In her third book-length collection, Bitting (Notes to the Beloved, 2012, etc.) converses with fellow poets, both classic and contemporary.
If Louis C.K. is a comic’s comic, and Benoît Violier was a chef’s chef, readers might think of Bitting as a poet’s poet. While she displays her wares for all to see—and admire—there is a level of excellence in her verse that should provide numerous pleasures for the connoisseur. In her new collection, she is often in conversation with poets, including Dante Alighieri, Wendell Berry, James Merrill, and Frank O’Hara. “Immanent, Purgatorio” is subtitled “(with Dante Alighieri),” and the poem—like the Italian master’s Divine Comedy—reflects on the afterlife as both reality and metaphor: “the world being a jagged heaven my soles learn / to tread more tenderly. My head of red clouds / and wounded distortions: bells and satanic flutes heard / at hyper-pitch by the flea-bitten crowd.” Yet “Immanent” doesn’t merely recall Divine Comedy; written in terza rima—the very difficult verse form that Dante made famous—Bitting’s piece could be a canto in the Purgatorio. By contrast, “Thoughts Jotted in a Vicodin Haze on a Line by Wendell Berry” features a more confrontational reworking of the famous farmer-poet’s work. In Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” the author imagines that untamed nature might be a succor “when despair for the world grows.” Feeling the gnaw of the same despair, Bitting turns instead to “a pill in my dresser / wrapped in layers of Chinese silk / [that] I down / with a swig of pink lemonade / On an empty stomach / it’s pure.” That Bitting replaces Berry’s peace of wild things with pharmaceuticals is either playful or totally provocative, but in either case, the poem is a worthy, inventive homage to the elder writer. Near the heart of her book, the author gives readers in “When the Sky Makes a Certain Sign” one of those lines that might sneak into her obituary decades in the future: “Every poem’s a love poem.” And in every one of Bitting’s diamond-sharp verses, there is something to love. Readers should count themselves lucky if this sublime volume falls into their laps.
With this poetry collection, the author firmly establishes herself as a powerful contemporary voice in American letters.
A collection of poems explores loss and its aftermath with stark thoughtfulness.
The work of Chmielarz (Visibility: Ten Miles, 2015, etc.), an accomplished poet, has often been published in literary magazines; “On Green,” included here, won the Jane Kenyon Award from Water-Stone Review. This collection is arranged in three parts, each with its introductory poem: “At the Cave’s Entrance,” “The Widow’s House,” and “Tastes.” The first of these helps establish something about the speaker’s husband and their relationship, which gives force to later poems as they develop. He doesn’t like the cave’s darkness on his guided tour; “He’d had enough of that / as a refugee,” writes Chmielarz, deftly suggesting much more to that story. She uses enjambment to good effect, propelling the reader, like a descending tourist, down through the poem to an unexpected place: “No, caves offered no thrill / for him. Much warmer, // making his way through / the darkness inside me.” Those lines have the pride and wonder of someone who loves and is loved. But they are valedictory; the poems turn to illness, the writer’s awareness she will be alone, the funeral, the grief counseling, the loneliness. Throughout this fine collection, Chmielarz’s well-crafted lines get the most out of every word. They seem to place their feet with the stunned, careful precision of someone who is holding herself together with every resource she has. These resources include Chmielarz’s mastery of tone, through which she transforms unbearable grief into multilayered, quietly emotional, often ironic conclusions. For example, in “When Are You Coming Back? I’m Getting Tired of Waiting,” the speaker contrasts generic applies-to-everyone advice with the definite particularities of her husband—his forehead, for example, his frown, how he lifts a brow. The poem’s last lines are “And I’m to let you go? / Like some balloon? The grief counselor says yes. / Quietly yet firmly, yes. / I raise my chin and say nothing.” The saying is in these poems, which never wallow in self-pity but instead fearlessly probe bitterness, jealousy, undesired courage, and bleak longing with lapidary attention to language.
Spare, powerful, well-calibrated poems that perceptively anatomize grief.
New poetry from Elliott (Shattering Porcelain Images, 2014, etc.) tells the story of Bernie Bjørn in multiple voices.
