Karlan (Evolution, 2013) contemplates the impossibility of life and the inevitability of death in this long poem.
The poet’s subjects are youth, aging, history, and the struggle to come to terms with each. He begins with images of childhood—specifically, with “you” watching swans floating on a pond and wandering through the sunny streets of Tel Aviv. These are quickly complicated by an image of a suicide bomber blowing up a bus, and later, a biblically tinged loss of innocence during a first sexual encounter: “You recoil in terror / From the woman who would / Bring you into history / Enter her gate / And leave the garden / A flaming sword / To prevent your return.” Reminders of the fleeting nature of life are everywhere, and Karlan often returns to the metaphor of the tel, an artificial hill formed from centuries of detritus: “Tel / A mound on the side / Of the road / There, for the weary tourist to see / Gazing absently out the window / Before nodding into sleep. / Tel / Layers of conquest / Displacements / Of the golden dust.” The word is found in the names of both Tel Aviv, the modern Israeli city that lies at the heart of the poem, and Tel Megiddo, the ancient site that’s the origin of the term “armageddon.” Karlan’s verses have a dreamlike quality, vacillating between concrete imagery and more abstract, visionary stanzas. The author is stronger when working with the former, crafting lines that are as specific as they are fanciful: “The streets are known only to themselves / Where old buildings hold secrets / In a grammar of fire escapes / And curtained windows.” Although readers will get a sense of Karlan’s overall argument in broad strokes, they may find it difficult to precisely identify where some specific images or topics fit in, as some are quickly introduced and then dropped. However, there’s a sense of universality in the poet’s answer to unanswerable questions: Writing itself. “Black ink on / White paper / Creation out of / Nothing / To learn with the brush / To draw the words / With energy and passion / So that every word will tell / Every day, a new page / A new beginning.”
A sometimes-inscrutable poetic work with many intriguing images.
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.