relativity

[third attempt]

When you have literally watched both your parents die, and tenderly tended to your honorary parents on their deathbeds, you can forgive yourself for getting drunk on a Monday-Tuesday night because the anguish keeps you from falling asleep. You write dozens of postcards to voters while listening to Szell and then Muti conduct Beethoven’s 9th, which you have longed to sing for more than 30 years but have never been in the right place at the right time.

It is okay. Your poetry career is currently taking a back seat to the day job and doing dishes and doing your part to help save the republic, but you are also dipping into your copy of Raymond Carver’s collected poems when your head is in the right place, and your minister has on file that you want Carver’s “Late Fragment” printed in the program for your memorial service. You know that your odds of reaching the other side of the flattened curve are not great, given your history of respiratory distress. You recognize that you will be attending funerals on Zoom before a vaccine becomes widely available, but you also participated in a wedding-qua-namechange-ceremony Sunday afternoon with a friend you’ve known since 1985, and wasn’t that a fine thing? Your parents grew up in poverty, under martial law, and your now-demented aunt refuses to speak Mandarin because Chiang Kai-Shek’s goons murdered all the intellectuals when they fled China. You have the gift and curse of perspective. You will write more songs if you live long enough. You are crying as you type this, and you would be even if you had sipped only water for the past twenty hours. You have far too many ghosts making demands on you, but they also drive you to care more deeply and speak more truly sooner to the people who are still here. Which is ultimately what you hope for with your poetry, so it is okay that right now it expresses itself in haphazard emails and postcards rather than haiku and iambic pentameter. We will find our way back into form if we live long enough. And if we don’t, we will still know ourselves beloved on the earth when we draw our last breath.

my head’s a beach full of footprints

The subject line is from Bert Meyers’s “Homecoming, 1969,” which appears in a 1971 anthology titled Just What the Country Needs, Another Poetry Anthology (James McMichael and Dennis Saleh, eds.), which I bought for $1.98 from (IIRC) a mess of a shop in Kentucky some years ago.

Some of the poems in the anthology have not aged well. There are some household names in the the mix, but I bought the book mainly because the title made me laugh, and because a quick skim suggested that I’d find at least a handful of kernels amid the chaff. I slid a paper clip onto page 68 a while back so that I could return to these lines by Galway Kinnell:

“And in the days
when you find yourself orphaned,
emptied
of all wind-singing, of light,
the pieces of cursed bread on your tonuge,

may there come back to you
a voice,
spectral, calling you
sister!
from everything that dies.

And then
you shall open
this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.”

I am a heap of half-detangled memories at the moment, truth be told. I am getting ready to ship some old yearbooks, clippings, awards, and the like to the archivist at my grade school — the main emotion is relief, as it didn’t feel right to toss them into the trash, but I want the space for what interests me now — but as with far less significant belongings, there’s some mourning and wistfulness in the letting go.

I don’t care for the Philip Dacey poems in Just What the Country Needs, but Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory is across the hall and Strong Measures in the next room, and I first encountered his writing in a Paul Janeczko anthology in high school; tonight I learned that he had been a teacher at Southwest Minnesota State at the same time as my dad, which means we actually lived in the same county for a while. The overlap doesn’t mean anything, and yet I’m a tiny bit pleased to add that tiny detail to my mental file folder.

I looked up Meyers’s bio and obit as well, having not heard of him before: one could do worse than to be remembered as cantankerous and compelling.

I shall write more (both here and in general) in 2020, I hope. But I don’t intend to lose sleep over it, although owning probably a couple dozen anthologies (at a very rough guess — not counting the ones I’m in, even) is effectively keeping a warren full of rabbit holes. Mentally revisiting the store in Kentucky (which I may well be confusing with some other dusty middle-of-nowhere maze-shed in North Carolina) had me thinking about other shops there: I’m pleased to see that Hot Flash Beads is still in business. That’s a good note to end this ramble on.

