Reviewed January 18, 2013 by Daniel Moysaenko.
Cleveland State University Poetry Center has been publishing so many adventurous poets it’s hard to keep up. With this roundup review, I hoped to mimic the calculated frenzy with which I’ve pored over their recent titles and to bring together a sampling of the most daring poetry published in recent years.
Jon Woodward’s Uncanny Valley calls the reader to an aesthetic realm of pattern and mystical frustration of narrative. The book is not a stutterer’s repetition for the sake of itself or just sound. Instead, it unpacks a shadowy inscape, as in the opening lines, “Huge dragonflies aim at your face. / Hope dwells eternally there,” repeating the second line in a ripple that opens the clause in hypnotic systems of meaning, not detachment. Uncanny Valley partakes in the workings of galaxies, atoms, and flowers through a conversational Fibonacci sequence of thought and diction:
I’ve written elsewhere about crystal structure.
I’ve written elsewhere about flower structure
and caution, and I’ve written on basic bravery
in flower structures. I’ve written in confusion
Through echo, these poems orbit obfuscation, new clarity, and thought processes bound by language. I feel I’m listening to a scientist of the Dark Ages explain our biological lives as poetry. Woodward strives to illuminate, in defiance of “first-person pronouns / Snuck through the gate in a false horse.” Narratives assemble with the reader’s help, as though eavesdropping on a serious talk between old theater performers. The title poem tells of seven uprooted trees landing on the highway and causing seven accidents. Through the eyes of some anachronistic observer or brain-damaged victim, the narrative is continually reformed, the diction clipped: “The desert was hot all directions,” the speaker begins, “The breaffast was nourishing paste / The sun was considered an ancient and important symbol,” but “They began to complain of maladies / | My heart only absorfs wax sun one said and / | My heart only absorfs wax sun one said and.” The story becomes an intoxicating prophesy. And bizarre spellings, such as “enton very like that, / a separay mmm” overheard half-awake and meant to be recited “six times or so,” are loci of mystery braided into being and gradually unveiled. The poems expect similar flexibility in the reader. (“Everything is a receptive sensor.”) And Woodward writes in total unconcealment so subject, object, and thought enter one another repeatedly:
My captor sang inside my voice
And inside his I crawled and broke
and break the bloodstream, hang the raindrops,
round, and in between us, spoke
the turning of audiotape inside-out,
a sandstone canyon a person squeezes
down, into, out of the sunshine. . . .
To experience this world without this world and listen to the cadence of a thrilling voice, pick up this book. It’s so affecting you’ll be in a trance for days.
With its mostly short poems and series separated into compact units, Emily Kendal Frey’s The Grief Performance strikes me as a book of parables told by a witch. It is neither wholly brooding nor flippant but has an eerie facility at revealing big, unmanageable truths as small and fragile. In “Hasp,” I return to the title after reading the poem’s end:
My job was to stand
in the back
of the truck
To tamp down the black
bark with my hands
In the sun
my hips I was
Why did you leave
Frey checks cleverness in the service of real feeling. The speaker’s body—like other people or objects in the book—becomes a ghost to share experience: “I’m dead / as long as I’m in // the room with you.” Generality of location and person allows the poems to apply, like folk tales, across eras without surrendering the specificity that crawls under my skin and refuses to leave. “A woman / walking by the general store tripped on a stone / that reminded her of her mother’s face,” she writes, “It was all / very textured, like a mask that makes your face sweat.” Both act and thought are so tactile it aches. And the book’s unrelenting tenderness and pursuit after every sort of wakefulness stuns, as in one of six poems titled “The End”:
of blueberry bushes
Oh the soft
to burn me in
Address melts into narrative or surreal landscape or epigrammatic reworking. “Meditation on a Meditation of Frost” starts, “Affection is a dumb dog” and continues, “Whoever said that / didn’t own / me, / was not / my master.” Frey dips the reader into a fully realized way of seeing. “When I met you we were the shape of salt shakers. I married my dad and threw him in the ocean. I dragged him along the bottom as he filled with salt,” one poem begins. It’s a story we are terrified to tell, but Frey leads the reader in, wide-eyed and dazed. “My left eye was swollen shut this morning. / I can’t feel anything for the town. / That’s my memory of Enterprise, Alabama,” she writes, reinforcing my sense of an oracle who constructs a reality truer than anything we allow ourselves to see. It’s a privilege to read her.
