A Lovely Little Poetry Review
posted by Melissa Fondakowski
On a recent trip to New York, my fiancée and I were having lunch with a friend at a vegetarian restaurant in SOHO. As the lunch wound down (we probably could've kept talking, but the restaurant was emptying out and getting ready to suspend service and clean the restaurant for its dinner rush) we were trying to figure out where to go next. The three of us are poets, so the friend says, "Let's go to Poet's House."
"Poet's House?" I asked. I had no idea such a thing existed anywhere other than in my dreams. Of course, she hadn't explained exactly what it was yet, but I knew, oh, I knew. In my mind I had created Poet's House over and over a thousand times: an inviting, café-like library dedicated to housing every volume of poetry ever written. Searchable. Ahhh. More like Poet's Fantasy.
"Yeah," she said, nonchalant in the face of my complete disbelief. We walked about a block and a half to a tiny, office-building doorway. Up the elevator, out a door, and into another door, a windowless maze of whitewashed and skid marked walls; the hallway of this boring little wrecked office building—listen to my heart sighing as it slowly loses faith, yet holds fast still—was reminding me of funny, shrinking hallway in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that leads to the door of the Chocolate Room. Alas, we opened it and—Shazam!
Fliers upon fliers advertising readings, stacks of volumes of poetry from floor to ceiling. I kicked fast into gear: I started looking around, sort of like an ant who senses the proximity of sugar, yet cannot get a handle on what exactly to do. And just in time a volunteer swooped in and said, "We're actually doing an exhibition right now. We're displaying all the volumes of poetry published in 2005." My excitement could not (and still cannot) be contained. My face itself turned into an exclamation point.
Ever since I started as poetry editor at mamazine.com, I have been on a quest to find new poetry by poets who are parents, who are reflecting on parenting, or whose work focuses around family. The charge has proved difficult: searching Google and Amazon offer far too many wrong things to sift through. Physical bookstores, even my favorites, like Stacey's in downtown San Francisco, don't offer comprehensive looks at poetry—they simply offer whatever the poetry buyer likes, or thinks will sell. So I've been at a loss as to how to offer mamazine.com readers suggestions on fresh poetry from, by, or about parenting that might be of interest, that might make connections, change perspective, or just plum bring some love into our lives. Until now.
I spent more than an hour looking at the several hundred volumes on display. One hundred doesn't sound like many, but for poetry, which is predominantly published by small presses, several hundred new volumes per year is an amazing feat of poetry. I picked ones up that caught my eye; I read a few poems; I moved onto the next. I asked if they sold copies: sadly, the answer was no, though in hindsight it's probably better that they didn't because 1) I didn't bring an extra suitcase with me and I certainly would have bought twenty books, and 2) I might've gone into several hundred dollars worth of debt as a result.
As it stands, I jotted down the names of five books of poetry I thought our readers might enjoy. They represent a wide range of styles, voices, and presentations of the content which is not only reflective of the many ways contemporary poetry is being written, but also, the many ways in which we embrace ourselves as parents. I ordered the books from Amazon and have mini-reviewed them here for you. Among the five there is surely something for everyone.
PS: Poet's House does have a home online, and not only do they curate this exhibition of books published each year, but they also produce a catalogue of the exhibition. Now I'll be able to bring you what's new in poetry all year round. Enjoy!
Graphic and at times gothic, every one of Paula Goldman's poems conjures difficult images: memories of her mother and father's blood-stained aprons from the Kosher butcher shop; her father, a criminal; her mother, one in a long line of deniers. But she doesn't leave the images for the reader to interpret. Instead, Goldman harvests them into tight, epiphanic moments. She reflects on her relationship with her mother the way only someone who's been a mother could do: what were its failings? Where were you distant when you could have been more present? How had you judged without knowing the extent of her sacrifices? What I like most about Paula Goldman's poetry is that, like a good tearjerker sucks you in and manipulates you into a crying jag just when you least expect it, Goldman distracts me with her observations and stories while subtly infiltrating my psyche with knifing revelations about life. A classic Goldman poem feels much more like looking into the deep layers of a painting: the color, the images, are a vehicle for understanding feeling and memory; they are a window to them. There is that saying art says it better than we can say ourselves—and Goldman is no different.