Don’t Despair (Reaction)

Brenda Shaughnessy, The Octopus Museum, Knopf, 2019

I had hopes that this book would actually be about what it says on the tin: octopuses, different ones, in some sort of zoo or educational setting. But I also knew that I never get that sort of thing, that isn’t what other people write, a catalogue of octopuses, so I tempered my expectations, squashed them—

So I was very surprised to find that the table of contents for the book is titled Visitor’s Guide to the OM Exhibits and that it was explained how many “exhibitions spaces” the museum has (book sections) and that the sections of the book were titled phrases which contained “collection” or “gallery” or which sounded like art exhibit titles.

There is a prologue poem before the first exhibit—I am sure there is some museum analogue—called “Identity & Community (There is No ‘I’ in ‘Sea’)” and when I looked at it, I just told myself: read it like prose. Ignore the lines, the line breaks, just keep the sound going. This was a struggle but I did my best. An essay, a sort of monologue. Ignore the white space. It has no meaning. Squashed.

But I really identified with that first line, so much about an introvert’s desires. I was taken with the narrative voice, the choppy sentences, the little quirks of grammar. But to be honest, I have spent so much time telling myself to remember things by writing them down that the final verse-paragraph was a kick in the gut. I knew that feeling intimately.

What I didn’t know at the time was how skillfully Shaughnessy was using the background scene in this poem to set up the remainder of the book.

The poems in The Octopus Museum are about self, they feel confessional, they are political, they come at today’s concerns from an oblique angle—and they have a consistent narrator who actually has a narrative to share with us. Formally, they scrawl across the page, sentences and paragraphs, but they teem with anaphora and alliteration. Structurally we are reading to travel through the museum and the pieces of art are confessional poems that build up a narrative. Sometimes what carried me through the book is the poetic device and sometimes it is the world-building as it turns into action.

The ocean is in each poem, part of the narrator’s story, sometimes scenery, sometimes metaphor, but we do not have its implications clearly hinted at until page 14: the fourth poem begins “Before”, many of its sentences and verse-paragraphs begin “before”. It is not until the final verse-paragraph of the first section that it becomes a proper noun, a delineation of time.

In the penultimate section of the fourth poem, we meet the Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords and it becomes “clear that they were taking over.” The poem continues on, to make clear that this is not metaphor—not only metaphor—and then it becomes clearest that we—humanity—are the subjects in a museum for octopuses.

The remainder of the poem exhibits discuss the current world and the old, situation the speaker in it and the speaker’s everyday concerns, but also commenting on what threatens you and I today, such as the poem titled “Are Women People?”

Shaughnessy’s poems are science fiction the way Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was science fiction: slipped in so neatly it is unassailable and yet horrifying in the alternatives it shows us.

So this book is very much the cohesive, well-structured, integrated, interlocking artwork I was hoping for. But I don’t want to neglect the smallest pieces from which it is made.

From “Identity & Community (There is No ‘I’ in ‘Sea’):

I was a woman alone in the sea.
Don’t tell anybody, I tell myself.
Don’t try to remember this. Don’t document it.
Remember: write down to not-document it.

From “There Was No Before (Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles)”:

Before health insurance there was health, a pre-existing condition

From “Letters from the Elders”:

Dear Humans,
   One word: plastics.
   I won’t withhold everything I’ve learned. I’ll tell you plain. You will miss plastic.
   I wish that, when people called in Cling Film instead of Saran Wrap, I’d have just let it go. It was a regional thing, not worth losing my long friendship with Mary over it.
   Everything was plastic. We thought it was hygenic. We put it in our eyes so we could see better. We put plastic earbuds in our ears so we could listen ourselves out of any situation. We’d take food that was half-plastic in plastic containers, but it into another plastic container, heat it in an electric box of metal and plastic, and serve it to ourselves, guests, and families.

And from “New Time Change”:

You had your time you took your time after time you had your cake by the ocean and ate it too but now the tide has turned the times tables too when it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange #timesup and for old times’ sake we will remember you in our time.

Shaughnessy has an amazing ability to take common language and make it work harder to expose our common lives simultaneous with what is precious about them. She foregrounds the artifice—and thus unleashes their utmost potential—in phrases so repeated they could have lost all meaning and devolved simply to tone. Shaughnessy’s poetry uses common phrases to shake you out of a world devolved simply to tone, to rote, or to despair.

