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on John Clare
Monica de la O
To Float in the
works on paper
Sally Wen Mao
Bluer and More Vast
A Hundred Years
Among the Daises
Alexis Rhone Fancher
Esperanza and Hope
Wade in the Water
Tracy K. Smith
Poetry in a Time
O Miami Reading
Julie Morrissey &
Ghost Child of
the Atalanta Bloom
Voices in the Air,
Poems for Listeners
Naomi Shihab Nye
Jack Tar’s Lady Parts
When I Grow Up
I Want to Be a List
of Further Possibilities
Scribbled in the Dark
Empathy and Revelation: A Review of Asylum: Improvisations on John Clare
by Lola Haskins (Pitt, 2019; $17) and
Every Ravening Thing,
by Monica de la O (Pitt, 2019; $17)
by Michael Hettich
For the past half-century or so, North American poetry has been experiencing a minor Renaissance. While there are few if any towering figures among us, there are countless first-rate artists—smaller in ambition (or hubris) perhaps, but nevertheless astonishing in their intelligence and craft. There is no dominant mode in our current poetry, and what “schools” there are exert little influence on the practice of most mainstream poets. So, while there may be few era-defining poems being declaimed, the ground is rich with undergrowth and the woods are dark and deeper than they’ve (almost) ever been before. There are many reasons for this rich and interesting state of affairs, ranging from the nightmares of our politics and impending climate change, to the increasing proliferation of MFA programs, and to the ever-smaller base of readership across all modes of literature. Whatever the reasons, we are in a rich and interesting time in poetry.
Two excellent examples of the rousing vitality of our poetry have been published this year in the prestigious Pitt Poetry series. In Asylum: Improvisations on John Clare, Lola Haskins presents the kind of spiritual journey John Clare might have taken in 1841 if, when he escaped the madhouse, he’d been traveling in his head rather than on his feet. Haskins’ work here is spare, honed to a sharp and flinty precision. She travels deep into Clare’s mind and spirit to reveal profound and deeply moving illuminations about his—and her own—spiritual core. Monica de la O’s Every Ravening Thing embraces quite a different strategy toward empathy and revelation: Her poems tend toward the lush and oracular, embracing, in the words of Chase Twichell, “a profound empathy for human suffering of all kinds.” Thus, while both poets look beyond their own lives to find their subjects, Haskins’ gaze is essentially inward and intimate while de la O’s is outward and public. We might even say—imprecisely—that these two poets manifest and reify the two great strains in North American poetry—that flowing from Dickinson on the one hand and from Whitman on the other. Even at her most widely-embracing and outward-looking, Haskins is essentially a poet for whom less is more, a poet whose very line breaks carry nuance and revelation. de la O’s more raucous and less exacting work offers a wider, wilder embrace in which the poet yearns “to walk alone at night/beneath the skirts of leaves and reach up//to touch the hem, just close enough/as darkness sharpens the moon’s golden knife” (“The Essence of Water”). Both books are exemplary in their control of craft, tone, and form, and both books are full of fully-realized poems, unique and beautiful contributions to our literature.
Haskins’ Asylum is framed by quotes from the diary John Clare kept in 1841, “describing his escape from Dr. Matthew Arnold’s private insane asylum...and his subsequent struggle to find his way home, where he hoped to reunite with Mary, who’d been his childhood sweetheart” (ix). Haskins considers these poems “improvisations...I see Clare’s changing mental states as matches and my poems as the resulting fire” (ix). Asylum is composed of four distinct sections or movements. In the opening section, Haskins embarks on her journey with as little direction as Clare had, and yet, after wandering literal and figurative paths, she finally reaches her destination, having learned from Clare that she can “be homeless at home and half-gratified to find I can be happy anywhere” (55). In essence, Haskins evokes the voice and spirit of John Clare in order to more fully enter her own core being, her own true voice. This astonishing act of ventriloquism allows her access to deeper regions of her own psyche than she would otherwise find her way to, regions where she can truly inhabit “herself” and, by being lost, find her truest home. Thus Haskins’ book, though made up of beautifully crafted individual poems, must be read as a book to be fully comprehended. Still, the individual poems are exquisite in their exactness and understated power. Haskins’ ear is perfect-pitched:
Soon your small yellow leaves
will become meteors
falling through the dark as
each of us will fall
no matter how hard we love,
no matter how close we come
to composing a line that the angels
would recite, if only there
were such a perfect line,
if only there were angels.
