On Sunday, May 22nd, I will have the privilege of again reading in a poetry series hosted by Jim Mancinelli. Jim is a poet himself, and in fact that afternoon he will also be reading some of his work.
The Series operates out of the Slingluff Gallery in Fishtown, a wonderful artsy space.
If your travels around the planet bring you anywhere near Philadelphia the fourth weekend in May, stop by:
David Moolten & Jim Mancinelli
Sunday, May 22nd, 2011 4:00 PM
11 West Girard Avenue
Subway: Girard Station: (Turn left at bottom of stairs, walk 1 block east to gallery)
Lank, Beak & Bumpy is an intriguing and attractive chapbook freshly out from iota press, which sets a production standard with work this good. The chapbook is elegantly designed and beautifully wrought, handset in Ehrhardt 12 pt. type, & printed on Mohawk Superfine paper with a 1913 C & P supercool foot-powered platen press.
Author Mark Jackley earns his keep as a business writer in the Washington, DC, area. He’s also a thriving poet. His work has appeared in numerous journals in the U.S. as well as overseas and over borders in India, Australia, England, Ireland, and Canada. In addition to Lank, Beak & Bumpy, he is also the author of two previous chapbooks and the full length collection, There Will Be Silence While You Wait (2009, Plain View Press).
Lank, Beak & Bumpy contains seventeen short impressionistic poems which cohere well thematically and emotionally. They feature strong images and a minimalist economy, and often have a haiku-like feel in the sense of breath but an intimate American diction. Jackley’s voice is both informal and musical and I found myself easily drawn in.
The low orange moon
makes the Ohio River shine
like a black pearl
among the hushed sheds
of Catlettsburg, Kentucky.
I am radiant and massive.
This has that Southern concern for rural space, tainted but still worshipped in an effort to honor the permanence of the observed and felt though fleeting, however subtle or ordinary. Here the poet figures more prominently and less plaintively though and the scene becomes a kind of minor monument in memory, a piece of the life lived. The poem becomes the vehicle.
While he uses the South as a reference frame, Jackley is spare overall in terms of geographical concerns, and his verse often roams indoors, though the materials and themes defy domestic tranquility, or at least complacency:
Like a Shaker bowl
the house contains the silence
of belief, and
like a Navajo basket
containing none of our business
it is keeping quiet
(from “Later On Our Wedding Night, Two Silences In The House”)
Jackley writes primarily from a first person perspective, and often begins in medias res, which creates a natural tension because of the compression demanded by each poem’s brevity. To paraphrase and also invoke Williams, as these poems do, at least for me, so much depends upon a few very tangible and personal details. I think Jackley intends the heritage, as one of his poems is titled, “A Picture Of You In Cut-off Shorts Grinning At The Chickens.”
In contrast to Williams and his red wheelbarrow, Jackley’s attention and connection to detail is decidedly more expressive than mysterious:
is on the bulletin board
but the pinhole’s
in my heart
Jackley writes more knowingly than Williams does, which one must of course in 2010. However, rather than troubled the work more often feels satisfied with itself and with the world, but never smug:
These lines strung out like
a goose hung on a Chinese
market window hook…
…are indelible without
the flame of your attention
Verse this brief leaves little room for error as any missteps are painfully obvious and in general unforgiven. The work will crash and burn. Fortunately this does not occur in Lank, Beak & Bumpy. I was impressed with this chapbook, which has much to recommend, both in terms of its physical presentation—a solid well made book to hold and read—and with the precise, realized ambitions of the poems.
Lank, Beak & Bumpy ISBN: 0-9773843-2-2
Iota Press, 925-c Gravenstein Hwy., Sebastopol, CA 95472
Lillian and David Brummet are the gracious hosts of the blogtalkradio program, Authors Read, a weekly fifteen minute broadcast presenting live as well as prerecorded readings by storytellers, poets & writers. Produced in Canada, the show is international and both the featured artists and the audience are diverse, representing many styles and approaches to writing.
Pamela Johnson Parker is an adjunct professor of composition and creative writing and a medical language specialist in Western Kentucky. Her poems, flash fiction and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Binnacle, The Other Journal, New Madrid, Pebble Lake Review, Holly Rose Review, Six Sentences, MiPOesias, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal and Anti-. A Walk Through Memory Palace, published by Qarrtsiluni literary magazine as the winner of its 2009 poetry chapbook contest is Parker’s first chapbook or book-length publication, perfect bound with a glossy cover and surreal art by Carrie Ann Baade.