September is here…

… and, it being the rare First Sunday I could sleep in, I did, and that was delicious. So is the tomato jam a friend canned last summer, which I have put on an English muffin.

A hummingbird explored trying to get in through the left kitchen window earlier in the hour, and I startled a deer when I flung my old pie weights (umpteen-year-old white beans that had become too smelly during last week’s baking) into the compost heap.

September is here, and I inevitably reread Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal during the month. Nazlan Ertan has a fine take on both the love and politics that make it moving (and, in where the politics are concerned, resonate anew, in ways that do not bode well). I have just ordered Autumn Sequel, which for some reason hadn’t stayed on my radar before (perhaps because I was more attuned to other themes when I picked up the biography of MacNeice I read sometime during the last decade). I still own Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, the novel that introduced me to “September has come and it is hers …” to begin with.

Needing space and cash, I put all my Pilchers except Shell Seekers and Flowers in the Rain into the resale bag some while ago, deeming those two volumes sufficient for future comfort reads. Shell Seekers is more satisfying than say, Coming Home in part because the characters’ touchstones are better integrated. Fond as I am of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” it isn’t integrated into Coming Home‘s central love story as deftly as “September” appears and reappears in The Shell Seekers. Which is to say, just twice in both cases, but in The Shell Seekers, they really count.

Ironically, as a professional editor, I periodically have to discourage authors from quoting from songs or poems, because publication schedules often preclude securing the reproduction rights in time. (“Fair use” doesn’t cover squat where commercial works are concerned.) It makes me sad in part because fiction has so often served as the gateway to poems that now run deep in my veins. Becoming hooked on Dorothy L. Sayers as a teenager led me to John Donne. The stories of Sherlock Holmes (which were responsible for my becoming interested in Sayers, after WEKU broadcast a dramatization of Strong Poison in the slot formerly reserved for the Holmes tales) were where I first encountered certain lines of Shakespeare (chief among them “Journeys end in lovers meeting”).

I just spent the better part of an hour happily revisiting Bill Richardson’s “Bachelor Brothers” trilogy, which was published in the 1990s. As Richardson himself observed, the first book did well and the sequels not so much — with reason, I have to say. I myself found the Solomon Solomon subplot more tedious than entertaining. But all three books contain gems both in the way of funny-moving vignettes and choice quotations, and they introduced me to Margaret Atwood’s “Variation on the Word sleep” and Charles Mackay’s “I have lived and I have loved.”

In quoting the Mackay, Richardson wisely includes only the first ten lines; the poem wouldn’t have gripped me as it did (nor worked within the story it was stitched into) had the final quatrain been present. My subsequent search for the original ended up being a mini-saga — it is not in de la Mare’s Come Hither (which I own, thanks to Richardson’s alluding to it), and it wasn’t until 2015 and an inspired online search that I learned who had written it (and that it is in a different de la Mare anthology).

You could infer from all this that sleep — and well-deserved rest — has been much on my mind lately. Two mentor-friends passed away earlier this year, and I just received an unexpected bequest from a third. All three had lived long, productive lives, and were generous to me with attention and encouragement:

  • David Bevington
  • Nancy Ransom
  • Susan Z. Diamond
  • Not unrelated to all this is a piece Richardson published this year on having “used to be someone” who is now — happily — a part-time dishwasher. I think of my conversations with several friends (especially Joanne) about the jobs we accept and/or choose based on how they balance with our writing and publishing (a)vocations. I’m in the camp of being happiest with a corporate job where the metrics, performance reviews, and compensation operate in tandem with the prowess of my left brain (one of my favorite responses EVER to my editing has been a colleague muttering that I had no poetry in my soul), because the writing’s way more fun for me when it’s separate from what I professionally have to do. That said, there are also those nights where what I’m writing becomes something I have to do before my hamster brain will let me sleep, and then of course I run into the age-old problem of the day job’s demands draining from me some of the energy and stamina that would likely make good writing crystallize sooner (not to mention missed ops and faltering sparks — I look back at my relationships with David, Nancy, and Susan, and in all three cases wish I had done a better job with various projects, proposals, and paths they had a hand in. The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne…). And it’s not just the day job, but the aging house, the aching body, the ongoing friendships to tend (and sometimes mend), and one’s own need for sleep amid the piles on the counter and the porch to attend to.

