Dandelion Weeds (Response)

Dandarians, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Milkweed Editions, 2014

I am unsure that I can manage something summarizing or encompassing to say about Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Dandarians because the content is too expansive, too large, and I loved it without managing to be critical about it. So this is a response to, an exhortation to read, if you will, Roripaugh’s book.

There are many bright spots in the book but I think I loved most what the first poem promised me: a discussion of meaning and wordplay at the intersection of multiple languages and cultures, an exploration of Otherness, how history never stops resonating into the present.

The first poem is titled “The Planet of Dandar” and Roripaugh begins it:

Prismed through the scrim of my mother’s Japanese accent, I think dandelions are Dandarians. Dan-dare-ee-uns. Futuristic, alien—like something named after late-night B-movie space creatures from an undiscovered planet.

Maybe this is why the disturbingly lurid fronds seem too yellow to me. They seethe, I believe, with feverishly incandescent radioactivity. I’m convinced this explains the obsessive, anxiety-laced fervor with which my parents uproot them from our lawn. As if under threat of colonization.

The poem moves from here to Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, to the ramifications of the speaker’s pronunciation of this term at school, to the relationship between speaker and speaker’s mother. In these two verse-paragraphs, my music-ear picks up prism/scrim, seem/seethe/believe, feverish/fervor, feverishly/incandescent, lawn/colonization. Not to diminish the amazing conceit that Roripaugh is building, dandelions as metaphor for colonization, for Otherness, for threat.

Roripaugh continues:

And so when I tell you I’m an alien—a Dandarian, hailing from the planet Dandar—I am, of course, mostly joking. But not entirely. When I tell you I’m radioactive, it’s mostly a posture. But not entirely.

How anaphora makes her point. This verse-paragraph introduces the “you”, which comes back many times throughout the book and changes faces most of those times (but not entirely).

But the remainder of the book is not about the Dandarian, at least not by name. In the poems, the speaker continues to wrestle with language, with love, with lovers, with nature, in amazing ways but not in the same way that the opening poem captivated me. “Senchimental” is another strong example of a poem that discusses language as a metaphor for Otherness and for mother-daughter relationships: “As a child, I weld the words centimeter and sentimental together because my mother pronounces centimeter as senchimental…” The mother counts out centimeters as she knits. That poem closes:

It is, perhaps, no accident, that this is a poem in which the speaker is unsure about whether or not she is running away from something, or running toward it.

          One senchimental. Two senchimental. Three senchimental.

I learn how to knit early on. But I do it very rarely.

Understand about needles. Beware the sudden flash and parry, the silvered piercing which leaves a hole that’s sometimes a wound, sometimes an aperture through which we fill ourselves with light. Understand that even the best of us can be skewered, tender pieces of meat that we are, as matter-of-factly as shish kebab.

In addition to the language poems, I loved Roripaugh’s nature pieces. “Antimoaney”, “Dee Aster”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Vermillion River”. But “Skywriting” stands out for me, another example of a poem-long conceit. I too remember those little green caterpillars hanging from invisible strings in the woods behind my childhood home. But to think of them as writing in the sky, like airplanes? Amazing. And Roripaugh goes further:

A star drops out of the sky—sparkling spider dropping down from a shimmering dragline—and you are there to see it.

What I take away from the book as a whole is Roripaugh’s extensive vocabulary, the music within the language, the deep and thoughtful ideas and the juxtaposition of imagery which built those ideas. I had to slow down and think about what I was reading. It was marvelous. I look forward to reading it again.

Last Laugh (Review)

Tricia Knoll, Ocean’s Laughter, Aldrich Press, 2016

Tricia Knoll’s Ocean’s Laughter drew me in with its opening list poem, “I Came Back Again and Again”. I appreciate very much how each item in the list differs from all the others and yet the whole paints a place, a duration of time, a chunk of the narrator’s life, with vivid phrases like “tickle sea anemones”, “stuck-up clouds”, “fly a white shark kite”, “canted sand”.

The first half of the book takes the reader through Manzanita, Oregon, its beaches, the wind, the waves, the specificity of tides, the tourist traps and the town empty of tourists, nearby Nehalem Bay and Neahkahnie peak. Downtown “Tide tables are free. Newspapers sell out early.” (Quotation from “As For Shopping”.) In between the tabloid stars and high-end dog boutiques, there are power outrages, furious storms, and one endangered species after another. The poems’ narrator clearly loves and fears for this place, the experience of being in this place.

And just when the reader begins to think the entirety of the book is beauty, we come to the Fourth of July with its masking tape set-up, its local parade—description and commentary—fireworks, and bonfires. And it is in the aftermath of the bonfires, recalling an earlier poem about one left smoldering and unattended, that the narrator gives us “The Shattered Visage of the Wilderness Act”.

