Chapbook Omnibus Review Part 3:
When I launched into the project of reviewing this assortment of chapbooks for Blackbird it did not occur to me how relevant that word, launch, would become to my project. As a noun: a small vessel or boat (often stowed aboard a larger one) which is usually equipped to serve some pragmatic or utilitarian purpose. Or as a verb: to send forth, catapult, release. To start on a course, to initiate. To boldly go where no one has gone before.
As a child of the sixties I can’t hear the word without thinking of Apollo rockets and Star Trek. I remember sitting on the floor in a semi-circle with most of my first-grade classmates at Mary Munford Elementary School here in Richmond and watching one of the Apollo missions plummet back to earth. Our teacher, Mrs. Hayes, had excused us from recess so we could watch history in the making. I remember how she rolled out the TV on its three-tiered media cart to the very center of the chalkboard and turned off the overhead fluorescents so we could see more clearly. We crossed our legs obediently and craned our necks toward the glowing screen. I remember hearing kids from other classes out on the playground—their shouts and laughter pelting the tilt-out windows just above my head—and thinking how crazy they were. It was cold out there. Didn’t they know something amazing was happening? I don’t remember having any apprehension about the Apollo astronauts. I don’t think I realized then that space is also very cold. Or that those guys hurtling across the ionosphere were a little wacky in their own right . . . .
This anecdote is tethered by the umbilicus of a single syllable to a sensation that reading the authors represented here evoked in me: the distinct feeling that I was exploring spaces of every sort. Myth. Memory and its limitations. The iconography of high culture and pop culture and the infinite (or is that infinitesimal?) distances which separate them. That final frontier where our shared notions of home and family, work and play become luminous enough to navigate by.
Creation Myths by Mathias Svalina (New Michigan Press, 2007)
Poet and die-hard baseball fan Marianne Moore is famous for arguing that a writer aspiring to produce poetry will not reach this goal until he/she is able to rise “—above / insolence and triviality and can present . . . for inspection ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’” Taking this dictum to heart, it could be argued that Mathias Svalina knocks one out of the park with Creation Myths, offering his readers two dozen imaginary universes with real people in them. Each of the poems in this collection stipulates the emergence of a very unique world despite the fact that seventeen of the twenty four pieces begin with a rhetorical flourish straight from the Book of Genesis (“In the beginning. . .”). From this vaguely Biblical point of departure (which itself alludes to Eden, that most famous of imaginary gardens), Svalina proceeds, through broad allegory and more than a few moments of pure and often hilarious invention, to explore an amazing array of variations on his vast ontological theme.
First there’s the story about a universe drawn into existence by a shortsighted pen which sketches war into reality before it jots down its own replacement ink-supply and so runs out of juice before it can finish the task of creation. Next is a universe where everyone looks like Larry Bird. Then a universe divided up among three churches: “the Church of Money, the Church of Sensual Pleasure & the Church of Hovercrafts.” There’s a universe where bacon (that most wondrous of breakfast proteins) is God. And a universe that evolves from a primordial stew (of carrots, celery, potatoes, and lentils) which two roommates leave boiling on their stovetop for eternity. There is a universe that results from a little boy cutting shapes from colored paper and a universe where everyone is named Meredith and has cornfields where their sexual organs are supposed to be.
The majority of these whimsical meditations are crafted as prose poems. This choice of form reinforces the episodic, anecdotal quality of the chapbook’s unifying narrative while serving as the perfect echo chamber for the pseudo-shamanistic voice of Svalina’s affable mythmaker. Indeed, so rapt are we, so completely swept up in his playful omniscience and borne along by the darkly comic undertow of his storytelling, that the sudden emergence of a distinct, first-person narrator in “Creation Myth [#6]” is a bit of a shock. Just what are we to make of it when this “I” confesses:
In the very next poem we seem to meet this new speaker’s parents (both chemists) in a universe which, compared to the ones that we have explored up to this point, feels much more like a space constellated by memory and much less a contrivance of mere invention. It is 1968. It is “a small apartment in South Side Chicago.” A startling tenderness manages to assert itself through the catalog of objects and people that lends shape to this domesticated cosmos: frying pans and French toast, new bikes and nun-chucks, “aboveground pools with blue plastic sides.” There is an Aunt and an Uncle and “tall neighbors with cigarettes & dry hands.” As in any real universe there is movement and relocation. The family drifts to New Orleans. They wind up in Pittsburgh. In the end, the speaker can only offer this bare analysis: “It was a laboratory. I was a child.”
