Archive for the 'Poetry' Category

Rosebud 62

Issue62Rosebud 62 has arrived! There’s much to celebrate, beginning with Tai Taeoalii, the American/Samoan artist and filmmaker whose pop art surrealism graces the front and back cover as well as appearing generously throughout the issue. “These are deep waters, in which thought and feeling morph in mysterious ways,” writes Rosebud editor Rod Clark in his interview with the artist, whose work is both fanciful and nightmarish. Just like the five winning short stories in the magazine’s sixth biennial Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award for Imaginative Fiction. Taking first place and $1,000 is Patricia Lundy’s gothic horror tale, “Nova’s Burial Club.” Lundy will disturb your sleep with sentences like this: “I found her face down at the table, her hair dipping into the meat sauces.”

Readers of Rosebud 62 are also treated to the first two chapters from a new novel, James Joyce 1906-1907: The Ambiguity of Epiphanies, by Giuseppe Cafiero, and translated from the Italian by Simon Knight. A kind of noirish psychological study of Joyce and his work, the excerpt is narrated by a private detective hired by a publisher to shadow the modernist writer whose “incorrigible arrogance and effrontery” have given birth to stories that “dwell on matters not acceptable in polite society, possibly unlawful and certainly deserving of disapproval.”

Further rounding out issue 62: poems from Lyn Lifshin (“Remembering Later it’s the Anniversary of When My Mother and Father Eloped”), Lester Graves Lennon (“Uncle Scott”), and George Eastburn (“More than Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg”); writer and cartoonist P. S. Mueller’s apocalyptic meetup with God in “The Big Shiny” (“When God spoke, he really did sound like Orson Welles bellowing into a highly amplified public address system centered in a tiled men’s room the size of an airplane hangar”); and Mike Baron’s “Trail of the Loathsome Swine,” a scabrous Southern Gothic short story uniquely tailored for the Age of Trump (“Only time I ever had any truck with ’em animal rights people was in the sixth grade, they got permission to come to our school and try to frighten the bejesus out of us with pictures of slaughterhouses and chickens in cages and such”). Oh, there’s more. So much more.

Writers take note: Also included in Rosebud 62 are the guidelines for the ninth biennial X. J. Kennedy Award for Creative Nonfiction. Deadline for submissions is August 15, 2017. I’m pleased to say I’ll be co-judging this year’s contest entries with editor Rod Clark.

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan
David Allan Cates
Satellite Press 2016

Reviewed by Bob Wake

CatesPoemsDavid Allan Cates, the author of five novels (most recently the award-winning Tom Connor’s Gift), has not until now published a collection of his poetry. The assured voice that emerges from the nineteen poems in The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan shares a sensibility that admirers of his fiction will recognize: politically engaged, erotically charged, and remarkably fluid in shifting between closely observed naturalism (especially of Central America, where Cates does medical aid work) and dreamlike surrealism.

If a lovesick Claude Monet were inspired to peel off his paint smock and dive naked into his beloved water lilies, he might sound something like the besotted narrator of Cates’s poem, “You Could Have Had Me”: “Just so you know, I’ve taken to floating on the fish pond at night / My cock a lily // Chest an empty / Turtle shell without you.” The playfulness of “You Could Have Had Me” comes at a price. There is regret that stings (“The echoing howl of everything I did and everything / I didn’t do”) and an immeasurable sadness (“Then I close my eyes and smell precious / Failure, / Feel on my skin the electric rain / Of bewilderment”).

Love in a Cates poem can be life and death. In “The Purpose of Kissing,” sensuality has the explosive charge of a suicide-bomb trigger:

Think of it like this: lovers
hold tiny detonation devices
on their tongues, hot invisible
wires attached to distant charges
strategically placed.

Real-world violence is often right around the corner in Cates’s work. In the poem “San Pedro Sula,” for instance, “Nothing says good morning / like gunshots at dawn, and she, her feet in snow, / steps past pine and hemlock toward a cold car / she hopes will start.” To situate love honestly in the historical moment is to recognize both our fragile impermanence and our connectedness to landscapes alive with ghosts: “Some / were important and others weren’t / and were slaughtered / because they lived on the other side of the river / or down in the valley … Sometimes / they loved— / did I mention that?—like we do” (“You and Me and the Dead”).

