Reviews in Brief
Gordon Annand's You Write Your Life Like Fiction
Alternative Press Review
Off Our Backs
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Ron Whitehead's The Declaration of Independence This Time:
(Hozomeen Press, 2001, 118 pp. $10)
Declaration of the Heart
Kentucky author Ron Whitehead's latest book, The Declaration of Independence This Time, is a collection of poems and other works culled from the past five years. A risky book, Whitehead takes the chance of being perceived as either a strident or evolving voice.
Like a lot of poets influenced by the Beat Generation, Whitehead has a tendency to find a particular theme, usually social or political, and drive it home with all the blunt force trauma of a Mack truck. "Shithouse Manifesto," "Tapping My Own Phone," "Gimme Back My Wig," and his version of the Declaration of Independence are prime examples. They are powerful, clever and articulate in-your-face rants about injustice, alienation, apathy and the state of the nation in this godless age of Dubya Bush:
We hold these
It's obvious that Whitehead has a point to get across but he gambles on having the book become a mire of self-righteous exhortations with the reader throwing up his hands and saying, "Okay! I get the point!" Fortunately, Whitehead seems to be aware of this, even pointing his finger at himself in the first verse of "Kentucky Haiku":
As if he's tired of shouting, he goes deeper; searching for an extra-dimensional quality to allow the book to breathe, and for the most part, he is successful. He gives us poetry about prayer ("Kokopelli"), Zen ("The Shape of Water," "No More Fingers Pointing at the Moon"), hilarity ("Sex Education"), an engaging collaboration with noted Beat historian John Tytell, an interview with poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a beautiful translation of a poem given to Whitehead by the Dalai Lama ("Never Give Up"). All give the book depth and a better sense of balance, but, with the possible exception of "Never Give Up," they fall short of the pinnacle reached by "Kentucky Blues," a compelling memoir about Whitehead's family following the death of his great uncle:
now he returns again so soon unexpected returns
Tender, rough, and imbued with heartfelt reverence, his great uncle's spirit grows into mythology:
thru tears by candlelight she sees
"Kentucky Blues" goes directly to the heart of America and a family dealing with cultural change, loss and redemption during the early part of the twentieth century. In its subtlety and sweep it easily attains the spiritual depth and social resonance Whitehead endeavors to reach throughout the book.
The Declaration of Independence This Time is a finely crafted work. Paradoxically, it achieves its strongest moments when the author is willing to lower his voice and go into his heart.
(Paul McDonald writes frequently for the magazine. He lives in Louisville, KY.)
Ron Price's A Small Song Called Ash from the Fire
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful
by Paul McDonald
Ron Price's current release, A Small Song Called Ash From the Fire, is a work drawn from the experience of living in the rural Southeastern United States. Far from being a collection of boring, clichéd homilies about how great it is to be a country boy, Price brilliantly composes a genuine time and place. Like most who have lived in rural America, Price understands the restless undercurrent of energy that expresses itself in twisted pieces of driftwood, moonless nights, boisterous revival meetings, and the dynamics of extended families living under the same roof for generations.
One of the first poems, "Surviving Brothers," is a memory of his aunt telling his father of two brothers fighting and one being accidentally killed. The surviving brother later maims himself trying to escape when he drives his dead brother's car off a cliff. The memory is triggered while lying in a field observing a caterpillar crawl up a stalk, implying a unifying, yet conflicting force that exists just beneath the surface of the countryside's pastoral beauty.