    (I will make my next post here about something other than Ars longa, vita brevis. I promise.)

    Why Is Soft Science So Hard? [Response]

    Soft Science, Franny Choi, Alice James Books, 2019

    Soft Science by Franny Choi is a collection of poetry focused on the effect of technology and technology-in-media on contemporary lives. One of the threads running through the book is the comparison—and sometimes blurring—of cyborg and women as shaped things molded by the society that uses them. The poems respond vehemently and sometimes violently to Othering in many forms; this is part of what makes the book so powerful and so important. The book is organized according to multiple (imagined) versions of the Turing Test, allowing the speaker (a cyborg? a woman?) to self-express and also to refute the shapes and molds imposed on them. It is representative and slightly a summing-up that the first line of the second poem reads “// this is a test to determine if you have consciousness”.

    But I’m writing this more as a personal response than a review; hopefully the above gives you an idea of whether you’d like to look at the poems for yourself. I picked up the book based on the cover and the title; I want to read poetry about science. The first poem is presented in the form of a table, yes, columns, rows, headers, lines separating each entry and boxing them in. I bought the book because I was completely flummoxed about how to read this as a poem and because I really thought this is the kind of thing I should be reading, all the themes presented are important to me—and when I scanned the table of contents I saw a poem titled “Everyone Knows That Line and Ogres and Onions, but Nobody Asks the Beast Why Undressing Makes Her Cry” and how could I not read that?

    As I progressed through the poems, I learned that Choi has a wonderful ear for alliteration, consonance, and rhyme, and that she uses full and partial rhymes and homonyms to propel her poems forward. It’s wonderful. I loved how over and over the poems take commonplace phrases and play with them, rewriting them, a word at a time, to build into something completely new, or simply casting a different light on the meaning of the phrase by giving it different context. Many many of the poems sing exactly how I love poems to sing.

    But I still have no idea how to read a poem without lineation but with slashes, such as each of the Turing Test poems, such as this bit from the second poem:

    // why do you insist on lying

    I’m an open book / you can rifle through my pages / undress me anywhere / you can read / anything you want / this is how it happened / i was made far away / & born here / after all the plants died / after the earth was covered in white / i was born among the stars / i was born in a basement / i was born miles beneath the ocean / i am part machine / part starfish / part citrus / part girl / part poltergeist / i rage & all you see / is broken glass / a chair sliding toward the window / now what’s so hard to believe / about that

    By the end of the book, I had given up trying to assign meaning to lineation in the poems that used it. I confess, that made them much easier to read, less probing and confusion, more emphasis on the words, but I keep coming back to the fact that lineation is the main difference between poetry and prose and if it means something the reader can’t understand, then what good is it? One could argue that “understanding” and “having an effect” are different things, and I would agree, but I would have liked something for the effort I exerted.

    So, I am very glad to have read Choi’s work and will look for more of it, but, personally, I am even more confused about how to read a poem.

    too early for Happy Lamb

    [July 14]

    Something I like about travel is that it kicks my “everything can become a subject line or poem seed” mindset into a higher gear. I’d thought about stopping by Happy Lamb Hot Pot on my way to South Station, but it doesn’t open on Sundays until noon, and I’d already used up my cutting-things-close quotient yesterday, when I capped my 79-hour work week by setting off alarms at the Southwest kiosk by checking my luggage in late. One failed geocaching attempt and beer request later (Tavern in the Square being out of Lord Hobo Brewing Boom [sic] Sauce, I’m chilling out with tortilla soup, a pint of Devil’s Purse Pollock IPA, and the ideal pair of screens (Federer-Djokovic next to the departing train list) in front of me:

    tennis at South Station

    [July 21]

