This is my long-awaited (by some) and much worked-upon (by me) 9th novel.. It is the 9th one I’ve written, though it is not continuous with the other 8, nor is it a part of their series, which was thematically inspired by the I Ching. This novel is perhaps my most ambitious so far, as it deals with topics, several of them, which I have never attempted before. To the end of accounting for some of these things, in case my handling of them should seem irregular, I acknowledge the previous work, which I have read about, of Peter Wohlleben, Suzanne Simard, “The New York Times,” “The Wall Street Journal,” and “The Smithsonian Magazine.” As well, I beg the indulgence and tolerance of the Canadian Ministry of the Interior and the Toronto Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Division: I have taken what are perhaps gross liberties with the little amount of research I was able to do online about their operations, and have more or less fantasized about what it might be like to become a Canadian citizen from a previous situation of overwhelming stress and difficulty. Though I would at one point have very much liked to have been a new Canadian, I was there in Toronto in a relative situation of ease. Though often short of funds, as most graduate students are from time to time, it was for education I was there, and I enjoyed many privileges thereto. I have written partly of locales and businesses past and present of which I was aware, but there are others which again are totally made up from a sort of composite knowledge of some situations in large cities in general. Toronto is without doubt a world-class city, and so I have made bold to assume that it must have many of these same characteristics as other world-class cities. This is all really, except to perhaps apologize for my heavy reliance on Google Translate for what I wanted to have my characters say in Ukrainian and Russian: I doubt it’s all perfectly accurate, but I have taken care to add nearby English approximations so that if a closer translation ever becomes necessary and possible, I myself will at least remember what I was trying to have my characters say. Finally, but not the least, I offer my welcome and hope that any Eastern European readers from any country following this story will forgive me if it seems to them at all inaccurate or unfair in any way. Years ago, I lived along St. Clair West in Toronto, as I had lived also in other locales there, and I was surrrounded by a largely Eastern European culture. I have borrowed what I remember of their speech patterns and their ways of dealing with each other, and I hope I have done so fairly accurately and not unjustfiably, though I know many things may have changed. I have been following the course of the Russian attack and war on Ukraine, and many may wonder why, if I am in basic sympathy with Ukraine, I made my main character only half Russian and half Ukrainian. It was definitely more of a challenge. But at the time when I started the novel, in Fall of 2021, I had less than no idea that Russia would be attacking, and I was writing purely from a standpoint of an interest in what had been said variously about the United States and more Northern climes in relation to ecological concerns. The novel was started in Fall of 2021, and then suddenly in February 2022, when Ukraine was attacked by Russia, it became necessary somehow to reframe my chapter on “wilding” in Russia a different way, and so I waited from February until October 2022 finally to finish the book. I feel that things have come to such a pass that the book requires to be complete and to find friends now, and to find friends for the right causes, and that a just and fair peace for the sovereign land of Ukraine is one of the morally ecological issues involved. So, I have thus written, and as I have ended my novel at a non-finale point, it bears the legend at the cessation of text: N’EST-CE PAS FIN. Possibly bad or incomplete French, but the thought is there. And so I hope it is, that this bizarre old world goes rolling on for many a millenium to come. Best, Victoria Leigh Bennett (Shadowoperator)
Today, I am going to do something I rarely do, and review two books at once. They are by the same poet, Alex Guenther, a force to be reckoned with in the poetic world and widely known and celebrated on Twitter and other social networking sites for his poetic acumen. Being by the same author is not normally or naturally a reason to put them both in the same review, however, except that by that means I can best compare and contrast them for the reader, and hope to convince the astute consumer of good poetry that though they have certain distinct similarities, they are different enough for anyone to want to own both of them. They are available from various subsites, and as you can see from the image above, one need only go to bitly.com/sonnets2021 to locate these sites. But first to the conviction that these books are worth investing in for the small cost and the large satisfaction to be gained from reading them through.
The two books are respectively “the heave” and “the deodar seeds,” and they were simultaneously released. According to the author, they were begun during the original lockdowns of the first Covid period, which seems to have been a period of intense reflection and soul-searching by the author. The lack of capitalization in the words, according to Alex, a witty and intensely erudite soul, was due to the fact that they were composed on a phone, which called for easy manipulation; later, though still not due to any e.e.cummings-like assumptions of manifesto, this form of writing became preferred for its own sake, possibly a result of the poet’s self-aware but unassuming modesty. “the heave” is a book written more in reference to modern-day life in cities, particularly Eastern cities, as the author and his wife have resided for many years now in the East, and are now resident in Bangkok, Thailand, where Alex teaches and writes. “the deodar seeds,” in contrast, is a book about exploration, conquest and empires, and has a quite broad scope, treating not only of Eastern conquerors, explorers, and literary figures/saints, but also of a few Western or European ones.