Readers learn about Bernie—her swallowed grief at having given up a first baby to adoption when she was a teenager, her fallout with her cold mother, her desire to give her daughter, Anna, a sibling, her untethered attraction to sex and men, her brilliance—in a series of 50 monologues. The characters include Leland Eckroth, who courts her mother and whom Bernie propositions; the boys she grew up with, now adults who might be lovers, might be helpers; Jack, her husband, who leaves his young wife perilously alone; girlfriends; a lawyer; and so on. The neighbors say that when Bernie moved in next door, she “livened up our gossip / lightened up our lives / she was all beat and boogie / full of hope love and curiosity.” Bernie has a direct, passionate influence on others: “Nights the naked sounds of her lovemaking / drove us back into each other’s arms.” Auburn-haired and thin, she’s nearly magical: “Some creature stepped out of a / Botticelli painting.” “Song Twenty-five—Pimp” makes clear her fierce singularity: “That’s when I knew / Bernie wasn’t anybody’s wife.” She’s fragile, too, enough to be institutionalized. One love interest counsels her: “Everyone who is in pain / who is lonesome and lost / is in a hurry / I told her / you must be patient.” Although the dramatic heroine doesn’t get a song of her own (unless it’s “Song Forty-four—Alter ego”), even a particle in the atmosphere gets a voice in this remarkable book. A riveting poem titled “Dustmote” makes a wild, weird interruption into the human voices to record Bernie leaving her husband: “I dust mote on her body powdered / felt the bloom scrubbed into her skin / heard her words why don’t you get a job / I’m going back to school // I dust mote dancing / heard the door behind it echo / last time last time / last time.”
These songs of the ardent title character sing like wildfire; readers should be singed and ravished by her burning.
A powerful collection of poetry in which humor is tinged with sadness and grief is leavened with warmth.
In her third book of poetry, Heidish (Destined to Dance, 2012, etc.) experiments with punctuation, spacing, and the physical shape of texts. Most often she writes in free verse as she reflects on her life as writer, poet, and instructor. “The Hour of Blue” appears to convey the awkwardness of a new relationship with its averted eyes and shared silences, but the speaker turns out to be addressing a roster of unknown pupils before the start of a new semester. This clever rendering of the student-teacher dynamic is but one example of the author’s skill and creativity. Similarly, she’s able to evoke an entire life story in just a few words, as in “The Wizard,” which reveals the secret lurking behind the gruff exterior of a gifted repairman whose grey eyes are “paired nail-heads.” Nevertheless, themes of mortality and loss are front and center as Heidish bears witness to the passage of time (“Let me be an old rock-wall in an Irish field”) and bids farewell to various people (her first editor, her oldest friend, a beloved aunt), places (a bookstore, a tearoom, a bakery), and things (her typewriter). Two poems consider the healing effects of live music in medical settings. In “Up Near the Ceiling,” the playing of a harp in a hospice inspires this gorgeously consonant and assonant question about the spirits of the dying: “do they float on a lavender ocean, / foam-flecked and lit from far below?” At the same time, not all poems focus on doom, gloom, and fading light. Heidish addresses more quotidian concerns, such as the impatience of a doctor’s waiting room, the indignities of summer, and the nature of hats. She also writes in the voice of a neglected pet fish and wonders how bears receive her discarded writings as they rifle through the garbage. A poem about a 60th birthday celebration features “all of those tiny candles, / studding a long barge of tiramisu,” and the speaker wryly calls for legislative action limiting the number of candles permitted by law, for the safety of us all.
Poems full of linguistic delights and keen emotion.
A debut book of poetry that celebrates one of the oldest, most venerable forms of mass transit.
