Friday, February 07, 2020

In Ibbetson Press #46 out of Somerville, MA, 2019. Doug Holder, publisher.

In Ibbetson Press #46 out of Somerville, MA, 2019.  Doug Holder, editor.

Edited by Harris Gardner, and Julia Cirgnano

Design: Steve Glines

Front/Back Cover Photos:  Bonnie Matthews Brock

Arts/Editor Jennifer Matthews


If there were a contest of best first lines in Ibbetson Street (#46) the winner would have to be a toss up between several contenders. Mary Buchinger’s brief “Song” begins with “The river didn’t say” – an effortless glide into the exquisite (but never fancy) river of the language of imagery and sound that comprises the entire poem. In a distinctly different way, Denise Provost’s first line, “You might have crept up, grabbed us by surprise–“ is, like the rest of the poem, in fetching Petrarchan sonnet-form, trying to fend off a brutal hurricane’s dreaded arrival. These two have many rivals, but first lines are important.

 As for last best lines, another tie. Michael Ansara’s closing for his tender poem, “As a Child I Felt the Wind,” echoes and resolves the entire drama of learning how to listen in the last lines “. . . that passed quickly / As a sigh, skimming the surface of this, my one, life.”  By contrast and equally exceptional, Dennis Daly’s final line in “The Harrowing of Hell” produces a gaze of sudden desire: “Eve, bedazzled, eyes transfigured Adam” (eyes is a verb here). This line ends the packed and powerful poem that never lets up for a second, and finally crashes into the lustful ruin and guilt of the world’s first couple.  And, as for pure and brilliant finale, there is Harris Gardner’s “This masquerade unmasked in empyrean au bade” at the end of four full dancing stanzas, in “Acolytes of Terpsichore.”

Not counting Doug Holder’s gold nugget interview with the esteemed Ifeanyi Menkiti, there are 62 entries in the fall 2019 publication of Ibbetson Street.  Of these, if I may say so, at least half are worthy of the ink for printing the issue, and half again of those are worth reading at least twice (or sometimes twelve times); a handful can make your head spin and cause you to shift in your seat, and a final few that are right up there with Milton’s “fittest though few.” My growing feeling is that to read a poem once is to have looked at only the gift wrap on a package, which, as we all know can be a poor representation of the quality of the gift itself, or even a garish overstatement. Even with such limitations there are many more poems here than can be given their due. The poets themselves range in age from grownups to grandparents and write with everything from urgency and anger to humorous winks or grateful or subtle praise for life itself.  They also vary in world view, sexual definition, and political positions, if any. All of the usual subjects are here, with mothers perhaps outnumbering fathers, then, in no order, children, friends, lovers, siblings, uncles, neighbors, ghosts or cats and dogs, crows, bicycles, smells, desire, Zen, death, rivers, weather, clothing, food, crops, ageing, grief, rage, revenge and Fine! I’ll not go on. (You’re welcome). By virtue of basic arithmetic, each of these fewer-than-62 subjects has its very own own poet.  Some of these poets are well known, some are unknown or ingénue or gifted, and some could benefit from examining what makes a poem a poem or simply practicing their craft with more diligence. (And of course the writer of this review has been known to be dead wrong.)

Having said that, I want to present several poets’ work, and have a go at saying something meaningful about them.  For starters, there are poets included in Ibbetson St. #46 who, although famous, are continuing to experiment with the genre, in this case to great comic effect. Dewitt Henry’s “On Rank” is breathlessly clever and essentially an essay in poetic form, a riff on Shakespeare, and a rollicking tease. It also has the funniest line in the entire collection. Rounding up plethora of nasty smells, the speaker spews out: “Pee-yew!” Then again, that may be a Court Jester speaking, a very low “rank”ing Fool right out of Lear or Hamlet, although Hamlet himself fooled around with the varieties of rotting flesh; his noted mention of “thinks,” rhymes of course with “stinks.” Henry’s poem fools with Shakespeare’s high-ranking Sonnet 94 which itself smells to high heaven, and presents a presumably farcical but accurate footnote to his own un-poem.

Speaking of fun, Diana Cole’s “My Father’s Annual Stint in the National Guard” presents the problem of whiskers in a marriage. Managing to induce even pathos, Cole’s verse trips through the awkwardness and hilarity of a couple’s difference of opinion about the value of a moustache. The effect upon the observant and loving daughter (poet) is both priceless and cautionary.

Another impressive yet slightly off-kilter poem is the beautifully written “Acolytes of Terpsichore,” by Harris Gardner.  Not rude or ugly or vain or guilty or clumsily losing control, it is an accomplished and attractive poem, with fine, dazzling imagery and luscious sound. It may have been written as a specimen of artifice or even sleight of hand, with glittering twirling ballerinas vacantly but perfectly dancing around in circles– in which case it has achieved his deliberation; it’s damned good, but its elegant and artificial beauties may be marred by an overindulgence in uncommon words. For a perfect poem, its stanzas split jarringly in new directions or purposes. To be fair, this poem is unquestionably meant to be artificial and pristine, and to be read with a dictionary handy. It reminds me of one of those perfect dresses that cannot express the real woman wearing it. I’m not sure how a masquerade is unmasked, either, though I admire the sound of it. Altogether impressive.

A very different kind of poem in this edition captures one’s entire attention while never for a moment explaining itself.  It’s so slender, it doesn’t even have the time! Isabelle Kenyon’s “Breakfast Is an Important Part Of the Afternoon” puts sensual pleasure and indulgence hand in hand with the discomfort and anxieties of the body in a hot Italian town. Along with these are indefinable hints of timelessness, desire, discomfort, bliss, unavailability, and physical pain. It even has pretty polka dot spider bites and sweet hands that touch the sores. However, the sores seem to be spreading. In contrast, a plain but exquisite poem by Zvi Sesling, “Ghostly Memories,” produces an old sock from a drawer that becomes a portal or arena for the return of long-held but heretofore distant memories. In another drawer, an instruction manual for a short-wave radio signals anguish for all the fine things that time has kicked aside, discarded and useless. Towards the end of the poem, long-deceased parents are about reappear, and the speaker casts an eye on bones sunk in a La Brea tar pit, embodying the worst of all possible endings in a life: separation.

 There are many more poems that should be included in this discussion. The delightful and perfect “Full Service,” Ted Kooser’s amused and poignant meditation on a windshield washing at an ordinary gas station, observed from inside the car. There’s a sad but surprised smile in this poem, with its hint of troubled vision.  We also have Gary Metras’s very physical yet mystical poem of line-casting for a fish at the ocean, in “As If a Dream.” In the midst of repetitive casting motions and physical sensations, suddenly the speaker’s dead mother’s voice cries out, “Let me go.” And the speaker complies: “I cut the line.” Linda Fischer’s poem, “As a Season Ends,” is succinct, wise, and witty. “How much is finite!” she writes:
Even the universe threatens
to self-destruct as everything
we know flies off into space—
defying gravity, eroding
the pillars of faith.

Finally, in case (like me) you are forgetful, Steven Ostrowski’s “Old Woman”­ presents a brief encounter between an old wizened woman in her “sunbox garden“ and our speaker, perhaps a young poet who happens by, not for the first time, not realizing he is learning to listen. In her mirthful voice she responds to his question about how she knows about next year’s weather: “Remember. Remember I told you.”

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