What So Cal Poets Are Reading

Edited by liz gonzález

 

This month we review David St. John’s PRISM (Arctos Press, 2002) and Study for the World's Body New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins, 1994) Blue Window by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Late by Cecilia Woloch

 


Prism
by David St. John
Arctos Press, 2002
 
 
Study for the World's Body: New and Selected Poems
by David St. John
 
 

David St. John lives Los Angeles, California.  He is the author of six books of poetry, including Prism (Arctos Press, 2002), Study for the World's Body: New and Selected Poems (1994), No Heaven (1985), and Hush (1976).

Reviewed by Bill Mohr

Almost 30 years ago Daniel Halpern edited an influential anthology of poems by 75 young poets, many of whom have gone on to achieve substantial recognition for their writing. The table of contents reads like an honor roll of contemporary middle-aged poets: Ai, Rita Dove, Carolyn Forché, Tess Gallagher, Louise Gluck, Robert Haas, Thomas Lux, Heather McHugh, Sandra McPherson, Robert Mezey, Roberta Spear, David St. John, James Tate, and Charles Wright. (Two of the most prominent and influential poets in this anthology, William Matthews and Larry Levis, have died in recent years, but their poetry remains intensely present in the contemporary period.) Although many of the poems in The American Poetry Anthology were intriguing and brilliant, several critics faulted it for promoting what was quickly becoming known as the workshop poem, an effort which tended to be of rather modest length emphasizing succinct images and a nonadventurous free verse prosody.

 

Of all the poets in Halpern's anthology, David St. John has emerged with one of the most substantial and intriguing bodies of work, in part because of his willingness to break with the implicit length restrictions of the workshop poem and to engage in the narrative and musical risks ensuing with longer poems or poetic sequences. In Prism, St. John has produced a book-length sonnet cycle drenched with ironic passion. “All sonnets say the same thing,” William Carlos Williams once complained, and Williams’ comment has an element of truth if one is writing conventional sonnets. The forty-one sonnets in Prism, however, display a wide variety of stanza patterns, which in turn serve as both denotative and connotative punctuation. Although St. John is not the only one to write unrhymed sonnets, he is one of a handful of American poets whose lyrical touch is vibrant enough to make one want to translate his poems into French or Italian, and exploit the recuperative and plastic power of rhyme of those languages. St. John’s poetry and essays about poetry often point to European models, and in the poem, “Blackberry,” Prism points to an often overlooked master in the fields of the imagination.

 

It is time I believe we all confessed

That every blackberry in our poetry

 

Begins on the hedge of Francis Ponge’s

Delicious page each American blackberry

 

Plucked from the French thicket of his prose

The ink of each letter the squib of the nib

 

The pen scrawled in the raw cursive of

The blackberry its squid-sweet

 

The poems’ own viscous evil given a form

So pleasing to the tongue its hive

 

Of planets huddled close into a tight cosmos

Of utter darkness though the righteous are often

 

Discouraged by those asterisks of thorns

Which poets prefer truly to the fruit

(“Blackberry”)

 

In a review this brief, I am unable to point to all the links of parallel associations that St. John has woven into this sequence, but I would urge readers to remember well those “asterisks of thorns” as they enter the memory of St. John’s “Tumbleweeds” and the childhood fort he constructed. Many of the poems in Prism can be best enjoyed as a pair of dancers, and the best I can do in suggesting how the reader might choreograph the sequence after reading it through from first page to last is to juxtapose a poem that is as harrowing as its title “Timberwolf” hints with the exultant verticality of the following:

 

The sea air blues the sheer cliff

Rising up from the shaggy foam below

To these narrow terraces of blowing orange masks

Tiny paper faces nodding on their stalks

& as we walk the snaking muddy trail above

 

The Pacific waves shattering

Against the rocks along the fringe of Little Sur

 

I want to gather those fields of paper bells

Swaying like fragile Japanese lanterns yes

Just gather as we pass a whole basket

Of crenellated orange lips with my arms

& carry you in them until every move you’d make

 

Would rustle like this summer breeze

& the soft laughter of poppies

(“Coast Poppies”)

 

In Study for the World’s Body, St. John selected fifty poems from his oeuvre, fifteen of which are longer poems that comprise half the book. Each of these longer poems, with the exception of "Hotel Sierra," held my attention intact, if not rapt, until the poem's concluding line. St. John is a master storyteller; his affinity for the symbolic underpinnings of narrative gives his work a rare compelling depth, and makes me want to compare him more with novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne than to his contemporaries in American poetry.

