Tag Archives: Poetry

Book Review: A Pretty Sight

Camus once argued the trouble for Sisyphus

wasn’t the endless failure to prop
a rock atop some hill, but the thoughts
he had on the way back down
–“Occasional”

A Pretty Sight by David O'Meara

A Pretty Sight by David O’Meara is his fourth collection of poetry. He lives in Sandy Hill, Ottawa and tends bar at the Manx Pub. He is director Plan 99 Reading Series and VerseFest, Canada’s International Poetry Festival. 

Reading O’Meara’s limited biography left me wondering if this would be one of those experimental expressions I seem to stumble upon from time to time or something really good. What would a great collection of contemporary poetry have if I had my way. Science? History? Punk rock? Yes! A little Camus wouldn’t hurt either. O’Meara delivers it all in style. 

Years ago after reading the Divine Comedy, I decided that when I died I wanted to go to the outermost layer of Hell, Limbo. What better place to be than among the virtuous pagans like Aristotle, Penthesilea, Ovid, and Homer? Nietzsche was right, in heaven all the interesting people are missing. But what if Socrates met up with Sid Vicious? O’Meara plays the conversation out in an unforgettable dialog. Even borrowing one of Johnny Rotten’s lines : “it’s worth going where you’re least wanted , since there is so much more to achieve.” The dialog flows with Socrates talking as Greek Philosopher and Sid talking like a punk rocker. They talk life and death and death by drugs. Sid is interested in knowing where to score hemlock. Never before has there been such a remarkable, smooth flow of conversation between so very different people. 

A Pretty Sight combines many topics. Bombing in Kosovo is covered from the club of a Bass Faced woman. Bombs dropping in the streets and Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” rocking the club. “Sing Song” offers a eerie look at out world as drowned pups and kittens. “Fruit Fly” puts our planet in the universe to a fruit fly on out planet. Significance varies on scale and on a scale. “In the Event of a Moon Disaster” ponders what if Apollo 11 didn’t go as planned. What would Nixon do? What would be said ? What would Armstrong and Aldrin do? How would the nation be addressed about the loss. 

O’Meara combines history, science and philosophy in a creative and intelligent manner. A Pretty Sight is a worthy contemporary collection of poetry and a keeper on my shelf.

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Book Review: Without a Claim

Without a Claim, by Grace Schulman is her seventh published collection of poetry. Schulman holds a PhD from New York University and is Distinguished Professor of English at Baruch College CUNY. She has taught poetry at Princeton, Columbia, and other universities. Schulman has served as Poetry Editor at the Nation, and director of the Poetry Center. Her work has also appeared in numerous journals. 

Without a Claim is the most traditional collection of poetry I read this month. Not rantings or socio-economic messages, but poetry like you read in English Literature class, almost magical. It takes the reader to a place where he or she can say, “Yes, this is what poetry is!” My first thoughts in reading were “This reminds me of Leaves of Grass.” Not necessarily in topic, but in feeling. It’s when you pick up the book with the idea of reading for half an hour and seemingly minutes later, you realize that four hours have gone by. My feeling of a Whitman influence was well grounded. Early on in the collection is the poem “Variations on a Line by Whitman.” 

“Shadow” is a poem of about Paris singer and her relationship with a black American (soldier) trumpet player. Although not mentioned in the poem, after WWI black soldiers who married French women were given the choice of staying in France or going home…alone. This could very much be that story. There is history in the collection, but it is the background to the poetry rather than the subject. 

“Love in the Afternoon” is a poem that on the surface is about butterflies, but seems to be more about poetry and its grace and subtle movements. Here the beauty of nature manifests itself as poetry. “Green River” takes us to a country cemetery and we meet to those interred. They speak to us through their stones and leave us wanting to ask the dead a question. We know what the answer will be, but we ask anyway. Perhaps the cemetery shows us that in life, as much as in death, that we all want the same thing and no matter who we are, we all connected by something as simple as a gravel path. 

Without a Claim is poetry that is enchanting and you will read it and reread it again. There seems to be something to be gained at each reread. The imagery crystal clear and enticing. This is a work that you will want to keep and read over and over again. Simply an amazing experience.

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Book Review: Previously Feared Darkness

Previously Feared Darkness by Robert Priest

Previously Feared Darkness by Robert Priest is his latest collection of poetry. Priest, also known as Dr. Poetry on CBC’s Wordbeat has a popular following and professionally recognized. His has work is has received air play and he has published a number of children’s CDs of songs and poems. Priest has also written ten books of poetry for adults. The Toronto Star accurately calls Priest’s work “Passionate, cocky alternately adoring and insulting verse.” 

