My friend, poet Penny Perry, provides this review of Diane Wakowski's newest book of poems.
Bay of Angels
reviewed by Penny Perry
Before Betty Friedan, before the pill, Diane Wakoski wrote about what other girls only whispered to their best friends: sex, rebellion, unwed mothers, freedom, equality.
In her 24th and newest book, Bay of Angels ($20, 134 pp., Anhinga Press: Oct. 15, 2013), she reflects on the woman she once was:
So many lovers for this girl
with long black stockings and Alice in Wonderland hair
. . .I thought of myself then/as a knight questing for love
. . .I might see the Grail,
over each man
tattoed or leathered or
wearing motorcycle boots.
A heroine to women, she grew up in Whittier, California, in what she once described as “a shack next to an orange grove.” It is the birthplace of idiosyncratic personal myths, woven from weedy chaparral. From there she moved to the blooming plum trees and then the green hills of Berkeley.
Within the third section of Bay of Angels, The Lady of Light Meets the Shadow Boy, the poem, Marilyn Gives Me a White Fleshed Peach, captures how, in the land New Yorkers view as a cultural desert, Diane Wakoski remains proof that poetry lives in our groves, our irises and poppies, our ocean and hills:
My sister always offers me fruit of the season
– this May it was white peaches
whose skin peeled away and left me
with scented flesh that tasted like moonlight,
cool, singular, almost transparent,
a goddess food.
In an age when young women were supposed to be demure and undemanding, Diane Wakoski kept saying, “I want, I want,” always in a conversational style that has, in her newest books, perfected the colloquial tone William Carlos Williams brought to poetry. Each new poem in Bay of Angels is an intimate, secret-shedding letter – and each takes place in a self-contained universe. The result creates a tapestry that rivals the richness of a novel.
From the poem Wanting to Wear His Tweed Jacket:
. . . I
wanted him in every
landscape. But he led me,
he led me to the oceans of wheat, the
battlefields of wheat, the plains where
no Sappho ever lived or sung.
Always grounded in a certain place and time, these poems take flight. The first section, Celluloid Dreams, is named after some of her favorite movies, including Jacques Demy’s La Baie des Anges, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Like those films, her images dazzle:
A sailor’s daughter without a silver compass,
charting a course,
navigating the movie screen,
I have looked for mariners all my life,
trying to find my father.
Early on in her career, Wakoski gave herself permission to be the “mythic Diane, rewriting her life in poetry, sometimes surreal and abstract, other times being the everyday woman in a supermarket.” She spies her younger self in the “The Spiral Staircase:” Oranges vs. Apples,
. . .just the child
shaped like a shawl,
thick ankles and wrists,
a little witch child
In the same poem, she describes her childhood home:
the house where the piano sat
upright like an old maid
at a dance.
Just as she has for over six decades now, she continues creating her own personal mythology: an ex-lover is The Motorcycle Betrayer; she is a shape-shifter, identifying with Diana the Huntress and the phases of the moon. The Diamond Dog tracks her lost father. She even created a twin brother, David, the lost boy who keeps her company. Casting myth into an everyday reality, she can, with her “California eyes,” watch as Persephone Steps Off the Elevator at the Fourth Floor:
and emerges again onto the adobe walled landing,
the Southern California horizon wide as an avalanche. . .
In the introduction, Wakoski notes that “The Bay of Angels, of course, is a place, but to me it’s where I’d like to drown, with angels all around me, holding cards and offering me poker chips, should I ever have to die that way.”
The three sections of this collection provide room for this 75 year-old to long for sex, for love, for her father, for glamour, for winnings at the gambling table. These new poems are juicy with a love of music, food, sex, butterflies, birds, pop culture, highbrow literature, travel, friends and family. “Each poem has a secret,” she has said, “and a problem that must be solved.”
Of the 41 poems in Bay of Angels, some of the most endearing are dedicated to Mathew Dickman, the brilliant young poet she addresses as “Pizza Boy” and “Shadow Boy.”