The shattered visage of the Wilderness Act
lies buried ear-up in rippled tide-sands
listening for fractures. A sparkler wire pierces
its eyeball socket black with burn.

The holiday star-works of a bombing nation
burst open a war zone. This hangover.

The west wind at the end of the poem leaves the reader breathless. And before they can take in enough air, the poems move to houses lost to fire, enormous storms, mourning of loved ones, memory loss, and an unexplained decision to move away.

I admired Knoll’s turn, that it happened at all as well as how the threads of the poems up to this point—people and nature—came together to make the turn happen. From here on out, the narrator gives us loss after loss, some of it bittersweet. But Knoll’s narrator is no fool, having paid such close attention to their surroundings for so many years: the book ends in a place of balance but where the power of the sea to destroy is only slightly tempered by humanity’s power to witness.

Whereas (Review/Response)

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier, Graywolf Press, 2017

For many U.S. readers, November means Thanksgiving. It is not ironic and entirely intentional that it is also #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth. Most readers don’t know or think about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday, its origin and the events on which it was based. That erasure can blind readers to the hurt the holiday causes as well as to the incorrect and damaging way in which it portrays aboriginal North Americans and continues to reinforce the idea that they live only in the past. That’s part of my reason for posting this review/response at this time; the other reason is because Long Soldier’s poetry is powerful and worth reading, no matter the time of the year.

The organizing principle behind Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas is the structure of legal language. The book’s structure is a moving combination, using the language of the colonizer and, specifically, the language of the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, to demonstrate the injustice done to aboriginal North Americans during the colonization and existence of the United States of America.

The first section of the book, titled “These Being the Considerations”, is filled with heart-breakingly beautiful poems describing Long Soldier’s nation’s language and geography. The poems include Lakota words; the poems both explain the meanings of and incorporate an existing understanding of these words. I am grateful to Long Soldier for sharing bits of the Lakota language, from words as universal as those to describe loss and those whose meaning is re-used to mean coffee. To me, it’s a vibrant way to make the people in her poems three-dimensional.

The final, titular, section of the book gets into the meat of the Apology, using its words, turning and evolving them, to see what they really say. Each of these poems ends with a semicolon, adding to the sense of legalese. The majority of the poems also contrast the legal language with what appear to me to be memoir/anecdotes from Long Soldier’s life.

Long Soldier’s poems use a great many concrete devices: they sprawl across the page, they right-justify, they build boxes, they mirror, they line-break in the middle of words.

What strikes me, in my ignorance and inexperience with the use of language to break down language, is how deft a writer Long Soldier is. While she clearly expresses the need to use the colonizer’s language against them, she is also clearly not one to do that without first infiltrating that language and becoming an expert in it.

Excerpts from Whereas are available online at Poetry magazine and Graywolf Press.

Excerpt from Mona Van Duyn’s “Economics”

Out of a government grant to poets, I paid
to be flung through the sky from St. Louis to San Francisco,
and paid for tours and cruises and bars, and paid

                                                                And yet,
did I spend enough in that city all that time
of my country’s money, my country’s right or wrong,
to keep one spoonful of its fire from eating
one hangnail, say, of the Vietcong?

“Don’t clear the fish away yet,” one poet said.
“The cheek of the fish is a great delicacy.”
With a spoon handle he probed away in its head
and brought out a piece of white flesh the size of a pea.

“For the hostess,” he said, “from all her grateful gourmets.”
In SAVE THE CHILDREN ads I’ve seen the babies.
Filled with nothing but gas and sour juice,
their bellies bulge like rotten cabbages.

“One dollar to CARE will pay for ninety meals.”
They cry. They starve. They’re waiting. They are in anguish.
How can we bear to imagine how it feels?
Pain. Pain. I ate the cheek of the fish.

In an instant of succulence my hideous maw
swallowed, I’d guess, the dinners of fifty children.
What good does it do to really take that in,
and what good does it do to vomit it out again?

Gentle reader, should I economize?
I write poems for fifty cents a line.
This poem is worth what it’s worth to the families
of two human beings under the age of eighteen

to see them blown to pieces. “Indemnification
for civilian casualties: from eight dollars
and forty cents for a wounded child, on
up to the top sum of thirty-three dollars

and sixty cents for a dead adult.” I tipped
the waiter fifteen percent, which came to nine dollars.
The cab drive was a third of a child. I slept
each night for a fourth of a mother. What are dollars?


Constellated (Review)

32 Poems Volume 15 Number 1

It’s been many years since I last read an issue of 32 Poems. I picked up Volume 15 Number 1 out of curiosity and perhaps a little nostalgia—oh, and because there were stars on the cover.