Priest is an interesting poet to say the least. He is hard to pin down. “All the Information in the Sun” starts with the promise of science. The title reminded me of one the latest quantum theories that information cannot be lost in the universe…much like matter and energy. I thought this will be interesting. But no sooner than I turned on my scientific mind, I come to Waistland, a play on T.S. Eliot and a irreverent poem on obesity. From there to Aztechs, a poem on modern wars and warfare tying it back to Quetzalcoatl’s blood lust. Priest rotates his poems through a mix of themes keeping the reader interested and slightly off guard not knowing what to expect next. The science is refreshing, good, and even humorous:

Jinx

Einstein and Heidelberg both said
“There’s no simultaneity 
over vast distances”
at exactly the same time. 

Perhaps as a tribute to Martin Amis we are taken on a journey through John Lennon’s life… in reverse. “Rights Left” reads a military cadence call and with clever plays on words brings us to a modern day concern for our individual rights. Equally alarming is Priest’s interpretation of Book of Job(s) carried into the modern times. And yes, many will take offense and the more cynical of us will nod with understanding. Perhaps, if the “Book of Jobs” did not offend enough, maybe learning the true meaning of Churchill’s “V” for victory sign will do it. If your modesty still hasn’t driven you away, you should safely be able to navigate your way through the memes unscathed, maybe. 

Priest manages to combine science and social issues with what some will call the profane. I see it as combination of brilliant and a punk rock attitude. Sometimes his message is clear and other times its hidden in the brashness of words. It’s easy to why he is so popular. He doesn’t shock for the sake of shocking, like the Sex Pistols, but does it to deliver a message like Lou Reed’s “Last Great American Whale”. Sometimes people need to be pushed into thinking. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and I am going to actively look for his other collections. Previously Feared Darkness may not be for everyone, but I find it to be absolutely brilliant.

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Book Review: Singing at the Gates: Selected Poems

We need a shoe to be a shoe,
for the poet to describe the foot
inside, the miles walked, the weariness
that seeps into toes, heels, and calf,
the tired dreams those feet lug every day
“The Truth Be Known”

Singing at the Gates by Jimmy Santiago Baca

 

Singing at the Gates: Selected Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca is a volume of poetry covering four decades of Baca’s life as a poet. Baca is of Apache and Chicano descent, abandoned by his parents, and at an early age he took to the streets. He was sentenced to prison for six and a half years on a conviction for drug possession. It was in prison where he learned how to read and write and compose poetry. Once freed from prison he chose to live a solitary life and write.

“I was a hermit – as much as one can be living in the fringe of the city.”

Reading Singing at the Gates is experiencing Baca development as a poet. His earliest works convey the feeling of imprisonment and frustration. The feeling and emotion are there almost as if the poems were written in bold type face. Opening poem is long, twenty-five pages, and seems to have been written in a single sitting, stream of consciousness, moving with a purpose from thought to thought. The poem reads more like a letter more than a traditional poem, and he expresses his thoughts in a what appears to be a primitive form, raw, but expressing complex ideas.

By mid-book the poems take a more familiar and recognizable form. The poems still carry a message. The message is not a pastoral scene or romantic love, but a continuation of a struggle. There is racial and economic standings setting the tone in some poems and war and the environment in others. Heritage plays a role in the long poem “Rita Falling From the Sky.” Rita is a homeless woman from Mexico who spends years in a mental institution in America’s midwest because she is assumed to be crazy and incoherent. It is only after a new doctor, from Chihuahua, recognized that she was not babbling but speaking her native tongue of the Raramui Indians that she is released. Her real life struggle mirrors Bacca’s.

The poetry here is different from most that I have read. The form is interesting as well as the changes in the voice and form as the author’s writing matures. Baca writes a fifteen page introduction to this work, which goes a very long way of explaining to the reader his life and how his writing developed. An unprepared reader may not make it through the first third of the book. This is not because it is poorly written, quite the opposite, but the background information is a sort of Rosetta Stone for his early work. Bacca’s work although unconventional is still powerful and moving. Singing at the Gates is well worth the read.

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Book Review: Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems

Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins is a selection of poetry ranging from 2002 through 2011. Billy Collins was poet laureate of the United States from 2001 through 2003. He also served as poet laureate of the state of New York from 2004 through 2006. He is a distinguished fellow at the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College. Collins is also the editor of Poetry 180 and has published ten collections of poetry.