From Goldfish Narratives:
Boyish face, cowlick in his shiny
hair, hand placed on my arm so as not
to startle me when
he creeps up in the skate arena to
say, “hello, Diane.” Not the boy
who killed his sister’s goldfish,
not brother. I give him
the role of Winter’s Champion, bashing
at the memory – his and mine – of mistaken
Celebrated for his own imagery, his shrewd observations and a fearless, touching vulnerability, Dickman introduced Wakoski, the guest lecturer, at the poetry festival in Idyllwild, CA this summer wearing an I Love Wakoski t-shirt. It was an echo: Back in the ‘60s, when women of her generation were fighting for their rights, Diane Wakoski’s poems told them we weren’t alone.
That t-shirt also carries a new promise . Every day now, when old white men seem intent on turning back the clock to take our hard-won rights away, that t-shirt – and this book – keep fueling the courage to say, “Quiet down, boys. We’re working here.”
In one of the final poems in this collection, Reinventing the Measure, the links between eras and places, myths and realities, illustrate how Bay of Angels equals the stature of the American original who is Diane Wakoski:
we do both live in the same place, near a great ocean:
it is called poetry.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Though I have never met him, I count Scott Whitaker as part of my literary community. He has written outstanding reviews of two of my books and honed in on what I was trying to do in each. For these kind, generous and intelligent critiques, I also count him as a friend.
Now it’s time for my readers to encounter Scott Whitaker the creative writer.
His poems have appeared in dozens of journals and literary magazines. He is the winner of the Dogfish Head Brewery Poetry Prize and the Delaware Press Association Award for Field Recordings, and has been a recipient of a NEA grant for transforming Romeo and Juliet into a rock musical for teenagers. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for fiction and the Whitman Prize for poetry, among others. He is the literary review editor for The Broadkill Review and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
His chapbooks of poetry include The Barleyhouse Letters from Finishing Line Press, Field Recordings, and News from the Front by the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. His YA novel, Seven Days on the Mountain, and short story collection, Toxic Tourism, are available at Amazon.com.
His newest chapbook of poems is The Black Narrows. After I read a few of the chapbook’s poems that were published in The Broadkill Review, I wanted to feature Scott and his poems on this blog.
The Black Narrows is a cycle of poems about a black-market community which existed on a saltwater marsh off Virginia’s the Eastern Shore in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Here commercial waterman policed their oyster beds, killing those who would try to rob them. “I like the idea that on the edge of the America there existed this place where you could be anything you wanted to be, live a life that you wanted, if you chose to live by the very harsh rules of the environment,” Scott said in a June 2013 interview in The Daily Fig.
And he takes the images, voices and stories of that marsh community and weaves them into poems in the same tradition as Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Here are monologues and elegies as well as nature poems. In the Daily Fig interview, Scott mentioned that The Black Narrows is peopled with “a baker who buries his victims in the marsh, a tavern mistress who runs the opium market, kids dealing with their alcoholic parents….” This is akin to theater — about people and relationships.
Here are three poems from The Black Narrows by Scott Whitaker:
BREAK IN THE SAWGRASS. SALT BAKER.
Skiff skinny. Narrow as his favorite gal's thighs.
Enough to cover his own body, no more;
bare and tight and long. Copper kettle drum,
screwed to a frame of drift and shark bone,
brings enough steam to troll for bait fish,
red drum, an occasional shark for parts and oil.
He chugs chugs chugs, squat paddle wheel
pushing through four foot seas or a channel's icy chop.
Outlanders pay extra for salt goods, sea salt, saline
drip, byproducts of the little engine that puffs
puffs as he jags into the bay beyond the break
in the sawgrass. He breaks his fast with beer,
raw clams, little nicks, and grinds the meal
between his teeth, sucking their butter
sweet into his dry mouth. It is the only prayer
he can manage, except those quiet nights
at his bakery when he is in love with a new recipe.
Narrows noise goes round round round
that big skull of his, but in marsh,
building-deep and tall, he is loose, a single
voice among sandpiper song, loon call.
The dead buried there bother him not, a thief
or two, his ex lover's bully, somewhere socked
in the channel mud below his prow, the very silt
of his fattest oysters, bedded on the backside
of a murder rich mudbank. He bakes them with a wine
sour bread and upon them feeds, feeds, feeds.