From here we are whisked away to a universe created “over the span of four years” by a God who happens to be a college student and who christens his brave new world Des Moines. This God keeps a livejournal and listens to Eric Clapton. He stays up too late, pops pills, and creates reality from five basic elements:
It’s difficult to ascertain whether such details represent an authentically autobiographical dimension in Svalina’s text or yet another layer of allusion made all the more hermetic for appearing to be so quotidian. Evocations of the Judeo-Christian myth of creation and the iconography which emanates from it definitely abound, especially as we approach the end of the collection. But we are just as apt to encounter figures whose actions and motivations are contextualized only by the microcosmic narratives through which Svalina has rendered them. One of these later myths reminds us how, “In the beginning there was the void.” Another, thumbing its nose at the hellfire and brimstone tradition, tells of “a great flood that destroyed the cities.” A page or two later, when we meet “an old man with a long beard” who gathers “all the children around him to sit at the foot of his chair” in order to recount to them the story of their world’s creation, the tale he tells and the voice that becomes audible in its telling are signal:
Does it matter that the bearded man speaking here is interrupted mid-myth when his brother walks into the room? Does it matter that the children gathered around him, listening attentively, are not children at all, but mimeograph machines?
If there is an ulterior motive for Svalina’s inveterate mythologizing it may be nothing more than a young poet’s lighthearted exploration of what it means to be the sole arbiter of his own impulses for invention. Playful and irreverent, these poems poke fun at everything from Blackberries to Bed Bath & Beyond. In the process they demonstrate that even the most mundane elements of our everyday lives possess an inscrutable, mythic aspect which we fail to grasp only if we take them too seriously. Go ahead, they seem to intone. It’s your own hand turning the crank on the jack-in-the-box. If you’re not surprised when the little weasel comes flying out at you, whose fault is that? Use your imagination. In the beginning, God created a scary musical toy . . .
Mathias Svalina lives in New York City. He serves as co-editor for both Octopus Magazine and Octopus Books. He is the author of several chapbooks including Why I am White (Kitchen Press, 2007) and Viral Lease (forthcoming from Small Anchor Press). His full length collection, Destruction Myths, is forthcoming from Cleveland State University Press. His photograph of a Larry Levis Found Portrait appears in Gallery in this issue of Blackbird.
The Garden Room: poems, by Joy Katz (Tupelo Press, 2006)
There is something reminiscent of the readymades of Marchel Duchamp in the work Joy Katz has collected in her newest chapbook, The Garden Room. Defined as “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist,” this term might be applied to most of these intensely lyrical compositions which celebrate domestic spaces and attempt to make manifest the cosmic forces articulated by floors and ceilings and walls and windows. Katz’s minimalist themes are assembled from the ordinary, familiar objects that fill a house or surround it: flowers and linen closets, beds and birch trees, junk drawers and bookcases. But her cohesive sequence is also very much involved in exploring how the inanimate surfaces and shapes of a house and its environs are turned, by careful observation and attention, into the fertile psychic topography in which our notions of comfort and home are rooted.
How does this subtle transformation take place? The epigraph from Gertrude Stein which opens this collection (“Is there pleasure when there is a passage, / there is when every room is open.”) may be a clue inasmuch as Katz’s poems enact the same sort of questioning, along with their own tentative, conditional answers. The dedicatory proem “To the sun,” which appears on the chapbook’s opening flyleaf, is like a quarrel with daylight itself, a complaint against the “strict interpretations” which it makes possible. These are to be of “no help” to Katz in her stated project. Her gaze (and ours) must be attenuated to a very different source of illumination, one that suffuses and circumscribes a numinous interiority. What’s more, the poet refuses to apologize for her own shadow, for the “shell of private emphasis” into which she settles to work out her designs, advocating another type of clarity altogether: “This black wet I walk myself through is the world / I am ashamed of needing, / is meaning.”