    … and I was not so chill as Federer came oh-so-close to winning the championship. It was fun, though, to watch and listen to the other occupants of the bar cheer and moan in response to the rallies, the aces, and the misses, and as the set stretched on, the clusters of onlookers on three sides of the bar thickened:

    tennis at South Station

    The night before, I’d ended up walking past St. James the Greater twice on my way from the Silver Line stop to the hostel. [It was past midnight by the time I reached the hostel, I had a 1 p.m. train to catch, and (as feared) I was running on fumes with work still in tow, so I didn’t try to meet up with any friends this round.] That said, if I hadn’t been hauling two weeks’ worth of clothes and music/dance paraphernalia with me, I still might have been tempted to wander around until 2 a.m., to see more and take notes. (One trickle of people included several Asian women holding armfuls of flowers, reminding me of the pageant contestants I spotted two Mays ago in San Francisco, during another walk that ended up being less straightforward than planned.)

    Instead, I scribbled a few lines to myself in Bunk #4 before sacking out and, over two bagels and a bowl of coffee, wrestle-teased them into the start of something more:

    the start of a poem

    the start of a poem

    the start of a poem

    I’ll return to it in August, perhaps. Right now I’m at the Amherst Early Music Festival, and it’s wrenching enough having to choose among things I can enjoy only while here (practicing on lutes and harpsichords in particular), pursuits that would arguably provide larger returns were I to devote myself more fully to them (e.g., building vocal and keyboard chops), time with people, time with trees, time in/on water, time on postcards (to voters, decision-makers, and others),
    and so on. And, like on Friday, sometimes the right move is to nap instead of practice, even when one feels woefully underprepared for, say, playing quartets. Or to seek out a keyboard in a nearly empty building long after nightfall instead of attending a party. Sometimes I feel pangs about the many details that will evaporate from my memory sooner than later because I’m not journaling like I used to — but, even back then, there were poems I started and then lost momentum on. There’s a sliver of me that hasn’t let go of finishing the one about the Christian Science Center pool, keeping company with the Past Mes who put her feet wrong every which where — including just yesterday. (The good thing is that as I get older I have gotten a smidge faster at getting over myself.)

    Surrounding all this, of course, is delight and wonder. I’m mopping my face and neck and cleavage every three minutes, and the little breezes that do make it through my open window feel all the more divine. Someone down the hall is playing their violin. Most of the faculty members and many of the students are accomplished musicians. There are heart-tugging phrases in the Rameau pieces I’ve been inflicting on the harpsichords, and there are encounters with, say, bass recorders that look like contemporary public art:

    faculty concert

    I hadn’t planned on drafting any new poetry during this trip, what with the intensity/immersive pace I knew to expect, so to have a poem insist on getting started — those three pages above — that too is a gift.

    finding the right poetry

    Just saw a post at Sam’s Tumblr that made me thrilled and sad at the same time: one of his readers discovering that they do in fact like poetry now that they’ve found Leonard Cohen.

    When my book was published, one of my childhood friends apologetically said he’d given up on reading poetry and hoped I would forgive him for not buying or reading mine. I wasn’t offended about him not liking my poems — they’re not everyone’s cuppa — but given how many lyrics he’s quoted to me over the years, I’m with Sam: he’s into poetry, just not mine.

    Other people have said to me (or in reviews) that they don’t usually “get” poetry, but that what I write is their speed. (Another frequent reaction I get: “You’re making me hungry!” It does help to like food if you’re hanging out with me, though you’ll lose patience with me if you’re too precious about it, since I’m the kind of gal who likes wine but whose level of discernment pretty much divides it all into two categories — “tastes like wet socks” vs. “tastes good.” Though I do recognize and admire the chops (so to speak) of people who can tell by taste whether a sauce contains flour or cornstarch, or if it was made with butter or oil. It’s not so far removed from my understanding that there are at least three tiers of perception in play when viewers and judges reacted to singers in this year’s edition of Voice France, with me smack in the middle tier: with pretty much every singer, there were commenters who were outraged by the judges’ reaction or lack thereof, usually along the lines of “They were great! Why the eff didn’t the judges turn around?” (or “Why didn’t all the judges turn around?”) And I sat on my hands when reading most of those reactions, because I’ve been around long to recognize that “Well, actually” should be deployed with caution and care: The people venting don’t need to hear from me that their favorite was flat on a few notes or lacked agility or failed to communicate an understanding of the words they were singing. At the same time, as happens every year, the judges got excited over certain qualities and moments I just didn’t hear myself — one semifinalist in particular I found all but unlistenable, but the judges and other audience members were geeking out through multiple rounds over his potential, and he wasn’t so handsome that it could be explained by his looks, so my conclusion is that they’re perceiving him at a level / through a lens I don’t have.