ALLY ON THE DAISY
Up into the gale she climbs, reaches to her thigh
for her rum flask and cigar. She goes up and up
and up oh Ally, Ally eye. The gusts are strong
enough to raise her up as if she were her own sail,
shirt, a billowing romance of wrinkles, her tattoos
peeking out and holding on for dear life. Oh Ally,
Ally eye. She is and she isn't, and always is always,
and howls in rain, the skein of the wind bearing down,
Ally, Ally eye. Fish and fowl and bending pine,
all is rushing out, all is blowing back on Ally, Ally eye.
STEAM CITY. SUNDAY MORNING.
Elizabeth’s river cuts close to the balloon factory
where great airships bubble up like an engineers’
cartoon thoughts. Two great gears rise out of breaks
in the brick as they turn amidst steam releasing locks.
For those whose house is not a home there is work,
Sunday pay, and then penny pitchers as Harkers empties
the weekend kegs, clears the storehouse shelves,
oysters, clams, great sides of venison from smoke hooks.
There is a clear ring in the air, for only sail stretchers
are employed, their vices and straps compose soapy music
to accompany the thrum of river water turbine. Some
of the girls who work the dyes sing of the old country,
and in the wide halls of the factory, songs of love,
but only on Sunday, when the skeleton crew unlocks
broad notes, and unscrews the valves of pressure.
To order the chapbook from The Broadkill Press, click here.
To read interview (with writing advice), click here.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Lest we think that terrorism does not affect the world poetry community, remember Kofi Awoonor who was killed in the September attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
Kofi Awoonor was a renowned Ghanaian poet, diplomat and statesman, actor and academic. He was in Nairobi to attend and read at the Storymoja Hay Festival, an annual writing and storytelling festival.
He was born George Kofi Nyidevu Awoonor-Williams in 1935 but for the last 40 years has been Kofi Awoonor.
After graduating from the university in Ghana, he was a researcher at the Institute of African Studies before being appointed to run the Ghana Film Corporation. He was a founder of the Ghana Playhouse. He wrote, produced and acted in plays.
In 1975, after finishing more university studies abroad, he returned to Ghana. He became embroiled in one of the “subversion trials” of the military regime and spent almost a year on death row in prison. The House by the Sea chronicles his time in jail.
Kofi Awoonor served as Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil, to Cuba, and to a number of South American countries. He was also Ghana’s ambassador to United Nations and served as chairman of the UN’s anti-apartheid committee during South Africa’s transition from 1990 to 1994. He served as chairman of the Council of State, the main advisory body to Ghana’s president, from 2009 until January of this year.
His first novel, This Earth, My Brother, is an experimental work he described as a prose poem. The story is told on two levels. The first level is a standard narrative representing reality. The second is a mystical journey full of literary and biblical allusions and this text deals with the new nation of Ghana.
He is most known for his poetry.
To hear Kofi Awoonor read one of his poems, click here.
To read one of his last poems, click here.
Another poem by Kofi Awooner:
THE JOURNEY BEYOND
The bowling cry through door posts
carrying boiling pots
ready for the feasters.
Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;
When I come to the river shore
please ferry me across
I do not have my cloth-end
the price of your stewardship.
[Kutsiami, in Ewe mythology, is the ferryman on the river which divides the living and the dead.]
It is terrible when any human is killed by terrorist acts. When terrorism destroys a creative spirit, a creative voice, the light of the world dims and our loss is vast.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
To be in love is a joy. To be charmed by the changing stages of a lifelong love is a gift. And to write honestly, engagingly and with grace, about the cycles of love, is, for most writers, a Herculean task — but not for Jamie Brown.
I first encountered Jamie Brown as the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Broadkill Review. He also has served as Fiction Editor of The Washington Review of Arts, Contributing Editor for The Sulphur River Literary Review, Poetry Reviewer at The Washington Times, and was a member of the Poetry Committee of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
But James C.L. Brown (writing as Jamie Brown) is a writer too. He’s the author of a chapbook of poetry, Freeholder and Other Poems, a full-length collection of poetry, Conventional Heresies, and a chapbook of essays on writing short stories, Constructing Fiction. He holds the MFA in Creative Writing from American University.
In Jamie Brown’s new book, Sakura: A Cycle of Haiku, he writes about the progression of love, using cherry blossoms (the “sakura” of the title) as prime descriptive image of the sequence (from bud to blossom to ensuing afterglow). Each haiku captures a moment, a feeling, and the placement of one haiku per page allows the reader to linger with each poem, letting the nuances flower.