Both books are Petrarchan sonnets, being fairly standard in rhyme scheme and meter, except for the odd sound effect or forced rhyme and an occasional extra syllable. Their style is similar, yet in both cases, the rhymes are often quite unique and highly imaginative, with a standard, expected rhyme being quite rare. As well, and this is a major and particularly attractive quality, the enjambment–or carrying over of meaning from the end of a line and resolving the thought with a portion of the next line instead of using end-stopped lines–the enjambment! It produces something of the juggling and oftentimes jarring rhythms of contemporary daily life, and prevents the poems from having a quality rhymed poetry is often criticized for, that of sounding jog-trot and bouncy, too unintentionally comic. Though Guenther has a succinct and piercing wit in the literary sense of the word “wit,” he is never foolishly comical or silly. In fact, though there is no pomposity about the two books at all, it is impossible to read them without reference to the intellectual qualities of the bright and far-reaching examinations of the poet’s chosen topics. In both books, there are many, many words and concepts introduced which would at first be quite foreign to an uninformed or not widely traveled Western person, but there is no reason at all to fear the encounter with these perhaps previously unencountered concepts or facts: Alex is always a good poetic host, and uses such words and concepts in a self-explanatory way, without being condescending.
Now, to the differences: though the two books, “the heave” and “the deodar seeds” are very alike in sonnet paradigms and generally in style, yet the pace of “the heave” is quicker, possibly to convey the haste and scramble of modern life, whereas the tempo of “the deodar seeds” is slower, more considering of all the explorations, discoveries, pilgrimages, and empires discussed. “the deodar seeds” deals with various colonial dreams, and the explorers, artists, holy figures, conquerors, and victims of these imperialisms. “the heave,” on the other hand, deals with the modern streets, shades of experience, and mental and emotional states of contemporary empires, the fragmented, dissonant, sometimes nightmarish echoes of contemporary personhood. There in fact is more of a personal, intense quality of reflection in “the heave,” for a total of 54 sonnets, whereas the 108 sonnets of “the deodar seeds” are personal mainly in the way Alex offers some of them as imaginative explorations of interior states of mind of various world-famous figures, a sort of dramatic monologue in sonnet form.
As a final means of making my points, I would like to offer two sonnets through “fair use” form of quotation, one of my favorites from each book. First, from “the deodar seeds”:
alaric on the walls
let oil-black plumes of mingling smoke arise;
the visigoths are taking rome. we've won
mere plunder; little justice has been done.
The vaunted roman dream, we've learned, applies
to citizens deemed worthy in their eyes--
not streams of stateless refugees who've run
to seek asylum from encroaching huns.
they turn us back, and teach us we're despised.
they mock our leather trousers and our shoes;
we lead their armies; still they keep us down,
and gothic blood has often stained these streets;
we sought security, and were refused.
we tried our best to serve the roman crown;
perhaps they will respect us in defeat.
The genius of the above is that without distorting the historical element, Alex Guenther has driven home the universal and topical elements of Alaric's discourse.
Now, from "the heave," one of the resolving and latter sonnets:
to a lotus
o beautiful, for doubly floating; no--
say triply; rising from frog-spawn and mire,
then hovering as pale empetalled fire
on slender stem, amid the ukiyo
or shifting world of transitory show
in which we swim suspended, where desire
breeds pain--where we, until our cells expire
writhe blindly as the tadpoles down below.
impossible, since nothing is beyond
or separate from matter's pulsing swarms;
impossible, since all is baited bluff,
this apparition from a fetid pond;
your gently glowing, pale empetalled form
is floating briefly, beautiful enough.
This second sonnet of my quotation is consonant with the Buddhist view of life, which Alex is conversant with and which he avers is his preferred outlook. Nevertheless, he is not morose or gloomy, but instead maintains a humorous and gentle persona. He appears on Twitter on Thursdays at @PoetsCornerALW, curated by another poet whom I have recently reviewed–Arthur L. Wood–and also contributes tweets of the occasional haiku, which can be found on his profile timeline, or on your own timeline feed. Also, he is available for converse on two other sites: http://www.facebook.com/alex.guenther.104, and http://www.instagram.com/guentheralex. And, if after you have read the books, you would like to contribute further to a fine poet who clearly knows poetry, history, and human nature, you can do so at http://www.paypal.com/paypalme/guentheralex.
Copyright 2021, Arthur L. Wood, Cover design, Hugh Rochfort
Having read Arthur L. Wood’s first collection of poetry, Poems for Susan, with its tender strains of love poetry and its far-reaching set of influences, one might be at least partially prepared for his second collection, Scarlet Land. Here also, there is sometimes tenderness of language, and the influences, both submerged and spoken of directly, are equally far-flung. But the tenderness here is more tempered with a certain cynicism, an acquired knowledge of more of the world in the tone, a certain sated weariness from time to time in the language, which yet does not make the poetry dull-witted with rancor or wearisome to read.
In Scarlet Land, the poet as a figure has not only the topic of love to contend with; he is also embattled in that same sensation of love, embattled in society, in poetic invention, in many things. And of course, in the background lurks always the awareness, like Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, of being a poet in a condition or time of disease: just as in 2020, Covid appeared in Poems for Susan overtly, here it appears more insidiously, in the background as one is aware of the unhealthy influence. There are songs of dismay at modern conditions:
I cannot find my England. Does she lie in dust I sweep,
Does she hide away in sunshine, in darkness does she creep,
Does she hum a pagan melody and converse with the stars,
Is she frightened by the madness and the music from the bars?
I cannot find my England.
There are poems investigating or betraying to view a poet’s states and choices:
What more can I do?
I've channelled the poets,
I've died so many times,
Yet so few are listening;
I've written ten thousand
What more can I do?
So many great poems!
What more can I do?
Tell me, would you please tell me,
Because I haven't a clue--
I get up each morning,
I shower and dress,
Then die many times;
Another call centre
Awaits me, I guess.
