Oct '02 [Home]

Editors' Preface

Comments on the Winning Selections in the Magazine's Spring Contest

Ryan G. Van Cleave | Baruch November | J. Morris (individual) | Stan Friedman |
Susan H. Case | Martin Galvin | Richard Levine | Peter Aaron | Anne Blonstein

Return to:  [Poetry Feature] [Contestant Bios]

. .

Ryan G. Van Cleave, The Chicago Letters

The author's one-way 'correspondence' is written in the style of, as tribute to, take-off on, or direct address to, the seventeen poets (excluding Dali) whose well-known names appear as titles—some with alternatives—in the table of contents, among them:  R. T. Smith, Donald Hall, Dante, Jane Kenyon, Li Po, Lucille Clifton, and Andrew Hudgins.

Each poem offers a definable, bright surface and is filled with 'the stampede of energy/that fuels us.' ("Jane Hirschfield, or Treatise on the Architecture of the Heart")

A man crossing the Alps is thinking of you,
      how every legend of forgiveness is a wishbone
            caught lengthwise in the throat.

("Sherod Santos")

Thus 'Contradiction' plays its role as part of Van Cleave's virtuosic poetic and moral cosmology, exemplified also by the 'fruit too soft and yellow to eat' ("Carl Sandburg").

Not on speaking terms with God, but still able to 'appreciate his harmonica-playing' ("Andrew Hudgins"), we are told,

I understand the impulse
to thieve, to take—I would
break God in half, take his
wishbone and snap it alone
to lure one last wish to me.

After many questions asked, in "April Bernard, or Psalm of Fair Warning," we are in the midst of a Keatsian urn and glade, concluding,

            Dear quavering song,
dear magnetic north, watch over me
as I clutch explanations, the answers
not yet born in the slow of my mouth.

Van Cleave's voice is hardly slow, but possesses and presents. 'Such talk/as the wind continuous' through the filter of other poets. All these letters are grounded in weather, history, gods, myth, fairy tale, where past and present direct toward future in a faith self-described as

            a ping-pong
ball bubbling in a wine vat
full of ink.

~ . ~

Baruch November, Dry Nectars of Plenty

To classify these as unrequited love poems would be falsely reductive. The lover wants his sentiments returned all right.

Wallets may be returned.
Tickets refunded,
or resold on the street.
Bad milk back to the market.
Cameras are serviceable,
but love, even if spoiled
from the very start,
and you don't match,
and the buttons do not respond,
and it leaves
a rash on both your calves,
cannot be
returned by anyone.

Here, we are not in the overwrought, feverish realm of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, nor privy to an overabundance of self-pitying confessional verse. The speaker's matter-of-fact tone dissolves and reassembles in the rapid second half of the poem. The coming-undone, the unraveling of love is more than a highly distasteful fact or phenomenon and, as presented, is clearly not unique to the speaker.

A notable intimate objectivity and restraint mark Baruch November's best poems, along with the ability to sustain a lyric metaphor:

Not after numerous lifetimes
will I see why you sleep
with Schubert
playing, while I breathe
and fumble for you
nightly without a virtuoso
to call sobs out
of hollowed wood for you.

Strung tauter than any violin
without you, I press
the highest octave of your missing
chords, nowhere firm
to rest my chin.

The remarkable opening—'Not after numerous lifetimes / will I see why'—adds welcome depth to the delicacies of the jealous lover keenly aware he cannot compete.

Tradition is at work in this poetic essay on what George Dickerson, in his poem, "Leda and the Diplomat," calls 'the protocols of woman and man.' This young man, smitten, but not totally subdued, expresses his wish for a connected separateness in metaphysical terms, with Ovid lurking in the background.

To lie down like a million
odd men before me
by a million certain women
like you.

("Apart Together")

Attendant upon his desire is the wish to

have one part of me
to rest free of this shore
and the other to lock into yours.
Almost a deity
who can be one and many, yet only a man,
nothing more than yours.

It is a geologic, prehistoric love that requires the numerous lifetimes:

a want to need it still,
as there must be someone
who needs to watch
the seedling's rise into poplar,
the continents slide apart
only to join
on the other side.

~ . ~

J. Morris, "The Comforter" and "Seven Mirrors"

On first hearing this poem read aloud, I thought I was actually overhearing someone speaking in a knowledgeable, seductive way at a small private social gathering. It was not until I heard the line, 'He smiles from the speakers,' that I recognized him as a classical radio host familiar with the art of seduction and the power of music.