Two admirable urges drive Newcomb’s new collection of train poems. The first is the author’s sense that Americans have left their vast continent unexplored; they rush off to Europe and the Caribbean without realizing that a treasure trove awaits right off the nearest rail line. Therefore, much of his verse celebrates the beauties of the landscape he sees on his own numerous rail trips. “Montana Daybreak” presents that state’s “highest hills…aglow with light. / Herons continue to sleep in the trees by a marsh / And coyotes search for prey by the smell, / Unafraid of men.” A later poem, “Mountain Winter above Stevens Pass,” gives a glimpse of one of Washington state’s gems: “Skyline Lake, frozen deader than a doornail, / Has cleared the sky of trees. / Somewhere underneath the buried, silent ice, / Hibernating frogs and cold sluggish fish EXIST.” In his nature poetry, Newcomb resembles the poet Gary Snyder, who mixes unpretentiousness with a keen attention to detail in his own celebrations of the Pacific Northwest. The second force animating Newcomb’s verse is his desire to encourage others to shift toward more sustainable forms of transportation. (The poet is also an accredited greenhouse-gas analyst.) In other words, he seems deeply aware of the fact that train travel will help people protect the natural wonders they see on their journeys. Thus, a sense of ecological responsibility anchors poems such as “Thoreau on Wildness,” which opens with Henry David Thoreau’s famous reminder, from his essay “Walking,” that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” As that poem wraps up, Newcomb writes, “Thoreau hoped that we might have the capacity / To appreciate wildness / And to feel the connection between ourselves and nature, / But he knew from his travels / That men will change or eradicate wildness.” Train travel, the author hopes, will help us appreciate more and eradicate less.
Provocative verse set to the rhythm of the tracks.
In this poetry collection, Snyder (Tending the Light, 2015) invites willing readers in with poignant commentaries on life, death, and fatherhood, among other topics.
Poetry is meant to make readers see the world through a different set of eyes, to brush aside the veil of everyday life and allow them to contemplate things from a fresh perspective. The best poets, however, offer more: they offer an alternate consciousness. Snyder’s collection does just that, lending his readers an awareness of life as he understands it in pleasing and accessible language. These poems range in scope from simple modern haiku (“morning dew / in the teacups we left / by the campfire”) to soliloquies on the nature of time: “Time is a tightrope / stretched between the poles / of wanting and not wanting.” There are intimate elegies, such as “For Kathy,” which celebrates a life of love in a short poem graced by Wordsworth-ian simplicity. This collection is varied in its subjects, as demonstrated by the poet’s poignant reflections on illness and disability (“Love Letter to My Left Hand,” “Should Things Become Blurred”) as well as death itself (“Different Advice on Death,” “Mr. Death”). He moves from the personal (“Lux Perpetua: four octets for my son” and “When He Was Twelve”) to the religious and mythological in “Ikaros,” “The Remembered Thorn,” and “Shakyamuni’s Road.” Existential questions appear in poems such as “The Hand,” tempting the reader to stop and contemplate them: “What will we do then / with the unlived parts of our lives? / The hand can hold / only so much.” The explanatory notes at the end aren’t necessary for readers to understand and appreciate the poems, but they show Snyder’s consideration of the reader—a trait that’s all too rare among contemporary poets.
A delightful compilation by a poet who has much to offer.
This collection of poems explores themes of childhood, family, and growing up, often making ancient connections with the natural world.
White (Motherlode/La Veta Madre, 1977), whose work has appeared in several literary magazines, uses the metaphor of a slideshow in the title poem to link the author’s personal history with the outdoor landscape. In it, family snapshots, ethereally illuminated and projected on a bedsheet screen, are as eternal as fossils; the father’s narration gives substance to the passing moments captured in the photos. The author links this powerful image to the flickering light that illuminates cave art and to Oklahoma red-dirt furrows “full of sunset.” Yet darkness waits in “the pause between slides”—a darkness that is, like a lightbulb-battering moth, “drawn to the brief incandescence / of our lives.” One could also see the slideshow as a metaphor for poetry, which similarly captures moments through illumination and language—often with darkness in the pauses. This poetic autobiography relates a childhood in the Pacific Northwest, where wild nature granted blessings but could be harsh—like the game-warden father in “Wrestling Odysseus,” who teaches his son how to wrestle: “My mother leaves the room, my sisters begin to cry.... // There is no honor, no prize of arms to win in this, / no lesson here but fury.” Yet he’s also the man who brings his son “a cup of ‘Don’t-tell-your-mother coffee.’ ” Other poems explore children’s egotism; the importance of imagination, stories, and family; and how innocence becomes experience. Some especially strong poems describe three seasons of service on a fire crew, a coming-of-age process in which the speaker learns the job, develops camaraderie, dreams of women, and begins to know his profession. White’s fresh images resonate, such as this description of aspen trees carved by generations of Basque shepherds: “The body at burial should be like this, scarred, wound in song / our pitiful histories scratched on paper thin as light.” Family photographs tie in with the title poem’s themes, giving the book another layer of meaning.