For me poetry collections are a bit like short story collections, because I know early on when I do not like one. They also are like short story collections in that I know an excellent collection very early on. In this collection by the third poem I knew that it would be an outstanding collection. I ran across this in the third poem “More Than A Woman”:

… I peered in at the lobsters

lying on the bottom of an illuminated
tank which was filled to the brim
with their copious tears.

Then moved by the poem “Absence,” I turned to “Royal Aristocrat” a poem about Collin’s old and noisy typewriter. That typewriter made so much noise he had to keep the doors shut and set the machine on top of a pile of newspaper to help deaden the sound. Times change, and he writes:

That was twenty years ago,
yet as I write with this soft lead pencil
I can still hear the distinctive sound,
like small arms fire across the border.

It’s that ability to capture moments and memories that makes poetry great. “Today” is another poem that cries out to a moment or feeling we all have experienced. Simply amazing in the flow of the words and the capturing of the feeling.

The poetry is divided into three sections from 2002 Nine Horses, which I have quoted from so far. The second section is called Ballistics from 2005, and lastly Horoscopes for the Dead from 2011. The the last two sections, both of the title poems are amazing. There is a bit of humor in Ballistics, or what I took as being a bit humor. Horoscopes for the Dead is a bit haunting and anyone who has lost someone can easily relate to it.

Poetry collections are also like short story collections because you do not need to like every poem, but the ones that you do like hold you in through the entire collection. Collins makes reference to a poet maybe writing three perfect poems in a lifetime. I do not know what constitutes a perfect poem, but I do know what I like. There were many more than three times that after reading the poem I put down the book and thought, “Wow!” After a few minutes, I would pick it up and read through it again, and once more, highlight sections, highlight the poem in the contents, and read it again. It is easy to see after reading this selection how Collins was a Poet Laureate. An amazing collection and a must read for fans of contemporary poetry.

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September 12, 2013 · 16:05

Book Review: The Best American Poetry: 2013

The Best American Poetry 2013 by David Lehman

The Best American Poetry: 2013 edited by David Lehman is a latest in the Scribner Best American Poetry series that has been running since 1989. Lehman is also the editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and the author of several books of poetry. He teaches at The New School in New York City. Denise Duhamel is the guest editor of this series who writes the introduction. She is the author of several volumes of poetry.

Lehman writes the forward and it carries a Shelley theme. Duhamel has a lighter approach and opens with “If you are reading this you are not dead” in response to the Mayan Calendar and the end of the world in December 2012. For those who think poetry is not for them or that poets are all uptight and overly “sensitive.” Duhamel early on tells the reader that the first three poems have the word “f*ck” in them and two of those three poems also have the word mayonnaise. That should intrigue the non-poetry readers. Her introduction alone makes me want to find her books of poetry and and move them to the top of my reading list. 

Some of the poems are moving like “Pachyderm,” about a boy with the paraplegic father (Vietnam) who loses his brother to an IED in Iraq. “Death” is moving and eerie. There is humor, or more so critique, of America is in the “Statue of Responsibility” and “All American.” There is even a poem mocking George Bush’s changed heart. ‘The Art of Drinking Tea” is a pretty amazing poem in itself and displays the the difference between the sexes version of enlightenment. “New Jersey Poem” is a powerful poem, one of two dealing with suicide. Some poems are moving in their support of the art itself like “Why I Write Poetry.” “What’s so funny about racism/ is how racists never get the joke” begins the poem “Blazing Saddles” and yes it is about the movie. The reader will get more than a subtle hint from the timely poem “Syria.” There is something for everyone in this collection. “The kind of Man I Am At the DMV” was one I could relate to. Having to keep my hair in a pony tail at work, a child once yell out to his father, “That man has girl’s hair and a pink rubber band in it.” You can’t explain to children that men can have long hair, especially in Dallas. It’s even more difficult to explain that the hair bands come in a variety pack and yes, one of the colors is pink, and it means nothing more than that. 

The Best American Poetry has something for everyone and more than likely a lot for most. Poetry ranges from verse to almost prose in paragraph form. If you don’t like poetry you’ll like this collection because it will show you that poetry is much more than “An Ode on a Grecian Urn” or rhyming couplets. This collection is also current to out present culture and easy to relate to. If you like great poetry or are a bit shy of it, this book is perfect for you.

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Book Review: 100 Poems: Old and New Rudyard Kipling

Oh, do not despise the advice of the wise,
Learn wisdom from those that are older,
And don’t try for things that are out of your reach –
An’ that’s what the Girl told the Soldier

–At the back of Knightsbridge Barricks.