The speaker's wife, running 'water loudly, like static,' in the kitchen interrupts, though soothes as well. A rivalry, romantic or otherwise, exists between the voice on the radio and the wife, though the 'baritone spirit' seems to retain the upper hand.

Behind "The Comforter" is a skilled writer whose voice, just as authentic and compelling, has created a very real experience, drawing us into his dilemma with a viable structure of differentiated sound and layers of meaning.

~ . ~

Stan Friedman, The Dirty Truth About Toast

Everywhere you turn in this collection, something is ready to explode. This primary trope running through it encompasses the material world, things man-made, our human relationships, and the built-in biologic shocks that flesh is heir to.

Here everything is interconnected. Violent downpours are like the 'ruined moods that strike without warning / but really are days in the making,' seductive as the smell of toast.

The 'explosions' are inherited. 'Granddad made the bomb' that propagates the species. The correlation of earthquake activity and heart attacks, predictable by observation of those who approached 'the gym class rope / as if it were an oversized fuse.'

Writing in an engaging style, Friedman and makes inventive use of extended metaphor that often turns back on itself in unexpected ways to reveal what he has 'buried beneath [each] poem.'

~ . ~

Susan H. Case, Newtonian Physical

The collection is ecphrastic, based on the photographs of Helmut Newton—not Isaac—but follows its own edgy laws.

The various women in the poems are posed dramatically and provocatively, often starkly nude ("Arielle Doing the Backbend"), but not free of all constraint.

In "Young Woman Lying," is 'snared in the spiral of phone cords' under a desk with someone she doesn't want anymore. 'But the mess of making neat' deters her escape. Sometimes it is 'better to continue to dream' or some of them 'almost awake.'

Sabine greets Eberhard at the end of the day wearing only an eyepiece, as a 'sign she wants to play. It is the only prop/she has at hand he has not yet seen.' But this fails to get his attention ("Sabine und Eberhard"). Set pieces as though from Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut are enhanced by a clipped, direct syntax: 'The splay of erotically shod feet /centers meaning on great themes. —/ work — love — play — want — oblivion.' ("Hypnopompia")

We are in a realm where 'You get the feeling .  .  .  it's always high heels' with 'The inside mind racing click click click click.' When the 'want' is unsatisfied or betrayed, "Woman With Large Gun" might show up to set things straight.

~ . ~

Martin Galvin, Shouts and Whispers

This collection is impressive for its varieties of available types of speech and the occasions or circumstances in which they occur. Starting with "Later," a one-year-old wants to know

when he gets to touch
the paintings, when he gets to rub his wet nose
on the belly of Aphrodite, when he is allowed
to sing in the confessional.

He would also like to 'talk / with his mouth full.' To know the world and its ways is to know its 'language.'

The eloquent concluding poem, "Water and Words," presents the integrated grammar of conduct of a dying mother whose only fear 'was the pain she wasn't sure / a woman her age should have to take  . . . in her stooping years.' This woman wants a hint or two—so she can finish the Sunday Times crossword for once.

Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, Galvin can use a tumble of words, sometimes a whole cascade ('howl your unslaked throat away'—"And So") or slow to a varied but measured pace:  'The talker learned his trade listening to pistons./ In fifteen seconds he can say what we might stutter out/in sixty'("The Talking Man at Home").

Many lines are surprising and memorable. In "Reputation," as a man sits with his head in his arms ('Wondering what he will say, and how'), expecting directors, stockholders, press, 'His fingers forget the alphabet of feel.'

~ . ~

Richard Levine, To Find the World Still

The speaker in the title poem falls back surprised into the sights and sounds of a calm, wildflowered world still there, unable and uncaring to account for the time elapsed between the now, when, feeling the sun on his back, his partner's 'nipples arranged / a fleshy braille for [his] fingers' and the now when a cloud sweeps behind hers and his fingers are dug into earth.

From the first poem ("Genesis"), Levine reaches for a blood memory to share with his most elemental, even amphibial, ancestors and for a tune from stone, water, twig.

Before sun and the surrounding
altar of barnacled air, we killed
each animal in paint. Like prayers,
each brushstroke gave thanks
and freed the spirit to live beyond.

("From the Flesh")

And if I hear my name
ringing out of these woods,
I will rise through this loneliness
and be nourished by the call.