As if just broken out of a pen, Samuel Amadon’s second full-length, The Hartford Book, thrashes and howls and sits very still. The poems roll breathlessly toward a paradoxical affection and desperation to be rid of Hartford, the speaker’s hometown. Through repeated recollection of his and others’ antics—a four-month bender, smoking maple leaves dipped in formaldehyde, sleeping next to a box of dog ashes—the speaker grapples with the strange allure of destruction and impossibility of willed change:
. . . I don’t think
there’s been a day lately where
I didn’t wake up bursting
with piss & I’m pretty sure that like
most everything that is going to
stay the same except
for all the things that have
gone & are going to stay missing.
To characterize The Hartford Book by its drug-soaked narratives, frank vernacular, and eponymous Connecticut city would be to oversimplify and underestimate Amadon’s work. Syntax and line breaks trickle the narrative meditations speedily toward a frenzy similar to rough blues or punk songs polished over years. They are poems of attachment and confused humanity, not boastful, messed-up stories. The speaker reminisces about a friend:
I hope Brass will walk out of the crowd
in the purple club light. He doesn’t
come to places like this & he can’t
come back to Hartford but he was
funny & I remember some
of the things he said like I’m going
outside for a minute where we watched
him for an hour shaking
in the cold by the high metal fence
in our backyard waiting there
for something or
someone who wasn’t going to come.
Desperation gives way to a resignation almost like persistence. Brass died once, the speaker recalls, “because he’s a diabetic & drank too much / & when the EMT brought / him back he punched the guy in the face // & kept drinking & hasn’t died again.” Although one may temporarily move, no one leaves Hartford, including the speaker who explains, “It’s easier to say / yes so I say it.” Amadon locates the difficulty of imperfection, our partial disdain and undeniable obsession with it. As much as The Hartford Book may seem like a purge or love songs, it’s both—anchoring Amadon and the reader in a state of delicious hell, its damaged inhabitants being the only people we could imagine befriending. What a thrill to be told the truth about ourselves and, in the process, have such an electrifying poet for company. Amadon’s second book is a cause for celebration.
S.E. Smith’s I Live in a Hut—winner of the 2011 CSUPC First Book Prize—is part lyric, part whimsy, part dismay, and part idiosyncrasy that ushers her poems through corralled emotion. From part one through three (Parties, Beauty, and Devastation), litany such as “Hello,” “My,” “Dear,” and “too bad” rocks me into reassuring monologue, though “another uncle dies while I sit here / thinking about hornets.” The reoccurrence of a radio’s blue light, hills like breasts, and flambéing submerges me in the speaker’s everyday while forming a barrier of comfort against uncertainty. The speaker dances in each poem, attempting to seize and then strip difficult moments that crowd her. “Dear damaged egrets,” she begins, describing their feathers, bleached “so you can fit in with // the teenaged girls who are blonder / than egrets, and more bold.” This delicate confrontation fuels Smith’s best poems. She wraps the grand and minute around each other with ease, knowing them to be temporary, “anxious // for this beautiful moment to end.” And despite her injection of compassion and buoyancy into a life of detachment—
If god wanted us to be strangers, why would he place us
next to each other in the movie theater and make us think
our knees are touching when they’re really a few inches
—the speaker must occasionally wrestle her situation. “Whatever else I remember,” she admits, “is impeached by my desire to make something of it,” something a bit tolerable. Distress bumps against the lyrical and surreal, and cushioned, leaves an internal bruise. In an archaic tone found in several of the book’s poems, Smith frames the disconcerting by telescoping out:
. . . And when
we enter the restaurant, let us not
pretend we are looking everywhere
for our dates. And when our dates
are not there let us order the coffee
of dignity and drink it slowly. It is
good, this coffee. Let us bed down
with the pony of darkness, let us
totally overwhelm it with apples. . . .
I Live in a Hut squats in a neighbor’s house and redecorates with the fantastical. Even when quagmired, Smith is unpanicked and sings, “My truth and I will stay behind / and nuzzle this scrap of flannel. / It’s our favorite pastime.” Conjuring flame-retardant mountains, talking bears, and towns lost in a dimension not unlike our own, she unwraps and relays tales so ghostly, exuberant, and thoughtful that I'm taken aback. And she grins with pleasure, as do I.