Or, taking a line through Milton, more affirmatively:
Let my body starve!
Let my soul rejoice!
I cannot fail my task,
I must be precise!
I'll reinvent the songs
With the trumpet of my voice,
And pave the path of poesy
That leads to paradise!
Raymond Keene, OBE, comments in his Foreword to the book that this is “fraught territory,” and indeed, in this book, the poet allows himself to be used nearly as the canary in the coal mines is used, who is the barometer (if he lives or if he dies) of whether or not there are unseen and dangerous substances being breathed by those around him. It is certainly in Scarlet Land a more “fraught” mental and moral landscape than in the previous book.
As to the structure of the poetry, Wood has always been good at achieving a sense of closure of the poetic material, regardless of whether the poem ends on a refrain, on a variation of a previous statement, or even if the contained sentiment diverges from the poetic shape by not being conclusive. He has also not disappointed in continuing his genius with metering and rhyming, though there are herein a bit more of poems in blank verse.
Sprinkled throughout, though not devoted to any one individual love by name as was the case in the previous book, there are still some hopes given out for the persistence of human love. The characteristic love poem here now occurs in spite of negative conditions, not so much in the absence of them as was the case in Poems for Susan:
While We Love
The world of raging fire,
The cold and dark abyss,
The fluctuating chasm,
Are nothing while we kiss.
The lake of burning sinners,
The acid in the sky,
The hole within the middle,
Are nothing while we sigh.
The steel-whitened seaweed,
The limping one-eyed dove,
The corpse upon the mountain,
Are nothing while we love.
All in all, though the poetic voice is often strained here, the poet frustrated in the extreme to the point of sketching it all out for the reader, we see here a more complicated and mature poetic schema than before. Poems for Susan was an astounding and magnificent book, but it was the poet’s courtship of his subject and his talent; Scarlet Land is the beginning of his alchemical marriage to the same.
Arthur L. Wood is a young poet from the U.K., residing near Winchester, Hampshire, who is generously sharing his first collection of poems, Poems for Susan, which was written in a few short months’ time in the warm season of 2020, some of his poetical recitals of his poems being on YouTube. But more about that later. He is a widely versed poet (to make a true pun), whom the notable writer of his Foreword, Raymond Keene, OBE explained, has written a work which bars the progress of the destruction of intellectual civilization. This may sound hyperbolic, yet if you’ll indulge me with this post, and try the young man’s poetic skills for yourself, you’ll see that it’s only perhaps a bit overgenerous. In this sense, we wait for what more he will do, because he has made such profit of his early opportunities, that now he may be the only person who can live up to them. As Raymond Keene notes, he has been under the influence of “Baroque and Metaphysical verse,” and Marlowe, Shakespeare, Byron, Blake, Yeats, Eliot, and others. Sometimes, Wood alludes to these poets outright in the verses of his book, sometimes he seems to have swallowed them whole and digested their substance, then integrated it into his work wholesale, a good thing, as it proposes a tradition of continuous poetic involvement. The quality I find most enchanting, however, is the sheer intoxication of words, which to me of all the influences named is the most like Shakespeare at his heights, in the use of sometimes startling verbal inexactitudes which then become new and vibrant precisions for the reader, which is the way true poetry works.
The book begins with “A Preface in Seven Parts,” followed by 70 separate poems of varying meters, rhymes, and subjects, though the overwhelming number are devoted (and I stress that word, devoted, or consecrated, perhaps) to one main subject, the subject of a young love. It is organized and passes through easy stages of poetic awareness, though a careful editorial process seems to have shaped the work into a whole, as if the poems are all parts of one long poem.
Now, just to give a bit of a tempting taste of the treats in store for the reader: The gradually evolving subjects are these:
Of youth and friendship, sometimes under the influence initially of drugs and alcohol;
On those first drugs I ever took
In fields with friends when I was young
With dances of delight and song
And shimmers by the aching brook.
That long and weary journey through
A world of new sensations sweet
Nervous in the dizzying heat
Obliterating on the dew.
Of the threat of madness or emotional instability;
And twice or thrice, I oft forget
I held a knife and slit my arm,
I longed for some enchanted calm
And shook in midnight's fearful sweat.
I struck in anger, sunk in fear
And said, "My life is overworn
I wish I never had been born
I wish to easily disappear.
Of Byronic, Romantic idylls in foreign lands;
I found my soul in lands forlorn
Saw noises in the slow retreat
Of day and grasslands good to eat
And those enlightened fields of corn....
Of the intoxicating influence of love;
I am possessed by something new
A glimmer like that youthful day
But stronger with a brighter ray
And my beautiful Love is too.
Of the depths of love, as eternal;
"And I can feel the holy hours
Build with restless ecstasy
And thus it feels, thus I am free!
And love in life in death is ours!"
A wealth of poets throned above
Gaze upon our fledging love,
They gaze, they nod, and wisely see
How love grows to tranquility.
Of the awareness of mortality and potential aging playing against that eternity, signs and portents;
If you look you too will find,
You'll dream the year that you shall rot
You'll see the end of your sweet mind
You'll see the end of your sweet lot.
I went to the forest to weep,
Then on to the meadow to cry,
Then on to the hillock to sleep,
Then into the grasses to die.
For my Love was an angel I hurt.
I didn't know wherefore or why.
My passion belonged in the dirt.