In his blurb for the chapbook’s cover, which also sports a reproduction of Celeste Fichter’s Pillow Talk (a Dadaesque photographic homage to skewed proportion in which a pair of small white credenzas rest tenuously atop the crumpled yellow ticking of an impossibly gigantic pillow) Donald Revell observes how The Garden Room “proposes hymns in hymnody’s despite, projecting creation’s argument with creation onto the green tabletop of the world, onto the bruised surfaces of apples and of eyes. Here, phenomenology becomes a tender and true outrage, wondrous to behold.” In the rarified atmosphere of her own surreal conservatory, Katz applies words to the page like a painter applying pigment to canvas, insinuating depths of history and individual psychology and fleshing out the daily lives of a room’s inhabitants through an expert manipulation of perspective. Her daffodils “startle like gunshot, / a punch in the face.” White sheets on a bed are found “in continual pour,” their color, “neither putting itself gaily forth as a sail / nor sequencing itself like a pearl.” The ceiling looms above everything, “empty as a sundial. . .puncturable as a drumhead.”
These tense, quasi-reportorial lyrics are compelling both for the manner in which they distill tone and point of view from the barest minimum of details and for the way they parley these into audacious and convincing rhetorical gestures. Serenely. Inevitably. As in “A desk.” where the poet muses:
In a style that is reticent, yet fully revelatory, the poet highlights the fractured boundaries where exterior reality and the inner world of the senses converge.
The arrangement of the individual poems that comprise The Garden Room is reminiscent of a commonplace book (a very Dada-friendly form). Katz’s entries include: “Color of the walls. . .” “Chinese lanterns.,” Winter light.,” “An open drawer. . .” The careful punctuation of her titles emphasizes this quality. As does her recursive approach to certain substructures within the larger architecture of her habitation—the way she returns to study them at different times or in slightly altered configurations: we visit the bed, made and unmade; we take two trips to the linen closet and consider the ceiling twice; we gaze out the window, examining the sill and the screen and even spending some time cataloging the detritus (bits of glass, a dead fly) which accumulates inside the frame. In a few of the chapbook’s later pieces, the poet has even recorded (in a bracketed, shorthand notation) certain sound effects which appear to have informed the composition of individual poems. Thus, “Junk drawer.” is preceded by “[barking sounds]” and “The unmade bed.” ends with the “[sound of cereal poured into a bowl].”
There is also something decidedly Rilkean in the intensive scrutiny Katz devotes to the objects of her obsession. Her “Archaic torso.” is an obvious sign pointing us toward the haunted penman of the Duino Elegies and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge as at least one of the examples from whom she has drawn inspiration while working out her own ekphrastic mode.
In this piece the physically present object of Katz’s artistic ruminations is perhaps harder to determine than in any other poem in the collection. Unlike Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which it clearly echoes, Katz’s text is not grounded in elaborate figuration or description. Rilke’s brilliance consisted in conveying the implicit grandeur of his artifact in terms of what, in actuality, was missing from it. Katz seems to take the opposite approach. The wealth of material she finds at hand is almost an encumbrance. So much is there: color, sound, the body. “The world.” in its entirety tacked onto the end of the chapbook like an afterthought. Nature’s plenum. For Katz it would seem the truest task of the poet lies in recognition then arrangement. Who needs Apollo? God of the sun? I think that’s where this argument got started.
Joy Katz is the author of a full-length collection of poetry, Fabulae (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), and is the co-editor of an anthology entitled Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2006). She currently lives in New York and serves as a senior editor for the literary journal Pleiades. Katz also teaches creative writing at The New School.