The chapbook title alludes to a mnemonic device developed in antiquity in which the user associates fragments of oratory or other text with physical locations in an effort to facilitate memorization. The locations considered together form a “memory palace,” derived from Cicero’s story of Simonides, who escaped the gods’ destruction of a banquet hall, and used his recollection of the guests’ seating to identify the dead.
Consisting of ten poems, several of which are longer pieces, the book ranges far in its psychological and narrative geography, while keeping its temporal focus on the past. In terms of mood, A Walk Through the Memory Palace relies on intimate rather than objective reporting. So the title feels apt with respect to the poems, providing them a framework where their own interrelationship is less important than diverse connection with the poet as source.
This said, there is a strand of the bucolic, of the country house whose garden offers paths to a nearby pond, which threads a number of the pieces together. In addition, the poems’ inhabitants and their surroundings tend to be viewed from portrait distance, and the language is well crafted and delicately informed. Parker’s verse finds its power in gentle irony, quiet onomatopoeia and a lush though domestic lexicon. The evident structure makes the most of a refined music, primarily brief stanzas and short lines consistent in syllable count, sometimes more formal with respect to meter or rhyme.
The first piece in the book, 78 RPM, demonstrates Parker’s skill at distilling felicity from nostalgia. Here the second person perspective and a hint at the autobiographical, or at least directly witnessed, allow a sensuous return to the adrenaline and pheromones of adolescence. The language is a filigree of the precisely observed, a snapshot packed with dynamic tension.
As the heavy arm angles
From left to right, as
The stylus traces
Its sapphire finger
Down the record’s groove,
As he skates a single
Finger along the sun-
Bleached down of your
Arm, and as you
Start to shake,
Heart rising and
Falling like Billie’s
Song, cool water poured
To the top, brimming,
Similarly, in Tattoos, a poem consisting of two parts, the language is a smorgasbord of the exotic, the colorful, and the intricate. The first part focuses on the materials that compose tattoo ink—
Aisles of densities, textures:
dry dun-colored globes,
the testes of arctic
seals; cicada skins, fingers
of ginseng. Silver
Assam teas, great sacks
of rice, geese screeching from crates.
but ultimately furnishes a male protagonist to give the language an erotic gradient and intensity,
“Good for the kidneys,”
says the clerk — young, stripped
to the waist, a great dragon’s
body rippling across
his back, undulant
as he turns, wrapping spices,
plum wine, packages
in brown kraft
The second part zeroes in on the metaphor of the flesh as canvas for the indelible ink of experience, boosting the erotic mercury level even higher:
I want you
so much it hurts to
breathe, want your voice, telling
me about anchors, hearts, names
(either regional or
needles; about inks
of cinnabar, navy, that
black; about the tattoo
of skin against skin, that
Breasts, the final poem in the collection, taps into Parker’s other textual expertise as a medical writer, effectively animating the sterile jargon of anatomy and frozen sections by juxtaposing it with a breast cancer patient’s living narrative. What’s remarkable here is the poet’s emphasis on inspection—visual findings being a key part of diagnosis and medical management. Parker presents multiple perspectives—that of the woman examining her normal breast, that of a clinically “objective” observer, that of the patient status post mastectomy, that of the pathologist, that of the poet, and that of the poet as affected witness, relative of the afflicted. The effect, given Parker’s magnifying powers of observation, is striking.
Interrupted silk. The scar
From shoulder to her
Xiphisternum. Zipper, zipper.
Something’s wrong with this
White leather, this
Epidermis sliced and scraped
And stitched — no nipple,
No tissue, no muscle,
Some Yellow Tulips, the one poem in the collection I found unsuccessful, suffered because its subject, the Holocaust, is less easily penetrated by Parker’s intimate tropes. Genocide brutally resists understanding and even if the survivor-protagonist of the poem stoops to the familiar task of raising tulips, she is not of their world. Parker relies on aesthetically satisfying comparisons to speak for themselves, and they cannot:
Today, her turban slants
Askew over her blue-rinsed hair; her plants,
Once straight as soldiers on her patio,
Are blitzkrieged out of order, the yellow
Tulips (three days blossoming in a vase
Atop her wrought-iron table) don’t erase
Her frown, her sloppy slippers, or the brown
Age spots (about the size of dimes around)
She often hides with gloves.