    What is really awesome, of course, is when there isn’t that gap between what one loves and what a beloved might like. I recently recommended RenĂ© Marie‘s mashup of “Bolero” and “Suzanne” (her father’s two favorite songs) to my friend Carolyn. The next day, she replied, “Loved this. David a room away making breakfast called out ‘Who IS that?'” *glee* So it is with poems. The anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks’s birth was a couple of days ago. Back in junior high, I copied out “One Wants a Teller in a Time like This” for a couple of people. One sneered. That stung. But some months later, the other showed me the much-read copy he kept in his wallet, and that remains my lodestar these many years later: to make a few poems that people might want to keep with them and to share.

    (Which doesn’t mean I’m above frittering away whole afternoons on bonbons and experiments and throwaways and general goofing off. I’m also reminded of Mika’s talk-through about “The Origin of Love,” where he describes slogging through a year of generating “crud after crud” before the lyrics suddenly, finally gelled.)

    Bracket

    In my WorkFlowy and on the backs of envelopes buried somewhere beneath coupons and lists and public health reports, there are assorted subject lines for VTL posts sketched out in my head while waiting behind trucks or doing laps in the pool.

    Then, when I actually start typing in the WordPress or Dreamwidth window, I inevitably roll my eyes at myself, for if “all the things I mean to write about soon but not today” were an awards genre, I’d have so much metal in my house that the collectors would be rubbing their hands in glee. Not the historians and archivists, but those scrounging for every last scrap they can to get by.

    ==

    What I really signed in to say was: I came across Sean F. Munro and Henry Goldkamp’s “Battle for America” while scooching around for something else, and after reading a few lines was “I’m not closing this tab until I tell someone about this poem, because goddamn.” I am perhaps overly fond of not-really-joking that I contain multitudes, and this poem is a demonstration that “being really fucking angry” and “having basketloads of fun” can occupy the same screen.

    It may be that I am extra-susceptible to enjoying brackets as someone who grew up in Kentucky — the state so basketball-mad that when UK got put on probation folks were shooting at Lexington Herald-Leader boxes, because they could not bear how the newspaper was reporting the truth. Kentucky is also the state that elected Mitch McConnell senator while I was in grade school. Because my big brother will probably see this, this is where I feel compelled also to say that Kentucky has fine dancers, dedicated teachers, some superb museums and hotels, public libraries that lend out fishing poles, and excellent restaurants — I had a terrific time just a week ago at Frankfort’s Bourbon on Main and Serafini, and so did the motorcyclists with me, including the hockey-coaching civil engineer who had flown planes during Vietnam and assessed the wine list with the ease and expertise of someone who really knows his Chiantis and Cabernets. Kentucky is not a cultural desert, but I cannot frown on anyone who might be feeling the urge to milkshake its governor or senators.

    Munro and Goldkamp’s bios indicate that they, too, live in the South (NOLA and MS respectively).

    [Writing this entry has (in spite of myself) demonstrated (to myself) why I don’t actually follow through with blogging most days: 19 years of this has taught me that I will spend far more time on even casual running-my-mouth “hey go read this” entries than I intended to, that twenty rabbit holes will open up within the course of coming up with three sentences, and that I will end up ranting more often than not. And/or that I will nearly melt a colander, discover fridge frost on a bowlful of radishes, and rant for real about oil pulling and detox teas when my man jokes about me sipping shots of sesame oil (because that bottle was on the counter by my glass, whereas I’d already put back the Monkey Shoulder) in the course of cooking and consuming dinner, which was happening between and in the middle of some of the sentences here.]

