Voices and Persona in Poetry: Blue Yodel

FblueYodelCoverrom the blurb of this debut volume of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize: In this imaginative and haunting debut collection, Ansel Elkins introduces readers to a multitude of characters whose “otherness” has condemned them to live on the margins of society. She weaves blues, ballads, folklore, and storytelling into an intricate tapestry that depicts the violence, poverty, and loneliness of the Deep South, as well as the compassion, generosity, and hope that bring light to people in their darkest times. 

How do you rate a poetry collection? How can you even shelve it as ‘read’ rather than ‘still reading’ on Goodreads? I’ll be reading this one again and again, coming back to it to enrich the experience, to feel it still seeping through me. There are so many avenues and poems to explore, so many influences, so many voices that are familiar while others are strange and even sinister. So many nuances I haven’t quite ‘got’ yet, so much symbolism still to crack. Melodious and playful language in parts, but also a powerful punch to the gut. Certainly not ‘pretty, poetic, flowery’ language. Some of it is Southern Gothic, strange, disquieting, fantastical and overwrought (or do I mean overwritten?).  Poems such as ‘Reverse: A Lynching’ and ‘Mississippi Pastoral’ remind us of the racial tensions and uneasy past of the South. Others are sheer unabashed lust, some of it venturing into dark and dangerous territory. Unlike some recent bestselling novels, the eroticism in these poems is not explicit, and leaves much to the imagination:

Every line out of my mouth is a lie except the one that begins with I want.
Between your teeth is where I want to be.

Or this:

There is nothing between us
but the night. The hunter’s appetite is instinct; it dwells deep
and urges you: Unleash
the wild animal that you are.
Unbury yourself.

Some of it I could relate to so well; those are perhaps the themes that crop up in my own work (but much more eloquently and powerfully done by Ansel). First, strong female voices reinterpreting and challenging long-held beliefs, such as in the ‘Autobiography of Eve’:

Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first radical road out of that old
kingdom toward a new unknown…
Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.
I leapt
to freedom.’

Then there is the boredom of monogamy, of routines and everyday concerns, of encroaching middle-age and broken dreams.

After the workweek we
undress and have celebratory sex
that lasts as long as a mint on the tongue…
I listen to the tiny ticking of my husband’s wristwatch, the migration of
wild geese calling relentlessly
southward, to lands where the sun warms the eternally green trees,
where a woman bathes in the sea alone, drifting and anonymous.
She’s nobody’s wife…
In the bedroom, a sudden
vague yet putrid smell from the vase of expired chrysanthemums…

But, above all, it’s always, always about those uncomfortable experiences, those dark parts of ourselves that we would rather not face:

All this time I saw the wolf in other men…
But when at last I looked into the moon what met my gaze was
the mirrored
wolf in me.

I have to take issue with the formatting again. I have no idea if the line breaks above are correct or not, the lines just seem to jump about randomly. It is so difficult for poetry to be correctly formatted in an e-book – although this was downloaded as an ARC from Netgalley, so perhaps it was edited and proofed before the final launch. In future I will stick to paper-based copies for all poetry if I possibly can.

From anselelkins.net
From anselelkins.net

Incidentally, I struggled to see where the blue yodel of the title comes in, as it’s only very briefly mentioned in a throwaway line about a peacock. Perhaps, I told myself, it’s a howl of pain, related to the blues. But then I read another review which referenced country singer Jimmie Rodgers, also known as the Blue Yodeler, who was also from that part of the country.

I don’t use different persona often enough in my poems, i.e. trying to write from a completely alien perspective (perhaps using the voice of an object or an animal). It is something which Ansel Elkins seems to do exceptionally well. A very well-deserved prize and I can’t wait to hear more from this exciting new talent.

 

 

Poetry Review: Jacqueline Saphra – The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions

SaphraJacqueline Saphra packs a lot into this slender debut collection of poetry (published in 2011). Deceptively domestic and personal, the poems take on a life of their own, dance with absurdity and shimmering wit, and leave an aftertaste of profound inquietude.There are three strands to the work, and they are neatly divided into Parts I, II and III in the volume.

