Ross’ first collection of poetry reads at 70 mph—an unexpected feat for the short lyric.
Most of this journey takes place in a car, in third person. Unnumbered pages enhance the pace. The opening lines give a good sense of the book’s momentum and its emphasis on interior response to emotional events: “He got tired of holding the scrap of paper up / in the wind. / He pressed the brakes and slowed the car. / He hated that he wouldn’t let go.” Readers learn that this scrap of paper was tossed by his mother into his father’s grave—a bit of untranslated writing that holds a talismanic power: “Even now, years later, he couldn’t let go of it.” This “he” is a “professional,” driving his car into the heartland, days after a debriefing at work. Spurts of personal information appear among the descriptions of the road trip: “He loved to drive his beautiful car. / The open road. / Any road.” Along the way, he remembers war stories at bedtime and his father’s traumatic final days: “trapped in a cancer-induced, / time-warped nightmare. / Landing on Omaha Beach. / Over and over and over.” As he drives, he recollects other low and high points: a “sorority-type” he met at a party, the “superstore” that put the small-town shops out of business, a career achieved in some top-secret branch of government service. The car itself is special, his father’s “infantry blue, 1960, Chevrolet / Impala convertible.” Driving with the top down he feels “closer to America,” a patriotic sentiment that undergirds the book. “Whistling and driving” take him to “another / small apple-pie town” and to a sudden, heart-stopping crisis, “screaming into madness.” Parts of a military career spin through a brisk set of lines: “Infantry basic training. / Flash. / Airborne. / Flash. / Special Forces. / Flash. / Pathfinder. / Flash…Flash…Flash.” The rest of the story is a raging blur where violence and inevitability collide.
A cliffhanger for poetry? Why not? These road-trip musings offer a refreshing take on poetry’s form and function.
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.