A shape-shifting debut poetry collection by Pavlakis.
This book opens by asking fallen soldiers to “Come up, boys. / Come up from your moldy graves.” From there, readers begin to ride the fast current of the author’s poetry. Alternating between traditional verse, heaped lines, and poetic structures that recall those in the famous avant-garde poetry magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the author’s poems have a dynamism that’s similar to that of poet Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence. But although the poems propel readers forward, they never really arrive at a destination. The text is riddled with too many clichés—so many that it feels intentional—such as “Now is the ever-present / that is never done. / Now is a piece of always” or “Is a lifetime just that—a life of time?” Although the platitudes run freely, readers will continue on, ambling toward nowhere—deeper into the mind of the speaker, who never shines through the force of his poesis. Indeed, poesis is lacking here—particularly one that would use these formal experimentations to create something other than what contemporary conceptual poetry has already given us. For instance, “Know What I Mean?” emulates Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice without using any of the white space of the opposite page as a canvas, and in “Wholeness,” the line breaks are just as jarring as they would be in a Robert Creeley poem but never quite slap like a contemporary reader may expect them to do. In another instance, Pavlakis shows a compelling interest in narratological concerns: “the poet walks his unshaped thoughts / down dim, deserted idea drive / turns right on word avenue / passes weedy vacant lots / comes stunned / to dead end.” Thus the author puts a Joycean Leopold Bloom before the reader, moving on to a different linguistic field, but he never does anything with it. Readers are left hanging, waiting for some bold, loud, and syntactically irreverent linguistic matter to arrive. Overall, the poet has done an intriguing job of juxtaposing various forms of contemporary poetry, but he never allows himself to go the extra mile.
A compelling set of poems that would benefit from less rigid experimentation.
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.