Sunday, January 19, 2020

Poem366: “Goodbye Toothless House” by Kelly Fordon

Goodbye Toothless House by Kelly Fordon

Goodbye Toothless House by Kelly Fordon, Somerville, Massachusetts: Kattywompus Press, 2019

The first time I had a chance to show my husband my hometown, I found myself focusing on the underside: where my dogs were buried; where a boy was struck by lightning; where a woman fell from a tower while trying to catch a bird. These parts just seemed like part of the important story the place had to tell—the other part being me.

Kelly Fordon’s Goodbye Toothless House offers its own tour of suburbia, and it’s clear we have something in common. Peppered throughout the book are poems about neighbors, and their titles end with an address, like “Housecoat: 19 Ballard Avenue” (listed merely as “Housecoat” in the table of contents). In this prose poem, a neighbor is described:

You in your cat housecoat, your pumpkin housecoat, your Santa Claus housecoat satnding sentry on your stoop across the street. No matter how you fixed your gaze, people never paused in passing.

But one person did, the poem reveals: the postman, and even he didn’t know this neighbor had cancer, until she was gone. It’s a sad indictment of the concept of neighbor, and so are others in this series, like “Beatrice: 11 Ballard Avenue,” about a woman who ran naked down the street with a kitchen knife, but then found herself friendless after the “medication took.” Or like “Gina II: 22 Ballard Avenue,” about a seemingly too-perfect neighbor whose kids are too polite and whose house is too put-together. “Every day, my face started to ooze off the bone like meat that has simmered too long in a crockpot,” Fordon writes, contrasting the speaker’s view of her life with Gina II’s idealized one.

Maybe Fordon and I can’t really grab hold of a neighborhood that is doused in slick perfection. We need the knobby and rotten bits to get a toehold. Some of the troubled consciousness at work in these poems (and let’s admit it, at work in my life) seems linked to aging. As the poem “M.A.P. (Middle aged problems)” advises,

Distance runners
know better than
to look up halfway
through, why
did you?

It’s a good question, but for me, and seemingly for Fordon, that’s where the poems show up.

At any rate, it’s good to have a little company in middle age, and Fordon offers it with perfect clarity in “The Girls in the Camper,” about Barbie, post-Ken:

Barbie left Ken about a year ago.
Now she spends her days playing
canasta with the girls in the camper.

That’s right she got the camper.

Ken scored the townhouse with its elevator, it turns out. Ken is 52 in this poem, and his stripper girlfriend is only 25. Muses Barbie in the poem, “Why did she think they would make it / through decrepitude and beyond?” And this reader can identify with that uncomfortable question—and so can the poet, who follows up immediately by confessing, “I’m putting thoughts in her mind.”

Misery, or at least perplexity, loves company, even if it doesn’t want to mix with the neighbors.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Poem366: “the elephants are asking” by Karen Neuberg

the elephants are asking by Karen Neuberg

the elephants are asking by Karen Neuberg, Glenview, Illinois: Glass Lyre Press, 2018

Unrelenting. That’s a good word to describe Karen Neuberg’s chapbook the elephants are asking, a collection that sounds a clear alarm about the environmental catastrophe that some refer to as “looming,” but that is clearly happening all around us.

The title poem lays the responsibility for addressing the issue squarely at the feet of the reader. It states,

the elephants are asking—

and the bees and the bats, the prairie dogs, the lemurs, the dolphins—one in six species—asking!

And the coral reefs, the rivers & oceans, the islands & shorelines—asking!

The poem goes through a longer list before nothing that the baby, with wiggling toes and plump arms, is asking. “Even God is asking,” Neuberg writes. With urgent work to be done, these animals and babies are asking us what we plan to do about the situation, and maybe why it exists.

The poem I liked most in the collection is called “Information,” and it starts with an epigraph by Gertrude Stein: “Everyone gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” It’s a powerful indictment, I can say after noting that I have been on phone or internet this entire day as I write this. It’s no wonder the environment has gone to hell; its caretakers are asleep at the wheel. Writes Neuberg,

I see another spectacle blocking my view,
another fad slipping into my bed.
The cave walls are filled with conflicting shadows
demanding attention in urgent & dazzling tones.
How small respect has become. …

The poem points out that a barrage of information is “burying us beneath ourselves,” and perhaps there is such a thing as “TMI.”

Look, it’s not an optimistic collection, and the keening, desperate feeling of those who care about the world is summed up in “Occupy Today.” “I have seen falling / continue to increase its pace,” the poem states, and continues,

Some days I want only
my mother. Some days I want to wrap
my arms around the world. I see
the future falling at accelerating speed.