So I went to the forest to die.
Of the coming of war and Covid, and yet....;
I turn inside. I turn inside.
India and China go to war
And my dear friend to Covid died.
The world is rich, the world is poor.
I think that every genocide
Was born like this and I can see
And so I'd rather turn inside,
These savage brutes do not hear me.
I end my sleep
Despite my better judgement
And the pleading of my eyes.
Upon my street three emergency vehicles
Six emergency personnel
One man dead. Well, everybody dies.
Come my way and I will rest
Come my way and I will lie
On your million-pleasured breast
With coolest fingers round your thigh,
And like an olive softly pressed
Above your touch my swelling chest
Come my way and we will rest
Come my way and we will die.
Of how other realities impact upon love's legislations;
For evil eyes announce that death is slicing soon
Then move with me in passion round this Moon
And fear the loss and fear the fading flame.
Of Blakean-style hopes for a fairer world;
When work is a toil for goodness
And food is not murder or theft
And peace and religion are partners
Providing the starving bereft,
When beings of blood are the mirror
And fear and unusual sight
Then I will walk easy in daytime
Then I will sleep easy at night.
Of partings, at first temporary, then appparently more lasting;
My life I cannot lose but moan
For times to come now thou art gone
I lost thee yet we meet again
When there is no more grief or pain
When night exhales the dawn.
Of a final dedication of the poems in the verse;
Our flesh may travel on apart
Our hearts may proudly flee the Will
But where I go, whoe'er I know
I will love you still.
The ghostly God is calling me
Clouds are bursting on yon hill
Although I go away to rove
I will love you still.
When you gaze with a wonderful glee
At Time's mysterious view
Then all your thoughts are with me
And all of my thoughts are with you.
And at last, a sort of realization, hard-won, about the infinity of all beings:
Today is the last of the dancing,
Sigh on, sigh on.
To wherever are we advancing?
This gives only the general outline of the whole volume of poetry; there is so much more in the entire book. At some moments, it’s hard to realize, by the very depths of awareness, of the intensity of successfully communicated feeling, of the intoxication of having so many influences thoroughly combined into a neat whole, that the poet is a younger poet, with much time ahead of him still to compose. True, he has another book out already published in 2021 (which book will be reviewed on this site as soon as I finish reading it, I hope over the winter holidays). It’s a bigger book, which focuses more on the development of the poet, with all his generous, gentle, scintillating and perceptive poetical tentacles out during the world’s ongoing Covid pandemic. The title of that book, in case you want to order the two at the same time, is Scarlet Land. Just to give you a short taste of the continued loveliness of his work, here is one of the short poems therein:
All nations go to the dogs,
The oceans size up the land,
The eyes are desolate nerve endings,
The rocks are grinded to sand.
The winds are endlessly blowing,
My heart is still overflowing,
And those joyous embers are glowing
In your warm, untouchable hand.
As an added attraction to this book of poetry, Poems for Susan, you can listen to a YouTube audio recording for free of the poet, who is marvellously trained as a reader, reading some of the key poems. This is the link: YouTube.com/playlist?list=PL2z5ZyeiuCJTM3XyTzrQyKx4T1EI9qaVM. Or, if you’d like to hear this same poet read not only from some of his own works but also give his considerable talent to the deliverance of other poets’ works, you can seek him online at Poetry from the Shires. If you wish to contact him, you can email at email@example.com. Last but not least, the shop address you correspond to online if you want to order either one or both of his books is:
May all my and Arthur L. Wood’s readers have a wonderful season this year. Some of us have already celebrated an early Hannukah this year, but there are still Solstice, Christmas, Boxing Day/Kwanzaa, and New Year’s to follow. Please enjoy yourselves sensibly as regards not only your indulgences, but also your Covid precautions, so that as few of us as possible have things to regret when the season is over. Be Happy!
Some time back, I revised an essay on A.S. Byatt which I had written some years ago because at last I had found another book which I find equal and commensurate to it in stature and able not only to carry on the tradition Byatt established but to ring such changes on it as need to be rung for a different society and such disparate traditions in this country as need urgently to be united. On the basis of having read about 100 pages of Professor Jeffers’ book The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois, I presumed to decide that this was the proper “inheritor” of the tradition Byatt had written in. There may possibly have been some inequity in the fact that I had not finished Professor Jeffers’ book, but I am continuing to read and will naturally do a full review on it when I have been able to finish, as I do with every book of stature which I have an opportunity to read. In my own defense, I would offer such personal facts as that I have also been reviewing other works recently, some of which I took up before Professor Jeffers’ book, others of which were easier to proceed with due to the simple fact that, whether prose or poetry, they were shorter. Also, I am almost certainly going to be forced to move before Christmas or shortly thereafter, and I have been getting ready and packed for that, and have been looking for Senior Housing. Perhaps I should have waited, but I was so eager to share the insight that I went ahead and revised the essay to include the prediction, no, the insistence, that the United States now has a book (there may somewhere be another, but this one is truthful about so many things, and it is a book of our contemporary centuries, too).
