While I was working at the Institute of American Indian Arts as interim faculty secretary, I was given or procured a few books of poetry.
A Book About Mothers and Daughters
The first one I found on a table of giveaway books near the offices of the creative writing department. I wasn't expecting much from an old book from 1978 titled Tangled Vines, A Collection of Mother & Daughter Poems edited by Lyn Lifshin.
Happily I've been looking for mother-daughter poems recently, but, (due to the publication date), I was expecting some annoying hippy-speaking mama-drama poems. Women were just starting to dig into their true feelings back then (as I recall) and their first poems were understandably indulgent and self-centered. For me, a Gen X feminist, the results are sometimes over-the-top and eye-rolling, such as transpires from a daughter to a mother.
But these poems were far more restrained than I expected. Even though I'm not a mother, there were poems from the mother's point-of-view that I liked: "Rachel" and "Aubade" by Linda Pastan (the latter capturing a mother's amazement at her daughter:
Now my daughter takes the day
into her hand
like fresh baked bread--
she offers me a piece.
I also liked "Waiting for the Transformation" by Judith Minty, and "Mothers, Daughters" by Shriley Kaufman which perfectly captures the love-hate relationship many mothers and daughters have: "
break through to her, she will
drive nails into my tongue.
"The Second Heart" by Ellen Witlinger ("The child I do not have/rides on your shoulders/when we go out walking./Everyone we pass notices") and "Pain for a Daughter" by Anne Sexton were both moving.
"The Petals of the Tulips" by Judith Hemschemeyer is indicative of the honesty of the age these poems were written in. In response to the old-worn attack, "I didn't ask to be born" the poem infatically states, "You? You were begging to be born!"
There were also many daughter point-of-view poems I could relate to:"My Mother Tries to Visit Me in the Dead of Night" by Diane Wakoski, "Mother" by Erica Jong, "Daughterly" by Kathlene Spivack, "The Fish" by L.L. Zieger (about a daughter's plea to be accepted as she is), "The Dirty-Billed Freeze Footy" (about laughing with your mother), "38 Main Street" by Lyn Lifshin (about aging in time behind a mother), "Trick" by Sharon Olds (the magic of women: "All this/I have pulled out of my mouth right/before your eyes"), "Color of Honey" by Anne Waldman (captures a litany of conflicting emotions about one's mother), "summer words of a sistuh addict" by Sonia Sanchez (a drug-addled poem that asks: "sistuh/did u/finally/learn to to hold yo mother?"), "Mothers" by Nikki Giovanni, and "Mourning Pictures" by Honor Moore with the haunting final line:
Ladies and gentlemen, one last time: My
mother's dying. I haven't got another.
Bottom line: I haven't found another book out there like it. Until one comes along, this is a recommended read for mothers and daughters both.
A Book About Soldiers; A Book About War
Poet Jon Davis gave me a copy of this book, Phantom Noise (2010) by Brian Turner. This book is (shock) and awe inspiring and definitely one of the best books I've come across this year. A veteran of Bosnia and Iraq wars, Turner's poetry figuratively take no prisoners. Poems are delegated to small, unnamed sections and I had to take a day's pause between each just to let the wounds sink in. Turner writes solid poems, well-crafted in his pacing and use of language and metaphor. He's good with his endings. The titles I found hard to connect with and I wasn't always sure how they corresponded to their poems.
Turner writes about V.A. Hospitals, lovers in wartime, the chaos of war, the human connection among strangers, the violence of infrastructures falling, childbirth in combat, being back at home, skeletons in the sand, Iraqis, rape, prisoners or war, studies on bullents and shrapnel.
My favorites were "Mohmmed Trains for the Beijing Olympics, 2008," "A Lullaby for Bullets," "The Mutanabbi Street Bombing" and "Ajal,"
I cannot undo what the shrapnel has done.
I climb down into the crumbling earth
to turn your face toward Mecca, as it must be.
Remember the old words I have taught you,
Abd Allah. And go with your mother,
buried her beside you--she will know the way.
Bottom line: Not only do I love the poetry Turner brings to bear on warfare here, the emotional imagery he resurrects, but I love the fact that he's writing about the horrifying technological now regarding warfare. He's using time-honed tools to turn over and pontificate on the very modern existence we're dealing with today, instead of hiding from it, dismissing it or turning it inside out with his own ego experimentations.
An Anthology of Prose Poems
Jon Davis also gave me a copy of the anthology of prose poems, The House of Your Dream, edited by Robert Alexander and Dennis Maloney. I was disappointed that the poems in this collection were organized by author alphabetically. You get strange bedfellows that way.
And I learned something here: what I usually love about prose poems is their dramatic contrast amidst more traditional poems. I am the sort that is attracted to the contrast itself, which is while I like certain Allan Houser sculptures and why I wanted to visit the new Getty Museum so often in Los Angeles (rough surfaces abutting smooth ones). I even like sentence length contrasts, where they lure you in with a long sentence and then punch you with a short one.
And contrast is what you completely lose in an anthology made up entirely of prose poems. The prose poem-y ness gets lost and they become simply dramatic shorts. At their worst, prose poems can read like an act of indulgence. At their best, they are little blocks of braniac beauty. And there were many shorts I did like here.
Stuart Dybek's "Alphabet Soup" and Peter Johnson's "Return" both were a great critique of poets. I loved Russel Edson's short pieces "Sleep" and "Bread." I liked Jean Follain's untitled piece and Maureen Gibbon's "Un Brit Qui Court" (A Sound that Runs) and her mother poem, "Blue Dress." Jim Harrison's "My Leader" is a nice piece about his dog and goats who "know what's poisonous as they eat the world." I liked the rebelliousness of Holly Iglasias in "Thursday Afternoon: Life is Sweet" and the odd sweetness of David Ignatow's "A Modern Fable."
"Letters of Farewell (1)" by Christopehr Merrill put a bug in my bonnet to try to write some epistolary poems some day. "Moon/Snail/Sonata" by Lawrence Millman was beautiful:
When I landed, I was all flotsam. Maybe a little jetsam, too.
And there was an eerie conglomeration of poems about ghosts and the dead starting around page 134. I love ghost poems so I loved "Ghost Triptych" by Nina Nyhart, "Mortal Terror" and "Cat Shadow" by Tommy Olofsson, and "Nights at the Races" by Robert Perchan.
I liked the travel poem "I Remember Clearly" by Imre Oravecz and the particular historical quality of Francis Ponge's "The Pleasures of the Door:"
...shutting oneself in--which the clip of the tight but well-oiled spring pleasantly confirms.
Seeing as my friend Christopher was recently caught up in the recent Santa Monica College shooting (luckily he was unharmed), the poem about the psychotic shooter, "Carpe Diem" by Vern Rutsala resonated with me. I also liked Rutsala's poem "Sleeping." "Medals" by Gorgan Simic was interesting. And the poem about the panda who escapes and becomes an entrepreneur is a fine, funny story in William Slaughter's "China Lesson:"
"Doing a tidy business. Smiling all the while. Never looking back.
Bottom line: The poems regrettably lose something packed alongside so many other prose poems but there are some pearls in here worth finding if you're willing to dive for them.