Unlikely the name that the trees will utter as he stands among them ('I am wood, green .  .  . cathedral-steep in silence') will be "ecologist" or "nature poet," but rather, a sobriquet akin to Goldmund or Taugenichts, which he will recognize as only too apt; he is no mere Waldwanderer, but their syrupy spillage, that remembers when it burns.

Angel wings and saints require faith,
but any given—a moment, an encounter—
may bare a blossom in seed. So I
hold this orange sacrament, grateful
that I might turn the world inside out.

~ . ~

Peter Aaron, The Dust of Mothwings

The opening lyric poem, "Beyond Recognition," takes a personal, historical, and metaphoric look at the Holocaust:  'The soul paces, /a fallen angel, mistaken, / thinking it has merely forgotten / the trick of flight.' Like Paul Celan, Aaron writes capably about this difficult subject matter.

He has a direct and interesting approach to describing the Nazis:

I wasn't there
when the angel-
faced boys with
distant blue eyes
stomped the sapphire

We are then set in that time and place, with its horrifying dust:  'What matter that it coats / me what if I breathe it?' Religious imagery is at work in "L'Cha Dodi" ('Welcome, my beloved.' From the Shabbat liturgy), but with a twist:  'You come shattering my peace—.'

The poet's observations are often disturbing ('Can you slumber on the deathbed'), as in "Widowed":

stare into the mirror long enough
the faces disengage
Every door you open a closet
children left without regret.

The book derives its title from "Early Portion." Sipping tea and reading an anthology of 20th century German poets, the speaker recovers his 'reverence for rain.' This causes him to wonder, with a loaded significance,

how the dust
of mothwings with-

stands the downpour
when even my
lightest touch
smears it away.

~ . ~

Anne Blonstein, A House of Nettles

Emotional chromatics:   once removed from public commerce in prosaic idioms ('I feel blue,' 'I saw red'), how fascinatingly unagreed-upon they are. Rimbaud's match of color to vowel—the simplest paradigm—doesn't hold for most poets; but then, of course, he never intended it to be normative.

In the vivid environment of Anne Blonstein's collection, titled for and coherent around its multi-part centerpiece poem, normative hues wear the convincing authenticity of nightmare, that inescapable parallel universe in which survival depends on parsing symbols and on relearning the native language.

Begun in blackness, Blonstein's colors thereafter seem to self-select, organically, fragmenting the spectrum into meanings which she never imposes, leaving the reader to intuit their gradations of menace and comfort. For this reader, azure in a space where sky is not quickly comes to represent both threat and fear, as hot propagations of cruelty advance beyond rodents and snakes to the chill of a blue spider. Soon, a woman briefly brings light as she pulls on torn white tights, 'laddered / with the screams of a thousand silkworms,' and with that, the spectral bits disperse onto the page.

All but the last of these poems are aptly tiny, almost shrunken, the line and voice physically cautious as though breaking for a stanza could be dangerous, in their texts not a single upper case letter ventured. But if music is timid ('spiders that spin wrong' as 'canaries sing an ochred song,'), imagery is bold despite its confinement, and always the scent of Swiss pine seeps in.

Evergreen finds its color-wheel companion even if the blue fear seeks no orange opposite. A bride weds in red, then sleeps 'beneath sheets of sea lavender / with fifteen pink sheep.' However gently, the blue has crept in with her. ("She Doesn't Want an Older Heart") Men know fear well:  'a mirror / hanging somewhere in the forest. / you cannot draw the badgers from it.' ("Perhaps He Was Afraid") And they bring it. In "Tomorrow," a piece with 9/11 redolence, the bishops have their 'purpled prayers,' the muezzin their 'still calls,' the Jews their 'endless stories,' while rubble makes dustbeds of poppies.

Mid-book, in the title poem, a bride walks through mud, her feet shod in lilies, near stones founded on yellow — 'in the fearleaves is there magic enough / to green our dreams?' The new pair

cooked up time
in a room of pine fed it
to the blue spiders.
infinity sits between them
intimacy an experiment
with flesh instruments.

No Miss Muffet, no Heidi destined for lavender, the arresting final poem ("Quiet Along the Answers") names a girl for the first time, and it is Alice who stands in a red dress on a ridge among the pines, 'taller and less stiff' than any tree. Her twin sister, smaller and identically dressed, stands in the sea. Their friends swim in air. All watch as a black biplane crashes into the 'mauled surface' of a field.

'Alice won't cry at the funeral,' we read. Perhaps blue is not men's fear after all, but rather, the compassion women learn to develop for it.


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