It is David Allan Cates’s novelistic eye for detail and the sinister anecdote that breathes so much life into the opening two stanzas of a poem like “What with Light We Might Imagine”:

Before dawn, you greet hotel maids
chatting music, step around dog shit
on the clean cobbled sidewalk past garbage
trucks and taxis in the cold. After
a long night of righteous missiles
over the holy land, the echo of ¡puta
madre! has dissolved down the block
and the fairy glow of streetlights guides
you toward a paling sky, Cinco de Mayo
and coffee.

Still squinting from the Santa Martha
bus, you walk into the shade past armed
guards on broken chairs and the same
one who blocked your way to leave that first
afternoon, said it’s too late, you’ll have to stay
the night inside. Remember the dark
in your throat, the sudden glint in his eye,
a prison joke. Ha-ha.

The Mysterious Location of Kyrgyzstan is an ambitious all-digital project (available in Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords editions) from Satellite Press. Filmmakers were commissioned by the Satellite Collective to create videos using audio of Cates reading. Two online videos have appeared so far, the title poem (by filmmakers Tim van der Meer and Sietske van der Veen) and the poem “Good Luck” (by filmmaker Kate MacDonald).


Rosebud 60

issue60Rosebud 60 (Fall/Winter 2015) is a beauty. There’s the joyous cover art by featured artist Toni Pawlowsky. Inside, for starters, you’ll find all five winning essays in Rosebud’s eighth biennial X. J. Kennedy Award for Nonfiction (which I had the pleasure of co-judging with editor Rod Clark): Grand Prize winner Chris Ellery (“A Boy of Bethany”), and runners-up Jennifer Arin (“Adrián de Sevilla”), Katherine Baker (“No Gas, No Soap in Cuba”), Joan Frank (“The Where of It”), and Brett Alan Sanders (“Attractions of Barbarity, or Dreaming a Complete Argentina”). The winning essays this year are international in scope with timely and thought-provoking visits to Jerusalem, Paris, Havana, and Buenos Aires.

There’s much more goodness to unpack in Rosebud 60, from poetry by Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to the “medical science fiction” of Dr. Tatsuaki Ishiguro (“The Hope Shore Sea Squirt”). Even a graphic short story (“What Is” by Mort Castle) illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre. And we’re still only scratching the surface. Regular features include top-of-their-game work from Rod Clark, P. S. Mueller, and Rick Geary. Guest art director Kathy Sherwood (filling in for Parnell Nelson, sidelined with health concerns, but returning for Rosebud 61) has given the magazine a sleek presentation.

Paradise Drive

Paradise Drive
Rebecca Foust
Press 53 2015

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Paradise_Drive_by_Rebecca_FoustRebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive achieves considerable force by using the precision of a classical poetic form—the sonnet—to portray something that is, by contrast, messy and contemporary: Our post-9/11 American landscape of rapacious materialism and spiritual hunger. Foust’s sonnets give us a California antiheroine named Pilgrim (“Waist-deep in bright ruin, she labors to sing, / wondering if wanting is, after all, all / there is”). When attending posh Marin County cocktail parties, Pilgrim prefers to cloister herself with books in wealthy homeowners’ bathrooms. She is haunted by hardscrabble childhood memories (“Her father smelled like failure because / he could not pay the bills”), as well as more recent hurts such as the bullying of her autistic son (“Yes, Pilgrim was pissed, / her son razzed every day, maybe twice: / ‘Got Ritalin?’ And about what brick does, / on contact, to a child’s perfect face”).

Consumer products function like satirical pop-up ads throughout Paradise Drive: Botox, Jiffy Pop, Tupperware, Adidas, Real Housewives, Manolo stilettos, d-Con, Prius, Land Rover, Escalade. However, when Foust brings us face to face with what appears to be September 11th, 2001 in New York City, in the deeply moving poem “the fire is falling,” the poet’s world is suddenly shorn and diminished—fallen—in lowercase. Ground Zero becomes in Foust’s sonnet a kind of negative theology, leaving unnamed that which is incomprehensible:

a september wedding back at the cape—
three days without kids—then he’ll work
in new york while she flies back
to san francisco alone—a good plan
till she misses her plane—she’s en route
to boston when the fire is falling
and he’s in midtown—the circuits jammed
and she’s holding hands with a stranger
in the qwik-stop—then sitting on the curb
for a long time—for a long time dialing—
the fire still falling when he picks up—
the plume somewhere behind him—the fire
falling—as it always has—this close—
it has to be this close before she sees

