun in turquoise sneakers
contemplates the stairs.
Every hard bulb stirs.
The egg in our chest cracks
against our will.
The dead man on the Congo road
was missing an ear,
which had been eaten
or someone was wearing
it around his neck.
The dead man looked like this, no, that.
Here’s a flock of tourists
In matching canvas hats.
We’re healing by mistake.
Rome is also built on ruins.
In this poem, Griswold puts her finger on a number of the problems of our time. The disparities between the rich tourists and the poor immigrants, the endemic violence in certain regions, our attempts to take it all in. The end-stopped rhymes and clashing images evoke a sense of disconnection. Once again, the poem ends better in the penultimate line.

The title If Men, Then is a response to the Wallace Stevens poem “Metaphors of a Magnifico,” which begins: “Twenty men crossing a bridge/ Into a village/ Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges / Into twenty villages.” The first poem in Griswold’s book, “Prelude to a Massacre,” starts “Twenty men crossing a bridge, / into a village, / is not a metaphor/ but prelude to a massacre.” Griswold is pointing out that, in Afghanistan, metaphors have little to do with survival in a multi-generational war.
Not all is earnest here, but Griswold’s sense of humor is uneven — it comes across most successfully in “Reflection.” She includes a sequence of poems about Italy that are not as involving as those set in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, If Men, Then is well worth reading by those who believe that poetry has something to tell us about our many internal and external conflicts.