100 Poems by Rudyard Kipling

100 Poems: Old and New Rudyard Kipling selected and edited by Thomas Pinney is a selection of Kipling poems from 1882 through 1935. Pinney is an Emeritus Professor of English at Pomona College. He has written book on American wine and this year released The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling which is the first complete set of Kipling poems. 

Kipling is known through his work to most children for the The Jungle Book. I will admit that up to a few years ago this was all I really knew of Kipling. Since then I have read Kim as part of my Noble winners reading list. This collection of poetry includes old and new poems; not the chronological sense but as old, meaning familiar, and new, meaning unfamiliar. Pinney states in the introduction that this volume contains the twenty-five poems in every collection of Kipling poems plus seventy-five that have never appeared together in a single volume. Of the twenty-five old poems, although not identified, I knew three: “If”, “White Man’s Burden”, and “Danny Deever.” “Danny Deever” I remember from seventh grade English class. “If”, I knew in bits and pieces, but I am not sure from where. “White Man’s Burden” I remember from history class as a warning. Originally a warning to his own country of England concerning empire, but later changed and made for the United States and its territorial gains in the Philippines. 

This collection was nearly all new to me so I was unable to discern the old from the new. The poems are arranged chronologically in the collection. This collection covers many topics. India is covered in several poems, including the powerful“The Law of the Jungle.” There are poems with math, algebra. Six poems concern different types of fruit. Some poems are of history, and ancient history. A few poems are about months and seasons. 

The military is the subject of several poems too. The excerpt of the poem that starts this review is a military poem and perhaps the most telling poem of the military back then (and even for many now)is “Tommy”. Tommy was slang for a British soldiers and was particularly used in WWI. So much so that Germans would call out “Tommy” across no man’s land when they want to speak to a British soldier. In this poem, the solder is not allowed to enter a bar to drink, nor allowed to enter a theater. There is room for drunk civilians but not sober soldiers. People mock the uniform that guards them while they sleep. The soldier is always left behind until:

But it’s “Please walk in front, sir” when there’s trouble in the wind–
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
Oh, it’s “please walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind. 

But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot.

Pinney puts together a very good selection of poetry. For someone not knowing much about Kipling, I learned quite a bit and was equally impressed. Although some of the poems may be dated, which the historian in me liked, most bear the burden of time very well. He writes at a time from when England ruled the world, to the point when their empire was collapsing into a commonwealth. It was a period of great change for England and some of that change is reflected in the poetry. A very good collection well worth the read.

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Book Review: The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief

The Day of Shelly's Death by Renato Rosaldo

The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief by Renato Resaldo is one man’s account of the death of his wife while in the Philippines. Resaldo is a graduate of Harvard and professor emeritus at Stanford. He currently teaches at New York University. Rosaldo is a a leading cultural anthropologist with several published books including Ilongot Headhunting: 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History published in 1980. He was conducting further field research when he lost his wife in an accident. His wife, Shelly, also an anthropologist studied the Ilongots. They were working together in country with their two sons in 1981 when she became victim to a tragic accident.

The Day is a book the center mostly on a single event and a single day. The day Resaldo lost his wife: October 11, 1981. The collection of poems are moving and heartfelt. Resaldo not only tells his story but tells the story through the eyes of others who were involved both before and after the event. He recalls the coin toss that fateful day. One of their children was sick and he and Shelly tossed a coin to see who would stay back with the children. He stayed. The pedal taxi driver who who offered him a ride as a gift when he heard that Shelly died. There is a poem where his children tell their experience. The cliff where Shelly fell also writes of the experience. Resaldo writes all these views and puts them into free verse. The verse is not always free flowing, but seems halting at times, like someone talking through a very emotional event. It is, but it is also reflecting the poetry writing years later. The Philippine natives speak as English is their second language. This is also captured very well in the poetry with with noun and verb agreement and placement. Resaldo does an excellent job capturing the environment and the people; that should come as no surprise for a leading anthropologist.

Each chapter begins with a simple introduction followed by the poems. The second part of the book is an essay called “Notes on Poetry and Ethnography” in which Resaldo explains why and how he came to write the poems. In addition the reader will gain some education on ethnography and how it is used in the book.

This collection may not give the flow and feel of traditional poetry; it is not Wordworth or Keats. It does, however, accomplish what poetry is meant to accomplish: It recreates the day. The feelings of the author. The feelings of the people directly and indirectly involved in the event. It creates powerful experiences using words and makes the reader experience these emotions. All in all an outstanding work and a tribute.