    On Flexibility (Brief Review)

    Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle, Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, editors, Kelsay Books, 2018

    Edited by Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle contains more poems in the form of a villanelle than probably any other book you’ve picked up: over 50 villanelles, covering topics ranging from gun laws to cats to bereavement.

    A villanelle is a 19-line poem, composed of five tercets and a quatrain. What makes the form so difficult is that the first and third lines repeat—ideally without modification—alternatively as the final line of the second through four tercets. After the opening two lines of the quatrain, they come together as the closing couplet. Additionally, of course, the remaining lines follow a tight rhyme scheme. (Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a famous example of the form.)

    In general, the form of the villanelle best supports a topic that lends itself to obsession. In Thomas’ case, it is grief. In Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” it is loss. While I personally wouldn’t put many of the topics covered in this anthology in the obsession category, an incredible poem could change my mind. But my main issue with the majority of the poems included in this anthology is that they feel as if the form is using them, rather than the other way around.

    Specifically, the lines that repeat in the villanelle need to be supple enough to take on different shades of meaning each time they come around again. Unfortunately, I found many of these poems to include repetons that were too specific to change meaning with each tercet. Additionally, that specificity kept them from being able to magnify in meaning when the two repetons appear together again as the closing couplet of the poem. An example of such an inflexible repeton was “Ease my pain, play me part-songs for Delphinia” from Richard Roe’s “Requests for Torch Songs for Flowers Sent to the Villanelle Show”. Contrast that with Barbara Crooker’s “I will not falter, neither will I fail”, from her poem “Diagnosis: Autism”, which, while a bit repetitious itself at least allows for the lines around it to give it a different context as the poem proceeds.

    Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle collects poems with a wide range of topics (so many cat poems!) but I feel it does a better job of showing off poetry’s versatility and applicability to contemporary life than providing the reader with villanelles which, as Dickinson said, raise off the top of your head.

    Flown (Brief Review)

    Flyover Country, Austin Smith, Princeton University Press, 2018

    I have spent some time thinking about which facet of the opening poem of Austin Smith’s Flyover Country is the one which kept me enthralled. But as I type I realize it is the combination, Smith’s skill as a writer: the narrative, with its hint of mystery and, like all narratives, the fuel for your desire to find out how it ends; the concrete nouns which pin you down like the red spots on the wings of the blackbirds mentioned; the imperative voice, which never allows for the idea that you might not want to listen and which makes urgent even the empty rocking chairs and whose certainty comes across like that of a close friend.

    Flyover Country is divided into three sections, with poems about the rural interior of the U.S. bookending those taking place in Turin, Lourdes, or Anne Frank’s house. That does not mean the poems in the middle section exclude Smith’s home country; many are rooted there while simultaneously touching other times and places. In “Wounded Men Seldom Come Home to Die”, Smith writes

    And this is why: when a wounded man comes home
    To die he must come in through the summer kitchen
    Clutching his wound like a bunch of kindling.
    At the sight of him his mother faints. He catches her

    Just in time and lays her down on the floor.
    When his sister comes in from slopping hogs to find her
    Brother at the table with his long legs kicked out
    And their mother senseless on the linoleum, she sighs

    But no matter where the poem takes place, or to whom, Smith’s voice sings. From the titular poem, “The lobes of the thunderhead / Flaring with lightning”. From “Country Things”: “while in a seam / Of gleaming honey in the oak that lighting / Cleaved the queen daintily eats her offspring”.

    And his voice makes story. From “The Man Without Oxen”:

    The harness you might have taken hold of
    Last fall to still this shaking in your hands

    Hangs on the barn wall, smelling faintly of lather.
    Being a farmer, you know you didn’t sow them

    Deep enough, and that it won’t be long now until
    Winter rains bring their bones out of the hill.

    In the end, I personally found Smith’s work to be so grounded in place and time that it felt universal. In “Some Haiku Found Scrawled in the Margins of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 1957”, he writes,

    Drafty farmhouse
    All the wicks
    Curved the same way.