This book seems to me, at least, to be not only as enjoyable as Byatt’s book (all mysteries to end soon, I promise), but to be as informative if not more so, and as representative of a people’s culture, whether one is discussing that of the African-American citizens of this country or of our country as a whole, because it doesn’t leave the country alone and hanging, but speaks well for our culture as a cultural artefact. We should be just as proud of it as the British are of Byatt’s book (here it is), The Children’s Book, which only has as much to do with children as any historical book does, as it is a great deal more about the history and mores of the time. I have peeked ahead into Professor Jeffers’ book, but I didn’t want to do this too much before I wrote my final article to come in the future, because I didn’t want to take the risk of possibly issuing a spoiler and ruining it for the many readers who are still reading around me, as I don’t want to hear ahead of time either. And, this book also has a group of children as main characters. I say this in a certain amount of bewilderment as to why I haven’t been able to publish this article, aside from whatever my own skill with words may or may not be, which I leave to my readers. It may only be one of a host of other essays about the new book from a better variety of writers, or perhaps the difficulty has to do with simple editorial lack of space in previously committed journals. I don’t know. But I feel I don’t want to wait longer to cast my vote for the new book, always bearing in mind that I will review it again at better length later on.
It has occurred to me, that even in the two or three revisions this essay has gone through, I may be guilty of some oversight or intellectual injustice. If so, I am willing to hear the fault, from whomever feels they are qualified to tell me what it is. I want to know if I am in the wrong, because these are important issues: the societal issues raised about the status and well-being of a young black citizen and her family and associates in the United States are just as important as the looming issue of WW II was in Byatt’s book, and in my reading judgment are as well and interestingly handled. So, here is the essay: I invite comment, as always. [Thanks to D. L. Keur of the now defunct online journal thedeepening.com for printing the first version of the original Byatt essay, and for original permission to reprint.] Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
One of the hardest things for a reviewer to do is to select out the particular and most essential things which set any work apart from others within even just our own memories, or to perhaps find adequate words to paint pictures of words, not to mention taking account of any that others we’ve read might have isolated for attention. So, reviewers may decide that a particular line or phrase, an image or even a whole poem deserves to be quoted. Gven my own lack-and-well-a-day penchant for the hauntingly and suddenly rhymed, pointed line in a piece where nothing else rhymes, I could select lines from Todd Dillard’s book Ways We Vanish such as the final lines from “If You Are What You Eat Then Today I Am a Flood on My Mother’s Death Anniversary”: “I too have let a child splash in rising waters/just to watch them run home, shivering, to me./I too have left the front door open and invited in the sea.” Or, eschewing that tactic, I could pick the whole of the poem “Scratch Offs,” in which the governing metaphor is that of scratch off tickets, and the poem covers the track of time, of birthdays and whether and how much things from year to year change or stay the same. But this work–though it comes in two separate books, and there are differences between them–functions moreso than some as a whole on the single topic of a life celebrating, coping with, and sometimes intensely grieving, family love. There are more incidental poems, but they seem to operate as isolated moments, moments of freedom from the overwhelming, moments of curiosity about the outside world which can be spared from family life only occasionally.
First and foremost, this is a book of much spiritual and psychological cleanness, not versus being dirty or underhanded, but in the sense that it has a very special sort of subtext. Usually, when people say “This has a subtext,” they often mean “This has an ulterior motive,” or “This has an anterior, hidden meaning,” and often they also mean “which I don’t entirely like.” Others simply assume that everything has some sort of hidden/dishonest subtext. Here, however, if Ways We Vanish has a subtext, it is an exciting one, for poetry, because the “ways we vanish” are ghostly in the sense of being “ways we manifest,” the “ghosts” not being only the beloved dead and the past and gone moments that are manifested, but the living and present and in so far as the future is spoken of at all, even that. All are luminous with their own manifestation.
The ghosts are very alive here, because the beloved ones always have a place, whatever pain has gathered about them as they lived or are living, and though I wouldn’t like to suggest something possibly sentimental or maudlin about a book which has such a clean, tight texture to its poetic stories, there is the same sort of sense in it of the dead persons as well as the dead moments still having a place in one’s contemporary history as there is in Wordsworth’s poem “We Are Seven.” The difference being, of course, that here the voice speaking is one of an adult who knows the reality of death, not that of some “simple” country maid being interrogated in the Romantic haze of an elderly statesmanlike poet.
One of the poems I liked the most from the book is “Love Poem to My Brother As He Gives Our Father a Shave,” a poem which pictures two brothers with their father in a hospital room. There is a comparison made about the sound of the scraping blade on the father’s cheek which is one of the loveliest and most touching I have ever heard: “..that sound,/follicle scraped from flesh,/like tearing open/an envelope–its letter/good news–it says/you are alive/and the ones who love you/most are here, touching/your knuckles, wrist,/as if there grows on the body/a kind of Braille–“.
In fact, in general, the book is even at its most intellectual moments not a hidden text which one must decode and decode again; rather, it is a rough wolf’s tongue lick to its cubs and its mate as a sort of vade mecum into the true realm of poetry, the interior places where grows the root of poetry: fellow feeling, family feeling, and creature feeling, such passages as those sharing tears and laughter with a small child: “my laughs love and mourn and see/they are like living that way.” Here is a poet who is not afraid to say such things in the poetic voice, because they are from the excavations of the sometimes long-buried human voice, and he knows it. And in reading this book, we too can find ourselves and our loved ones again, however long and away the time has been since we last were able to think in this way and say these things ourselves. Rather, here Todd Dillard says them for us, in the saying of them for himself.