In In Every Ravening Thing, Monica de la O’s empathy works in a different, equally powerful if more conventional and familiar manner. Her empathy extends outward, toward the suffering of others--humans as well as sentient and non-sentient beings. She has described her work as “a reclamation from silence, a reckoning with the far-ranging consequences of violence, from the war on women and girls to the freight carried by veterans to the assault on the natural world in this epoch of the sixth extinction” (“Book News”). The fact that this astonishing ambition for her poetry is actually realized in many of the poems in the collection is testament to this poet’s courage, conviction and artistry. This is poetry meant to open hearts and change attitudes in fundamental and necessary ways, poetry of witness and utility. It is also often deeply moving:
For a Young Woman Dead at Twenty
She liked to slow-walk, heat-held, alone in groves behind the dorm
a sultry September night, lonely girl,
green-growing inside, tongue-tied in English class.
All those tongues tolling the bell, the knell, the gong: gone...gone...gone.
All that speculation, yawp and pang,
those letters home to our parents.
I keep my mouth shut, but the pang hammers away like a clock
wrapped around three sticks of dynamite,
heart sproketed, wheels engaged.
To walk alone at night for sweet relief
when heat clamps us in a vise,
they warn us to never.
I’m all haywire, blast-bound, rocked:
another trashcan fire, another girl defaced, defrocked,
and then comes grief.
Her name is Lois.
De la O’s is a poetry of ravenous witness, while Haskins’ is one that might be called empathetic ventriloquism. Neither of these summations captures their rare and haunting work though, as Haskins’ precision evokes universal themes and insights through her very restraint while de la O’s more oracular voice often captures the nuances of the particular. As different as these two poets are, both are profoundly Romantic in the best and most “American” sense of that word. Like Emerson, Dickinson and Whitman in their different ways, Haskins and de la O articulate a shared sense that poetry possesses a kind of transcendent power—capable of transforming lives by awakening a kind of non-denominational grace: that sense that the whole world is numinous, as vivid as we are, and as alive. We are humbled and made larger by their songs.
Michael Hettich’s most recent book of poetry is To Start an Orchard, published in September 2019 by Press 53.
Small Worlds Floating
of a Sunflower
Alexis Rhone Fancher
Not All Fires
Burn the Same
Other for Ghosts
A Simple Blues
with a Few Intangibles
A Very Funny Fellow
by Gregg Shapiro
NightBallet Press, 2019
by Freesia McKee
As a transplanted Midwesterner, the longer I live in Florida, the more I realize there might be, indeed, a certain school of Florida poetry. We’re not as well-known as the New York School, but we can perhaps claim the mantle of “Most Quirky.”
Gregg Shapiro’s new chapbook Sunshine State (NightBallet Press, 2019) shouts a confident “Here!” during roll call at the local meeting of the Florida Observers of the Zany. Readers will recognize Aventura Mall, I-95, the Wynwood Walls, Fort Lauderdale, and North Miami—not to mention televised weather news, the “dryly discreet/language” of palm trees, sawgrass, palmetto bugs, termites, and “grinning realtors, tan and sexy mortgage/lenders.”
Shapiro’s poems outline typical Floridian joys and worries—hurricane prep, the fear associated with life in a gun-toting Red State, losing sleep in the subtropics, and marveling at the kind of outdoor art possible only in a place where it doesn’t snow. These narrative poems are a documentary of Florida life, but they also go beyond the peninsula. Shapiro’s speaker mixes humor and gravity whether he’s eating peas, enraptured in a Proustian, gustatory memory; giving away the artifacts of a beloved late dog; or analyzing the propensity to overshare on Facebook.