Parker also asks the stark rigidity of rhymed couplets to supplement the survivor’s concept of order as a source of security. But this is more earnest than ironic, and misses the mark. The Holocaust is the ultimate corruption of order. It is Nazi discipline. It is dirt. It is bits of bone and ash, not the flowers that grow from them. The poem does glance against a worthy truth: that the present has its own order against which survival can seem a disturbance, a scar, like the tattooed numbers on an old woman’s arm. But this revelation appears only as a resolving coda. Ultimately, it is Mrs. Sonnenkrantz herself who represents the terrible blossoming. Perhaps she deserves a more harrowing exploration, which in the end must undermine beauty.
However, if Some Yellow Tulips misfires aesthetically, it does so like a dark bulb in a string of outdoor lights, letting the rest shine, their circuit still intact. Parker has a wonderful palette of language, and good instincts for the memorable. A Walk Through the Memory Palace richly demonstrates both.
Poet Valeria Tsygankova gave this review of Primitive Mood in the literature and arts magazine Philadelphia Stories:
“In his newest book, Primitive Mood, David Moolten picks at humanity’s darkest tendencies and deepest capacities for suffering. Like a patchwork quilt of the twentieth century, the poems in this volume handle violence and loss, questioning and disillusionment, determination and resilience. In quiet, authoritative and incantatory language, Moolten probes the fabric of culture in the West – from the Brothers Grimm to Arshile Gorky – for material that bears his project witness. What emerges is a densely woven and engaging collection of poems, delivered with rhythmic diction, and sometimes reminiscent of spoken word poetry in its rolling momentum and charged endings. With all of the darkness of war, genocide and internment that Moolten lays bare in this volume, there is also a light that enters through the “aperture” of his writing to illuminate the everyday people silhouetted against the dark backdrop of history, reworking their own suffering into beautiful stories. It is this creative power of narrative that stands against the destruction evident in human history in Primitive Mood, and which is also present in Moolten’s powerful and intelligent writing. Moolten’s language is crisp and evocative, and lends itself well to his project of storytelling and remembering.”
I think part of the problem with modern “criticism” is that much of it isn’t really criticism, not in the traditional sense. There are few critics today like T.S. Eliot (not going back too far), who wrote about poetry from the standpoint of a core philosophy he had engineered. I don’t particularly care for Eliot or his unpleasantly biased point of view. But he did have intellectual rigor when it came to criticism. We do have a few individuals, all parochial in the end of course, like Eliot, and academic, like Eliot–these are the drawbacks of such criticism. Helen Vendler comes to mind for one.
Unfortunately, even here one finds a kind of “kingmaker” apparatus, where the critic anoints those poets deemed worthy of “serious” consideration in our time. Less attention is paid to poetry in general, and the qualities that make it poetry, or (less often) great poetry.
Most of what passes for critique,however, is the “book report” capsule review one finds in literary journals and newspapers. Here, I fear, it is difficult to disentangle true criticism from the commercial process. Newspapers and magazines as published instruments have a natural incentive to favor books they can praise since these are books people might buy. Poetry is desperately undervalued in our culture and it’s the poets who are desperate. Desperate to be heard and desperate to be read. The poetry world is very small, insular and incestuous. Most of those who read verse also write it. Is it a great surprise that few are willing to be fully candid in their reviews? It’s far more expedient to be circumspect and political. It’s also easier, since the evaluative criteria are of course subjective, and few critics write from a core philosophy they can articulate, never mind defend. Knowing who your friends are becomes the one constant. Worse, those who resist this tendency often write with such scathing arrogance that their example hardly begs others to write negative reviews and join them on the “dark side.”
Clearly there is bad poetry being written. Every book contains some, or nearly every book. Some books, even by good poets, are nearly all bad. We all know about the complacency that afflicts the “major” poet in mid to late career, and the Emperor’s New Clothes effect, with regard to his/her work. The same applies to the latest fad offering from the latest “iconoclastic” hotshot. Unfortunately we have become so accustomed to our little world of vanity and desperation that we can’t tolerate the truth, only occasional ad hominem rants. Here’s to more integrity, intelligence, and rigor in criticism, but I’m not holding my breath.
(In response to Travis Nichols, The Poetry Foundation, Should Poetry Critics Go Negative?)