At its most playful, Paradise Drive is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s recent film, Goodbye to Language, which cedes several minutes of screen time to the ennobled perceptions of a dog. In Foust’s sonnet “We Dogs,” a pampered California canine’s heightened senses come alive: “Here, Mt. Tam / compounds and distills the exotic smells / of wildcat spoor steamed on noon trails, / and the creeks leap with salmon in spawn.” The dog’s owner, Pilgrim, will share the animal’s final moments with us in another poem, “Refractory”: “Agonal breath, / the vet said, before apnea and death.” And Pilgrim will be reminded of her own father’s mournful alcoholic demise, subsequently revealed to us in the elegiac “The Truth.”

Rich in literary allusions—many of which are deciphered in the author’s entertaining endnotes—Rebecca Foust’s sonnets work together seamlessly as a book-length narrative. Paradise Drive’s Pilgrim is a complex and flawed everyperson whose quest for “options” is timely and universal: “Maybe the chance / to do an angstrom of good, make beauty / or protest or laughter.”

The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart

commotionI recently had the pleasure of writing a back cover blurb for Norma Gay Prewett’s poetry collection, The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart, now available from Finishing Line Press (cover art by the author). Four of the poems appeared online in the Spring 2010 issue of Cambridge Book Review with audio of Gay reading her work: “Cottonbound,” “Knowing that Most Things Break,” “Calling You Back,” and “Bill of Lading.”

—Back cover blurb—

Norma Gay Prewett is a gloriously tactile poet, whether sharing childhood memories of her school-janitor father in ‘Shorty’ (‘scraper of Pleistocene gum / from under chairs…’), or ‘Grape Jellying at the End of the Century’ (‘Never will the grape be as sweet, the juice as hot’). She is a pragmatist of earthly practicalities (‘Knowing that Most Things Break’) and a fearless limit-tester in love (‘Finding the Bottom’). A bracing American wilderness beckons and challenges us in the title poem, ‘The Perpetual Commotion of the Heart’ (‘Opening the cabin on April 29, we found snowpack / Had kneecapped the bee-keeping shack…’). Prewett’s survival skills are hard-won and true. You can trust her navigation. Her poetry is a GPS tracker for our lost souls.—Bob Wake, editor, Cambridge Book Review

Rosebud 56

Rosebud56Rosebud 56 (Winter 2013/14) has arrived and it’s as strong an issue as editor Rod Clark has given us in twenty years of Rosebud goodness: From the vibrant nature-fueled Americana of featured Vermont artist Patricia LeBon Herb, to a selection of poetry from postwar Spanish writer José Ángel Valente newly translated by Thomas Christensen. Another must-read highlight is Rod’s Voice Over column, “Recuerdos: Guatamala 1976,” a harrowing first-person recounting of a notorious Latin American earthquake.

Film lovers will find a treasure trove in issue 56: “Shadows on a Screen,” a knowing coming-of-age short story by Thomas Fuchs, son of Hollywood screenwriter Daniel Fuchs (Criss Cross [1949]); Victor A. Walsh’s fascinating essay on Nellie Crawford (a.k.a. Madame Sul-Te-Wan), “Breaking the Color Barrier: Hollywood’s first African-American actress”; and Jack Lehman’s haunting “fictional autobiography,” “Orson Welles in Wisconsin.”

Also included are a pair of warm reminiscences of two iconic Wisconsin authors: Robert Zoschke’s “Norbert Blei (1935-2013): A writer with a capital ‘W,’” and Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe’s classic piece on Madison poet John Tuschen (1949-2005), “Poet is a Stranger in His Own Land.”

Believe me, I’m only scratching the surface of this issue (cf., P.S. Mueller’s illustrated exploration of Baby Boomer obsolescence, “Fader”; Rick Geary’s cheerfully sinister Afterwords comic, “My Home Town”). And, sure, let’s not forget to mention my short story, “Ty-D-Bol Blue,” which I’m delighted to see in print after first appearing online in last summer’s Cambridge Book Review.

Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated

Coming September 2013
Cambridge Book Review Press

0989402517Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated
By Judy Endow, MSW

$30.00. Buy from PayPal or Amazon

“Working 13 years with students who are diagnosed with severe autism, my colleagues and I have often wanted to visualize and better understand what our students were seeing, feeling and thinking. Judy Endow’s Painted Words takes us on a picturesque journey into the mind of one autistic person through her vivid and breathtaking paintings and sculptures while also explaining in detailed description and poetry what she sees and, via sensory, how she experiences it. Helpful suggestions for working with individuals on the spectrum open a treasure box of insights. Having this ‘backstage pass’ into autism will be priceless for educators, parents and individuals on the autism spectrum.” —Joanna L. Keating-Velasco, educator, and author of A is for Autism, F is for Friend: A Kid’s Book for Making Friends with a Child Who Has Autism.

“Judy Endow combines her art, poetry, and prose to create a thought-provoking book of self-discovery that viscerally captures the essence of a world which only few experience—a world of subtle beauty that can turn too bright, loud, and overwhelming. The practical advice at the end of each chapter has helped me understand and be a better parent to my autistic child. Painted Words is a book to read, reread and share with other parents, educators, physicians, and therapists so they too can learn to appreciate the autistic experience. I’m buying it for all of my friends!” —Debra Hosseini, author of The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions.

“Judy gives us a compelling view into her world through words crafted on the page, connected with images that illustrate her experience of being autistic. She encourages the neurotypical world to change their perceptions and assumptions about people with autism, to ask ourselves questions. Painted Words challenges our thinking, leading us to examine beyond what we see on the surface. Your view of autism is bound to shift after experiencing autism through Judy’s words and paintings.” —Maureen Bennie, Director, Autism Awareness Centre, Inc. (www.autismawarenesscentre.com).

“By sharing her paintings and poetry in Painted Words, Judy Endow provides rare insight into a person with autism, including her heightened sensory awareness, her need to establish predictability, her social needs, and much more. This captivating book tempts the reader to learn more about the uniqueness of autism and its neurological impact. Judy shares her experiences, asks thoughtful questions, and challenges the reader, by putting words and visuals to her early childhood. She provides her vision of the world, and her perspective will flood you with emotions and leave you looking through fresh lenses at those with autism. Painted Words is a wonderful gift to us so-called neurotypicals. We may very well feel like we are the ones that are lacking and, thus, not measuring up. Using her own words, I summarize Judy’s contribution with this book by saying, ‘The girl her mastery shows!’” —Danette Schott, M.A., executive editor, special-ism.com.

“Judy Endow has long been one of my finest and clearest teachers when it comes to understanding autism. In Painted Words, Judy takes me into a new, deeper comprehension of her experience of autism using the mediums of poetry, prose and visual expression via her paintings. Her strong activist voice takes no prisoners, requiring me to examine how my own neurotypical arrogance can be a contraindicator in forming relationships with those in my life with autism. This strength is juxtaposed by the clarity of Judy’s paintings, which provides both visual representation and softness, entering my consciousness in a manner completely different than the words that accompany and explain. Judy’s ability to use her own experience to provide ideas and strategies for working with others is a treasure which she shares in each section of the book. Painted Words is a book that will appeal to autistics and neurotypicals alike, as we move forward to bridge the differences in how we experience the world to forge relationships and create better lives for those we love with autism.” —Kate McGinnity, M.S., educational consultant, and co-author of Walk Awhile in My Autism and Lights! Camera! Autism!.

“Judy Endow’s Painted Words is a sensitive and beautiful portal into a life lived with autism. Through evocative paintings and poetry, Judy explores her own experiences and offers invaluable advice to parents, teachers and other professionals who work with people on the autism spectrum. This heartfelt book sparkles and glitters. Highly recommended.” —Jeanette Purkis, author of Finding a Different Kind of Normal: Misadventures with Asperger Syndrome.

“Judy Endow’s Painted Words is an immersive, artful, and educational experience in understanding autism. Judy reveals her autistic neurology or ‘operating system’ by showing her way of perceiving, thinking, and learning. Painted Words is a step up from autism awareness. It is about understanding and accepting diverse minds.” —Jill Jones, filmmaker, currently researching and producing a documentary about autism and sensory perception (www.spectrumthefilm.com).

