Reviews


by Tim Scannell

This Morning According to Dog by Taylor Graham
Learning to Lie by Albert Huffstickler
Labyrinth, Patricia Wellingham-Jones (ed.)
To Be the Fourth Wise Manby Giovanni Malito
At The Turning of the Light by CB Follett



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This Morning According to Dog by Taylor Graham
(Hot Pepper, POB 39, Somerset, CA 95684; 39pp.; $5.00; 2001)

The brilliant narrative dramas in Graham's previous Casualties—40 real-life search-and-rescue poems—are equaled by these 35 shorter ones about cats and dogs. As with lost children and adults, these about pets are unsentimental (yet empathetic); realistic (yet caring); and simple (yet filled with every fine nuance of our poetic craft). In short, Taylor Graham is a poet with scope and range.

Consider recurrent visits to the vet, in "Rubberband Cat":

Black as retread, oh, she's
smooth. Just think of inner-
tubes, a slinky summer river…

One hundred sixteen bucks
this time, to sew
the stunt-girl back…

She'll snap back.

Or consider an excerpt from this elegy to Roxy, "Into the Next Night":

Quiet. You didn't climb the stairs
at first light to watch my waking…
you'd slipped away without a look backward to the light
just starting at the window. Gone.
I called, but you'd already found the gate,
gone on without me: into night,
its scent of fall, its secret dawn.

The dignity of death is freed by an assured authorial voice—readers fully suspending disbelief to accept Roxy's own farewell to life. Sensitive and wonderful artistry.

Equally, Graham extends animal integrity in poems about 'courtship,' giving birth, teething, or sniffing out parameters of alien neighborhood and motel along the highway. This is from "Sundown":

Ten hours on the road, at last
we're lying on our one-night lawn…
they've changed the name
of this motel, but it's still her favorite
grass in Fresno…

such pleasure for an old dog's spine.

Or perhaps about the dog too old to run, "hero who saved / a hundred tennis balls" [protecting a new one between] "his paws / as he lies at my feet." Of course, "the sweet young bitch his love / covets" the ball, but this aged one, "his priceless spine / thanks to the best veterinary medicine / money could buy, … [rests] a lion in his sober golden / grayness, his vigilant ears."

These are not Dr. Doolittle animal poems—Graham is never sentimental—but as her search-and-rescue poems opened a new topic for real poetic power and substance, This Morning According to Dog shows why we have such eternal care and affection for beloved pets and their remarkable—wise—behavior. Highly recommended.


~ . ~

Learning to Lie by Albert Huffstickler
(Liquid Paper, POB 4937; Austin, TX 78765; 40pp.; $5.00; 2001)

Don't expect the Lilliput (under-10-line) beauties readers have enjoyed from Huffstickler for years. All 37 interwoven poems here—page-long narratives punctuated by several short, yearning, lyrics—relate an autobiographical fairy tale, beginning with a traumatic appendicitis operation on an 8-year old boy, and ending with a 75-year old man convinced of the truth of his childhood wish: "What I wanted was / to die to memory / and be / born again to joy."

The hospitalized child thought he'd died, "since they put this thing over my face / and I couldn't breathe and they held me down until I lost / consciousness… " It also happened that a little girl with burn injuries was hospitalized that same day. Doctor and nurse said she'd

gone home
but I tell you she passed me
bright as light on her way out
and told me she had died…
She waved a bright hand as she passed
and I started after her.
I wanted to go—back to the place
of truth—but they pulled me back…
I say she died.

The poems of this child's next 60 years rise and fall on this fulcrum: do adults and the external world lie—or do I, myself, live a lie? Huffstickler assumes the former: adults persuade children "that all the other beings that they perceive / from deep inside themselves are non-existent… / [persuade] them to relinquish / this inner world that they know is true / and utterly real… ". Therefore, says the chapbook's title poem, "I adapted: I became a sneak— / or adult as it's sometimes called."

And so, poems of childhood and school and youth—of later work, love—darkly color assumptions about being grown up. However, poems of the parallel wish grow as well. "In Learning to Dance,"

My first attempt, at 12, failed miserably
when I tried to dance with Mary Dewey,
whom I loved, at a dance in the gym…
Now, approaching 70, I watch old
Fred Astaire movies with envy and regret,
wishing that somehow I'd been able
to glide through life with half his grace…
I clump through life
doing the best I can…
What grace I have
is in language—not a bad thing.

These deftly interlocking poems of wish-fulfillment certainly illustrate that other "grace," that of Huffstickler's language precisely telling his own story: a beautiful girl/lady in oft-returning dreams; the adult confusion of what is more true—inner or outer world; and, finally, an assured belief: "Sometimes I close my eyes and see great clusters of lights… / I personally think they're the lights of a city— / a city far away in space and time, / a place you can go to when things get really bad." Much like Dorothy's somewhere over the rainbow, but less dazzling and logically clear than Oz (Huffstickler's tale emphatically set squarely in the landscape of ol' messy and dubious earth)! Recommended.



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Labyrinth, edited by Patricia Wellingham-Jones
(PWJ, POB 238, Tehama, CA 96090; 82pp.; $12.50; 2001)

Readers will recall Robert Bly's Deep Image poems encouraging modern men into the forest for primitive campfire weekends to rediscover the instinctive, the unconscious—the "mystical resonance" of quintessential BEING. Well, these 40 poems and 3 prose pieces record "a nature journaling class" of nine women who "climbed a steep hill to a splendid view and a labyrinth laid out in rock with gravel paths."

One essayist, Sara Jameson, notes "A labyrinth is a large circle with one winding path which curves back and forth to the center…since the 1990s this ancient archetypal symbol has had a huge resurgence worldwide…societies have sprung up and many new meditative walks have been constructed around the country" (directions to 4 in California and Oregon are given).