What I especially like about Sakura is how Jamie often employs a kaleidoscopic approach to his sequence of haikus. In some poems, he’ll repeat an image or phrase from the previous poem, showing the moments as connected, but, not staying fixed to only one point in time, shifts slightly in the new poem, letting the cycle advance.
Here is an example of this kaleidoscopic approach:
They were, one moment,
petals singed by the wildfire.
Passion’s charred remnants.
The passionate heart
does not wait idly for love,
each night burns for it.
You can see firelight
at night above the lovers,
sparked by their hearts’ flame.
You can see firelight
and the petals in her hair
the morning after.
The words “petals,” “wildfire” and “passion” (or “passionate”) tumble like shiny pieces in a kaleidoscope, creating a new pattern in each haiku.
And another example of this linking, and reforming, (from later in the book):
Like the promise of
delayed affection, her kiss
kept him waiting years.
Years pass like water
tumbling down a hill in spring,
heedless of its fate.
Fate, age, the cherry
blossom is mindless of these,
beauty its purpose.
Its purpose beauty,
the blossom does not worry,
content just to be.
Sakura: A Cycle of Haiku is a meditation on love. Genuinely tender, often quietly philosophical, the book has much to say about passion, affection and how the years can shape the lovers and love itself. In the end, there’s an acknowledgement that:
Too much of love is
inexpressible in words.
Silence has meaning.
Click here to go to The Broadkill Press to order book.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage is an exceptional book of poems by Penny Perry. It is at once memoir, cultural and period snapshot and volume of compelling and grace-filled poems. Here, in these autobiographical poems, Penny Perry shapes a coming-of-age story filled with abandonment and redemption (or the “disposal” and “salvage” of the title).
Penny Perry’s collection of poetry, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage, is set in sunny Southern California, “a place everyone wants to visit,” but the reader soon hears that not all is cheery here:
I learned early past every harbor
there is a line in the horizon,
a final swell, a last door you can’t open.
Dare to lift trash can lids in paradise.
Peer under dead palm branches
for body parts you’ve left behind.”
And it’s this “left behind” that is a major theme, captured first in the book’s title (which was the name of her father’s junk yard — “my mother, an English major, named it — “) and carried as the abandonment and survival which mark these poems.
In addition to parental abandonment, which is central to the book:
After my mother died, [my father] disappeared.
We became each other’s refuse,
egg-shell reminders of a former life.
Like gulls, those unwelcome picnic guests,
we circled each other…
there is also her grandfather’s casting off his Jewish identity:
Blonde, blue-eyed, impeccable English,
he packed his prayer shawl and yarmulke,
changed his last name,
dressed in “Episcopalian clothes:”
white shirt, tie, black shoes.
Additionally seen are “old men playing cards” on the Santa Monica boardwalk by the beach, men who “escaped the Czar, Stalin, Hitler/and have come as far west as they could go.”
And, early in the book, when doctors first began to use ether,
The doctor glanced at his medical license
framed on the wall behind him,
said he was afraid to use ether.
her mother’s sister dies during a medical procedure: “It happened fast. Ether, a busy housewife,/pulled down the shades.”
What, and who, has been left behind (as well as the feeling of being left behind) is one of the central motifs of this collection of poems.
But there is also salvage, and survival. Here is one example, and one of my favorite poems from the book:
Three days after my mother died,
her hollyhocks tumbled down
under their own weight. My father disappeared.
I had eaten the last
of her meatloaf wrapped in wax paper.
She had waved me out of her kitchen.
“No need to learn to cook.
You’ll be a professor.” She ground her own meat,
the red strings wriggling like worms.
Though I only had my learner’s permit,
I drove her old PLYMOUTH to the store.
There were whole aisles in SAFEWAY
she never went down. That first day I bought
BIRD’S EYE frozen broccoli,
macaroni and cheese. The mothers
of my friends told their daughters,
“Stay away from her. Who knows
what’s going on in that house?
Parties. Boys.” There were no parties.
No boys. Nights, I would call Time
to her a lady say it was three-oh-three.
I made JELLO and SWANSON’S turkey dinners.
I asked the gym teacher, perky Miss Butler,
a woman whom a month before I would never
have talked to, about salads. Miss Butler
coached the girls’ marching drill team.
She told me she had polio as a child.
