Tuesday, August 16, 2022

hell of birds

I went on my first formal bird walk this year, though I enjoy birds in my own back yard and often spot herons and swans at local ponds and owls and hawks on road trips. hell of birds is no bird walk. It is its own thing altogether! A compelling chapbook by Kimberly Povloski (Driftwood Press, 2019) with compelling cover art by Alexander Landerman, that folds over onto the back cover, too. Interestingly, the book's title comes from another work of art, Hölle der Vögel, by Max Beckmann.

The gray swirl of birds in Landerman's cover reminds me of a phrase I love in one of Povloski's poems: "dark pearl of weather." Then a sad, moody poem called "pearl" begins, "The summer your parents planted a wisteria tree it died." Then a coincidence, a short poem called "painted bunting" reminds me of Thoreau burning down the forest in O'Nights.

     i could set fire
     to these fields

     i could burn

The book is about "bird gods" as much as birds, about saints and suffering. It ends with an interview with the poet about subject matter and process. I love her answer to the first question, about birds: "They exist and thrive in human-engineered environments--in the cities and suburbs that have destroyed their natural habitats." That's something I learned on my first bird walk! How my own community is actually a haven for birds that would otherwise be displaced. Povloski goes on, "That adaptability, that cunning, seems almost elemental. Birds-as-animal embody an extant wilderness in our daily lives. I think that's what makes birds-as-symbol so provocative."

Yet another wonderful find in the Sealey Challenge this August!

Monday, August 15, 2022

Rowing Inland

When I opened the book Rowing Inland, by Jim Daniels (Wayne State University Press, 2017) to the table of contents and saw a poem titled "Wishbone," I knew it was the book for today, following yesterday's The Wishbone Dress. And there's the first coincidence!

This is part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series, and I was eager to encounter some Pure Michigan (Yes, Michigan!--calling on various tourism slogans here...) as our family had annually spent a week together in Michigan for many summers, right up until this one, when we went to Nashville, TN (or just outside it, with redheaded woodpeckers, I am happy to report!), but this is not tourist Michigan. It is lived Michigan, with car factories, trailer parks, economic decline, smoking and drinking, streetlights (and streetlights out), and fireworks going off long past the 4th of July. The title poem and others have nostalgia in them, for lost childhood (and childhood friends), but it's a clear-eyed book, too, hard-hitting at times, with humor, light and dark.

In "Wishbone," we see the mother's windowsills with "potted violets" in tender light. "My mother dried wishbones on those sills." That happened at my house, too. "It was she who decided they were dry enough / to break. She never wished herself." My mother always gave the wishbones to her children. "If you find my father / in this picture, please let me know." Now there's a particular sadness. His father worked nonstop in the factories...and left unfinished projects in the house, went on one vacation, or went fishing (that was not fishing).

Yes, I found August: "Outside, August waits." That's in a poem with no day job. And I also found Labor Day, waiting just around the corner. And August again in that same poem, "Summer Weight, Labor Day":

     Anticipation is a dog that's already
     been kicked. Sad September.
     If only you could go back
     to school and do it right this time,
     or merely better.

     Pencils sharpened by August heat.

The poem continues with "Lawn mowers on the prowl," and that reminded me to tell my husband, after his most recent mow, that already the first yellow leaves of the sweet gum were landing. And then, in the last stanza, the word "Zoom" leapt out in its current resonance before receding into the past and fading summer:

     Zoom in on you sprawled on your porch
     issuing lame challenges to insects and sunshine
     to linger. Over a warm beer, you dream
     of the perfect cool hat that could've
     changed your life.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

The Wishbone Dress

In a terrible and ironic way, The Wishbone Dress, by Cassandra J. Bruner, is, again, the perfect book to read on a Sunday, given the presence of biblical quotations and a dubious pastor within. The Wishbone Dress, published by Bull City Press, was the winner of the 2019 Frost Place Chapbook Competition, and it is a stunning book, just like its excellent cover by Jennifer Thoreson, Flora 1, from her Flora series. My husband, a painter, loves this cover, seeing the cross in it. I also love the author photo, her hair, her choker, which, one of the poems tells me, can mask the Adam's apple.