32 Poems is a bit what it says on the tin: 32 poems in one issue. The first half-dozen included science—biology, aeronautics, archaeology—which surprised me, making me wonder if the issues are themed. The remainder of the issue discussed racism, video games, expensive parties, airports.

While there was only one poem in a traditional form, I found most of the poems to be full of vibrant words which contributed a lot to how interesting the poems were to read. The lack of sonic texture in the majority of them meant I had no incentive to re-read them.

I do appreciate the issue for introducing me to the poems of Cortney Lamar Charleston, for the title of Kathleen Winter’s “All my engineers” if not the poem itself, for the way revision came back around in Anne-Marie Thompson’s “Prayer to San Francisco”.

Swimming Together (Review)

Driftfish: A Zoomorphic Anthology, 2016

The aim of this anthology is to promote the connection between humans and marine animals, and to highlight the variety of marine animals. The anthology’s introduction states, “[We] were motivated by the urge to celebrate the exhilarating variety of ocean wildlife….while also bearing witness to the shattering reality of their plunging numbers.”

I found the poems in the anthology to spend a lot of time on the latter: explaining to me this animal or that but saying little more than “here’s an animal.” Notable works which break that mold include

  • Meg Files’ “Penguin Parade”, for going somewhere unexpected
  • Christina Lloyd’s “Car Wash”, for starting somewhere unexpected
  • Beth McDonough’s “Flatly”
  • Kathy Miles’ “Hydromedusa”, for its turn

Given my interest in poetry which uses devices such as assonance, consonance, repetition, and rhyme, I paid close attention to the form of the anthology’s poems. In the majority, they are free verse which does not utilize these sonic devices. The main exception is Andy Brown’s wonderfully musical “Oyster Shells”. Kathleen Jones moves her “Whale Fall” in the directional of musicality through her use of assonance. And Sharon Larkin’s “View from the Benthos” makes its own music through scientific jargon; a real treat.

Two other poems stood out to me. Donna J. Gelagotis Lee’s “Fishing for an Octopus” is one of the few poems that actually comments on human-animal interactions and does it superbly and with a dark twist. Bryce Emley’s “To the Bumblebee Who Landed On My Stomach At High Tide” got my attention for the amazing sentiment in its first line and for stretching the definition of “marine animal” in a way no other included poem did.

While I find myself very much agreeing with the editor’s motivation, less than a quarter of the poems exhibited, to me, the exhilarating variety of musical device.

Singing Colors (Review)

Scriptorium: Poems, Melissa Range, Beacon Press 2016

Melissa Range’s Scriptorium concentrates sounds and sights to weave together poems on the topics of Appalachia, Christianity, and the natural sources turned into ink for use by Christian monks in Europe during the Middle Ages. While perhaps disperate-sounding topics, Range uses the colors of the titular scriptorium as a backbone to structure the topics for the reader.

Verdigris, orpiment, kermes red, ultramarine, shell white‐these are a few of the colors Range writes about in a series of sonnets, enlightening the reader to the creation process and source animal, mineral, or vegetable of the inks. Opening “Woad”, Range writes

Once thought lapis on the carpet page, mined
from an Afghan cave, this new-bruise clot
in the monk’s ink pot grew from Boudicca’s plot—
a naturalied weed from a box of black seeds found
with a blue dress in a burial mound.

But whatever the range, ahem, of topics, Range’s musicality on the page is what stays with me. Take, for example, “Pigs (See Swine)” which is 32 lines, eight quatrains, of monorhyme, one rhyme sound for the entirety of the poem. The second stanza goes

But there’s a book whose pigskin bindings shine
for youth and aged alike, in which the terms align,
pigs and swine; and in its stories, sow supine,
your litter’s better bacon in a poke done up with twine.

Other flights of music I loved include “Anagram: See a Gray Pine”, “Hit”—really, most of the poems about how they speak where and when Range grew up. Range wrings music from the most simple and the most complex of English words but even at the syllables’ most simple, her meanings are multiple and deep and worth reading.

Bouts-Rimes for Hope

Either poetry is dead or it is what people turn to in times of need, at least according to the Internet.

I asked a number of my poet-colleagues to write for hope, to help people during difficult times.

The result is a small chapbook of sonnets you can download for free: EPUB or MOBI (Kindle) files here on Gumroad. (Just enter 0 for the price.)

The chapbook contains poems by Carol Berkower, Sherry Chandler, Peg Duthie, Jenny Factor, Annie Finch, Cindy M. Hutchings, Marc Moskowitz, Charles Rammelkamp, and Mary Alexandra Agner.