But there is one beautiful poem that does offer a glimmer of hope, and in fact it reminds me of the folk song “If I Had a Hammer”; written in an era of tremendous turmoil and struggle, that anthem acknowledges the power of one person to make a difference. So does “If all I have is a teaspoon,” located near the end of this chapbook:

If all I have is a teaspoon

and if there’s a calamity; say, a raging fire,
then I’ll carry my teaspoon
filled with water and I’ll pour it on
the raging fire and I’ll go back and get
more water and that’s what I’ll do …

The poem describes a small act—an act so small that it feels inconsequential—but any act is better than none at all, and there remains a hope that thousands or millions or even billions of others will add their own teaspoons, and together we might find salvation.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Poem366: “Spiritual Midwifery” by Kathleen Kirk

Spiritual Midwifery by Kathleen Kirk

Spiritual Midwifery by Kathleen Kirk, St. Paul, Minnesota: Red Bird Chapbooks, 2019

Kathleen Kirk’s chapbook Spiritual Midwifery is small in page count, but it packs a punch, with each poem contributing to a lush and well-developed whole.

The title of the book reflects the many poems about motherhood, whether the mother in question is the close, personal voice of “I” or the Madonna. “My Daughter at the Piano” is a bit of an outlier in a collection, as it is a small poem about a specific mother-moment, as the speaker teaches her daughter to play. The mother asks if the daughter if she would like to learn a new song …

… but you are smiling now
apple in hand.
“Only on the black keys,”
you answer. “I like them best.”
Together we play the dark
harmonies of earth.

Actually, that final, ethereal sentence is not an outlier. The collection offers many moments where normal moments, particularly mother-moments, are laced with otherworldliness.

In addition to conventional motherhood, the title also refers to the broader act of creation, and most of the poems in the collection are ekphrastic examples, for which readers are encouraged to look up the original paintings. Some examples of paintings that gave rise to these poems include The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt by Caravaggio, La Fruitière by Childe Hassam, Blue Penumbra by Mark Rothko and more.

I particularly love the intimacy between a woman and Death, who visits her, in the poem “Angel of Death,” based on the 1890 Evelyn de Morgan painting by the same name. Death has a beautiful, androgynous face, and leans in toward a woman in the painting, who raises her head to him. Writes Kirk of Death’s scythe,

                              … will you
cut off my long hair with it

and scatter the strands upon the earth
before we leave it, for the birds
to weave into their nests?

There are so many breathtakingly beautiful moments in this brief collection, her eighth chapbook. I find that I’d like to read a full-length collection from this talent. Here’s hoping one is in the works.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Poem366: “Rue” by Kathryn Nuernberger

Rue by Kathryn Nuernberger

Rue by Kathryn Nuernberger, Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, 2020

Reader, you’re in for a treat. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance review copy of Rue by Kathryn Nuernberger, forthcoming from BOA Editions in April, and it’s stellar work, fascinating from cover to cover.

All poets have their thing — that aspect of poetry they do best. I’m always excited by poets who can lean hard into an image and make it dance in unexpected ways, and I also love poets who have a musical ear for language and sound. But Nuernberger’s particular skill is rhetoric, and it’s fascinating to see how each poem’s argument unfolds. She is brilliant, of course — well educated, well read, a careful thinker — and her poems come together in such smart ways. As a bonus, they’re well crafted, and imagery and sound considerations are very much on point. But the best thing about these poems is seeing a sharp mind at work to solve a rhetorical problem.

Although I’m going on and on about the rhetoric here, don’t think for a moment that Nuernberger doesn’t get personal. Within the bounds of these arguments, the speaker of these poems talks about her workplace politics (and I absolutely love that she writes about this topic), or she calls out a townsperson who is too touchy-feely at the coffee shop, or she indicts an obstetrician who treats her roughly during childbirth.

This latter example is found in the poem “Poor Crow’s Got Too Much Fight to Live,” which begins with a crow struggling with a trapped foot but then takes surprising turns to tell the speaker’s birthing story. There’s a Catch-22 in the whole childbirth scenario these days; every baby book tells us to formulate a birth plan, something many doctors will flatly ignore, and some will openly mock, with the attitude that they’re the doctor, and they’re going to focus on getting the baby safely into the world.

in “Poor Crow’s,” Nuernberger writes about a doctor who seemed to react to her birth plan with malice. Writes Nuernberger,

                                                      That guy
jammed his hand into me hard and without warning,
I think because he was offended by our conversation
about my birth plan, which was boilerplate stuff
about avoiding drugs and letting my body run its course.
I’d like to prosecute him, for myself and even more
for everyone else, but it took me months to understand
what he had done and why and by then it could so easily
be time telling the story instead of truth. …

I know so many mothers who have part of this story to tell — a birth plan mocked and ignored, with no chance that it will be put into effect — but the story told here, of a doctor physically hurting the speaker, goes much further. I find myself cheering for Nuernberger at the end of the poem, which does all but name this doctor:

I’m sorry, other people he might have or still yet
hurt, but I’m not so naively idealistic as to think
any good could come of saying to the public that I was
assaulted by an OB/GYN in his office in Logan, OH
in May 2010 and I’m willing to testify to that.