That inner narrative, of a boy named Reid, wracked by medical problems in his youth, who transforms into a woman, is told with the perfect mix of a mother's empathy and confusion in the poem, "Demeter: The Poem As My Mother." Taking on her mother's voice, the poet/speaker, I am guessing, better understands her mother and, perhaps, herself. That the poet has chosen the name Cassandra 1) thrills me, as I identify with Cassandra, too! 2) is powerful and poignant, as the ekphrastic poem "Object Lessons: After Solomon J. Solomon's Ajax and Cassandra" shows us that painting. (Here, shown via photographic reproduction thanks to Wikipedia.) This poem, partly about the rape of Cassandra by Ajax in mythology, also tells the story of the rape of a girl in a parking lot--a story told by the dubious pastor:

     The preacher stresses this point
          as he reads newsclippings to rows
               of children. Their silence thick as gauze
          over a slit eye. A creature bent toward

     her destruction
he calls her. Just as Solomon
          paints Cassandra--straining over Ajax
               toward Athena's altar, rainbowed pinions
          of light pressing her against her assailant.

The preacher's "point" was to blame the victim with a detail of what she had been doing the moment before...as if to provoke/deserve the attack. We all know this old story, alas. And how powerful women are called witches, and burned. In "Cora, Bound to the Tree, Delivers Her Testimony," Cora (the Witch) says:

          ahead. Puncture my ankles with an iron rod & call them

     pillars of onyx when they refuse to shatter. Watch my
          hair flash into steel ribbons under your blades.
     Make a profane miracle of me---

It's a beautiful and heartrending book. From "Of the Night":

     We will kneel, unfurling
     our perfumed nests of hair in offering.        

Those who have been reading along in the blog re: Sealey Challenge connections will recognize the blue coincidence of "blue ribbons of humiliation" in "Poem of My Shame." Along with myth and the Bible, there is also Nature--birds and prairie, heron and milkweed. From "Apologia":

                                        Somewhere a goshawk
     descends & a pair of women

     dress themselves with wishbones in separate

In my separate room, reading of another woman's separate experience, I am connected, I am bound, I am wishing...       

Saturday, August 13, 2022


The wonderful title for this one, O'Nights, by Cecily Parks (Alice James Books, 2015), comes from a bit of dialogue quoted in Henry David Thoreau's journal, a Goodwin speaking, saying, after a bit of age guessing, re: Emerson vs Thoreau, "But he has not been out o'nights as much as you have." On this gorgeous, breezy summer day, I was outside for most of it, and so was this book, and, I gather, so was the poet, while writing it! Are these eco-poems? Nature poems? Or "postpastoral" poems, as in the poem actually titled "Postpastoral"? 

     I borrowed an axe
     so heavy I had to drag it
     through the woods.

This stanza from it reminds me of the movie we watched last night, Land, a Robin Wright project, recommended by a co-worker (a recommendation I heartily pass along to you!), even though the axe in the movie mostly stayed closer to home...in the wild.

I love learning stuff in poems, and, in "When I Was Thoreau at Night," I learned that "Peregrine," a human as well as falcon name, means "wanderer." In that same poem:

                                                  Oh, yes,
     I wanted the world to be wild again. I believed

     I might hold weather in my hands
     and mend it.

That, and the opening poem, "Hurricane Song," make me think that this is a book in tune with and in defense of the environment.

Now let me tell you about the random coincidii and the many mentions of the moon! (Sun & Moon is the theme of the upcoming open mic at the public library, so the moon is on my mind, as is the caveat against the moon in poems, which always makes me so glad to find the moon there!!) The moon:

     the moon said, You dream me (p. 3)

     low-slung moons (p. 9)

     the street's mechanical moon (p. 53)

     Some nights I beg the moon / to swerve and hit me. (p. 66)

The random coincidii:

     "I believe it's all this pollen that dizzies me." (It was a high-pollen count day in central Illinois today!)

     Just yesterday I heard the first/only (?) ice cream truck in the neighborhood, and here's a poem titled "Girls Ride Shotgun in the Ice Cream Truck."

     Lots of blue in "Blue Oat Grass Epithalamium" (as is some previous books!)

     I just read (outdoors!) in the current issue of Vanity Fair a reference to Virginia Woolf in the article about Joan Didion and Eve Babitz, and here in a Note at the end (p. 77), referring to the title of a particular poem (p. 5), "The Swallow Dips Her Wings in Midnight Pools," is, of course, Virginia Woolf!

     The book is published by Alice James Books, and there is a poem titled "Alice James" and a Note about William James. Er, more than coincidence?!

     In a way, the poem "Pilgrim" confirmed my connection to the movie, Land:

     Then I'm going to tell him how I lived
     in the wild: I ran out of electricity
     one autumn and camped outside,
     sleeping by a stump whose rot
     coincided with my idea of discipline.