The first describes a fairly typical British childhood in the late 1960s – early 1970s, with plenty of humorous detail: memories of the moon landing, watching news clips about the Vietnam War, half-forgotten family history from the East European shtetls, giggly gossip about sunbathing in the nude with a classmate, struggling to come to grips with the decimal system.

The precocious observations of a child are tinged with a grown-up’s wry remembrance of childhood fears and mistakes. Some are poignant (Target Practice), some nearly surreal and full of wistfulness (about her incompatible parents), while others are just funny and fiery.

The Art of Diplomacy

At three I learned to listen, not to chat.

At eight I counselled friends and sorted spats.

By twelve I was a bloody diplomat.

 

At forty I began to smell a rat

at last. I said to hell with that.

Hand me that baseball bat.

The second strand is about love and lust, the battle of the sexes and the pang of breaking up. The start of a relationship and these poems are sensuous, sexy, drunk on love, beguiling and ready to be fooled again:

so come on, loosen me

with daquiris, your mouth

 

against my ear and tell me again

that you and I are composed

 

of the same elements, that

there’s a sea inside me,

 

and you, too, are salt and water.

I’ll make up the rest.

But most of the poems in this section are about disappointment and animosity betwen the sexes. Small acts of daily warfare in a couple, as well as more dramatic acts of betrayal. In ‘Penelope’ (a poem inspired by Cavafy’s wonderful poem ‘Ithaka’),  Odysseus’ wife hurls the loom against the wall in an act of rebellion and leaves Ithaka to search for her errant husband but realises, upon finding him, that he is no longer her destiny. The poetic imagination hits the wall of prosaic negligence in ‘After a Long Sleep’. Women’s subservience and desire to please are mocked and ultimately undermined in ‘Last Harvest’. This is a poet unafraid to voice righteous anger, confusion, pain – in a way which is all too often described as ‘feminine’, but is in fact universal. A jilted lover muses about her successor:

If she had the eye she would touch my mind, she would read

my scrawls, she would balk at my famished word, circling.

But she doesn’t have the eye. I have the eye and I have the greed

and she has my red wrap and she has caught you inside it.

jacqueline.saphra.net
jacqueline.saphra.net

The third part is about death and making peace with one’s loved ones. I suspect this is at least partly autobiographical, as the poet describes a mother who was once thin and glamorous, fun, but was abandoned for a newer, more demanding sylph-like model and never quite recovered from the shock. Over the years she seeks refuge in a string of boyfriends, which the now grown poet is disposed to think of more kindly at several decades’ removal.

I met these men sometimes. They weren’t unkind.

We’d nod, then part like co-conspirators

in some veiled plot to save her from the truth.

Now a mother herself, the poet shifts between the past and the present, the joys of breastfeeding, the almost overnight transformation from baby to adolescent, the anxiety about one’s child obtaining the driving licence. Her own experience of motherhood has both strengthened and softened her, has made her more understanding and forgiving of her mother. The poem about her mother’s last moments ‘Last Call’ is incredibly poignant: full of tenderness and the guilt of not being there.

The last you knew, you heard her swear

she loved you more than I: who knows?

Perhaps that’s fair enough: it was Death,

not I, who said a prayer,

who dropped the final silence in your ear,

your dark head cradled in her lap, not mine,

her bloodied fingers in your hair.

This is poetry of the interstices – simple, clear words, with so much breathing space between them that the readers can fill in with their own experiences, emotions, unformed words. If this is the poetry of ‘domestic preoccupations’ and ‘everyday life’, then give me more of it, for it touches us all!