As I write this review, I am sitting at a bar in North Miami listening to a pair of bro’s say the same sentence over and over: “Women shed hair.” (I decided against revealing that women do not shed—most of us shave, or in the case of South Florida, wax.) Hours earlier, I laughed heartily at a dark joke about a car and an iguana. What I see so acutely in Shapiro’s poems are these strange Florida moments, increasingly familiar the longer I live here: “Tony thinks he saw Katy Perry on a Broward/County transit bus but was unsure of how to approach her” or “The last-minute purchase of floor-model generators/plastic gas cans, 10W-30 oil, waterproof power cords,//and where to safely and dryly store receipts for easy access.”
Or, how about these, lines that make me consider the possibility of a reptilian makeup tutorial on YouTube: “Down here, lizards of varying sizes and shapes, capable/of assorted velocities, offer camouflage tutorials, blending/brown as roots, vivid green as sawgrass palm fronds,/verdant foliage. But what if there’s nowhere to hide…”
The detailed descriptions of decoration and scenery have always shined for me in Shapiro’s poetry. Sunshine State never leaves readers in want of a fuller picture, a more complete scene.
Every semester, I tell my students that no matter what one is writing about, there is a way to make it interesting. Even laundry, I say to my students. But it isn’t, until now, that I have had a poem to illustrate my example. Shapiro, dear reader, writes compellingly, yes, even about laundry: “The laundry/basket, full of clean, unfolded clothes in the walk-in closet is empty, drawers/and shelves and racks neatly overflowing. Your high concept of alphabetical/t-shirt organization by color is unexpectedly a reality.” It’s the depth of description, the exactness, that appeals to me.
Shapiro isn’t a formalist, per se, but he is paying attention to form. Octets, tercets, and more: he’s unearthed the special shape each poem demands. “Goodnight Poltergeist” is composed of two thirteen-line (spooky!) stanzas. “Following Hurricane Erika” unfurls in unsettling tercets. “Peas for Breakfast” takes the shape of a pleasing stack of six five-line aluminum stanzas.
If stanza shape and size are closely attended to, I should also mention the book itself as object. Published in a small run by NightBallet Press, Sunshine State’s paper is sandy, beachy, textured. The cover art by Timothy Gaewsky is groovy—a sunburst, a kaleidoscope—and a nod to the aforementioned Wynwood Walls. This level of attention to tactile and visual detail is one of the special aspects of small press chapbooks.
Bringing some levity to typical Floridian worries, Sunshine State is Gregg Shapiro at his best. Funny, observant, political, and descriptive, the sun sets somewhere over the Everglades in this collection of seventeen poems after a long, bright day of antics.
It’s time for me to end this review. Shapiro’s not lying; Florida is a strange and variegated place. At the next table, the same two men are arguing over whether their friend’s butt is “real.” Social media photos are being considered and exchanged.
I need to get out of here, finish my drink, eat the last of these greasy potato skins. Shapiro is a long-time entertainment and restaurant critic for the gay press and beyond. I’m not sure what he’d think of this dubious bar food, but I know he would describe it well. I’m also sure that, ever the poet, he’d look beyond the watery tables at the palm trees, the skittering geckos, these dilapidated high-rise apartment buildings, and the crescent moon.
Freesia McKee is author of the chapbook How Distant the City (Headmistress Press, 2017). Her words have appeared in cream city review, The Feminist Wire, Painted Bride Quarterly, Gertrude, So to Speak, Nimrod International Journal, and the Ms. Magazine Blog. Freesia's poetry is forthcoming in CALYX, Apalachee Review, and Flyway. Her book reviews have appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal, Gulf Stream, and The Drunken Odyssey. Freesia is the winner of the 2018 Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, chosen by Sarah Vap.