Matthew M. C. Smith, the editor of Black Bough Poetry in Swansea, Wales, has reissued his 2018 book of poetry, the modestly entitled Origin: 21 Poems. It is his first collection of poetry in a long life of working on poetry and studying poetics. One of his first contributions to the body of work on literature is his doctorate at the University of Wales, a thesis on the poetry of Robert Graves. Currently, Matthew divides his time amongst a career in work on anti-poverty, education and welfare work; an editorship at Black Bough Poetry/Barddoniaeth Y Gangen Ddu, and a new volume of poetry, all of which makes him truly a Renaissance man.
When I had finished reading Origin: 21 Poems, my first thought was that if I weren’t talking about poetry, I’d say that each of these poems is clinically exact, except that I am talking about poetry, and “clinically” is the wrong word; these are poems rich in feeling, fellow-feeling, and emotional wealth, and here the poetical indirections are made in short, minimalist code of metaphor and description, which perhaps has confused my own non-minimalist poetic practice.
This poetry is definitely something to learn, and to know how to do, for the beauty of the sometimes staccato revelations is extreme, the phrasing a sort of condensed shorthand on the road to perfect portraiture, to individual epiphanies, to separate visions.
The book Origin: 21 Poems is entirely situated around family situations, cultural ones, and natural/mythological/religious ones (all those things in life that are so much bigger than we are), sketching a line from belief and belief systems through the societal structures and remnants of ritual our civilization has left us with to family and celebrations of family and faith, the most personal of all.
There are careful pairings of poems back and forth, weaving, knitting a net to catch us in, with the warp in one poem being a salute to air travel, to being a soldier, either modern or ancient, and the woof of the next poem following being a loving meditation dedicated to a child’s birth or to play with children, or, one of the most moving poems, a poem on the death of the poet’s father, containing some of the implications of his life. There are poems on prophets and guardians and “prodigal” women, nature poems filled with the beauty of winter or the symbolic natural growths of the seasons, and the book ends in a tribute poem to another Welsh poet, Alun Lewis, who died in WW II. There is no accident here in these weavings of opposites, because they not only thus form Smith’s dedication to being a participating witness in all the doings of life, but they also invite the reader to select favorite and most resonant phrases, to read aloud, and then willy-nilly, to be led into a different experience, just as life itself would demand. Here are some of my favorite lines and their topical sources:
the birth of a child: “You belong to the world/to rose-red rivers dipped by the sun/to the white path of light in darkest night/ to frosts of fire beyond our dawn”
the death of a father: “No cry, nor whisper, a cross shape/near crested roar and the people you love/carried you from the shore”
“After Man”: “The fern, the ivy/the circle of oaks/were fast losing names given…our time was terribly mocked”
the modern soldier; “Men of arms…frame-ache, sting of sweat/body-rack past forest tracks/where whippet-lads lead/and bigger lads wane”
“The Moment”; “cycles of sun and/nights of stone//Picasso/his sorrow of shadow/is cast across/a frieze of terror”
the poet’s homage to another poet: “your words grow old/but dare not fade/I heard they took you/in feathers as light as snow/and in that whirling flight/as words exhaled/they kissed your fading glow”
Here, the taut exactitudes I have spoken of in my title are from line to line, but blossoming forth in between are the pictures, the images, bodied forth in and contained by the lines themselves. The overall effect? Almost a contradiction in terms, the lyricism of the burgeoning phrases, held firmly in the short precision of the actual words. Thus, it should be no guess that the preference at Black Bough Poetry is for short, imagistic poems of 1-10 lines, and that the devotion to the human equation has produced a sense of community for poets of every stripe, who are regularly invited to participate every Tuesday online through Twitter, tweeting to Black Bough Poetry, in #Top#Tweet#Tuesday, a rollicking, fun-filled poetic experiment in exposing poets from all areas of the globe to the work of other poets of all kinds and schools. As well, there are occasionally special seasonal contests and participations, such as the recently closed one for Hallowe’en 2021.
As a final and defining note about this poet’s, Matthew M. C. Smith’s, contribution to the world poetic community, I would like to call attention to his election this month (November 2021) to be Broken Spine’s #Writer of the Month. Already, he has participated in more than one poetic activity in this position, all of which information is available to the interested follower on Twitter. If you are not yet familiar with Smith, his book is available on Amazon, and for all the many poets the world over who are already friends, admirers, and poetic colleagues of him and his welcoming, modest and self-deprecating humor, let’s give him another round of applause, and keep reminding him we are eagerly and a bit impatiently waiting to read his next book. I mean, for a man who has so little else to do! Seriously, though, be watching for Matthew M. C. Smith’s next volume of poetry; to judge based on this one, it’ll be another wonderful poetic experience.
Danielle Rose’s first chapbook, for that’s what it is, is a phenomenally impressive piece of first work, with none of the perhaps to-be-expected over-concision of such an item. It is enough, gently enough, but not too much or more than enough. It is, however, more than enough to establish a place for her among those who know and love poetry. Nor is it a bit of preciousness, a fault that short poetry books can fall heir to, especially when they take up such complicated subjects as being trans-, and furthermore attempt to capture the experience as it passes or has passed. For here, Rose has adopted a delicate but comprehensive poetic shorthand whose condensation is a sheer delight.