 

 

 

Poetry Review: Father Dirt by Mihaela Moscaliuc

FatherDirtThe poet Mihaela Moscaliuc was born and raised in Romania, but came to the United States in 1996 to do her graduate work in American literature. She is now married to an American poet and lectures in world literature, poetry and translation in New England. She was recommended to me by another poet, because in her first poetry collection ‘Father Dirt’ she captures perfectly the ambiguity of living a-straddle between two worlds, two languages and cultures.

Like any immigrant, she has come across the ocean with ‘a saddlebag of ghosts’ from her homeland:

We carry cemeteries on our heads,

in our bellies, round our ankles.

She used to be:

the girl who dreamt her escape…

who now fuels homesickness with immigrant tales.

And what tales she has to tell! She remembers with sensuous delight the rich tastes, images, sounds of a Romanian childhood: the odd astringent friendship of quince, cutting the corn porridge with butter-combed strings, spitting out cherry stones in the graveyard, the wary pleasure of having blood oranges for Easter (an uncommon delicacy in those days), good-natured banter and gossip during the home-waxing sessions among women. There are also aspects of her cultural heritage that she struggles to come to terms with: the old-fashioned beliefs in potions and tinctures, the healing powers of nettle and marigold tea, rituals for the dead, whispered curses and protection against evil. There is both a luminous and an ominous quality to her remembered life.

Yet the shadows hanging over these childhood memories are much deeper than that, for these were the years of deprivation and dictatorship, when abortion was illegal and even young girls were subjected to forced fertility checks. Moscaliuc remembers denouncements of classmates in school assemblies, the arrest of midwives who performed abortions, the suicide of a high-school classmate, the forced sterilisation of Roma women. She remembers fear and innuendo, when a careless word could send you to labour camp.

In the most heart-rending section of the book, there are a series of poems about children in orphanages and on the streets, youngsters who died far too young, for whom Father Dirt was a comforting figure, opposed to the bleached soul of the poet who was trying to help them on a voluntary basis. These are angry, fierce, immensely sad poems, individual stories almost too grim to contemplate. Moscaliuc piles on detail after sordid detail, until they sound almost banal, in a condemnation of society’s collective blindness to the problem.

My orphans grew up and disappeared below the earth.

Twice a day they ascend, cross the boulevard,

Sniffing auroleac, flapping plastic bottles…

Sometimes they’re electrocuted. Come dawn,

they’re carted to common burial…

Come spring, the survivors will honeycomb the town,

each crater strategically placed to absorb warmth and mercy.

Portrait of Mihaela Moscaliuc, from internationalpscyhonanalysis.net
Portrait of Mihaela Moscaliuc, from internationalpscyhonanalysis.net

These poems come from a harsh, unforgiving place and they brought up painful memories for me.  The poet admits that they may not be to everyone’s taste or understanding, but she almost performs an act of exorcism by writing them down.

You ask me where these poems come from.

You traveled my country enough to know…

But this is the skin she wants to shed, the waters of yesterday that she no longer wants to wade through, although she will never completely forget them. She wants to fit in with her new world, with the sweet tomato aroma of her new home, and this is where she truly speaks to that yearning and sense of never quite belonging which every immigrant knows.

I want dreams in the American idiom –

[…] dreams with popcorn plots and slick endings,

dreams with heirloom seedlings, dreams

never in need of translation

An unforgettable volume of poetry (even given my biased reading, being of similar age and background as the poet). I was fascinated, absorbed, dragged into deep pockets of pain and back again. Above all, it has given me the permission to be bolder, more honest, more open about my own past and my cultural influences.

 

 

 

Poetry Review: May Sarton

MaySartonMay Sarton did her best to become a household name. At her death in 1995, she had written 53 books: 19 novels, 17 books of poetry, 15 nonfiction works including her acclaimed journals, 2 children’s books, a play, and some screenplays. She ran away to join the theatre aged seventeen, went bankrupt and switched to writing, was friends with Elizabeth Bowen, had tea regularly with Virginia Woolf, translated from the French with Louise Bogan. Her early work was highly acclaimed, then she fell out of fashion, though never quite out of print. Her reputation spread more through word of mouth, on college campuses and amongst feminists (especially after she came out as a lesbian in 1965). Towards the end of her life, she became better known for her frank discussion of loneliness and aging in her non-fiction.

And yet she is relatively little-known outside the world of poets and feminists. Gertrude Stein, with her meagre output and difficult style, is better-known as a grande dame of literature than May Sarton. Sarton herself blamed this on her refusal to ‘play ball’, because she did not buy into the academic world of teaching poetry or do the rounds at writers’ conferences. However, as I read her collected poems, I also thought that maybe her poetic style has something to do with it.

Her style is too simple (deceptively so), for those who like their feelings to be raw and overpowering, or else carefully hidden in layers of metaphor. She is not experimental or loud. In fact, she reminds me of a favourite middle-aged aunt: at one with nature, supremely cultured and civilised,  a delightful conversationalist, but a bit old-fashioned and unadventurous in poetic form. Yet a multitude of emotions – all human emotion – is contained within the seemingly tame confines of her verse.  All of the big themes of life: truth, beauty, love, loneliness, fear, ageing, illness are treated here. They are just not paraded about on a baroque stage, carrying out elaborate theatrical gestures.

There is pure joy at loving and being loved, careful observations of nature:

And then suddenly in the silence someone said,

“Look at the sunlight on the apple tree there shiver:

I shall remember that long after I am dead.”

Together we all turned to see how the tree shook,

How it sparkled and seemed spun out of green and gold,

And we thought that hour, that light and our long mutual look

Might warm us each someday when we were cold.

And I thought of your face that sweeps over me like light,

Like the sun on the apple making a lovely show,

So one seeing it marveled the other night,

Turned to me saying, “What is it in your heart? You glow.”

Not guessing that on my face he saw the singular

Reflection of your grace like fire on snow –

And loved you there.

CollectedPoemsMany of her poems are love poems, and also suffused with prayer and spirituality, which perhaps are topic which have fallen slightly out of fashion. Her emotions are carefully restrained and calibrated, rather than given free rein: the ‘stiff upper lip’ is perhaps not perceived as an asset in poetry. And of course, she loved classical poetic forms, although she was able to (and did, on occasion) write exhilarated bursts of free verse. In an interview, she talks about the power of metre and beat in poetry: ‘The advantage of form, far from being “formal” and sort of off-putting and intellectual, is that through form you reach the reader on this subliminal level. I love form. It makes you cut down. Many free verse poems seem to me too wordy. They sound prose-y, let’s face it…. Very few free verse poems are memorable.’

There is indeed great musicality in her poetry, as well as references to music throughout:

We enter this evening as we enter a quartet

Listening again for its particular note

The interval where all seems possible,

Order within time when action is suspended

And we are pure in heart, perfect in will.

Some poems (especially later ones) seem little more than jotted down observations, and she does not always resist the temptation of a lazy cliché or facile rhyme. At times, she even has a tendency to preach (in her poems written at the time of the Vietnam War for instance). Yet there is no doubting the sincerity of her introspection, her powers of observation of nature, or how seriously she does take her poetry. Some of her descriptions of the essence of poetry will make any poet shiver in recognition:

It is not so much trying to keep alive

As trying to keep from blowing apart

From inner explosions every day. […]

Prisoner at a desk? No, universe of feeling

Where everything is seen, and  nothing mine

To plead with or possess, only partake of,

As if at times I could put out a hand

And touch the lion head, the unicorn.

Not showy, not immediately life-changing, but the kind of poetry that seeps through your pores gradually. I’m glad that Open Road Media are reissuing her Collected Poems. I’m also curious to read her journals now and hope they are still in print. The kind of writing to savour, to dip in and out of, like going to have tea every week with your favourite aunt.

One interesting final point about the difficulty of reading poetry ebooks.The publisher comments on this in the introduction: how, because of the shape-shifting qualities of electronic type, it is hard to see the exact visual layout of lines as the poet imagined them. I also find it much harder to remember certain poems or find them again to quote from them. I think I will stick to print copies for poetry collections of more than 1-2 poems in the future.

 

Poetry Review: Drysalter

DrysalterI enjoy reading poetry very much, but seldom read it systematically, an entire volume of poems carefully conceived and published as an architectural creation by one single poet. And it’s even more rare that I actually review such a book when I do read it. So I’ll try to remedy this now.

Michael Symmons Roberts has won the Forward Prize for the best poetry collection of 2013 with ‘Drysalter’, a volume of 150 sonnet-like, rather metaphysical poems. But don’t be put off by its apparent obscurity: there are many beautiful, touching and immediately accessible poems in this volume.

I did not know what a drysalter was (an 18th century dealer in chemicals, salts and dyes, apparently), but there is a poem in this collection called ‘Wetsalter’, which speaks of all the pain and wounds an over-sensitive soul must endure. Perhaps the poet himself.

So here’s the rub: his salt, your skin.

He flays you first, then kneads it in.’

But then self-irony kicks in, there is no time nor patience for weeping and wailing:

but cured you are, prosciutto-man

your self preserved in perma-tan

It is this irreverent mix which makes such a strong initial impression: modern concepts, words with shock-factor writ large, technology creeping in at the seams and jostling alongside old-fashioned cadences, the psalmodic quality of the work, the titles and forms of the poems themselves, each perfectly executed on a single page. A rich tapestry of vocabulary, ranging from mentions of sonnets, cobalt, thou and portents to hymns dedicated to cars, photo-booths or karaoke machines.

There are echoes of John Milton or Donne to many of the verses: ‘essence of turmoil I plead and I pester’ or ‘you start and finish me, you’re my extent’ or ‘slowly, come slowly, o agents of despair/ paint the sky with portents, number my regrets’.  Just as you get caught in the beauty of the rhythm and the language, the poet turns suddenly towards the resolutely modern. ‘Email me the date’, he asks of you or states quietly ‘the resting actor hunts down his demons in the pool’.

There are three recurring themes or landscapes in this volume of poetry, all interconnected yet distinct.

1) A grey winter (English winter, which means relentless November most times), a landscape of storms, abandonment and ruins, with flaked brick walls, lit cars flashing by, but also a hint of hope, in the shape of wind-sorrell and willowherb growing amidst the concrete.

2) The desert, both physical and metaphorical: canyons with snakes and scorpions, the villas backing onto the empty, the crack that lets the desert in, tumbleweed rattling in the wind, the blanked, orphaned, vacant set of Hollywood life.

3) A post-apocalyptic world gouged by invisible fires, where you feel pursued by a guild of salters, both wet and dry, where none of the rules or normal signs make sense. You have to work out ‘what the sea could want from us’, you feel dessicated, as if ‘somebody is after me, gaining miles a day/ and unlike me they never stop to sleep.’

poetryfoundation.org
poetryfoundation.org

But it would be wrong to see just angst and despair in these grim landscapes, although the overall feel of these poems is grim and disquieting. There are some beautiful instances of trust and love, the comfort of personal relationships, such as in ‘The Vows’. Ultimately, it feels like Michael Symmons Roberts has tried to take a world which has broken into fragments ‘a world more fragile than we thought’ and put it back together to the best of his ability, with nothing wasted. There are many references to song, psalms and elegies in this collection, as a way of making sense of a world only partially perceived and understood. “Sing as if singing made sense,/ sing in the caves of your heart.’ He seeks to convey all the variety and richness of emotions, the original fury of words, a diversity of experiences until

…one day the world drops into your hands

like a bruised fruit, a-buzz with what you take

for wasps, but is in truth all human life.’

And, ultimately, is that not what all poetry is about? Trying to capture multitudes, forever seeking and asking questions, trusting to find and save a thin glimmer of truth for all time. A book to savour and return to, in times of plenitude and times of despair, like all good poetry.