 

St. John has described himself, in an interview with David Wojahn, as an "Ariel" poet, a poet of style, and this seems on the balance to be an accurate self-perception, reflecting his passion for a wide range of rhythmic intonations. Nevertheless, I would point to the content of these poems as being their most attractive quality. Poets aren't the only ones who can be categorized: There are Ariel readers and Prospero readers. I confess that I belong to the latter and St. John rewards the Prospero reader with an abundance of haunting images. The masterful writer is one whose major characters aren't the only ones who tantalize the reader's memory; subordinate characters, too, arrive in a single glimpse of narrative with an extended, mysterious force. In St. John's poem "The Swan at Sheffield Park" for instance, the brief appearance of two young women, whose disguises only reveal their own interior "fierce intimacy", are like mimes who, with a minimal amount of gesture, reduce the stage of the poem to the lingering, elementary presence of their souls.

 

The relationship between women and men in St. John's poems is often that of separation, and of one observing the other. The suggestion that the borderline of separation--of division--is also the fragile locus of unity that occurs frequently in St. John's poetry; he is acutely aware of what a small place to pivot women and men have as they attempt to comfort one another.

 

They were sitting on the thin mattress

He'd once rolled up and carried up the four floors

To his room only to find it covered nearly all

Of the bare wood

Leaving just a small path alongside the wall

("Wavelength")

 

Such slender turning points dominate the trajectories of St. John's poems. The ascent to solitude requires a journey of a narrow path, as in "Until the Sea Is Dead":

 

Tonight, waking alone

I'll walk out into the cold mists

Up to the circular groves

High above the cabin,...

 

And from a prospect higher still, where the trees

Begin to grow more sparse and the rocks

More bare, I can look down ...

 

Given St. John's propensity to fix the observer at a height, it's no surprise to find that his favorite architectural motif is the balcony, in all its variations, both internal and external. In the poem, just quoted from, for example, St. John's artistry is most exquisitely revealed in the transitional balcony of an abandoned car:

 

the husk of the De Soto

Someone pushed, last summer, off the cliff.

If I'm tired, sometimes

I'll sit awhile in its back seat

In the mixed scent of salt, dead mollusks,

Moldering leather, and rust. ... ...

And I know I'll bring you here

 

As I noted earlier, St. John writes a very European poetry, reflecting layers of French, Italian, Greek, as well as English traditions of poetry. His method for unifying his diverse influences from Baudelaire through Calvacanti is his sense of the theatrical nature of monologues. St. John particularly plays with the interior resistance to truth in every narrator, who is all too aware that, in observing, he or she also becomes the observed.

 

One of the most ambitious poems in Study is "To Pasolini," an eight-part poem written in a loose terza rima. Pasolini has become a late twentieth century version of T.E. Lawrence, a figure whose internal conflicts provide the basis for other artists' imaginative exploration. St. John's poem is especially intriguing for its sympathetic portrayal of a man obsessed with sexual gratification.

 

Among contemporary poets, St. John is among the most theatrical. His use of the balcony motif culminates in an oblique manner in the Pasolini poem's most chilling moment: not the murder itself, but the aftermath, in which the killer sits alone in a room, smoking while gazing in a mirror

 

...He picks up

The worn muslin curtain, where it lies

 

Crumpled on the floor; he spreads it out.

He scatters the ashes from the cigarette tin

And rubs them slowly over the whole cloth

 

Until the muslin has been blackened

Like a mourning veil. Over the low, angled

Image of himself he drapes the ashen curtain,

 

And sits back again in the mangled,

Rickety chair....

 

I remember the first time I read the Pasolini poem, I thought to myself as I felt the poem drawing to a conclusion: How is St. John going to pull all of this together? The image of the smeared mirror of a reflected fallen angel prefigures the appearance of the climatic symbol:

 

...The boy dragged an old toy

Dragon behind him on a short gold cord,

Its mouth spitting little friction sparks of joy –

He circled the fountain like a tiny Chinese lord,

Secure in his wild love for the dragon,

Its steady metallic pulse all that any of us heard.  