Well-crafted verses with strong images and good storytelling.
As told in rhyming couplets, when a sneaky dog steals a scrupulous dog’s hole, things fall apart, sparking philosophical reflections.
At the Burbles’ place, house 42, live “Kirby the Sneak and Arlo the True,” plus Kismet the Cat. Arlo is a clay-colored guard dog who keeps watch over the yard, which includes the hole he dug as a puppy. Kirby is a black-and-white collie “of a thousand disguises, unbeaten at Clue, // Dogma Cum Laude from Trickery U,” so he devises an elaborate plan to steal Arlo’s hole. He fills it in, runs off with the hole in his mouth, and puts it in neighbor Mr. McCornchowder’s yard, making a quick escape. Somehow this alters the balance of nature: “The earthyworms’ dirts had turned hard as a rock, / And the dragonfly’s motor was starting to knock,” for example. Kismet the Wise, however, orders Kirby to “get the hole back.” With some difficulty and a little damage to himself, Kirby does so, and all returns to normal. Kirby sits down to think it over, with wide-ranging philosophical musing on the nature of holes, points, circles, physics, time, webs, and more. Both dogs find themselves reflecting on family history and tradition: Arlo’s of fidelity and Kirby’s of sneakiness and sheepherding, counterpointed with the backdrop of a perfect summer afternoon. The end of Kirby’s exploring is his grand theory, “The Downhole Effect.” Williamson (A Most Marvelous Piece of Luck, 2008, etc.), a much-published poet, seems unable to write a dull line. His lists are a special delight, as when Kirby assembles his hole-recovery gear: “One snow axe, two snorkels, a hollow point spear // A vanishing hand cream called U D’sappear,” and so on. His images are fresh and striking: an American dog with “the patience of mesas”; “the Spirograph seeds in the sunflower’s swirl.” This might resemble a children’s book, with its rhyming couplets, animal heroes, and amusing line drawings, but adults will likely better appreciate its zinging verbal wit, clever rhymes, and learned allusions.
Brilliantly comic, pleasingly discursive, admirably dexterous, this narrative poem is a tour de force.
Material destitution coexists with spiritual exaltation in this poetic and photographic meditation on homelessness.
Wilson, a photographer and documentarian, shot and talked to people in homeless settlements in Oregon and Washington, sussing out the hard-won insights of these “American street philosophers.” Despite the tenuousness of their camps of cardboard boxes, sleeping bags, and the odd tent hunkered beneath bridges and overpasses that constitute their only shelter against lowering skies, their poetic musings keep returning to a crucial theme: the importance of community. “If the universe aims at richness / then the uniqueness of individuals is prime,” notes Tom, a former philosophy teacher, but he also believes that the “evolution of friendship / is greater, more important / than anything I could own or collect.” It’s a poignant reminder that the loss of connection to other people, even more than the loss of a house, is the central tragedy of homelessness. The second half of the debut book therefore explores Dignity Village, a settlement situated in a Portland parking lot where some homeless people have regained permanent shelter in the form of 42 tiny houses built from castoff and recycled building materials and supported by donations and residents’ sweat equity. It’s a slightly preachy place—“solar and wind powered,” with composting toilets and organic gardens—and its ethos is one of austere self-sufficiency. Writes resident Paul C., “Welfare begets welfare… / strips dignity, self-esteem, self-worth, self-reliance,” while Ed G. counsels an almost Buddhist renunciation of the material world as the path to freedom: “The more you have the more you want / and you stay unhappy because / there’s always more to want.” But autonomy is as much a group as an individual enterprise to judge by Wilson’s appealing photos of Dignity Villagers cooperatively building houses, staging barbecues, and painting their brightly colored sheds with cat murals to beautify the neighborhood. Even more captivating are his portraits of people—old couples, grizzled loners, toddlers, young people busking on the accordion for change—which bring to life these often invisible Americans in all their vibrant humanity.
A moving pictorial study of the meaning of home and an implicit critique of society’s conception of the good life.