Excerpt from a favorite:
houses at dinnertime with unpredictable weather, "What's
for supper, Mom?" I hear my old teenage voice resound, "I
hate fish," and the words fly back, stream out again, "I loved
it all, Mom," I leave that house and pass into the people
Arielle Greenberg is surely a poet's poet. Her writing spans a world of academic and colloquial ideas. She's like the great little ephemera store you find that reminds you all at once what you miss of your childhood and the way you wish your life could be in the future. She never takes the obvious route anywhere, and there is always something to learn: a little known fact, a new perspective, a good joke. It is slow reading, however—her language is dense and rife—I couldn't finish it in one sitting. Each word of every poem carries the weight of the entire poem—each word as important as the next, each word very purposefully placed. To discover the why of this, to uncover Greenberg's technique—or hand and mind—each poem must be savored: a universe of discovery lies just underneath the surface. Greenberg takes liberty with perspective, and the voice of her poems varies from one to the next, offering a range of ideas. What we get in the end are often surprising, soul-altering images. You sort of get the sense that Greenberg is just as crazy as you and me. That from the moment she wakes up to the moment she tries to go to bed at night and can't manage to calm down enough to fall asleep, her mind is exploding with mystery, regret, laughter, longing, and wit.
Excerpt from a favorite:
"One Hundred and Eighty"
"When I become a mother, no matter how many books I read,
I will feel unprepared. I will feel betrayed and lied to.
I will want to read more books.
The books will make me crazy."
Martha Rhodes says the things we are afraid to say: about the loss of a parent long before they die, about relationships that never had a chance to heal. Her poems are capsules of memory—little packets of information that mimic the way memory works: extremely sensory and sensual and rife with self-effacement, regret, longing, and guilt. Each poem offers a snapshot of her pain, her struggle to understand her life, and her confusion. Rhodes does not fear expressing this kind of mixed range of emotions that we as children feel when a mother is suddenly unable to be a mother anymore—which is probably not all that different from how we feel as mothers, on the other side of that volley. In Rhode's case, the mother in the poems suffers from either Alzheimer's or Dementia—it is not expressly stated. Either way, she has forgotten not only how to be a mother but that she was a mother at all. And Rhodes spends time in each poem reflecting on what a good daughter would do/would have done faced with this profound situation and is in constant conflict with what the reality of adulthood, and the present, call upon us to do. Not visit. Not care. Keep growing, as the force of life commands. Anyone grieving the loss of a parent—anyone grieving, for that matter—will be greatly moved by Rhode's experience.
Excerpt from a favorite:
"Who Sits Behind You"
"I want to be the one who holds you, finally, but this stranger
turns you against me—is this the only way you can leave me?"
By far my favorite of the group, Fincke's poems are like eating Green & Blacks organic dark chocolate. Each poem is one full, complete expression of richness. You could stop right there, right after one poem, and feel completely satisfied…but you don't. Unlike Rhodes, Fincke's reflections on family, on his relationship with his father are lyrics with such a gentleness and simplicity of language they feel like photographs. And just as looking at a photograph allows the viewer to project their own sense of joy, of fear, of anger, of love, onto the people in the picture, Fincke's poems present to us beautiful scenes onto which we place our own experiences. There is little of Fincke's own sway on the page, guiding us, pushing us, down certain roads of discovery. He doesn't tell us how he feels and thinks about these things in a way that forces us to feel the same. Yet subtly, through what images he chooses to relay, we get a rare sense of him. He is the perfect observer, the perfect presenter, opening up his history for our perusal, enjoyment, reflection, connection, empathy, and sadness. The poems are never self-absorbed, they don't think highly of themselves or terribly of themselves either: they simply exist, like Sheri's camellia blooms—beautiful, even, perhaps especially, as they fall, dying, to the lawn like moist cakes.
Excerpt from a favorite:
"The Eternal Language of Hands"
"I looked left, then right, at the pictures
My father showed me—the husband the wife,
Through five generations which ended
In German scrawled unintelligibly
Across the back…
I practiced each day, but he said German
Was forbidden like taking the Lord's name
Hemphill's book is a little different from the others in that it is speaking to young adults in the voice of a young adult. Its tribulation, its theme, is adolescence. I chose this book because it is from the other side of the fence: the kid's side. Surprisingly (or, maybe not so) much of Hemphill's tight, inviting verse only reminds us how similar we all are—even across a range of ages: we have the same confusing thoughts, we feel the same emotions, we trouble ourselves with the same daily worries. The main differences, around which Hemphill hinges these poems, are that adulthood brings two major things adolescence lacks: an ability to talk about things, and authority. A friend once told me there isn't much worse in the world than having a lot of responsibility without authority. This might be an anthem for young adults. And Hemphill's novel in verse. Although many of Hemphill's poems are loose and abstract, she writes with such acumen and grace you know what she means even if you can't exactly put your finger on it. Her poetry is sort of like knowing intuitively how to use a word in a sentence, but if someone asks you how to define it, you are at a complete loss. If there is a better definition of how teenagers must feel when their bodies are in a constant stage of change, I don't know what it could be. Other than the obvious "sneak peek into the mind of an adolescent," Hemphill's novel in verse is a sometimes delightful, always bittersweet, jaunt down memory lane.
Excerpt from a favorite:
don't know is that although
my eyes appear to stare blankly
forward, words boil inside my head.
What you don't know
are the things I leave unsaid."