The poetry in this book is first of all modeled in formal cadences like the tones of Sapphic fragments, or all that we have remaining of Sappho, short clauses and phrases barely welded together, but at the same time sensate and sensible in their pulsing resonances. Throughout, the experience of transitioning sexually is rediscovered and reemerges, moving from earlier stages of awareness (“at first”) through and always through imagistically rich moments to the second stage (“& then”). It doesn’t stop there, however, but keeps on going, surrounding itself with the experience of difference as if to transition once is to acquire forever the habit and ability of change, of meta-phoring.
The book begins with the image of a suicide, sparcely but feelingly imagined as it must have been, in a mirrored world of isolation and aloneness, as if to question whether the buried woman inside must be likewise sacrificed. In the first part of this book, interior and exterior distances are examined. In some ways, the sense of isolation with the experience is so complete that there is no sense of human exchange in the poems, until “my mother’s tears” are mentioned in the final poem of the first half, which is cast in the form of a recipe for “gender swap potion.” But the sexuality has not been without incitement: there is a poem a few pages before this, a poem which bestows a certain fascinated gaze on the male-female experience: it is entitled “on walking outside with my morning coffee at 9:00 am to find my new neighbors fucking like cottontails in their backyard.” It is a vivid and frolicsome poem of a frank voyeurism, one which is not prohibited and not even particularly noticed by the performers being watched.
Much of the poem abounds instead in natural images and creatures, but contact with them is also fragmented and tangential, which is not a fault, but an attempt to locate the experience of difference in a topos of natural life. This is the picture of a mind informing itself from literature, science of various kinds such as ornithology, with the cadences of poetry, and then desperately sometimes only accepting these as enough, other times couching the experiences in near-refusal, or at least despondency. The word “empty” or the concept of an emptying-out-of occurs repeatedly, but not always in the same sense: at first it is in an emotional sense of desolation. Then, it becomes something taking place more in a comforted sense of achievement at being thought, for example “pretty in soft light,” “pretty like a swarm of bees passed out drunk in a yellow flowerbed/pollen floating/all in soft light so pretty”
The reward for the writer, here, is not held back from the reader; this is not a selfish poesy: in the final four words of the last poem, entitled “an inventory of things that have changed,” is the repeated word “joy.” For in the end, from its opening lines to its closing anthem, this is a book about possibilities.
Jendi Reiter’s 2016 novel Two Natures follows a rich history of novelistic suggestion and tradition, though the subject matter is drawn from a time not that long ago, the 1990’s in New York City. It lends itself to other titles, as well: if Two Natures were not evocative enough, it might almost be called The Choice: is a person one sort of being, another sort of being, and how does one decide what to do to live with or heal a split in one’s own psyche?
Even more, it might be seen as a relative of Françoise Sagan’s Un Certain Sourire for a new generation and a different sexual orientation. In that book, as the female protagonist is trying to decide about her lovers, she thinks “Car enfin, tout au moins quand on est jeune, dans cette longue tricherie qu’est la vie, rien ne paraît désespérément souhaitable que l’imprudence.” As Bentley Rumble‘s rewardingly close translation has this: “Because finally, at least when one is young, in this long swindle that is life, nothing but carelessness seems desperately desirable.”
It is in fact carelessness which simultaneously tempts and distances Julian Selkirk, the young gay hero of this novel, as being in the middle of the vivid and abruptly changing world of the 1990’s in New York City’s fashion community, and being at the same time involved to a greater or lesser extent in the amorous exchanges that go on all around him. He attempts to negotiate a deal with his God, a god from his Southern background who does not always consort well with the contemporary scene of Julian’s sexual orientation.
Julian is a fashion photographer addicted to assigning values in an aesthetic way to surfaces, to externals, all the while trying to see beneath the surfaces of people and events himself, in order to survive and seek happiness. And the “carelessness” which I mentioned before is something he must be very aware of and leery of in the era of the AIDS epidemic. Still, he is always drawn onward, into risky situations and into mourning for those who have fallen victim to AIDS, and he must constantly be assessing how he will evaluate those of his friends whose behaviors and choices flash up vignettes morally as clear as photographs and yet as confused in their significance for him as double exposures.
More than just being a history of Julian’s accomodations to his situation and moments of growth and decision, this is a romance novel for the gay male community, with none of the quick, easy answers of a cheap trade romance tale. Instead, it is a genuinely fraught romance in the sense of the original French “roman,” a powerful narration of a portion of a man’s life and its loves in the French style, following the bright and sometimes frightening or threatening kaleidoscopic, shifting pattterns and cutting edges that one sees through the lens imperfectly when one is the central viewer; to someone not involved in the changes and their visions, it seems like only a matter of putting the kaleidoscope tube aside, of refraining from vision and wisdom.
But our Julian Selkirk is not a refrainer, and in the course of this novel, follows a path of wisdom-gathering all his own, in dealing manfully, as it used to be called, with everything from a difficult and abusive family situation to the changing fortunes and sometimes collapses of his heroic icons and of celebrities whom he must rely upon for his manner of making a living for himself.
And there is no lack either of scenes of passion, frank and explicit and enticing without being undignified or in any way what one would describe as pornographic, for they are written always from the perspective of a kind of love without sentimentality, and yet sentiment itself is often there. There is a sharingness and a fellow-feeling in these pages that if read with sincere commitment to the human situation do not lend themselves to mockery, derision, or denial. Go along with this author, won’t you, regardless of what your own orientation, or what you may think you already know of that of others, and discover for yourself how faith can be broadened to be inclusive of even those perhaps very different from you, or maybe you may even learn something more about the true nature of love in others. I heartily recommend this book as it covers the entire spectrum of its readers’ experience, from that of the primer for those just finding themselves re: their awareness vís-a-vís this gay life, to that of the already aware/involved.