In "Sitting On An Eastern Bluff Along the Mississippi River," Price briefly alludes to the subtlety and omniscience of this unseen power:
Whatever navigates this river
In "A Desecrated Field of Grace," he meets it head on, moving directly into the vortex with images of anger passed from one generation to the next:
The field behind my father's house,
Grounding the atmosphere is an actual place that Price refers to frequently. Cobb's Lake is a place "...where diamondback snakes and fish glide/Silent through algae and frog spit..." In the poem of the same name, Price's imagery is so vivid you could swear you hear tree frogs croaking and smell kudzu covering the ground. Cobb's Lake is a sacred place, the sight of many a rite of passage. Price recalls his first cigarette, watching a couple having sex in a car and old man Cobb, the man who never actually owned the lake, but fenced it in and posted "No Trespassing" signs. In calling back these memories and events, there is a feeling of decay and loss for all the life that happened here, a place where "sand is redeemed with silt," and will pass away with a legacy never acknowledged.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is Price's use of found poetry; moments stripped bare that would go unnoticed had the poet not been there to appreciate them. A Small Song Called Ash From the Fire is full of found poetry; entertaining, powerful and smacking of the syntax of America, thus allowing the book to breathe with an actual voice. At one point, Price uses the graffiti on a bathroom wall in Memphis ("I done broke life & death down"). In another place, an older woman advises her daughter-in-law ("Meanness is the only thing that keeps me alive") and a radio caller praises the revival of drive-in theatres ("I got my first lay there...They still pass out vomit bags?").
The found poetry and restless energy converge in the book's third section, "Pilgrim's Rest," a powerful testimony from church members on the passing of their pastor, Reverend Taylor. The invisible presence felt throughout the book now manifests and thunders particularly in the testimony and notes for a sermon by Reverend Peterson:
One night, some white men came into the Church with guns. You niggers don't need no education. All ya'll need to know is how to write your name where you're told. Then they left.
Reverend Taylor looked out at all those scared children who didn't understand. Hear all things, he told us, and hold to that which is good. The truth is good because the truth will set you free.
(From "Reverend Peterson Testifies")
With these poems and others like "Song For The Burning," "Drought," "Blood Ground," "Effigy for the Black Moon," and "Rising In Flames, Falling In Ash," I kept reflecting on Shiva, the Hindu aspect of God as the destroyer, mercilessly burning away the dead, the illusion, the mask, and stripping reality to the bone. Yet, even as the ashes are scattered, there is always the assurance of rebirth.
A Small Song Called Ash From the Fire is an extremely potent work, rich with life, death and redemption. While some of the poetry may evoke a certain feeling of tranquility, there is always the impression that there is a consciousness as brutal as the rapids in James Dickey's Deliverance, about to break through.
[Ron Price is poet-in-residence at The Juilliard School in Manhattan (Lincoln Center). Paul McDonald writes frequently for the magazine. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed.]
Reviews in Brief
You Write Your Life Like Fictionby Gordon Annand
(Pathwise, POB 2392, Bloomington, IN 47402; 46 pp.; $3.00; 2001)
The strength in many of these fourteen multiple-page poems is their narrative completeness, demonstrated through a voice which feels (rather than knows) the power of universal symbol.
The refrain of the title poem, "Tell me a story," is followed by twenty-one variegated stanzas showing events in the poet's experience:
Legends, myths and epics are
He swims off the Atlantic coast.
The blue beach of night
He makes love.
In the afternoon, in the living room
Importantly, after the refrain of the last stanza, the reader is at the ambiguous core of what Annand is attempting:
I will tell you the truth
Therein lies the point of saying that Gordon Annand's poetic gift is felt, rather than known. In six poems – each less than a page in length – he mistakenly assumes the role of 'knower,' one who feels obligated to pass solutions of various abstractions on to the reader: Does voice reside in the inner or in the outer ear? Is being a state of waiting/constancy/emptiness, etc.? His poems ask these and other questions. However, such philosophical riddles are best left as doodles on any poet's drawing board.
This poet should continue to design where his clear authority and tone best support the results: rambling and sensual narratives built of vignettes from life, driven through their drama toward crescendo using a well-chosen 'stage direction' or refrain. In his poem, "Understand, This is Not for You Alone," the title and refrain precede five dramatic stanzas:
that the dance goes on
Annand is wonderful in these felt, sensed landscapes.