A Triptych Amounting to Nearly One Half of an Octopus
The Ohio System by Jen Tynes & Erika Howsare (Octopus Books, 2006)
Necessity is the mother of invention. Plato knew this. Four thousand years ago, landowners along the Nile required a dependable method for redrawing the boundaries of wheat fields situated along that mighty river’s flood-prone banks. Voila: trigonometry. “The Ohio System,” a chapbook-length poem by Jen Tynes and Erika Howsare, demonstrates a similar convergence of inspiration and technique as the poets strive, with admirable effect, to overcome the challenges inherent to composing a collaborative text.
Although it would probably be impossible to dissect this poem word by word (or even line by line) into distinct components attributable to the authors individually, their process seems to have left its trace, a meta-text which informs and comments upon the other themes and topics the poem explores:
Is the act of collaboration itself the “system” to which the chapbook’s—and therefore the poem’s—title refers? Or does the title point toward some larger, actual geography? If so, the landscape is almost certainly a rural one (“Some of it is so rural it rots”) or, at most, no more civilized than a “smitten small town.” The terrain these poets guide us through is dotted with “logical five-and-dime” and “undrowned parking meters.” And, whether it exists only in their imaginations or occupies an objectively verifiable location, some patchwork of pavement and putrefying green space which might actually embody their lyrical cartography, there can be no doubt that a river runs through it.
The Ohio is, after all, a gargantuan network of waterways, and Tyne’s and Howsare’s text becomes, on many levels, a vast homage to the complex processes of circulation and flow which are its life. The poem is full of their speculations about how a river alters the landscape it moves through, cutting pathways across it and shaping the lives of the people who eke out their existence—“nibble on the riparian zone,” or “push water downstream to prevent a flood.” Eventually, as all rivers do, their mighty Ohio arrives at its “Enormous Delta.” This estuary of the poets’ mutual considerations is figured as “a confession of trials and tributaries.” The story of the landscape becomes the stories of the people.
Ultimately Tynes and Howsare are intrigued by notions of where things end up. At times they wax archaeological, cataloging the detritus of a disposable culture littering the landscape, its “endtables junked, ceramic children out in the rain.” At others they become folklorists, recording fragmentary histories they have shared or overheard. Phrases appear in one place only to submerge and then reappear in a different context later on. In the fully saturated spaces of their poem these physical and linguistic artifacts well up and flow out of/into each other like the sources of the Ohio itself. One scene, one line of contemplation spills over into the next like a river flooding. This excess is a natural phenomenon. If what abides is almost always less, this diminishment is, in its turn, just as natural: “And if over the years I gathered ‘all the things that you sent downstream’ / would it account for the drain? I imagine all the places we could place a net. / It’s the Ohio system of ending things with a pause or hold for safety.”
And it’s the mechanisms we invent to deal with these facts of nature that somehow define all of us. The human organism is, in its own way, the “oldest invention. . . a brackish cup of water, hair finally grown out, a / jewelry box full of teeth.” So too the language it generates to make sense of its environment. Our nerves and blood vessels are themselves like very complex nets we place smack in the middle of any space we occupy. Neurology and cardiology are just specialized languages invented later to give the brain and the heart their histories. Jen Tynes and Erika Howsare intuit this primal ecology.
Jen Tynes’s most recent book of poetry is The End of Rude Handles (Red Morning Press, 2006). Her chapbook, See Also Electric Light, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2007. She is the editor, with Erika Howsare, of horse less press. Tynes’s work has appeared in Lit, Denver Quarterly, Jubilat, Indiana Review, and Verse.
Erika Howsare’s poetry and nonfiction appear in Fence, Chain, Verse, Denver Quarterly, and other journals. She is the editor, with Jen Tynes, of horse less press. The two have worked together on several other products including Don’t You Have a Map?, a collaborative travelling essay.
Perfect Villagers by Sueyeun Juliette Lee (Octopus Books, 2006)
For a number of reasons it might be argued that 2007 was the Year of Slavoj Žižek. The notorious Slovenian “stand-up philosopher” and cultural critic (who routinely addresses packed lecture halls worldwide) published two volumes last year to much fanfare and gnashing of teeth: Virtue and Terror (Revolutions): Maximilien Robespierre and In Defense of Lost Causes (both published by Verso). The International Journal of Žižek Studies was also established in 2007, making Žižekology an official field of doctoral study. According to Žižek’s particular brand of gadflyism “there are no innocent bystanders in the crucial moments of revolutionary decision.”
