King muses on physical and ancestral connections in his debut collection of poems.
The book’s title refers to a now-submerged landmass that connected Great Britain to Northern Europe until about 6500 B.C. King uses this “verdant tundra hunted and fished by ancient peoples” as a metaphor for the unseen bridge that connects each person to his or her hereditary past. For King, this leads to the West of Ireland, where one of his forbears was the newspaperman and storyteller James Berry. With echoes of his ancestor, as well as midcareer Seamus Heaney, King explores family and folk history side by side, all the way back to bog bodies, Neanderthal skeletons, and primordial fish. Showcasing an obsession for color and texture, plants and landscapes, he teases at the unknowable nature of the deep past in his mostly short poems, which often bear deceptively simple titles. In “Gods,” he writes, “Much in those first few / hundred thousand years was slowly new.” He contrasts the gradual, painstaking evolution of nearly every object and place with the evanescent nature of individual understanding; for his narrators, this is a cause of much muted sorrow and bemused joy. Overall, the poems are as worn and wondrous as the ocean floor where Doggerland now rests. King is equally adept at brilliant phonetic stanzas and concentrated verse essays. In “Uncles,” for example, the semantic meaning barely registers above the rhythm: “Augustinians, schooled / in Salamanca, smuggled / to the strand at Inisfail, / their father’s lugger / under half-sail, two / great prow lug sails / finding the wind.” In “Unsettled,” he delivers an entire ethnography in 10 lines: “Imagining ourselves / done with migration, we / imagined ourselves / done, not loosed. // We did not flow or go easy / We made such enemies / in our heads it pleased us / to name them // and give their antitheses / the names of gods.” King is a Boston native, but his collection is a must-read for devotees of the last half-century of Irish verse. The poems have few easy endings and rarely a dull line; they terminate where they need to, but the collection itself concludes far too soon.
A tremendous volume of poems that will illuminate and linger.
A collection of poetry focuses on everyday beauty and wonder.
Over the course of 50 poems with straightforward titles, retired high school English teacher Hathwell (Between Dog and Wolf, 2017, etc.) explores the world around him. Nature is a touchstone of his poetry. In “Poplar,” he expertly describes the titular tree “catching a breeze, flutter sage and silver wings” while in “Sunflower,” he lingers on the “wide blank face” of the “saddest flower.” The author also showcases culture in his poems. “Fred’s Girl” is a propulsive ode to the Fred Astaire–Paulette Goddard duet in the film Second Chorus, and “Sunday at the Symphony” captures the ethereal experience of live classical music. But the poems aren’t limited to the author’s immediate surroundings. A visit to the Spanish Steps, where Keats died in 1821, is the subject of “Readiness Is Everything,” which encourages readers to “imagine the world without you.” Hathwell plays with humor in “Dust Is Winning,” about the futile fight to keep things clean, and shows his cynical side in “Red Dress,” which describes the “ruby radiance” of an ensemble depicted in advertising. The act of writing is another recurring theme in this collection. “Song” depicts a successful writing day, in which “I rise from my desk, / Majestic, and I dance,” while “Sure Thing” warns readers “that language is prepared to lie / When you ask it to.” Quiet moments are also rich material for the poet. Throughout, he matches his message to the pacing of the poem, creating an immersive experience for readers. In “Finding Myself in the Morning,” readers sink into Hathwell’s serene, solitary scene where he can finally “not wonder / who is speaking, or what comes next.” In “Ten O’Clock,” the audience can sense the descent into a “deep, forgiving sleep.” The one flaw of this collection is its breadth. Because everything from Astaire to flora is fair game, the individual poems don’t always flow from one to the next, and transitions can be jarring.
Like the demigod from which it takes its name, Defining Atlas is a durable, uplifting volume.
A strong current of self-affirmation, self-love, and self-confidence runs through this work, and readers will come away feeling their spirits improved. We feel some of this current in the clever “Limited”; Michaels takes the titular subject and turns it on its head: “I’m new, but I’m old / Not limited beyond my means and methods / But limited because I’m special / Special beyond the heavens and everything that surrounds me / That I’m among…limited.” Elsewhere in “From the ashes…I am,” he sings a hard-won song of renewal and rebirth: “I am victory in its rawest form / I am hope that never conform / I am the will, the drive, and the truth / I am like everyone, like you.” But Michaels does not hoard specialness or victory for himself; he wants it for his reader too, and in “Wake Up!” he urges us on toward a bright future: “There’s something good here for you / Your purpose can never be defined by just one blue / Your destiny awaits you.” Underpinning Michaels’ stirring message is a strong faith in God, whose presence infuses many of the poems here: “But I always thank God for the latter / For the strength and will it takes / Shines so bright / Shines so right.” Michaels often adopts a loose scheme of rhyming couplets, and this decision leads to one of the book’s few weaknesses. Too often, the poet picks awkward or odd pairings; e.g., “And if I could become a perfect saint / I would make believers out of the ones who say they ain’t” and the “you/blue” couplet mentioned above. But such missteps are infrequent, and they don’t dim the warm light that emanates from Michaels’ fine volume.