The poems of Sandra Simonds’s Mother Was a Tragic Girl don’t just rattle across the page like firecrackers full of paternity tests and William Blake. They also pry, unflagging, unblinking. Mother Was a Tragic Girl rushes after itself naked, ecstatic in sound and story, knowing that to be abashed is to get nowhere. The speaker strings explosive agency and erosive responsibility together, disclosing,
. . . I beautified
the displaced space around my
form the way a mare bends
the landscape. I wore less
clothes, allowed my breasts
a bit of sunlight and then I nursed
my child in public. It was like my body
was one big eye, opening and shutting.
Husband and friends eventually withdraw, one leaving a note saying, “‘please return my DVD of Beaches / and those Onesies I gave / you. I’m pregnant again’.” People slip into consequence throughout the book—accidents or deepening obligations I can’t look away from. “Ah Little Ezekiel, / I wasn’t born a Jewish mother / for nothing,” Simonds writes, invoking the joint absence and inauguration within birth and motherhood. Many poems twist across the page, mimicking the creative DNA strand or a tower collapsing. In an anecdote about French physicist Bernard Brunhes, fecund turns ominous:
. . . His parents’ life
of seed-gathering, tool-sharpening,
and reproduction is common
in generalized endotherms.
Humans aren’t cheetahs,
you know—they don’t run
to the ground.
And these narratives aren’t harmless, as “Wife begins to wonder: / Now, am I cheating on uh oh Cashier, Husband or Pediatrician?” The speaker grapples with her affairs and marriage, attempting with tongue-in-cheek humor to escape worry. However, her situation’s gravity is a perpetual undercurrent. With tenderness, anger, aplomb, recklessness, and glee, Mother Was a Tragic Girl sails through the speaker’s rapture and distress as if her brain were Jell-O, yielding and then snapping back. The language is just as deft in its sharp monosyllables: “I’ll tell you to crush pale green flowers with white stone / to combat flying venom, elfshot, / and because I’m the healer I must cut tendons.” By saying her stories “are drafts // of bigger lies, / so I’m giving up,” I hope she means her next narratives will be even more tremendous and provocative than conceiving her son “fifty / feet off the Trail of / Broken Ankles,” covered in ants. Because Simonds’s ruthless, gentle pursuit of herself is an invigorating ride.
Winner of CSUPC’s 2011 Open Book Competition, Zach Savich’s The Firestorm has engulfed me for weeks in a silky plume. Despite highly polished cadence and distilled diction, like opening a tiny clock face, Savich’s poems deliver a deep shock. “The Eye Is the Sexiest Thing to Look At” marries domestic image and a larger kaleidoscope of process and decay, beginning,
I’ve dismantled the ladder and nailed its scraps
directly to an elm. This is how the first swimmers
must have felt: I dreamed you swam out past
the rocks, and swam out
and continuing, “In the silent film, we measure the volume / of a flowerpot’s crash by how many pieces it breaks into.” Throughout the book, Savich borrows from film. In cinematic tone, “A man running from firefighters turns and we see / half of his face is bloody,” the speaker offers a point of entry with no certain end. The Firestorm, as the title indicates, creates its own weather, different moods clinging to varying forms: long-lined, tripleted, block, indented, and prose poems. The forms, often separated into different sections, are in dialogue. With calm remove—“As you stood / in a doorway near a sea. / Lissome, in dissembling sheets” and “Your room occurring to me / as snow does to a mountain”—one poem refreshingly falls away to a more conversational one:
clouds move like a pulled plug or hospital
gown / I take it in like the formerly pregnant
girl tells her dressmaker to / boyfriend in
his car out back / his sweater the color of river
film / in this film they dub even the screams
Savich’s verse is deceptively composed and cerebral to the point of grandeur; but that hovers above as the ground roils. “When you live alone, all the pears go ripe at once,” the speaker states bluntly. Against image precision and smooth music (“Ice slides from a slant sloughing / tracks to the shingles, snow atop / stopped cars like siren bars”), Savich’s metaphor and insight flash brighter. After The Firestorm, choosing to write with either provocation or comfort, street-smarts or class is insufficient. Zach Savich has knocked down those walls and invited us into one giant, exhilarating room.