This is the musak that assaults us as we knee-dodge down the sticky aisles, searching for a seat in Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s crowded theater of the mind. Now showing: Perfect Villagers. In the six poems which comprise this deeply political collection, the poet draws upon her own experiences as a Korean American to inflect a fractured commentary on everything from Japanese cinema to President Bush’s notion of the “axis of evil.” Lee seems to recognize that such a discussion is rendered all the more urgent in a world which intentionally problematizes the category of the factual and blurs the boundary between fictive constructs and reality in order to advance political agendas or merely to entertain.
The first and fifth poems in the collection, both entitled “Dear Margaret Cho,” offer a convincing critique of that comic’s outrageous stance toward her own Korean-American identity by linking the acceptability of laughter to a question of depth perception. Lee realizes that both she and Cho share any number of superficial likenesses (including their “bangs and hooded lids.”) which might render them indiscernible to a casual observer. She even finds the comedian’s outré shtick about family and porn stores and homosexuality amusing. But a kind of darkness persists for Lee, even after Cho’s “funny thing gets said.” In the wake of her own quiet chuckling, Lee wonders “where is the disaster at the end of this dread?”
While she senses the allure of Cho’s privileged cultural vantage point and recognizes that their “punch lines and couplets” have a common source of power, Lee somehow mistrusts the stand-up comedian’s spotlight. The poet’s words illuminate a very different public space which, paradoxically, coincides with and exists in opposition to the one Cho occupies. It is a space at once “prayerful and abashed, facing the tide, grown over, rediscovered in the woods / by strangers and haunted for years and years.”
The rest of the poems in Perfect Villagers represent Lee’s attempts at fleshing out some of the ghosts who participate in this haunting. She accomplishes her goal by centering a number of self-conscious poetic constructions of persona on various figures of Asian descent (and virtually global familiarity) who loom large in her own personal mythology.
“Enter the Dragon” is organized as a series of prose-like fragments interspersed with (mostly) couplets and quartets of crisp, four-beat lines. Its compositional style might suggest the highly choreographed martial arts displays which punctuate the on-screen performances of the poem’s title character, Bruce Lee. The iconic significance of this American-born Chinese actor’s career is both a source of pride for Lee (the poet) and a subject which enables her to expand her interrogation of cultural notions of similarity and difference from actor-Lee’s point of view. The central prose section of the poem resounds with the pure adolescent delight which the Dragon movies engendered in a whole generation of kids all around the world:
Even as the poignant double entendre of “we let ourselves down” foreshadows the troubling reality the poem confronts the very next time it veers into meter, acknowledging the brutal price of admission that many have paid, “chased into the ghetto, the factory, the warehouse.”
But the characters with whom Lee asks her readers to spend a bit of time are not all bright and shining cultural avatars like uber good-guy Bruce. In fact, the central figure in Lee’s poetic wax museum is North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, whom the poet showcases, warts and all, over eight pages at the very core of her brief text. The fragmentary, hyper-punctuated surface of “Kim Jong Il: A Reader” holds together a collage of details from such sources as the North Korean leader’s biography, “official” items generated by his propaganda machine, and specious aphorisms and public recollections about his fated rise to power, “heralded by a bright star and double rainbows.” These fragments telegraph a bleak history:
The italics, quotation marks, nested parentheticals, brackets and bulleted lists which proliferate here deliberately heighten the reader’s confusion and make it impossible to be certain just who is speaking at any given instance in the text. This stylized inscrutability effectively mimics the political doublespeak that has held sway on both sides of the Pacific in the era of Bush, who, like Kim Jong ll, is an object of the text’s quiet vituperations.
