Merging geographic precision with detailed lyricism, Berry’s collection of poetry spans continents and states of the soul.
The best poetry focused on a particular locale tends to evoke sensory stimulation as much as meaning, and Berry’s collection of nearly 60 poems is no different. Born in England, the author has travelled widely throughout Africa and the United States. With a doctorate in geography, she casts a discriminating, discerning eye on the landscapes to which her travels have taken her. In unrhymed, compact poems—few more than a page in length—the poet speaks with seriousness about the relationship between the natural world and one’s inner world. In “Music of Place,” she writes: “Carried in the wind is the music of place, blown / like washing on a line, white sheets flapping, sending / large billowing folds of sound back to me,” which typifies her ability to translate a place into a finely detailed, highly specific moment in her past or present. Some poems set in North Africa elevate journallike jottings into sharply etched experiences. The dominant moods suffusing these poems are calm and meditational, perhaps reflecting the influence of poet Elizabeth Bishop, who was also attuned to inner and outer geographies. The final 20 poems shift focus from geography and place to reconciliations or frictions with family members; many relatives have passed on but are vibrantly alive in the author’s memory. These family sketches often turn on a particularly poignant phrase spoken to the author by a parent or loved one: “Windows” pivots on Berry’s father’s comment, “I could drive if I wanted to,” as the author notes that her father never owned a car. Few books of recent poetry reveal such a penetrating awareness of how the environments in which we live affect us as much as we affect them.
An extraordinary, nuanced collection by a gifted poet.
Bitting (Good Friday Kiss, 2008, etc.) returns with earthy, adventurous and existential free verse.
Bitting is the rare poet who clearly understands that sublimity is never more than one overwrought image away from absurdity. Though clearly capable of the sublime, she is careful to counterbalance the sacred with the profane and the transcendent with the commonplace in crafting what is, on the whole, a forcefully well-proportioned collection. In “Mammary,” for instance, narrator and reader are transported by a chain of associations from the highway sights outside the narrator’s car to visions of her friend’s body as she undergoes a mastectomy. What begins as psychological free association grows increasingly mystical (and worshipful) as the narrator evokes Promethean suffering—"I imagine birds and flight / as the elliptical sweep of sharpness / cuts the pale sky of your chest, / steel beaks of surgical tools / carving out the flesh cream, / making smoke of tumor meat”—before resurrecting her friend’s breasts as “two blond angels, / flying out / beyond the moon’s milky scar” to “spread their innocence." As counterweight to such moments of profound pathos, Bitting demystifies some of life’s most hallowed experiences, such as in “Birth,” a darkly humorous portrayal of childbirth as a telescoping series of indignities in which a Demerol-injected mother on “a Jimi Hendrix acid trip” greets her “baby’s head galumphing / through the ravaged pit” with “a sphincter blast of feces.” Between these extremes, this collection covers a lot of ground—music, death, sex, family, autism, suicide, aging, food—but it always does so from the perspective of a thoroughly embodied narrator. There is a comfortable, even epicurean, egocentrism to Bitting’s narrators that insists on the primacy of the sensual. In this way, and in the way her narrators respond to mortality by burrowing even further into their own skins, Bitting proves herself a sister poet to Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds and Sheryl St. Germain. Yet even with her range, lighter poems like “His Hat,” a comic come-on to Johnny Depp, sometimes feel like filler.
A Jesuit priest and educator offers observations on the large and small, the divine and human, in this series of brief free verse poems.
As a Jesuit priest with a Ph.D. in literature, Rewak has all the qualifications to deliver a bookish, esoteric and sanctimonious debut. He could wax on about Milton or drop in an obscure metrical line about the glory and vengeance of God. Thank God he doesn’t. Instead, he delivers what one might imagine as a departure from his day job. His succinct poems (few surpass 200 words) are understated and sometimes even playful as they bound between observations on memory, fantasy and ultimate delivery. The author pays tribute to family members, friends and, repeatedly, the nebulous origins of inspiration and, in its absence, wordless boredom. His tips of the cap, however, are subtle: a math equation, cornfield or ticket stub. As he weaves farther in and out of projections and microcosms, the references tiptoe into weirder waters. Sir Gawain and a rhino drink martinis in separate poems. In another, an egret orders pasta. The animal motif all but fills the book’s last third with the often-anthropomorphized hosts: owls, raccoons, porcupines, llamas and bees. Whether man, beast or spirit, the center of Rewak’s poems carry gentle points on life, death and spirituality that ease their way into print. He has a charming tendency to take long pulls on ideas before punctuating them with terse and tasteful endpoints. It builds a reassuring rhythm rarely broken, though it can occasionally make the trip’s destination seem imprecise. Nevertheless, the collection’s meanderings rarely stall. The magical realism of Rewak’s voice helps to set his poems in the footholds of his disciplines: between the magic of spiritualism and the mirror that literature holds to odd, old reality.
Warm, wistful and occasionally weird; a subtle, carefully crafted book of poems.