Many poems here, about walking into the center of a circle-of-circles, are journeyman—even tongue-in-cheek—but I noted a dozen genuinely seeming to alter the state-of-being of those partaking in the ritual. One poem begins, "I entered the labyrinth / Wearing my cynicism like a cloak…[and ends]…I knelt and wept into her hair. / She had not cried in a long time. / We led each other out." In another poem—with an appropriate genius loci result - a walker begins the path disbelieving, but is

jolted…
my knees folded me to the ground.
Head bowed, I felt you long dead,
fill my body with tears long-shed.
As I rose, you led me to the labyrinth's center…

I felt you flow away from me.
Able now to take that turn in the road
I rejoined the writer-women, my lips sealed,
eyes glowing like opals, matching the looks
on their faces, their stilled hands.

Though not well-formed, a convincing poem in terms of tone and imagery.

I honestly find these 'rituals' of discovery poignant. There is, of course, an infinite historical list of self-help methodologies and projects : from R.D. Laing's Knots to Gail Sheehy's Passages; from guruistic 'channeling' to compulsive online chatrooms; from horrifically Ritalin-ized children to horrifically Prozac-ized adults. The natural universe gives out a long and melancholy sigh! Whatever happened to long walks in the rain? Twenty illustrations (drawings and photos). Perfect-bound, but $12.50 is simply too high a price.



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To Be the Fourth Wise Man by Giovanni Malito
(MuscleHead, 3700 County Route 24, Russell, NY 13684; 30pp.; $3.00; 2001)

Not about the Magi (the traditional 3—or 12), rather, a persona-as-aloof spinner of life's conundra holding forth—in twenty-nine poems—with a too-slick judgmentalism. In "Grade School Values," those well-worn nun: "Mother Patricia wore army boots… / We respected her more than we did / the far off Vatican because we knew / the Pope could never run as fast as her / nor could he give the strap as hard as her…". Then a poem on loss of Faith—On the Plains of Abraham (with friend, Carl): "This is where it happened, / you said. Feel the vibes, / you said. And I said, yeah. / But you know… / I felt absolutely nothing."

Too often the poems are merely droll, old jokes. "Can you imagine the Pope swaying / at a urinal, his frock draped / over his head, pissing in the dark? // Or the Queen, regal on the can, / trying to reach between the rim / and her ass with her bejewelled hand?"

The poet visits—oh gawd, not the tedium of rock 'n roll—the grave of Jim Morrison: "I just stopped by to say Hello. / I have no flowers and I won't leave / my initials behind, because / if you are a spy, in the house of death, / then you do see us. And that's enough." So many poems have this 'I'm-too-beat-to-think-anymore' tone—even in "Ben," about the poet's son, born "…without a cry but / a squirt to mark territory // I place all my hope / in you and your generation / to save this world / eradicating materialism / breathing breath into wonder…" Giovanni Malito gives us his little "squirt to mark territory" too, but it's a dribble round abstractions so huge and unanswerable—so bookishly numbed (the ilk of Hermann Hesse, Graham Greene, Albert Camus, etc.)—that one wants his tired mind and body to be exiled to totally paperless centers of joie de vivre: a raucous circus, a slippery-sludge gold mine; the busiest Dunkin' Donut store in America; a fisherman's wharf —anywhere but a library, from whose shelves Giovanni has pored over far, far too many dusty tomes. Arid!



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At The Turning of the Light by CB Follett
(Salmon Run, POB 672130, Chugiak, AK 99567; 100pp.; $10.00; 2001)

These sixty-two autobiographical poems explore the author's life in elegiac and celebratory tones: imagined birth, childhood, university days; marriage, divorce, children middle age. Most of the poems reflect a continual wonder as to one's emotional and spiritual place in a universe that is—finally—accepted and understood in a resigned (but humane) puzzlement.

The book's final poem, "The Home Rock," is "Large enough for awe, / small enough for an afternoon hike… / yet despite its familiarity, / it rises against the sky / holding something back, / something for the gods in us." This pattern informs CB Follett's essential power—and limitation: detailed description ending in yearningly wistful—projected—faith (the reader never quite convinced of, engaged by or with, these amorphous "gods in us"). Metaphysics is not Follett's long suit.

Much better, and in a double-score of poems, Follett excels, as in this birth-poem, "Pushing Toward the Light":

Gravity
takes our rubbery arms and pulls us like a cork…
The air rushes at us, and the sun.
The sure fingers of our tribe gather us in.
From now on, we are people of the air.

The New Age locution "tribe" rankles, but the book's second poem—employing birds - announces an oft-visited, and more sensible, motif: if we are "of the air," why are we not flying? "After the push and the hot wet tunnel, I remembered / my wings, that they should open now, / that they should lift my body above the struggle / of gravity and carry me into the arms of wind." Yet further on in this poem half way through the book, "I bore their weight with hope but finally / began to forget, learned to depend / on feet and the unyielding soil / to keep me upright and wings / became only a small point of envy / awakened by birds." Her nature poems—bear, seacoast; garden and its growth; mountain and trail; spider and snake, etc., are all sensitively observed (sometimes humorous, sometimes tinged by the above mentioned metaphysical straining). Most, however, are interesting and several entirely unique.

Other subjects include a Connecticut childhood, university days (clever on a contemporary: Sylvia Plath); waters worked by a search-and-rescue son; ekphrasis on Wyeth's Christina's World (a skewed interpretation of that which is not in the painting); and a score of overseas poems. Some efforts are journeyman, but CB Follett's open and conversational tone is thoroughly winning. Recommended.

(A prolific, independent reviewer, Tim Scannell, is a regular contributor (Masthead) to the magazine. He lives in Washington State.)