People could survive all sorts of things.
She said, “Wash the lettuce first.”
I fried hamburger meat, flames jumping
wildly under the iron skillet. A month later,
my father reappeared, moved us to a dingy
apartment across town. Nights, I would sit
in my mother’s car in front of our old house.
The new owner, a gardener, stacked
my mother’s hollyhocks.
I couldn’t see the pale pink, ruby, and yellow
flowers in the dark. But I knew they were there.
(previously published in Contemporary World Poetry)
What impresses me most about Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage is the well-crafted way the book is put together. Not only does this volume of poetry mesh two opposing conditions (disposal and salvage), a long-standing poetic tradition, but also, in her placement of poems, this talented poet links her poems, so there’s a unified bridge (another great tradition in American poetry) by which all the emotional and cultural perspectives bump up against each other. For example, in “Noon under the Orange Trees,” she describes her mother, on her final afternoon, in a set of contrasts:
A California housewife —
blue jeans, hair in curlers
wrapped in a red bandana —
sits under an orange tree
eating a peanut butter sandwich,
reading Harper’s Bazaar,
studying models in LILY ANNE suits
posing on Park Avenue.
In the next poem, “Foretelling,” the grandmother arrives in
… her stylish wool suit, a LILY
ANNE copy, she steps up our stone path
and opens the door
and is told of her daughter’s sudden death. The small detail of the name-brand suits links the poems. (The author uses specific store and brand names to ground many of her poems in time and place.)
This technique is also evident in the ending, and its images, of “Living in a Place Everyone Wants to Visit:”
Breathe in the scent of orange blossoms.
Count as lucky the waves in the sea.
which links to the final lines of the ensuing poem, “Floating:”
The doctor waved my mother in.
White face, head back, Leona was no longer breathing.
The ribbon in her dark hair floated in the breeze of the fan.
Penny Perry’s Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage (Garden Oak Press) is powerful and captivating; her poetry, clear, gracious and graceful. This is a standout book by a splendid poet.
Click here to go to Garden Oak Press.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Arizona recently selected its first poet laureate (Alberto Ríos), making it the 43rd US state with a post of poet or writer laureate. Ríos was the unanimous first choice of an expert panel (which sent three nominations to the governor) after a selection process outlined by a law passed by the Legislature.
Alberto Ríos was born in Nogales, a small border town in southern Arizona, to a Mexican-American father and a British mother (whom the father met as a soldier in World War II and brought back to Arizona). He received his MFA from the University of Arizona (in Tucson) and teaches as a Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University (in the Phoenix area).
Ríos is an award-winning poet, novelist and memoirist. His first book, Whispering to Fool the Wind (Sheep Meadow Press, 1982), was chosen by Donald Justice as winner of the 1981 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart, winner of the 1984 Western States Book Award, was published by Blue Moon Press. He was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award for his Poetry collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body. His memoir about growing up on the US-Mexican border, Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir (University of New Mexico Press, 1999), was chosen for the OneBookAZ reading program in 2009. Ríos also has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
In the 1970s, as part of Poets in the Schools, he traveled all over the state doing workshops in schools and libraries. When his memoir was selected for the OneBookAZ, he again traveled around the state, going back to many of the same places as he’d been to for Poets in the Schools.
In 2002, a public-art project “Words Over Water” was installed in a series of granite tiles around Tempe Town Lake (in Arizona), each tile inscribed with a thought composed by Alberto Ríos and meant to represent the history of the Salt River. These single lines are philosophical aphorisms, often humorous, based on the Hispanic tradition of greguerias. Here are four of my favorite ones:
We have rain but it’s a dry rain.
In the desert, water is the only thing that doesn’t taste like chicken.
A lake is a river that has retired.
A lake is a hoof-print of the mighty water-horse.
But Alberto Ríos is a fine poet. Here are two of his poems:
In the old days of our family
My grandmother was a young woman
Whose hair was as long as the river.
She lived with her sisters on the ranch
La Calera — the Land of the Lime —
And her days were happy.
But her uncle Carlos lived there too,
Carlos whose soul had the edge of a knife.
One day, to teach her to ride a horse,
He made her climb on the fastest one,
Bare-back, and sit there
As he held its face in his arms.
And then he did the unspeakable deed
For which he would always be remembered:
He called for the handsome baby Pirrín
And he placed the child in her arms.