“Judy has brilliantly demonstrated her skill as a writer and an artist who proudly lives and loves autism. Her candid words and stunning art light up the spectrum as an example of the endless potential of all autistic people.” —Malcolm Mayfield, specialist/consultant, founder of Autism STAR (Autism Spectrum Training, Advocacy and Recruitment), www.autism-star.com.

Painted Words takes the reader on an unforgettable journey far beyond written text—to a place where visual imagery dances with poetry to provide an intimate understanding of the world of an autistic. Judy Endow’s powerful use of personal art work, poetry, and written text is a must read for every professional working with individuals on the spectrum.” —Ellen E. Eggen, MS LPC ATR-BC, Art Therapist, Director of Planning and Operations, Common Threads Family Resource Center, Madison, Wisconsin.

“What a wonderful book! In combining her talents in both writing and the visual arts, Judy Endow has given us an intimate look into her life with autism that is informative, engaging, beautiful, and thought-provoking. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this book.” —Peter Gerhardt, Ed.D., Director of Education, Upper School for the McCarton School, and the Founding Chair of the Scientific Council for the Organization for Autism Research (OAR).

“Judy reveals her unique sensory experience in this generous and compassionate offering. Here, as always, her words provide keys to understanding the autism experience. Yet more remarkably, Painted Words reveals her experience through pristine and seminal art images that open the autism experience in ways that words cannot. The vivid colors and textures of her art invite us into her experience. Her ability to define crucial aspects of the autism experience is matched by precise suggestions to guide neurotypical connection and relationship with persons with autism. I hope Painted Words helps you listen and see with new eyes. Prepare to leave misguided conceptions of autism behind you.” —John B. Thomas, M. Ed., educational consultant, and a principal author of TEACCH Transition Assessment Profile (TTAP).

Painted Words is an especially valuable book because it weaves together, in a single volume, the prose, poetry, art and sculpting skills of the author with autism demonstrating how they interlink, interact and complement each other. That is an interesting experiential venture in its own right. But the book doesn’t stop there. Additionally, the ‘Considerations When Working With Others’ section at the end of each chapter provides very useful and practical advice distilled from all of the above. These useful hints, tips and pearls are easily understood and applied, put forth in a very reader friendly fashion, for anyone wanting to better understand the differences between autistic and neurotypical thinking and behavior.” —Darold Treffert, M.D., author of Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant, and a consultant on the movie Rain Man (www.savantsyndrome.com).

About the Author

judyendowAuthorPhoto

Judy Endow

Judy Endow, MSW, is an author and international speaker on a variety of autism-related topics. She is part of the Wisconsin DPI Statewide Autism Training Team and a board member of both the Autism Society of America, Wisconsin Chapter and the Autism National Committee. In addition, Judy works with the Autistic Global Initiative (AGI), a program of the Autism Research Institute. She maintains a private practice in Madison, Wisconsin, providing consultation for families, school districts and other agencies. Besides having autism herself, she is the parent of three now grown sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. Judy’s website is www.judyendow.com.

A Theory of Lipstick

A Theory of Lipstick
Karla Huston
Main Street Rag Publishing Co. 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Lip“I only write poems about sex,” begins Karla Huston’s poem “My Husband Thinks.” The poet proceeds to catalog the more quotidian concerns she insists have graced her work over the years, from “the dentist’s office” and “rotting potatoes” to “paperboys peeing in the snow” and “even the guy who stole my parking place.” But damned if “My Husband Thinks” doesn’t suddenly spring to pulse-pounding life with the lines, “Today I wrote about how the pubic hair I shaved / for you has started to twirl and bend again, / how the skin itches, the way a healing // wound does …”

Huston has never shied away from the maddening predicament of desire, its commingling of love and spite, sacrifice and lust. She can be a brutal satirist of the tyrannical male gaze. The poem “Mona Lisa Imagines” is a stream-of-consciousness monologue of mounting irritation by the artist’s iconic model while Leonardo—“farting when you bend for a rag, / or scratching your balls”—demands prim stillness from his subject: “At least the twelve apostles could / gnaw meat off bones while they lingered / or leaned into a bit of gossip / or fingered silver coins. Today // you want my hands folded just this way.”

karla

Karla Huston. Photo: Steve Huston.