After an interlude of three elegantly balanced tercets whose “perfect symmetry” and “beautiful tangents” pay tribute to the hunky figure of Daniel Dae Kim, the Korean-born American of Lost fame who was chosen as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2005, Lee moves us quickly along to her closing meditation, “Toshiro Mifune,” inspired by the famous Japanese actor who starred in such Akira Kurosawa masterpieces as Yojimbo and Rashomon. This poem maintains, in perfect equipoise, the dual points of view and voices of the eternally beloved actor and a consummate fan beholding him from somewhere out in the fleeting shadows of his audience. If Mifune readily confesses to being all too human: “I slept with a woman and woke up as a curse / I slept with a man and woke up silent / I ate alone and clasped hands at the kindness of strangers,” his fan (read here the poet?) seems more than willing to surrender her own illusions, answering with all the certainty of her elegiac instincts and ending the poem with an exhilarating avowal:
categorically he was a man just as any other man
No nostalgic coda. No fade to black. Just the slow dissolve of the poet into her image of a stand-up human being.
Sueyeun Lee’s first book of poetry, That Gorgeous Feeling, is forthcoming from Coconut Books. Lee’s poetry has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Minor America, Shampoo, and other literary journals. She currently serves as an editor for Corollary Press and lives in Philadelphia.
The Book of Truants & Projectorlight by Joshua Marie Wilkinson (Octopus Books, 2006)
The ravishing cast of malingerers we encounter in this collection of poems by Joshua Marie Wilkinson demonstrate an evocative reimagining of Carl Jung’s archetype of the Child. Sometimes the bad boy, sometimes the lost boy, Wilkinson’s young (anti)hero serves as the unifying narrative presence about which this poetic novella is arranged. Wilkinson’s prose poems (which comprise the chapbook’s entire first section and most of its third) are like still frames from a movie the poet started editing long ago, each self-contained mise-en-scene cunningly backlit and cast upon the pages by the projectorlight of the poet’s memory. In formal terms they represent quite a departure from the poet’s Lug Your Careless Body Out of the Careful Dusk (a poem in fragments), which garnered the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2006. While this earlier collection borrowed heavily from the grammar and syntax of cinema to compose and arrange all of its materials, Wilkinson only applies its technique to the fragmented middle section of his Octopus title, “The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth.” But, as another of Wilkinson’s reviewers has noted, “what appears solitary, out of place, fragmentary, is in fact framed, placed.”
In the opening section of The Book of Truants & Projectorlight (which gives the chapbook its title) we embark with the poet upon a quest for some authentic recollections of childhood. The first poem, “what you wish to return to will not leave you unmarked,” reads like an apologia of sorts from the poet to himself. Or a warning. “What you forget is up to you. . . What you speak will always have the capacity to break you.” So, when the poet/narrator of poem two, “the diamond cutter speaks,” tells us that the “clocks of five cities crashed in / my chest with their ticking” the image is not just left to float in a dreamy haze a la Italo Calvino. Wilkinson implicates us, asks us to become time travelers, “to count backwards with your / eyes shut & listen” to the echoes of an individual history in the place names he recites: “Centralia. . . Sequim. . .” the starlit forests of “Wenatchee.” After traversing the “steak-shaped slab of land in the hills which belonged / to a man nobody had pictures of” (a father figure?) and meeting the nameless neighbors he charmed “with a basket of red eggs & birch syrup” the speaker confronts his childhood self face-to-face:
If the poems in this opening section serve to deliver the poet to the threshold of actual remembrance, the compacted narratives of the closing round of prose pieces dig down deeper, toward the tectonic outlines of a larger family story. All are narrated in the dreamily-precise terms of Wilkinson’s universal “boy,” who trades in the first-person narrator he barely inhabited at the close of the first section for his preferred vehicle of second-person address, which, once again, tangles the reader in the poet’s shifting point of view with lyric force:
The supporting structures of the collection, its section headings and epigraphs (the first section actually opens with some lines from John Yau) all allude, directly or indirectly, to the work of Edmond Jabés, whose extensive oeuvre includes such titles as The Book of Questions, The Book of Margins, and The Book of Resemblances. Perhaps the “lost book” that Yau and Jabés posit or ponder is a metaphor for lost childhood. Or the many truant selves we lose touch with on the way to becoming the “I’s” of our adulthoods, as in these excerpts from the prose poem, “deer & salt block”:
For a poet with a background in film (a medium of the moving image) Wilkinson demonstrates quite a talent for rendering still life. Fully one half of the titles in his closing section cue this formally: “still life with bullfrog;” “still life with satellite, radish garden, mailboxes, & deer;” “still life with a lump in the rug.” Perhaps these overt references to the concept of stillness are meant to call attention to the radical shift in Wilkinson’s style from one section to the next. But, oddly enough, the superficial dispersion and chop that characterizes the collection’s central movement is actually very controlled, held in bounds and shaped by the centripetal force of the prose structures which surround it. The fragmentary center of the chapbook
To be sure, the quirky details and dreamy perspectives swirl past us more quickly. But this universe is definitely of a piece with that of the prose sections which precede and follow it. And Wilkinson’s wide-eyed, wondering boy is still our spirit guide, no more distant than the next first-person possessive:
Wilkinson’s balance of drama and musicality here is striking (pun only partially intended). I hope Hollywood is paying attention.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s most recent book of poetry, Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk (University of Iowa Press, 2006), was awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize. He has also received an Academy of American Poets Award and the Rella Lossy Chapbook Prize from the San Francisco Poetry Center.
Holding for the Farrier by Kathy Davis (Finishing Line Press, 2007)
In Roman mythology, Janus, the god of gates and doorways, beginnings and endings, was usually depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions at once. God of the New Year, Janus peered into the past with one of his faces and into the future with the other. He was worshipped at planting and harvest times, and people also invoked his power to bless marriages and childbirths or to bring them good fortune as they set out on long journeys. So, it might be wise to keep an image of this deity firmly in mind when entering the world of Kathy Davis’s poems, filled as it is with its own remarkable thresholds and transitions. Like a finely wrought atlas, Holding for the Farrier describes many exotic and ordinary regions we might visit, as well as the circuitous paths we are often forced to travel in order to get from one place to another. From one exhibit to the next in a crowded museum. From childhood to adulthood. From the position of disconnected bystander in the lives of friends and loved ones, to that of an engaged participant willing to share in their troubles as well as their joys. Her poems reveal the essential alchemy involved in putting one foot in front of another, in taking each irrevocable first step toward the future, despite any apprehensions we may have that sorrow awaits us there. Only a god can see the way forward and the way back all at once. Happiness might, after all, lie just beyond that next shadowed archway. . .
It is Davis’s amalgamation of the two stories, the way she makes them blur into and comment upon each other that strikes us as transcendent. And therein lies the gift this poet brings.
A number of titles in her chapbook (“Tequila Mockingbird,” “Revelations,” “Battle City”) rely on this method of artful combination, focusing Davis’s reflections upon her own life experiences and obsessions through an assortment of lenses (literary works, the Bible, fantasy role-playing games). In “Visiting the Thorne Miniatures,” the occasion of viewing these diorama-like interior design exhibits (permanently housed in the basement of Art Institute of Chicago) collides with the poet’s observation of a father and son sharing a less than perfect visit. Davis evokes a scene: “I want to go to your house,” the boy pleads to his “ponytailed” father, who is distracted by his own perusal of the miniature rooms. The artwork and the abstracted father and the disgruntled son all compete for our attention in such a way that the scene itself, the very atmosphere in which the poet situates us, becomes a metaphor for the richly furnished breakdown that daily life can become. In the end though, it is the human display which earns the poet’s final bemused sympathy:
The indictment of the father here, as he practically ignores the flesh-and-blood miniature wandering the exhibit at his side, is subtle. The moment that he and the boy (and the poet/speaker) occupy, despite the illusion of that static clock pendulum, is a fleeting thing.