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Book Review: The 20th Century in Poetry

The 20th Century in Poetry by Michael Hulse

The 20th Century in Poetry is an anthology of the poetry describing the 20th Century. With a degree in history and another in international relations I looked forward to reading this collection. I have always liked to see how other fields see history. Art history of the 20th Century is an amazing reflection of the culture. Art Deco completely captures the 1930s. The Pop Art of the 1960s captured that decade’s spirit: from Andy Worhol to the style Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills album cover. Many times you can look at the art and know the decade and the origin. I am sure poetry could do the same. I did have one condition in a poetry collection of the twentieth century. It had to have on poem that I felt was, historically, a very important part of the 20th century*.

Historians look at the 20th Century a bit differently than the calendar shows. Historians start the century at the start of World War I, the official end of the 19th century world view. The century not only starts late, but ends early too. The fall of the Soviet Union closes the book on the 20th Century for most historians; the beginning of “The New World Order” and “Peace Dividends.” 20th Century in Poetry takes the reader year by year from 1900 through 2000 with at least one poem from each year. It further divides the poems into sensible groupings.

1900-1914 Never Such an innocence again
1915-1922 War to Wasteland
1923-1939 Danger to hope
1940-1945 War
1946-1968 Peace and Cold War
1969-1988 From the Moon to Berlin
1988-2000 Endgames

From the innocence of Thomas Hardy “The Darkling Thrush” to the great sadness of Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” From Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” to Jeffrey Harrison’s “Sketch”. From Alan Ginsberg’s “America” to Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”. From John Updike’s “Seven New Ways of Looking at the Moon” to Jeffrey Harrison’s “Pale Blue City”. The highs and the lows of the 20th century are all recorded by the eyes and words of the poets of the time.

This is a suburb collection of the the full range of the 20th century. Usually I will keep my poetry in paper, but the selections are so good and so vast, that it makes an excellent ebook. Not many people will sit and read this through cover to cover and it wasn’t meant to be read that way. Pick a year or a couple of years and enjoy. Keep it on your reader or your phone and when you have a few minutes pick a poem or two, you won’t be disappointed. Of course if you do read it cover to cover, you will get a detailed history of the 20th Century: The events, the people, the achievements, the failures. Perhaps the reader will see that we, as a whole, in this century we have not learned from our previous failings and not learned from advances. A collection like this makes an excellent barometer for where we are and where we are heading, as a people, in the twenty-fist century. Five Stars.

* The poem I was referring to earlier is in the collection: “The Wasteland” by TS Elliott

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Book Review: The Mountains Belong to Me

The Mountains Belong to Me by Linda Dickert

The Mountains Belong to Me by Linda Dickert is a collection of nature based poetry. Dickert does not have much of a public profile. What I can gather is that she lives or lived in the Smokey Mountains and is a dog lover. Perhaps the most important piece of information is that all proceeds from this collection are being donated Spark Companions a non-profit organization that helps pay vet bills for those in need. Sparky, is the the name of her deceased pit bull.

The poems are in the same vein as Pope’s pastoral poems or Frost’s New England take on the outdoors. Dickert is the Smokey Mountain version of the pastoral. She looks at the seasons and natures reaction to the changes. She writes of the stars and dreams and the purity of nature:

Maybe this is why
the storm is so grand
to clear pollution and
force renewal of the
terrain as is this
magnificent mountain morning.

From the stars in the sky, to squirrels running in the forest, Dickert manages to capture the wildlife and sense of freedom in the rugged outdoors. She writes of balance in nature:

They take from the forest what is needed
And leave it as they found it.
To create Balance in nature that
Humans can only imagine.

Halfway through the book she introduces the reoccurring theme of dogs. Not just her dogs, Sparky and Fiona, but all dogs. She writes of all dogs from a hungry abandon puppy to pit bull rescues. There is much emotion written into her words. You can feel the look in the stray dog’s eyes.

The Mountains contains poems of imagery and feeling. It is easy to picture her words of an early sprouting of tulips and daffodils pushing up through the January snow. For those who live were there is a distinctive winter and spring, the words will give vivid imagery of an experience and it will remind those of us who used to live in cooler climates of childhood experiences.

I remember growing up where we all seemed a bit closer to nature, even the city dwellers. I may not have had the Smokey Mountains, but I did have a large, forested park with streams and wildlife. Today, I am lucky to have a “Greenstrip” – a strip of land undesirable for commercial use, planted with grass. It’s not a park. It’s not nature. It’s just a sanitized strip of grass calling out for a book like The Mountains to remind us of what we used to have.

A very nice collection of poetry and memories.

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August 18, 2013 · 11:16