An artist is one for whom perceptions arrive in related clusters, at first in an intriguing disarray, and then easing themselves into "an appropriate sense of distance." The translation of imagined experience into another's experience of the imagination will be successful only to the extent that the artist emphasizes certain repetitions. It's not simply a coincidence, then, that the dragon-puppet whose arrival concludes the Pasolini poem is prefigured in a sense on the first page of this book: "...A small / Girl behind a hedge of snow / Working a stick puppet so furiously the passersby bump / Into one another"  

The title poem itself is even more ambitious, and daring, in form and theme than the Pasolini poem. It is written in two columns, one entitled "The Body of Desire" and "Of Time & the Body", the latter of which is in printed entirely in italics, as though in a kind of shadow. St. John has placed the most ambitious poem in the book at the very end of the book and its scope might discourage even serious readers who have savored the book up to that point, a book which has so many good poems that a reader could almost be forgiven for saying, "I'll get back to this last one later." As such, this poem might end up with a wider readership in a future Selected or Collected Poems, when its chronology will place it in the middle of the volume. As it now stands, some readers will view this poem rather as a symphony goer might regard a Mahler symphony concluding a week-long spree of performances of compositions by Mozart, Debussy, Hayden, and Stravinski. Having bewailed its unfortunate position, I must say that the reader who straddles this poem will find that it is among the more nimble of St. John's poems, with moments that exceed the wisdom and poignancy of the earlier poems in the book.  

Years ago, in the anthology, Naked Poetry, W. S. Merwin related how "for years he had a recurring dream of finding, as it were in an attic, poems that were as lyrically formal, but as limpid and essentially unliterary as those of Villon." Such ambition is beyond the grasp of all but a very few poets. St. John's Study for the World’s Body shows a poet standing on a balcony who may turn at any moment and enter that attic. 

Bill Mohr's Collected Poems will be published by Cahuenga Press.


Blue Window
by Ann Fisher-Wirth
Archer Books

Ann Fisher-Wirth is the author of The Trinket Poems and William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature. Recently, she’s been splitting her time between Oxford, Mississippi, where she teaches poetry and environmental literature at the University of Mississippi, and Uppsala University, Sweden, where she served as the Chair of American Studies in 2002-2003.

Reviewed by Sarah Maclay

Using a palette of earth and light, Ann Fisher-Wirth’s first full-length collection remains unflinching in both its sexual disclosures and its depiction of worldly suffering. For this poet, such hard-won reportage is nothing but the necessary truth: to tell any less would be, more or less, to lie. And yet her language is as painterly as it is “confessional,” as delicate as it is raw: “Now my nipples are quiet flowers / late light-bent. / My shadow slides beneath my feet / and stretches mountainward.” This is a poet as eager to indulge in “The Pleasures of the Text” as to stay alive to a visceral poem-by-poem awareness of gender: first blood, early sexuality, marriage, divorce, aging, “birth / and the savage adoration of bodies, child for mother, mother for child . . .”

 

In addition to what Robert Hass has called their “fierce and stinging accuracy,” what distinguishes these poems is a heady sense of music and a rich and destabilizing sensuality that, when combined, allows them to enter the realm of incantation—that liminal realm between spell and dream, as in this moment in front of Faulkner’s house, where a student, trying to communicate with the dead “ . . .spoke . . . / in tongues and rattles / and honeyed / groanings. Fern-furred / branches bowed / above the burnished / river their voices / conjured . . .” In such moment-to-moment unfolding, a bow to realism is tendered into something closer to magic. It’s the coupling of “groanings” and “fern-furred,” the consonance of “branches,” “bowed” and “burnished,” the momentary dip into metaphor that “river their voices” asks of us that, more even than the literal subject matter of this poem, casts a spell.