Other pieces in Holding for the Farrier seem to delve into their initiating subjects to expose the layered potentials inherent to them. This is especially true of Davis’s persona poems like “Mrs. Cannon Passes the Parthenon on Her Way Home from Work,” which is rendered from the point of view of the elderly and ill Sarah Ophelia Cannon (aka Minnie Pearl), or “A Stable Lad’s Pentimento” in which the poet situates herself as an observer of the famous British painter of equestrian subjects, George Stubbs, by imaginatively entering the stream of consciousness of a servant-boy assisting the great master in the gruesome anatomical studies which later yielded such realism in his canvases. The latter title weds Davis’s love of horses with her considerable gifts for weaving compelling, informative detail from primary sources into engagingly self-inflected meditations. Obviously transported by her musings, Davis succeeds brilliantly in taking her reader along for the ride as well. From the “quick backhanded slice” which fells “the old hunt horse” through the long process of “scraping hair, skin, fat. The raw / / braided muscle beneath, he sketches for days.”
It’s only years later, when the stable boy sees one of the master’s paintings, that he realizes
The notion of “pentimento” is itself a useful one to consider in relation to Davis’s work here—an explanation of her own technique of creating multiple interpenetrating layers of reference and allusion in her texts. The term, which is defined as an underlying image in a painting, as of an earlier painting (or a part of an original draft) which shows through, usually when the top layer of paint has become transparent with age or through wear, could be applied to most of the poems in the chapbook. This is not to say that Davis always relies on great paintings or works of literature as triggering subjects. In many pieces (“Calling Home,” “Three A.M.,” “Nashville Elegy,” “Ruckersville” and “Slow Dance”) the poet’s verbal spelunking is guided by some luminous vein of significance which catches her eye as she plumbs the near-banalities of the day in, day out of a wife and working mother. Like Madonna once said, “Beauty’s where you find it.”
Still, for those who might find mere beauty boring, Davis is capable of moments which verge on the truly gorgeous. Case and point: her title poem. “Holding for the Farrier” is a tour de force which fuses all of the techniques and formal strategies discussed thus far to explore a subject dear to the poet’s own heart. In its plainest, most literal terms the poem is about a horse being shod. Tomàs, the farrier, is assisted by the speaker/poet who stands at the horse’s head, holding his halter, keeping him company through the ordeal of the procedure (thus the poem’s title). As the “Balneum vaporis” (vapor bath) from the seared hoof of the beast rises up dramatically around them, a remarkable series of stories concatenates itself into a text woven from the farrier’s busy, self-conscious mutterings and the wandering thoughts of his well-read assistant. We meet “Leonhard Thurneysser / zum Thurm of Bile,” a sixteenth century merchant and alchemist straight from the pages of the “Cauda Pavonis” (a scholarly journal of Hermetic studies) who made his living selling “tinctures, mixtures, / inunctions.” We then get some unexpected dish about a fatal car crash which kills a hermaphroditic beautician who retains her power, even in death, to shock the EMT’s with “the cock and balls under the dress.” Yet, no matter how far afield into history or lurid detail or Latin phrasing we are led, eventually the good poet gently tugs us back to the now of the farrier’s helpful explanations and his story:
The formidable style and erudition of this poem, its ingenious tonal balance, is emblematic of the entire chapbook.
Another hallmark of Holding for the Farrier is the manner in which its topically disparate poems are often made to speak to one another through the judicious placement of individual texts within the larger framework of the collection. The poem about Stubbs, with all of its graphic considerations of anatomical dissection for the sake of art, immediately precedes “Sunday,” one of the poet’s most intimately autobiographical compositions. “Sunday” recounts Davis’s sudden shock at discovering her next door neighbor has recently undergone a mastectomy without the poet’s having even been aware of the woman’s illness. The poem’s surgical imagery, the emotional torque created by the speaker’s realization of just how limited her knowledge is, and the universally recuperable grief of her self-accusatory “I should have known,” are wrenching. The neighbor disappears back into her own house, into the incompletion of her story as “her screen door / misses the latch, hanging open like a dare.” The text doesn’t reveal how the speaker rises to this challenge. Does she take the neighborly path to that unlatched entrance, or turn her back and walk away? Only the oracle of a two-faced god could answer with certainty, and they all disappeared long ago. Didn’t they?
Kathy Davis has an MBA from Vanderbilt University and an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, North American Review, Southern Indiana Review, and other journals, as well as in Blackbird.