A Theory of Lipstick, Huston’s first full-length collection (after more than a decade’s worth of six well-received chapbooks), is comprised of fifty-four poems. While not always about sex, they are never less than insightful about our shared messy humanness and the ecstasies of the natural world. The title poem, which originally appeared in Verse Wisconsin and was awarded a 2012 Pushcart Prize, is another of the poet’s masterful catalogs that blends the sensible and the sensual, this time into a rhapsody of Day-Glo images: “made from fruit pigment and raspberry cream, / a lux of shimmer-shine, lipstick glimmer, duo / in satin-lined pouch, Clara Bow glow: city brilliant / and country chick—sparkling, sensual, silks / and sangria stains, those radiant tints and beeswax liberty— // oh, kiss me now, oh, double agents of beauty …”

Especially memorable are Huston’s portraits of small-town inhabitants whose lives have the vivid contours of Chekhov or Welty characters. They include “The Dog Catcher’s Wife” (“She’s concerned / that even the nets, nooses or tranquilizer / darts won’t save him from the angry ones”) and “Vanishing Woman” (“But now / even bad sex would be better / than none, grinding blindly into / the night, mapping the smoky / landscape with her flesh”), as well as rueful group snapshots like “Girls Tanning”:

Stretched on benches the first warm day in May
so sure of their beauty with their firm arms
and thighs, their high-riding breasts, so content
knowing that they own the world
as the wind steals their hair and eyes, bright
with the strain of staring into the sun,
posing, white teeth flashing as they lick
cherry gloss from their lips. […]

Accessible and inviting even at its most acerbic, Karla Huston’s A Theory of Lipstick is no unproven hypothesis, it’s a fully vetted and means-tested map of the American heart and heartland.

Native American Classics

Native American Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 24
Edited by Tom Pomplun, John Smelcer, and Joseph Bruchac
Eureka Productions 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Publisher/editor Tom Pomplun’s Graphic Classics, now on their 24th volume, have always had more in mind than merely giving literature the comic book treatment. At their best, which is most of the time, these anthologies bring together brilliant artists and adapters who have seemingly invented their own genre: recontextualing marginalized literary works and bringing them to life in a manner that feels both mythic and vitally relevant.

gc24_cFor Native American Classics, Pomplun has been joined by two co-editors of Native heritage, John Smelcer (Ahtna, an Alaskan tribe) and Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki). Both notable authors in their own right, Smelcer and Bruchac have assisted Pomplun in curating a treasure trove of undersung literary history, much of it from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and matched these eighteen stories and poems with contemporary artists, many of whom are themselves of Native ancestry.

Some of this literature has only in recent decades been reclaimed by scholars and critics. Take the case of E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), a Canadian writer and stage performer of Mohawk heritage, whose 1894 dramatic poem “The Cattle Thief” is strikingly illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (“a Tongva/Scots-Gaelic illustrator” according to her Graphic Classics bio). Although Margaret Atwood has championed Johnson and even written the libretto for an upcoming chamber opera based on Johnson’s final days (scheduled for a May 2014 premiere at City Opera Vancouver), Atwood nevertheless failed to include Johnson in her landmark 1972 study, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.

“The Cattle Thief” is told from the perspective of white vigilantes tracking and gunning down an aged and malnourished Cree Indian chief. The chief’s traumatized daughter righteously curses the trackers:

“Go back with your new religion, we never have understood
Your robbing an Indian’s body, and mocking his soul with food!
Go back with your new religion, and find—if you can—
The honest man you have ever made from a starving man!”

alvitre

From “The Cattle Thief” by E. Pauline Johnson. Illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre.

A good deal of the excitement readers will undoubtedly share upon cracking open Native American Classics is the sense of experiencing earlier writers on the front lines of clashing civilizations. Christianity does not fare well in these skirmishes. But neither is the white man’s religion unfairly demonized. This could be in part because the authors were themselves sometimes conflicted by warring cultural sentiments.

“The Soft-Hearted Sioux” by Zitkala-Ša (1876–1938), adapted here by Benjamin Truman and rendered in gorgeous painterly style by the triumvirate of Jim McMunnTimothy Truman and Mark A. Nelson, tells of a young man with Bible in hand returning to his tribe after graduating from a missionary school. His naive attempt at proselytizing to save the soul of his dying father leads to a rite of passage that turns the biblical tale of the Prodigal Son on its head. The story ends with the kind of multicultural ambiguity that would satisfy even the most hardened postmodernist. It’s one of the highlights of an anthology that seems chockablock with highlights both literary and artistic.