If you, in turn, should pick up pen to reweave these end-words, originally borrowed from Edna St. Vincent-Millay, to write your own piece of hope, please share it with us here by leaving a comment with a poem or a link back to your own post with a poem.

Spirit Speech (Review)

A Field Guide to the Spirits, Jean LeBlanc, Aqueduct Press 2015

The poems in Jean LeBlanc’s A Field Guide to the Spirits cover a range of subjects, opening with mediums and ghosts, dipping into nature and natural sites, famous natural scientists of the 19th century and their family members, and historical figures from even older periods, before returning to the titular poem of the collection.

LeBlanc’s work is not rife with musical device; you will not find sonnet or alliteration here. I found the lack of musical device, usually intended to make a phrase memorable, a bit ironic given that the topics of so many of the poems were things to be remembered or involved remembrances by their speakers.

What LeBlanc’s work gives you is the surprising point of view—be it person or place—and the stunning epiphany.

For example, her “Hope, Hunger, Birds” does indeed trace a trajectory between those three concepts, although not in that order, and begins and ends in such different but related places that you cannot help but feel moved. I loved that the epigraph was by Susan Fenimore Cooper. It’s difficult to pick out just a few lines because it is the context they build together that is striking, but I keep coming back to these:

Like a songbird, my old heart,
still believing it will see another spring, craving
every tender blossom, wanting more.

In these poems, I appreciated the presence of Caroline Herschel, Catherine Barton (Newton’s niece), the unnamed woman describing how the town elders inspected the underwear of a group of women, especially her last snarky, surprising line. There is a lot to learn here; LeBlanc presents vivid portraits that made me, as reader, want to know more in the cases where I did not.

While she may not employ the poet’s arsenal of musical device, LeBlanc certainly understands it. In “Eleven Reasons Not To Marry A Poet,” she writes,

They are enamored of pretty words, but most especially of the saying of pretty words. You must be careful not to believe beyond the final iamb.

Indeed, it is the space beyond that final iamb which LeBlanc’s work explores.

Leaf Against Leaf (Reviews)

Book of Asters, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mayapple Press 2014

Leaf Graffiti, Lucy Burnett, Carcanet Press 2013

The titles of these books suggest a common theme; the poems themselves support convergent evolution: there are so many ways of getting to the epiphany that plants are intertwined with human life.

Burnett’s book opens with a long poem in 46 parts, “Variations on an urban monotone”. That sets the tone for the remainder of the book because the rest of the poems move in a slow arc from the urban to the rural, from the concrete and discrete to the surreal and amorphous.

What I appreciated about the long piece was the sonic texture. There was repetition of concept and word between parts and there was alliteration and repetition inside each part. The parts include “fungus”, “chlorophyll”, “unboxed”, “milk”. They include the speaker’s wait in line at a corner store, noticing they are the only one with skin the color of milk. These are plants in the most unlikely places.

Kindred’s plants are those in the most likely places: yards, ditches, weeds at the edges of driveways. Kindred’s plants define place: the deep South of the United States, dog-days of summer, the stereotypical dysfunctional Southern family. From “Ironweed Summer”:

If we had to be their girls,
then there had to be ironweeds
around that house, needling up
through the pine shreds where
treelight divided one hard season
from the next.

Kindred’s book opens with women, girls, flowers, the allegory of the flower never used as you might expect with respect to women and girls. She leaves behind her oracular voice as the book progresses: the second section focuses on a speaker who has miscarried, using a very confessional voice, and introduces the speaker’s sons, who play a large part in the third section which attempts to blend confessional poems about sons and husbands with the oracular-aster-girls of the opening.

Perhaps the whole is summarized best in an arc drawn between the two sunflower poems: “When They Painted My Room Yellow”, which comes at the end of the first section, and “Sunflowers” which comes near the end of the book. In the first poem, the speaker is a young girl and afraid of “a city of flowers”, “sunflower Armageddon”, and yet knows

the name of my survival
is sunflower
as if I knew myself
gold, a feast of grief ribbons.

In “Sunflowers” the speaker is a mother needing the appetites of sunflowers “needing my skin made gold”, whose sons love to watch sunflowers burn. I confess, I did not want to make that trip with the speaker, from terror to burning. It was the earlier poems, the oracular-aster-girls that stayed with me.

What stays with me from Burnett’s book, even as her poems become literally less grounded, are her ideas. By the time I reach “Icarus” I am a bit lost, wishing for simple leaves, but Burnett instead gives me an essay on gentrification and social-economics tied to place using the conceit of sheep. She offers me the association of “oval” and “ovary” encapsulated in a poem about mirrors in which the lines reflect back on themselves. She offers the beginning of “Acorn”:

let’s grow     just like that oak tree
grows     both ways     both at once