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Foreword Magazine Full Review

Pure Poetry: For These Poets, the Political Is Personal, and Vice Versa
by Camille-Yvette Welsch

In 1997, then Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky asked Americans to send him their favorite poems, accompanied by a letter explaining their attachment to it. During the following year, 18,000 people wrote in. That’s a pretty anemic response compared with, say, the 24 million viewers who voted in the final episode of last year’s American Idol competition. But consider this—those poetry fans did more than just call or click. Each took the time to think about a poem, sit down and write a letter about it, and mail it in. Also consider the fact that writers—widely considered poetry’s core audience—were asked not to participate. The people who did respond represented all age groups, income brackets, and (non-writing) occupations. So it may have been a small group, but it was varied, and enthusiastic. The one characteristic the participants shared was a passion for poetry, or at the very least, for one poem. That same passion—for ideas, for emotion, for meaning, for words—is what the poems in these collections are all about.

George Bilgere, author of two books of poetry and winner of the 2001 Akron Poetry Prize, explores his divorce and his childhood with disarming, though sometimes vicious, humor, in The Good Kiss. “What I Want” is a litany of desire. He wants world peace and to see his mother again. He also “would like for [my] ex-wife to get leprosy, / Her beauty falling away in little chunks.” Largely narrative, his poems begin with an image, precise in its details, then layered with meaning, “Ike: a sharp, crew-cut syllable / in which an entire era was compressed / with the terrific density of a star’s core, a sound as open and friendly / as Hopalong Cassidy’s wink.” By the end of each poem, a garden of associations has bloomed.

Also reinforcing its messages with humor is a new collection by Scott Poole, Hiding From Salesmen. The poems, funny and strange in tone, are illustrated with intriguing black-and-white sketches. The poet, Associate Director of Eastern Washington University Press, treats a poem like a good joke: it’s all about the delivery. If a reader agrees to follow the giraffe hiding quietly from salesmen, the champagne and nudity at the MRI, and the loaf of bread in crisis, then the payoff is laughs and fresh insight into human nature. His poem, “Turkey In Phoenix,” reads, “A man lures a turkey into his Subaru / and rolls up the windows. / It’s Phoenix—the day before Thanksgiving. / Sweat is already forming on the windshield. / His family is coming. Maybe he could get away / in his little car of hope / if the turkey wasn’t already in there.”

A more somber strain runs through At the Threshold of Memory, a collection by Marjorie Agosín. A Chilean Jew, Agosin writes as bearer of witness for a vast community of victims, from Jews killed in the Holocaust to her disappeared Latin American compatriots. This edition places, side by side, the original Spanish versions with their translations. The poet also provides an informative introduction and a bibliography. Though the collection uses no fewer than seven translators, Agosín’s voice comes through with remarkable consistency. In “My Country,” she protests: “And you / ravaged / open wounded / are aglow / a lighthouse in / the southern seas. // As a woman I have no country / only stones and rivers, an illusion / without citadels.”

As in Agosin’s poems, the work of Shanghai-born novelist, scholar, and poet, Wang Ping is greatly influenced by national history, gender, and culture. In The Magic Whip, she writes of life straddling two cultures, paying particular attention to the place of women and children in America and China. Cultural signifiers like hair, foot binding, and rice weave through the narratives, unencumbered by time and space as ancient Chinese rituals co-exist with the original brutal legend of the Little Mermaid and the latter-day effects of the misogynistic ideas espoused by both societies. For this poet, West is as guilty as East. She looks without flinching at the complicit role women play in subjugating each other. As a mother breaks the bones of her daughter’s feet; she says to the girl, “legs still like Mount Tai feet light like dragon flies I know it hurts burning like hell but bear it in silence our secret weapon.”

In Shooting Script, William Tremblay, author of six books of poetry, also writes about politics, this time from a sixty-year distance, focusing his poetic eye on the lives of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky, and the artists, movie stars, and political activists who surrounded them in the thirties. Tremblay moves fluidly between characters and their motivations, politics, desires. He incarnates Kahlo through lush descriptions of her paintings, “In the retablo she sprawls, / naked, her pubic hair scrolled piano wire, the stillborn / she bore Diego orbiting the Detroit Ford factory / in a planetary system with her pelvis, / an orchid, hooked surgical tools, the painting a collision / between her suffering and her instinct for form.” Tremblay’s book reinvigorates the poetic epic, and this Mexico becomes its own Garden of Eden.

Lisa Steinman approaches history differently—by studying the way it is expressed in words. The poems in Carslaw’s Sequences, Steinman’s fifth collection, are reserved, intellectual, and curious. Conversation and the vagaries of language provide a starting point for many of the ruminations here. Words carry with them the stain of their speakers; Steinman tries to read the prints left behind, the connotations of phrases like, “Topless-plus,” or “Interjections and Conjunctions at Sunset,” or the inanities of a catalogue blurb. Part anthropologist, part linguist, Steinman imagines backstory for excerpted conversation, for the speaker and the origin of the words. She writes, “What failure / in the imagination of day-to-day, / the hyphens always more interesting / than the nouns they cement.”

Srikanth Reddy’s first book, Facts for Visitors, goes even further into the mysteries of language. This collection heralds the arrival of a challenging, confident, intellectual poet, the kind feared in middle schools the world over, but welcomed by serious poetry fans. Post-modern Reddy revises Dante’s circles of Hell, and plays with the sonnet and the prose poem in intriguing ways. Key to Reddy’s appeal are his eclectic references, from Thoreau to St. Augustine, and the way he makes them seem new, to suit nebulous markers like “present,” “here,” and “past,” the meanings of which he chases throughout the volume. The issues of time, place, and meaning never resolve themselves. His final poem, “Corruption II,” simply presses readers to further thought: “Lately, I have taken an interest in words like ‘here.’ Here was a chapel, for instance. Here is a footprint filling with rain. Here might be enough. Could not the same be said of elsewhere? Yes, I suppose. But I know precious little of elsewhere.”

In contrast, Barry Dempster grounds his poems in the specifics of people, animals, and the landscape. After being short-listed in 1982 for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, Dempster has published seven books of poems, the best of which are collected in The Words Wanting Out. Dempster’s characters speak the unexpected. What if, one asks, horses could fly? “Think of all the boys falling /into the impossible. Think / of creatures with steaming eyes / and smoking manes, of flames searing across the sky, escaping logic.” Another poem quotes a mother: “I wouldn’t want to have given birth / to Christ, she said. And I imagined / the fierceness of angels, the will of / wind, an embryo eating up / all the hope and desire in her body.” The poet moves easily between pop culture, religion, and the Canadian landscape, each time offering something startling and new, as in “Lucky Pigs,” in which the epigraph reads, “a pig’s orgasm lasts thirty minutes.” Dempster observes, “Ten minutes and his ears are undulating, / his eyeballs squirming in their sockets. / He isn’t really a pig anymore, / but an avalanche.”

Try getting that image out of your mind. But then, pigs in ecstasy make a fitting metaphor for what the finest poems in these collections do: express a passionate, deeply felt response, that, when you encounter it, is impossible to ignore.
-Camille-Yvette Welsch, ForeWord Magazine