With that picture of a Madonna on horseback
He slapped the shank of the horse’s rear leg.
The horse did what a horse must,
Racing full toward the bright horizon.
But first he ran under the álamo trees
To rid his back of this unfair weight:
This woman full of tears
And this baby full of love.
When they reached the tress and went under,
Her hair, which had trailed her,
Equal in its magnificence to the tail of the horse,
That hair rose up and flew into the branches
As if it were a thousand arms,
All of them trying to save her.
The horse ran off and left her,
The baby still in her arms,
The two of them hanging from her hair.
The baby looked only at her
And did not cry, so steady was her cradle.
Her sisters came running to save them.
But the hair would not let go.
From its fear it held on and had to be cut,
All of it, from her head.
From that day on, my grandmother
Wore her hair short, like a scream,
But it was long like a river in her sleep.
(published in The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, Copper Canyon Press, 2002)
THE PURPOSE OF ALTAR BOYS
Tonio told me at catechism
the big part of the eye
admits good, and the little
black part is for seeing
evil — his mother told him
who was a widow and so
an authority on such things.
That’s why at night
the black part gets bigger.
That’s why kids can’t go out
at night, and at night
girls take off their clothes
and walk around their
bedrooms or jump on their
beds or wear only sandals
and stand in their windows.
I was the altar boy
who knew about these things,
whose mission on some Sundays
was to remind people of
the night before as they
knelt for Holy Communion.
To keep Christ from falling
I held the metal plate
under chins, while on the thick
red carpet of the altar
I dragged my feet
and waited for the precise
moment: plate to chin
I delivered without expression
the Holy Electric Shock,
the kind that produces
a really large swallowing
and makes people think.
I thought of it as justice.
But on other Sundays the fire
in my eyes was different,
my mission somehow changed.
I would hold the metal plate
a little too hard
against those certain same
nervous chins, and I
I would look
with authority down
the tops of white dresses.
(published in The Morrow Anthology of Younger
American Poets, 1985)
Click to read an interview of Alberto Rios.
Click to see video and hear Alberto Rios.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
I saw a wonderful exhibit on William Butler Yeats, at the National Library of Ireland, when I was there recently. There were display cases containing drafts of his poems, letters, photographs, gifts from others that became subjects of poems, photos of various male and female friends, playbills and books. There were areas where videos played (one on his interest in the occult, another on Yeats and the women in his life, on the Irish Literary Theatre, and one as an introduction). One area had a place to sit and listen to an audio presentation of his poetry and a screen on which was projected the particular poem being read. It was a delightful exhibit — and I didn’t have enough time to see it thoroughly.
But I grabbed the brochure for YEATS: The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats, as the exhibit is titled. On the back of the brochure is printed
Explore our Yeats online exhibition
So when I returned home, I checked out the website and — WOWY-ZOWY! — it’s just like being at the exhibit in Ireland.
After clicking and getting into the site, there’s a map of the exhibit at the bottom right of the screen. You can click an area and — whoosh — you’re in the area, in front of a display case or video screen. Click on an object in the display case and a close-up with description appears. (I clicked on a lapis-lazuli carving that was hard to see up close in the actual exhibit and online I was able to see it in detail and with views from all sides.) Click on a video screen and see the video.
Click her to go to the exhibit.
This is an amazing exhibit — and all at your fingertips. I’m not certain how long the exhibit will run: I’m presuming, at least, through the end of this year.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Steve McDonald’s poems are always a joy for me to read. He writes about ordinary people — and the everyday things and natural world around them — with open-hearted empathy. His writing is well-crafted, lyrical and, as I said before, a pleasure for the reader.
Steve's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Nimrod, RATTLE, The Crab Creek Review, The Paterson Literary Review, Spillway, Blue Unicorn, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and The Cresset. His work has appeared in Best New Poets 2010. Steve is Professor Emeritus of English and former Dean of Languages and Literature at Palomar College in San Marcos, California.
Of his first book, Where There Was No Pattern (Finishing Line Press), poet Maurya Simon said it “brims with life…McDonald is a poet graced with a deft imagination, a poignant sense of mortality, and true insight into human pathos.”