                                    When I ran out
     of conversation, I came inside and made amends
     with my home, my socks, the length
     of autumn. I doubted the winter
     so fiercely that my electricity stayed lost,
     I was going to practice being a pilgrim forever.
     I was going to worship my head lamp
     until its battery ran out. I thought better.

I enjoyed this book. I did not know that Thoreau set fire to the forest. Yikes! I love how, in "I Have Set Fire to the Forest," and other poems, she wears a dress on her walks in nature:

                                                        If I were
     Thoreau, Spring would make me want

     to destroy something.

LOVE that stanza break! And how the poem is quietly, insistently, erotic:

                                       Like the pussy willows
     I know I'll bloom eventually
     and when I do, people will want to touch me.


Friday, August 12, 2022

Hard Damage

This one had poem after poem of gripping intensity and experience unlike my own, so I read it as if looking into a new world. Hard Damage by Aria Aber, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and the Whiting Award (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). But it is my world--America with its covert actions elsewhere in the world (once her parents' homeland) and full of privilege (of which she and I both partake). And it isn't my world: it is refugee camp, Afghanistan left behind, and languages I don't know but deeply appreciate, as explored in these poems.

Cover image: Moa, 1911, Leopold Museum, Vienna.

Here in Hard Damage I find grenades compared to turtles and also "grenade" connected to pomegranate in etymology:

                        Grenade, its shape
     so much like the fruit they named it after,
     pomegranate, from Latin pomum granatum
     (apple with many seeds), something
     I can harvest and pick from a tree--
     a comfortable taste in my mouth, and yes,
     fruit of the dead, or of fertility, depending
     on whose sustenance to listen to.

I find connections, of course, to the other books I've been reading here in August for the Sealey Challenge--for instance, a mention of the month of August itself, in the poem "Foreign Policies," one that moves from and shifts back to the more personal poems in the book to the more political: "August, too, was a mastermind, distracting me / toward your lima bean eyes."

And the color blue: "the blue uncertainty" of "Asylum" in a refugee camp, and "Rilke, blue prince of the lyric I, comes to me often." In "Operation Cyclone," a father, "his voice is blue shards of a dinner plate / atop a compost heap." In another part of that same long poem, a brother-uncle-son, lost, imagined in the section called "Interrogation Chamber": "The blue light censoring his face." And the sentiment that might somehow save us all: "If, despite relentless blue, despite snow, you dared to hold me / and I dared to be held"

Connections to Here, by C.S. Giscombe, in a way, to the idea of "here," as in Aber's poem titled "Here," "We sip Arabic coffee and warm our faces / by the oven, which glares at us with its black snout." (Also, a poem that contains this fabulous simile: "ice / falling from fir trees like books pushed off a shelf.") And in the poem "Alles/All," how "there" compares and contrasts to "here," creating two kinds of place:

"From the back, in my car seat, I'd protest: No, AFGHANISTAN IS MORE BEAUTIFUL. IT HAS EVERYTHING THERE.

You'd laugh, somewhat confounded: You have never been there.

There: green macaws, AK 47s, feces in water pipies, schools in clay huts, tiny crocheted shoes, market men sitting on upside down crates, landmines, mud, an abundance of apples, pomegranates, watermelon, flies, mosquitoes, that little house behind the river--does it still exist?

Here: You and I in a car, green fields of cattails, the summer night warblers gossiping, the sky lowering its clouds like marbled ham toward us.

There: I love you, I love you.

Here: All that there is."

I find it remarkable that this poet so deeply remembers a world she can't really remember--too young, gone too long--through her relatives' memories, stories, and her own research. And creates it here so well! She loves and honors her mother, who spent time in prison for revolutionary action. In "Lass/Let," one of the poems that examines meaning via a single word in German and in English, we learn:

"My mother let me happen to her. She let prison happen to her, simply because she believed in Women's Rights and Afghanistan as a sovereign state. She went to prison with her little sister, and she emerged." The story continues in the poem "dir/You": "You, I said to my mother, have been to prison. But she cooked on in the kitchen, ignoring me. Or, she scratched and peeled the wallpaper, weeping...."

It's a beautiful book, with terrible things happening in it:

"the woman, 34, revolutionary socialist, killed by the mujahedeen, was found with her head in her lap: wearing an earring, red lipstick, a book of poems in her jacket"

Because it is a beautiful world, with terrible things happening in it.