I grew up about 60 miles from Logan, as it happens, and I know there aren’t a lot of OB/GYNs in an Appalachian town of 7,000, so I also know how bold this poem is, and I am here for it.

Nuernberger is also a delightful nerd, sharing her crush on Carl Linnaeus, who invented the system we use to classify and name living things. It makes sense that a science-minded poet would appreciate this historic figure — a guy who named the largest mammal, the blue whale, “Balaenoptera musculus,” or “the mouse whale,” Nuernberger points out. She basically shows how adorable he is to fellow nature-lovers and word nerds, but then she finishes by pointing out a problematic aspect of this figure — that he classified people by color. “What do you / think?” she asks the reader. “Can we love him anyway? Did we / ever really even in the first place?” This is the sort of thoughtful probing found often in the long, detailed poems in the book.

The argumentation in the poems is the high note for me, but let me be clear: Nuernberger also has beautiful, lyrical moments, like I encountered in “Dear Reader, I’ve Been Preoccupied Lately by My Own Private Business.” Nuernberger describes a silent movie with philosophers who travel to the moon (“Le Voyage dans la lune,” I believe):

Their moon, when they got there, was full of can-can girls.
Their moon wanted a fist in the kisser.
Their moon wanted to pull off those stockings.
Their moon was orbited by a comet made of fire, not some accuracy of ice.

Ah, I love “some accuracy of ice” in this context. Even Nuernberger’s lyricism is brainy, and that’s delightful to encounter.

I suspect you can preorder Rue right now — and I suggest you do. I’ve lingered over these poems all day, and I am convinced.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Poem366: “Accommodations” by Sarah Carey

Accommodations by Sarah Carey

Accommodations by Sarah Carey, Tillamook, Oregon: Concrete Wolf, 2019

My mother’s celebration of life was today, so of course I wanted to turn my attention to something both gentle and deserving. I could not have chosen a better selection than Sarah Carey’s lovely chapbook, Accommodations.

Named to the Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Award Series and published in 2019, Carey’s book deals with family and loss. It’s largely a sorrowful work, but sometimes sorrowful words provide the comfort and connection we need.

Almost every poem in the book calculates some sort of pain, usually the pain of losing someone. But some address other losses, as the marvelous list poem “What We Carry” demonstrates:

Some things we took for granted vanished
long ago: a store, a mall, a whole shopping plaza

an entire country we grew up in, moving
state to state, when welcome signs

marked the borders, and no one spoke
of red and blue intent …

This is a recognizable grief; it seems that at one point there was a country that looked like the one Carey describes.

Today, I was especially moved by “We Gather in Florida to Celebrate My Father’s Life” and its profoundly beautiful ending:

My father is salt and mineral, crushed bone.
We arrange to arrange to arrange.

Did you know, I told the gathered group,
flowers from each state he lived in flank the pulpit,
bloom today in all of them, in all of you:
dogwood, peony, forget-me-not.

Carey gets mourning exactly right here, and I’m struck by the translation of the father into salt and mineral. We’ll all get there eventually; my mom got there today, and I was glad for Sarah’s company as I dealt with that hard fact.

Carey presents one beautiful poem after another in this gorgeous, painful, but just-right collection, which I highly recommend.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Poem366: “A Bag of Hands” by Mather Schneider

A Bag of Hands by Mather Schneider

A Bag of Hands by Mather Schneider, Studio City, California: Rattle, 2018

It’s interesting to thumb through a chapbook that won a prize I myself was vying for. I open a book like that not with jealousy, but with hope. I really want a book that beat mine for a prize to be good. Being an also-ran to a bad book would feel pretty rotten.

The good news is that it’s pretty hard to deny the merit of A Bag of Hands by Mather Schneider, a 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize selection. It’s terrific! And that’s a relief.

The Rattle Chapbook Prize is a particularly nice award. It’s big money — $5,000 at present — and the winning title gets distributed to Rattle’s 7,000 subscribers, according to its website. Additionally, the author receives 500 copies of the chapbook, and that’s pretty generous, too.

Schneider’s book fascinates from its unusual title to the first glimpse of the cover, which features original art by the author — a hand (Schneider’s?) seen resting on the frame of a car door through the side mirror. It’s a familiar enough scene, but strangely disorienting, with sky reflected against parking lot pavement and scruffy turf and an inset mirror offering a slightly different view.