What I enjoy in Steve’s poems is his humility and humanity, and how he’s able to transform these into avenues for grace. For example, he’s a regular guy who has to mow his own lawn — but, as a poet, finds a way to uplift the chore into moments of spiritual insight (from a poem in his first book).
His new book, House of Mirrors (Tebot Bach) is now available and already has garnered kudos from other writers. Judith Pacht, author of Summer Hunger, praises Steve McDonald’s way of “[making] the ordinary extraordinary as he examines nature and ourselves in unflinching detail. In House of Mirrors, we move from the wonder of a spider and its intricate web to the machinations of the human heart…These are elegant poems — moving and redemptive.” Dorianne Laux, author of The Book of Men, lauds Steve’s new book’s “attention to language and empathy for its subject matter, the human in all their many guises.” Ellen Bass and Joseph Millar, distinguished poets, concur and add more praise.
Steve is a superb craftsman. He has an excellent sense of when and how to use poetic techniques to enrich and expand his poems. I especially like, in “Rain” from his new book, House of Mirrors, how he furthers a reader’s sense of the rural landscape (besides using “fields” and “wet soil, bladed tillers and chisel plows” — what you’d expect in the country) by including farming images as part of his description of an elementary school: “the corn-silk yellow of caution lights,/ a crop of children,/…parents hovering like harvest moons.”
For information about his new book and to order a signed copy, click here
Here are three of Steve's poems.
by Steve McDonald
No sidewalk, just the garbled lyrics
of a muddy path, just rain humming
I will wash the brown earth,
and a mother, perhaps twenty-five,
and a son, perhaps seven.
She is holding his hand, urging him
past fields darkening into thunder,
anchored in folds of wet
soil, bladed tillers and chisel plows
crammed into long low sheds.
In the distance
the corn-silk yellow of caution lights,
a crop of children,
an elementary school,
parents hovering like harvest moons.
It rains harder.
Hoods up, heads down,
mother and son
dodge sink-holes of mud-
filled puddles. A roadside flower stand
gathers its bouquets—carnation and daisy,
rose and mum—buttons its coat.
from rusty gutters.
Mother and son pass
bicycles tangled like razor wire,
a broken fence, a grocery—migrants
huddled against the weather,
into damp pockets, stories rising
like steam from wet earth.
The rain says pour.
Crates of oranges,
flats of strawberries, lean in,
by Steve McDonald
When limestone faces
wear rivers of cracks,
and frozen grins
create only questions,
of a parent,
series of strokes
left lips uncertain:
the legacy, a hieroglyphic
of shattered Rosetta stone,
the chance for communion
with the one who is gone,
gone. Just a bed,
a shroud of sand piling
upon a craggy face,
a sheet of wind sliding
over the body like a lover,
silent yet ready
with the riddle,
the one it will carve
by Steve McDonald
Once, when a boy, I awoke alone
on the sun-baked boulders at the edge
of the canyon falls to find a snake,
green and yellow, curled on the rock
next to me, asleep, it seemed, or nearly so,
although its eyes were open, or perhaps
I was asleep and dreaming, for I did not move,
just gazed through eyes that seemed to have opened
in a way they had not opened before,
the snake and I waiting and watching
as the steady elegy of the waterfall
spilled into the sun-filled pool. And then,
it seemed, I awoke again to find myself
at the edge of the off ramp, waiting
for the light to change, waiting to turn
into the coffee shop for a cup of green tea
and a pastry to ease the burden
of the long drive home, and as I waited
and watched, a yellow motorcycle swung
like a scythe from one lane to the next,
then pulled to a stop in front of me,
and the rider, a boy in a red jacket,
rested his foot on the earth, one lover
leaning into another, then bent at the waist
as if to embrace his bike, the full moon
of his helmet rising above the curve
of his jacket, and emblazoned
on his helmet were scriptures of death,
one bone-white skull after another
so that when he surveyed the road
to his right and then to his left
all I could see were rotating skulls,
empty eye sockets, dark nasal cavities,
and I wondered why one would enwreathe
his head with death, what need that might fill,
and then I thought of the snake, its gaze
upon my gaze, and the pool, and the fall
of the water, and my own awakening,
and my eyes opened again to this boy,
the skulls adorning his head my invitation,
it seemed, to quicken him with imagining,
ensoul him with wondering, as together
we waited to spill into the pool of evening.