Somewhere Piano

Somewhere Piano
Sarah Busse
Mayapple Press 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Begin with the beckoning title of Wisconsin poet Sarah Busse’s Somewhere Piano. Within its pages, we find the eponymous poem doubling down and rechristened as “Somewhere Piano, Again.” It’s a poem about getting things right, not just on piano or paper, but in our heads:

These are the rehearsal rooms of the brain,
strangely echoed, some, and others
strangely dead. Wander once more
the narrow, ill-lit halls.

There’s no poetic triumphalism here. “Somewhere Piano, Again” suggests a painfully stalled dark night of the soul, a writer’s prayer for illumination:

Rehearsing and rehearsing
on the instrument of haunt, reversing again,
and overheard through walls, muffled,
a someone else, anonymous, not quite

in tune, remembered ever, trying
and trying (how much we want)
to get that passage right.

Busse is a rare species of writer: a secular poet of the sacred. She has found a language to illustrate the all-too-brief moments of revelation that sneak into our days, the instances of what theologian Jean-Luc Marion has called “saturated phenomena,” when we’re astonished by unbidden hints of connectedness. Busse’s poem “Flicker,” for instance, begins:

This morning a flock of flickers—flash of red,
flash of yellow at my feet—rose and flew
past the blue turkey-foot, the prairie dropseed.
The grasses nodded their purple heads, bronzed,
lazy in their affirmation … until the wind blew.

Although the moment evaporates in a September breeze, the poet’s own “feathered heart,” in the second stanza, has been altered by the experience: a quickened recognition of “how the honey locust / shivers down its gold and gilds my driveway …” By the third and final stanza, following the trail from prairie to driveway, the poet arrives home with a renewed reverence that continues to draw its airborne imagery from the bird flock seen that morning: “My children toss leaves up to see them / leap and fall and leap again, laugh and beg for more.”

SomwherePianoBusse’s poems have the curious feature—not uncommon in religious poetry from Donne to Dickinson—of never quite being about what they presume to be about. Her work directs our gaze or our contemplation to something beyond the poem’s focus. She’ll grant you a stable ground outside your kitchen window, but then she’ll pull you seductively toward something chaotic and profound, undefined but ecstatically present at any given moment if we choose to engage it, take it on. Here, embedded within a poem framed around her eight-year-old son’s whimsical improvisations on the family piano (“To Robert Cabaste Wind on His Birthday”), a kind of cosmic disturbance invades the morning:

He is playing imagined music for
imagined listeners of imagined radio, the lit
windows of morning kitchens dot the hills
of the Driftless. The music launches,
and a coffee cup suspends, dishes
go unwashed, an argument hangs midair.
Eyes go vacant at the curious passages …

In the final stanza, mirroring her son’s improvised melodies, the poet/mother is inspired to improvise her own morning prayer or hymn, a suburban matins:

Blessings on the marriages of the morning,
blessings on the scrambled kids about to board buses,
the dogwalkers and garbage trucks and gardeners
who will let the music drift over and off
and get on with their variegated days …

Sarah Busse

Busse in the last few years has gained recognition as a tireless proselytizer for poetry, especially in her roles shared with fellow Wisconsin poet Wendy Vardaman, as co-editor of Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press. Verse Wisconsin found its voice—or, to be accurate, voices plural, as in “multitude”—when in the thick of the winter 2011 labor protests in Madison, the magazine’s Facebook page became a living anthology of poets old, new and spontaneously birthed, reacting in real time to a historic political crisis. In January, 2012, Mayor Paul Soglin appointed Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman to a four-year term as Madison’s Poets Laureate.

While two chapbooks preceded it—Quiver (Red Dragonfly Press 2009) and Given These Magics (Finishing Line Press 2010)—this is Busse’s first full-length collection. The real success of Somewhere Piano’s diverse and rich selection of 47 poems can be measured by the fact that Busse’s chilling 2012 Pushcart Prize-winning poem, “Silhouettes,” an account of a home-invasion and sexual assault, is but one example of the high level of artistry on display throughout Somewhere Piano.

[A version of this review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Wisconsin People and Ideas.]


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