 

I have a recommendation for anyone coming to this work for the first time—slow down, way down. And it’s tempting not to, as these poems mostly read with a sense of narrative flow that will pull you in the direction of wanting to devour them at the speed of prose—but to do that is to miss what makes them poetry—an intense sense of layering, as though the author is descending ever more deeply, rung by rung, into memory, into some feeling below the surface of memory, into “this water that holds me on its plate / while the crows shuffle their black cards.” 

 

These poems often tell their stories invisibly—by racking up gusting lists of details, of objects, of moments, and letting them speak between the lines until a shift in perception breaks through, and the effusion is caught short, like a catch in the breath, by what is emotionally inescapable.  I tried to avoid the power of this book but could not make it through without weeping.

 

So beware: to read these poems is to risk being moved.

 

 

Late
by Cecilia Woloch
BOA Editions, 2003

 

Cecilia Woloch is the author of two previous volumes of poetry, Sacrifice and Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem (both, Cahuenga Press). She currently spends time each year in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Idyllwild, where she directs the Summer Poetry program, and Henniker, New Hampshire, where she teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing program at New England College.

 

Reviewed by Sarah Maclay

 

Beauty and reckoning—it’s between these poles that Cecilia Woloch’s third collection hovers, “delicate and bright” as the wing of a dragonfly.  Crystalline in grief as well as celebration, teetering on the thin edges between life and death, desire and disappointment, renewal and despair, these “radiant and hushed” poems move like a breath weaving the world into a “glittering, tattered scarf,” letting it sail.

 

As these pieces traverse free verse and prose-poem, pantoum and villanelle, aubade and blazon, they wander across Paris, Poland and Kentucky, tracing the loss of a father, trailing the heart’s wreckage, reckoning with “the habits of . . . solitude,” and allowing, finally, the entrance of new love. They alternate between the discursive, narrative and earthbound, and more lyrical poems that seem, almost, to float: “There was a sky of hammered tin with a few thin clouds in it, some birds  / / There was a chance / A noise in the courtyard like rain, and rain, and the clatter of keys . . .” But just as these lines seem suspended in air, ready to drift into the drizzly mystery that leaves “the city blurred,” this author is also on familiar terms with “a sky that screams back at me . . .” In a lyric so taut with despair that it borders on violence, “The whole sky lurched. / Black wings. Most bitter trees / I’ve ever seen . . .”

 

Who hasn’t felt, at least once, that “the gods don’t hear; there are no gods”? Such despair gives way to delicious confusion when “Some days you wake up and find god in your shoes and you don’t know who put it there.” How to walk the tightrope in a world where will is not enough; where pain and pleasure seem to enter inexplicably, and always counter to our plans, like reckless gods, bent on whim? That is the dilemma at the heart of this book.

 

And it creates a sense of motion, the necessity of literal and formal as well as inner journey. But even though this requires travel to places, metaphoric and otherwise, where breakfast is sometimes nothing more than a “half-eaten apple, brown bread, tin of fish,” there is finally the recognition that comes like a gift: “There is so much to lose that we haven’t lost.”

 

And one of those un-lost things is beauty, not just the “brilliance of being a beautiful thing in a world full of beautiful things” but the deeper, harsher beauty we begin to see once our eyes adjust to the dark, where “even suffering shimmers and means,” where a hard-won acceptance of “what is” is practical, even joyous: “And so I mean to make the most of what has fallen in my path . . . Take something like the juice of too few stars, anoint yourself.”  

 

Here, you’ll find more than enough.


Sarah Maclay’s first full-length book, Whore (Tampa Press Poetry Prize, 2003), will be released in February, 2004. Her poems have appeared or will soon appear in Ploughshares, Field, Hotel Amerika, Pool, ZYZZYVA, Solo, lyric, Cider Press Review, Spillway and Poetry International, where she is now Book Review Editor.


 

Ann Fisher-Worth and Cecilia Woloch will celebrate the release of their new books at Poem.X on Friday, October 10th at 8 P.M at Barnes & Noble, 1201 Third Street Promenade (at Wilshire) in Santa Monica.. Admission is free.


So Cal poets, please email  me your reviews of a recently published poetry book or chapbook. See guidelines below.

Guidelines:

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  • Use quotation marks for poem titles and excerpts of poems only.

  • PROOFREAD PLEASE!

  • Refer to the other reviews for format and to use as a model.


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach