Before Dreaming: Poems by Arn Strasser, reviewed by Gigi Cooper

Before Dreaming

EPSON MFP image

by Arn Strasser

 

Budding Branch Books, an imprint of Asher & Merriman Publishers

ISBN# 978-0-9841874-1-6

2015, 89 pp., $19.95

www.buddingbranchbooks.com

 

Before Dreaming almost is correct; Between Dreaming would be accurate. Arn Strasser’s collection investigates the interaction between the dream state and wakefulness. He approaches the enigma of the dream world with both wonder and dread, exploring the boundaries between living and dead, youth and age, adventure and solace. Without magniloquence, he takes the reader on a journey from as close as the dining room and sofa to the markets and shores of Sardinia.

For Strasser, sleep is not a separate condition, but a way to access both memories and the future. Dream and memory inextricably intertwine in the book, most literally in the penultimate set of poems

called “The Wanderers.”

 

  1. Night

… so we may wander

the landscapes

of our dreams … .

 

these constellations of our

desires, a twilight of

remembrances.

 

  1. Awakening

Do you hear

voices

of the dead,

 

who speak in memory … .

 

In this book, memories are more permanent than transitory life, but they are frustratingly unreliable and elusive. Several poems in the collection are lamentations — an effort to conjure and recapture that which is lost, which here is undiminished memories. The strongest poems are these first-person meditations.

I am trying, trying to bring you forward

even to see your eyes

but the song the song, I remember.

(“Your Irish Heart”)

Dreams in fact may substitute for memories. As for sleep, on the one hand, one suffers from an unstated fear of not waking (“A European Sets the Table”) from the dreams [that] are the dark energy of the night (“Silence Room”). On the other hand, the author looks forward to the repose of wandering, even though a dream is a creature of wonderment, longing and fear” (“Before Dreaming”).

Gardens, and fruit in particular, like dreams, serve as a mechanism for looking into the past and connecting to the present. “The Fig Tree” conjures a couple from “long ago”:

she feels the strength of truth

and when he hands her a fig

she bites deeply into the dark skin

Ripening fruit is a persistent theme, with poems featuring ripe plums, cherries, apricots, figs, olives, and apples. Ripeness is that perfect, ephemeral moment before a dream ends, before a memory fades.

While Strasser’s poems focus little on meter – and only one rhymes – he uses anaphora and refrain effectively and extensively, as in do not be afraid in “The Prayer.” The less compelling poems are descriptive landscapes such as “The Beach at Manzanita.” When tackling love, Strasser falters, verging on cloying recitations of emotions.

The “Three Tales” that close the book are a humorous departure. In the first, the writer worries needlessly over a cat. The second is a hilarious take on the contemporary preoccupations and proclivities of the Greek gods. Appropriately, the final poem finds an insomniac hotel guest sarcastically entreating boisterous Rome to keep him awake, ending the collection in a flourish.

Whether reflecting on a lifetime or invoking a generation past, the reader will not find answers here, but will find:

a tenderness, a kindness of

strangers, the milk of gracious

laughing, laughing.

(“Along the Path of Sycamores”)

 

Reviewer Bio:

Gigi Cooper is a transportation and environmental planner and writer in Portland. Her poem “Field” was an honorable mention in the Spring 2013 OPA contest.

Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast: Poems by Quinton Hallett, reviewed by Alan Contreras

Uttered Chaos, 2015, 74 pages, $10

 

ISBN 978-0988936645

 

Available via Amazon

 

Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast is one of the most complex and carefully layered collections of poetry that most of us will ever read. I wondered, when I saw the title, whether this was a feminist restatement of Woody Allen being chased over the cinematic hills by a forty-foot mega-mammary. Hallett has a spiky sense of humor (in previous collections she asked Joan of Arc “what’s at stake” and had scientist Rosalind Franklin refer to DNA Nobelists Crick and Watson as “that base pair”), but I could not see her devoting poetic energy to such a project.

 

I then speculated whether Hallett, a noted gold-panner of human subtlety, had found some connection with physicist Erwin Schrödinger, whose hypothetical Cat that can be assumed simultaneously dead and alive has become well-known. Yes, it’s that Mrs. S., one Anny, apparently a woman of social vigor and marital flexibility. The poet’s connective tissue, set forth with glowing clarity in a short, moving “Afterword,” was her own potential cancer. This collection is built around potential: that which may or not be.  A more macabre or less serious poet might have called the collection Cat Scan.

 

What Hallett has done is build a triple helix of her own experience, the life of Anny, and the theories of Erwin. This allows her to use the device of Erwin Schrödinger’s uncertain Cat, particularly for the many poems that are part of the main themes. We not only follow the unique circumstance of waiting for news of a biopsy in “Deadlock,” but we find frequent visions in these poems – sometimes in the path, sometimes in the mirror – of alternatives: things that may or may not happen, or exist.

 

Let’s look at “Deadlock” in its entirety.

 

Pre –

 

Under a tarnished sky, one moss-freighted limb

 hunkers like a pathologist over the road to the lab

 

 A petri dish is tonged from its stack

 a left breast, unpowdered, awaits its probe

 

 The pet cat wandered off a week earlier,

 climbed into a box at the neighbor’s

 

 

Post –

 

The pathologist swivels her microscope

dice are in mid-roll, coin’s in the air

 

Results = Pending

 

Crest and trough

holding heavy the simultaneous upshots

 

  The marked breast is carried to bed,

  patted down under the press of blankets

 

  The old cat’s dreamt alive

 

  Regardless of outcome, every passage underneath

  the laden maple will be a new snag in the chest

 

What weight on two words and a symbol: Results = Pending. These words are the mirror image of the Cat That (Is/Not) Dead, reflected inside the poet’s body. Results = Pending carries the weight of the potential of cancer on a yin-yang fulcrum – an equals sign, less than a word but in this poem so much more – in the center of the poem. The discerning eye might add a flickering arrow pointing each way.

 

This is poetic art at the highest level. It is the considered benchwork of a master crafter.  Like a maker of swords, she adds how many layers? How many folds? How much flex here, and there? How many directions or outcomes? What will cause the balance to shift one way or another? I can’t help but think of James Merrill’s masterpiece “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace,” in which  … the sword that, never falling, kills … hangs over the bed of his friend, the Dutch poet Hans Lodeizen, whose pending death everyone in the room notionally denies.

 

How many of these poems are really about the mammiform protuberance in question? The answer – the uniquely suitable and beautifully surprising answer – is: it depends. It depends on the reader, in some cases. We find what we wish to find or are capable of finding. I may find something you do not, and vice versa. Hallett has always been a master of experience-oriented, multi-layered human life, both daily and profound. Here, we have at least two stories running simultaneously through a sizable, varied, and robust assemblage of poetry. Included is a series of poetic miniatures that refer more or less expressly to the titular breast, as well as some larger works.

 

There are other poems in this collection that allow us to sense that the Cat of Destiny is/isn’t in the room. Here is one of the Anny poems that do not have individual titles as they form a sort of bubbling rivulet flowing through the collection:

 

Anny Schrödinger has adventures

in marital architecture with Erwin and Hilde.

She/they are jealous or not jealous.

An affair or no affair? Without seeing the lover as lover,

there is no possibility of betrayal.

 

And another:

 

Mrs. Schrödinger’s breast has no standard cup size.

Is the cup half full or half empty?

Handful or sweaterful, a more fitting gauge.

To measure or contain is an insult

if volume is ever to be increased or diminished.

 

This particular poem recalls the late Hannah Wilson’s poem “The White Sweater” about a long-gone sweater that once may have overemphasized teenage breasts, but now, if replaced, might fit again because those breasts have been removed. Wilson, a friend of Hallett’s, was my high school English teacher forty-odd years ago: a circle quietly closes.

 

There is more to this collection than Anny Schrödinger or allusions to her husband’s invisible feline. When I first read through it, I thought perhaps all of the Schrödinger material should be in one section and all of the unrelated poems in another. Yet what, after all, does “unrelated” mean? We see many connections; some we may not see.

 

A few of the poems have a somewhat more casual feel to them, but a couple that seem a little too light at first develop a Merwinesque tone on careful re-reading. In these more delicate poems, there is someone in the whispering gallery; the ferns move in the breath of no wind. The collection includes poems written in a variety of layouts – I’m not sure “forms” is quite the right word in this context.

 

The collection begins with “Self-Portrait as a Bruise,” a poem that is not really part of the core “story” of the collection (or is it?), but which is such a precise, tightly wound coil of meaning that I will close with its last six lines here. (You’ll have to buy the book for the full experience.) This poem is one of Hallett’s all-time best, a garnet mine of meanings and ideas compressed into a single work.

 

Thumb-print or thunderhead,

my longing will never be taken

for love, though it is similar

 

in the way it uses quiet fury

to aggravate intention

and pools with me in one place far too long.

 

Quinton Hallett has always found good stories about us, as people, to share via her poetry. That’s true of many poets. Few take such care in folding their word-layers to make swords worthy of the title craft master. Such work is revealed to us in Mrs. Schrödinger’s Breast. Did I see St. Julian of Norwich, patron saint of cats, leaning down from her stained glass to have a closer read? Maybe. Felis ex Machina.

 

Also by Quinton Hallett: Refuge from Flux (2010), Shiver, Quench, Slake (2004) and Quarry (1992).

 

Reviewers Bio

Alan Contreras is author of the poetry collections Night Crossing and Firewand. His collection In the Time of the Queen will appear in 2018. He is co-editor of Birds of Oregon (OSU Press 2003), author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding The American West (OSU Press 2009), Northwest Birds in Winter (OSU Press 1997), State Authorization of Colleges and Universities and other titles. He is editing a collection of essays about Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and will soon begin work on a history of Oregon ornithology. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Eugene.

Broadfork Farm by Tricia Knoll, reviewed by Wallace Kaufman

ISBN-13 978-0-9980999-4-1

The Poetry Box

2017, 73 pp, $12.00

On her web site, www.triciaknoll.com, Tricia Knoll speaks of herself in the third person. She is a tree hugging . . . Master Gardener who routinely talks to crows who ignore her. She also calls herself an eco-poet. In the opening line of “The Klickitats,” the first selection in Broadfork Farm, she says, I’m a farmsitter, once or twice a year, a few weeks. The farm is across the river from Mt. Hood and about 20 miles north near the village of Trout Lake. And there you have the setting and the character who inhabits these pieces.

 

In “Buddha Nestled in White and Pink Sweet Peas on the Fencepost at Broadfork Gate,”

Knoll says of the Broadfork Farm,

 

 

                        The farm is not for everyman.

                        In the old house, there’s no white sugar,

                        no microwave and when the first money

                        slapped down for land, no tractor, just a U-bar

                        digging fork with as many tines

                        as a March hare has fancies and that

                        was how it would be.

 

Those lines, like most of the selections in this volume, are the kind of free verse that could as well be prose. Expect no prosody here except for the thoughts and images broken into lines with no discernable aesthetic or logic. Perhaps read aloud by the author, the breaks would be justified by the reading; but this is a book, not a recording.

 

Two of Knoll’s pieces are written in traditional prose paragraphs, “Gloucestershire Old Spots” about visiting kids who are fascinated by pigs and “An Uncommon Prayer for the Farm,” which is more like a spoken hymn to the life and death, hardships and rewards of farm life than it is a prayer in any familiar sense.

 

What distinguishes these meditations about farm life and nature from so much contemporary “poetry” is their directness. Knoll does not struggle for novel metaphors. She doesn’t try to pass off obscurity as mysticism or intellect. She is almost always immediately intelligible. A reader can even learn a few lessons about animal husbandry and gardening.

 

The 37 poems in the 50 pages of text and photos are vignettes of farm life and surrounding nature. The photographs are nice companions to the writing, but not particularly good compositions or well reproduced. Together they capture the author’s love of the area and of this small organic farm that nourishes her body and soul.

 

Readers who know Knoll’s political writing – main line feminism and anti-Trump – won’t find it here. She writes in “Left with the Care,”

 

                        The banty rooster’s strident call

                        is light years from grinding war, spinning news,

                        suspicions of sects and warring politicians.

 

Broadfork Farm is her retreat from all that. Or, as she concludes in “An Uncommon Prayer for the Farm,” it is Repair of gratitude.

 

Urban readers will find here a usually gentle window into a certain kind of rural life. It may inspire the desire to get “back to the land” that inspires so many Woofers and some refugees from high stress jobs.

 

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Reviewer bio.

Newport writer Wallace Kaufman has written several books, including Coming Out of the Woods (Perseus Books), a memoir of 22 years in a North Carolina forest. He is an award-winning science writer who has published poetry in the US and England in magazines that include Encounter, Agenda, Carcanet, Oxford Today, and Carolina Quarterly. His fiction has appeared in Sewanee Review, Encounter, Redbook, Mademoiselle, and North American Review. His latest book is FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel (Springer International, 2016) co-authored with astrobiologist and biomolecular engineer David Deamer. He recently taught Poetry for Everyone at Oregon Coast Community College.