Cover design by Don Mitchell, Saddle Road Press. Used by permission of the author, Jendi Reiter.
There is a corollary to the proposition that there’s more rejoicing over the return of a prodigal son than there is over the continuing excellence of a constant one; that corollary is that it’s worse when a potentially good man goes bad than it is when a bad man continues what he’s doing. In Kingsley Amis’s book The Green Man, we get a double reflection of this second notion, when we not only meet up with a modern day man of relaxed moral fiber, but also with the ghost of a minister turned evil revenant who confronts him.
In an English tradition descended from the ancient fear of nature and natural forces–for our worship of nature is an entirely different tradition, though equally ancient, which even so recognizes the power of the earth–the “green man” is a sort of roving spirit, sometimes neither good nor ill, sometimes outright malevolent, and sometimes given to testing mankind, as in the medieval tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which many of you will already have read and I hope enjoyed in a literature class. In Amis’s book, the man of easy morals is an innkeeper named Maurice Allington, who is situated with his wife, father, and daughter in an old inn in Hertsfordshire, England. Though the elemental force is so strong that there’s almost no bargaining with it, Maurice learns from the evil spectre of the minister’s ghost and a mysterious young man, and makes some sacrifices on his way to learning what evil and good may actually be about.
The book relies on a combination of fear and hilarity, the deep-seated source of a certain intensified response from the reader in both directions. The book is not unlike other chilling literary/stage/movie experiences I can think of: for example, the 70’s stage show “Dracula,” with its equally hysteria-inducing combination of the two otherwise opposed tendencies. We alternately thrill with horror and gasp, then laugh out loud. A movie experience utilizing this same formula was “An American Werewolf in London,” which used the by now reliable combination of slapstick, horror, satire, and cultural and occult lore that Amis’s book uses. But Amis’s book preceded these dramatic offerings in time; it was first published in 1969, though also published in the U.S. by an American publisher in 1986.
So, just what are Maurice Allington’s problems? Firstly, he is dissatisfied with his marriage to his wife, Joyce, and wants to bed the lovely Diana, wife of his best friend, the doctor Jack Maybury. His father, who is not in the best of health, lives with his family and Maurice is unsettled by him, too. He also has a massive drinking problem, as his concerned family members and friends constantly remind him. And he has to decide if it’s his drinking which is causing the most unusual of his problems: that is, he sees spirits. He sees spirits and experiences psychic phenomena far beyond the limit of the simple antique ghost tale which is retailed by him to his customers at the inn to pique their interest. Of course the book deliberately, artfully, and effectively leaves it unclear for the most part as to whether these are genuine manifestations, a result of the door between worlds suddenly being opened, or whether Maurice is actually becoming mentally unhinged and debilitated by the liquor and his own lack of balance alone. The only being who seems to confirm the sightings he himself experiences is the cat, Victor, who in the time-honored tradition of cats with psychic abilities arches his back, hisses and spits, or runs out of the room and hides when the ghosts come to visit.
Maurice sees not only the sinful and spirit-summoning minister from the past, but also what turns out to have been the minister’s (Underhill’s) wife; an incarnation of a young man who acts something like a modern version of Christ but something more like a modern version of Satan; an apparent manifestation of a twittering bird which makes him wonder if he has delirium tremens; and a large clump of walking devastation of foliage which reads like one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s ents on steroids: this last is the so-called “green man.”
The dapper young man without a name helps orient Maurice to the experiences he’s undergoing, though the orientation isn’t one conducive to dwelling safely and well in this world. Others try to help him recoup his losses, such as his doctor friend Jack Maybury, whose wife Maurice is trying to bed on the sly. His own wife, Joyce, and his son Nick and Nick’s girlfriend are all equally concerned, and are trying in their various ways to help Maurice come to terms with what they mostly regard as a fiction of his overwrought imagination. His young daughter Amy is in danger of becoming a pawn in the game he is playing with his otherworldly experiences and foes. Finally, he has trouble keeping track of the time, time having no meaning when he’s conversing with the elegant young man, because his watch and clocks no longer aid him in determining how time is passing when they are speaking to one another. Worst of all, perhaps, is his difficulty in coordinating daily reality with the supernatural things which are happening to him (in his head?).
For Henry James readers who have encountered some of the criticism written about James’s story “The Turn of the Screw,” this double-barrelled treatment of suspicious happenings, when a character is proclaimed by different critics to be 1) suffering under a real visitation from the other world or 2) suffering from an overactive imagination, a drinking problem, a psychological disorder, et cetera, will be familiar. James is in fact mentioned in The Green Man. And though I’m not going to reveal the ending of the book (with its unexpected romantic alliance), I can safely tell you without ruining the reading experience that even up to the very end the suspenseful questions of exactly what happened remain. After all, part of the time we may be in the mind of a crazy drunk (or is he in legitimate danger of losing his soul? Or has he squeaked “out from under” losing his soul?). This is a book well worth the occasional difficulty with theological terminology and concepts; in fact, it is a book that I think Henry James himself would’ve been proud, in our time, to have written.