The doldrums of adolescence-cum-adulthood are supremely controlled in "The Last Summer of Your Life" in which frustration and humor combine at a resort hotel:
. …you know the sun is fading
By similar means, in "Across the River, In the Dark," the poet teases out images from a harbor:
. …the sectional drawbridge
By sensitive awareness of objects in city-, land-, and seascape, attention to their slightest motion and sound, their many-layered and often randomly appearing/receding textures, this poet recommends his own work and invites encouragement to write much, much more.
Seasons From The Second Floorby Nathan Graziano
(Green Bean, POB 237, NYC 10013; 52 pp.; $5.00; 2001).
Last year, in No White Horses, Graziano wrote 24 love poems caught in a waist-high foreground swirl of food, booze and cigarettes; in a background whirl of aching rue – a pervasive 'it's-over' landscape. This year, comparatively, are 19 poems sparkling in 'a clean, well-lighted place,' the food/booze/cigarettes present, but subdued; and leaving room for the poet's wonderfully maturing persona, tone and voice (sensitive and wry, aware and ironic). In a word, Graziano has evolved from a first-floor cubbyhole to 'second-floor' universal views.
For the serious poet – Graziano is one – it is a fabulous move. The chapbook includes all four seasons – and as much of humanity as one can encounter in a score of poems (without becoming a mere catalogue). In "A Summer Special," the poet considers a "gym downtown…/ for lards like myself." He evaluates the meaning of
men without necks…
Are they worth one's commitment, personal effort?
I reached in my shirt pocket
The great strength in all of these poems is to watch the poet correctly use poetic devices as probes -- to show a real world. In "My Sister on Her 23rd Birthday," the female roommates fidget and fuss, look
In this 5-page narrative, of unspoken interior monologue, the roommates become a refrain, a serrated blade slicing out almost unconscious societal boundaries of class and demeanor and work:
I'm sorry my girlfriend
A wonderfully observant, biting poem
There are poems of fantasy conversation with Tom Jones and Julia Roberts, Keith Richards and Walt Whitman. Or in "Tonight I'm James Dean," while scrubbing "Saturday's dinner / from the sides of a frying pan," the poet watches a harassed mother in her apartment kitchen, through her window, preparing a meal for her two boys,
as she stirs something
And what follows for both (she, Natalie Wood) is a fantasy drive ". . . in an antique roadster, / licking the autumn wind / on the interstate West." The poem is perfectly conceived and executed.
Nathan Graziano has made a quantum leap in this, his third, chapbook, the elements and tools of poetry casting an outward-looking net into a wide, resonant, reality; whether at the local shop for cigarettes and beer or talking on the phone to an insurance rep (can't afford it) or in mulling over what the neighbors think about too much noise after midnight (Concord, New Hampshire is a 'Republican' town). The tone of each poem is nuanced and, throughout, Graziano displays an accomplished, maturing voice. An unreserved recommendation.
Feeding the Animalby John Thomas
(Lummox, POB 5301, San Pedro, CA 90733; 48 pp; $5.00; 2001)
Two personae struggle in these 26 poems, one moodily returning to questions of conscience, the other doggedly searching for a pure/real poetic statement. It is not ironic that both succeed, the first phantasmagoric: a sodden body is exhumed,
I look away through the thin veil of rain …
In several Poe-esque poems, Thomas's festering persona,
Sinks and dies
(from "The Art of Assemblage")
Yet, as in Poe's "Ulalume" and "Usher," persona and reader willingly suspend disbelief for these nightmare journeys, and
Good chills, but as immemorially, of course, 'magic' is a thin veil beyond which loom distress, horror and self-torment. The other persona observes reality steadily (hitchhiking in the 60's):
Christ, all the hours,
To be nothing, and feel the wind
In another poem, he astutely watches the dismantling of a neighborhood sundeck, but actually writes a fine eulogy for a Mrs. Nigel "cruelly hanged there," and for universal mortality, the poem
a tiny cry, at best, in the earth's thundering
Morose poetry, but a gloom artfully, persistently controlled – and worth a read.
All Those Goodbyesby Mike James
(Talent House, 1306 Talent Av, Talent, OR 97540; 22 pp.; $4.00; 2001)
A minimalist poetry ignoring the world, because what matters is one's own kitchen, bedroom, back yard – and state-of-mind:
look, he said
this is my room
a table, a chair
a basket of fruit
in the window . . .
As in James's previous chapbook, Not Here (Green Bean, $4), the reader comes to a calm (sighing) agreement, and so, mundane wonders fill the universe of consciousness. A poem notes, though married for years, the wife still "covers / herself / when she undresses." Elsewhere, the hopeful plan for a successful day is spoiled "with some coupons / that have / already expired." In 20 mostly successful poems – sans ideology and societal fad (drugs/sex/rock&roll) – we are reminded that the best poem is one's own encountering heart.
we have forgotten
(from "In This Morning")
(Tim Scannell is a prolific, independent reviewer. He lives in Washington State.)
Alternative Press Review
edited by Jason McQuinn, et al.
(A.A.L. Press, POB 4710, Arlington, VA 22204;
Vol 6, #1; 84pp.; $16/4; Spring, 2001)
The first is about the size of Newsweek and the second, a tabloid about the size of The New York Review of Books, but both may be retitled -- The Unbearable Liteness of Isms. No poetry, short stories or artwork in either publication – just great gobs of Liberal-Left whining (larded with manifestos promising a New World). Ya know, like, remember the New Soviet Man that Communism promised?
APR's nine essays include a 12-pager (with copious endnotes) by Noam Chomsky on the 'militarization' of Colombia by the United States. Noam says it's a phony "drug war" which "…is crafted to target poor peasants abroad and poor people at home; by the use of force, not constructive measures to alleviate" [the problems of either]. Noam frets that "…there are no Delta Force raids on U.S. banks and chemical corporations, though it is no secret that they too are engaged in the narcotrafficking business." Noam spots another Capitalist conspiracy, yet at no time raises holy hell about the evil of drugs or the murderers running the business.
A long interview with Edward Said touts the usual Leftist line regarding Israel: Destroy it. Another essay attacks Monsanto: "The chemical giant's secretive operations…of rBGH-treated [milk-]cows . . . in what amounts to a giant public health experiment." Gosh, those nasty corporations are always up to something!
APR precisely annotates 50 other "alternate magazines," like New Unionist (unite in one rank-and-file controlled union), Insurgent (radicalism in Eugene-Springfield, Oregon), and Loving More (alternative relationships). Swell thumbnails of mission and content, to short-circuit many hours wasted in the reading of -- for me -- about 44 of them. However, for the benighted who need political isms (to feel alive? to follow? to lead?), don't leave home without it!
Off Our Backs
Edited by Carole Ann Douglas, et al.
(2337 B 18th Street, NW; Washington, DC 20009;
Vol31, #4 20 pp.; $25/11; April, 2001).
Off Our Backs devotes 3 pages to world-wide news clippings "relevant to women," like "rape used as a weapon in war"(East Timor/Sierra Leone); and "priests rape & abuse nuns" (in 36 countries)! There are two reports on Afghanistan ("It's Time for Revolution" -- with a 27-bulleted list of Taliban restrictions on women). Also, the usual feminist harangues: "Women across the nation (and some across the world) are talking about their vaginas and reclaiming the word 'cunt' with vigorous shouts." Um, that word vigorous is titillating.
There are two questionnaires: a lesbian feminist dating guide, and "Test Yourself! How Much of a Feminist Are You?" Many festivals are announced: for example, an August 24th gathering in Virginia will feature "dance, movement, drumming, camping, swimming, creative activities, workshops, sweats, mud pit, ritual, singing and games." For the unenlightened who need a political ism (to feel alive? to follow? to lead?), OOB is an effective 20-page offering. Both lite on thought, gawdawfully heavy on ideology.
(Tim Scannell is a prolific, independent reviewer. He lives in Washington State.)