That’s what the poems offer, too — an unusual perspective. Many of these are from the point of view of a cab driver who loves a woman from Mexico but transports people who look down their noses at immigrants. In “Consequences,” a woman’s boyfriend reports that 54 people have died in the last month crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona.

The other woman looks out the cab window
and says,
Well, I’m glad.

The man looks at her with something
that is almost horror,
almost human.

It’s a surprising link that the speaker of the poem has with this man, joined as they are by their disgust with the woman’s racism. “There are consequences,” she concludes, feeling fine about the death of so many.

“A Bag of Hands” is another poem that addresses the immigration issue. This poem is about 12 severed hands found in a bag in Jalisco, Mexico. “I’ve stolen things. Hasn’t everybody?” the speaker of the poem asks while considering the hands, removed, perhaps, for that infraction.

He considers the hands of his passengers, and of others:

Some of them are beautiful and smooth

as buckeyes. Some of them are so calloused they cut
you when you shake them. Some of them cup

the sunlight.
Imagine the hands

that held the thieves down, the hands that raised
the machete, the hands

that fell.

“Smooth // as buckeyes.” That’s quite beautiful to me, and such a different way of looking at hands. That kind of insight is found throughout this small collection, which deserves to be in the world, doing its careful and beautiful work.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Poem366: “Love Me, Anyway” by Minadora Macheret

Love Me, Anyway by Minadora Macheret

Love Me, Anyway by Minadora Macheret, Cincinnati, Ohio: Porkbelly Press, 2018

I know several people who contend with PCOS — polycystic ovary syndrome — and I know, too, that they suffer in myriad ways from the condition, with dangerously heavy periods and physical manifestations, like excessive hair growth, that can make them feel ashamed and exposed.

Until reading Minadora Macheret’s explosive chapbook on the subject—Love Me, Anyway, from Porkbelly Press—I didn’t fully understand the disease. I still don’t, for that matter, but I’ve come closer, and I hold those who suffer from it in the light as Macheret brings me face to face with the burden they carry.

Coupled with the trauma of disease is that of losing the mother, a subject I became too familiar with last week, on hearing that my own mother had passed away. This was a hard collection to read, but it is good to have company in grief—to sit shiva with a fellow poet who has a more advanced understanding of that kind of loss, thanks to the passage of time and the hard focus of poetry.

Macheret’s poems are forthright and honest, and they offer a frank glimpse into the life of one who contends with this disease. “Woman with PCOS Describes Aversion to Tests” provides one such moment, as the speaker describes nurses who “stick needle after needle / into scarred flesh,” until she feels “there is no blood left”:

There never is an answer
just test the body, so the doctors know
it’s still living.

She concludes that her heart beats irregularly, and “as long as it doesn’t stop, “I’ll be fine—.” It’s haunting to think of all of the people who suffer with this condition, alone in the phlebotomist’s chair that they have occupied so many times before. I wonder if it’s a comfort to some, having a book that sees them there, and having readers who know them as they haven’t before.

It looks to me from the medical writing on the subject that PCOS can mean explosively heavy, painful periods or periods that are missed altogether. The prose poem “Body of Nothing (Not Even Blood)” seems to explore this, with its haunting opening sentence: “Settle in beautiful body, settle in before the night takes you.” It then offers a painful, poetic view of what happens in the reproductive organs (“Silence the ovaries, choke on pearls”), before concluding, “The cycles have stopped. Somewhere, a clock hand lingers between today and tomorrow.” Macheret seems to be addressing the frustration of not knowing what your body plans to do and when it’s going to do it.

I appreciate the tenderness the poet offers herself in a world that can be far less loving, as in “The First Time PCOS Spoke.” Writes Macheret,

Please gentle the body—I
thicken it with sleep.
When you slow down,
you will be
a woman,

I really appreciate that line break in the first of the quoted set above. “Gentle the body—I” suggests that the body is the self, though so much of our time is spent trying to rise above it. On the one hand we view our body as a flesh-sleeve, something we ultimately pull ourselves out of, but then on the other, this body is our precious vessel, the only thing we can truly be said to own.

My thoughts about ownership here transport me instantly to the most moving part of this powerful chapbook, found in “To the Bearded Lady I Am (Age 26),” which begins with the speaker with tweezers in front of the mirror. In this clear-eyed view of how the speaker contends with the preponderance of hair that PCOS brings, she ends with an image: “I’m like a teacup left out, dust covered, a chip in my side.” There is a beautiful rhythm to that sentence, and a moving view into the writer’s lived experience. It takes my breath away.

I certainly recommend this small powerhouse of a book, and I look forward to reading more by this poet.