Litany for Wound and Bloom by Judith H. Montgomery, reviewed by Catherine McGuire

Uttered Chaos Press, 2018, 80 pages, $19

ISBN 978-0-9998334-1-4

https://www.utteredchaos.org

As I often do when I start a book of poetry, I opened Judith Montgomery’s Litany for Wound and Bloom at random and dove in. The poems are startling and beautiful, standing on their own even without the arc of the arrangement, though that had its own pleasing form.

“Listen” drew me in first, repeating some lines like a refrain (if the moon had been tatter and fogif I lived in green valleys of wheat), making the unfolding story even more appalling, like a lullaby turned horror story.  

In the three evenly-divided sections – (Womb), (Word), (Witness) – which concern motherhood – all the joy and the pain, especially in our violent world, I found many deeply moving poems, some difficult to read because the pain is so vividly communicated.

While most of the poems are free verse, they are consciously shaped: often couplets, triplets or quatrains, with clearly much thought given to shaping lines in complement to the content.

A poet works to make form, word choice, and sound fly under the radar as we read, and yet it is a big part of what makes a poem memorable. Throughout the book, Montgomery creates musical arrangements (if the moon had been tatter and fog rather than if the moon had been tattered and foggy) in what seems an effortless, but very skilled, technique of creating rhythms and music in the reader’s mind. A mother’s tragedy seems more horrific for being described in this elegant way.

The first section (Womb) speaks of the longing for motherhood, the failure to achieve it, the success at last which carries its own fear and wounding. The poems helped me, a childless woman, to get a better sense of motherhood. I am sure it will resonate even more deeply with mothers. But more than that, these poems speak to how life wounds all of us, often in a place we’re most vulnerable:

                                                each scar’s a scarlet witness on or

                                         in the body, inscribing its stubborn

                                               devotion: Hurt. Hurry. Heal.

                                                                  (“Yet Praise the Scar”)

The details of menstruation, ovulation, conception are presented in lyrical terms:

                                                …one packed golden drop releases, lit seed

                                    slipping down the sleek chute until that fortunate

                                    fall into the womb’s open heart…

                                                                                                (“Apoptosis”)  

Poems like “Expectant: I,” detail a different kind of anticipation and contribute to the deep exploration of this timeframe in many women’s lives. In addition, Montgomery explores this timeframe’s parallel to writing, summed up with the last line in this section: “All words uncoil to bloom in the womb of the poem.” Say that line out loud and you will hear some of the musicality this book contains.

The second segment (Word) concerns many different women, individually and in groups. It is in this section that the title of the book seems most appropriate, because this is indeed a litany of wounding and also the blooming of women, real and mythological. For example, in “Black Seed,” the poet describes Persephone in haunting and multi-sensory triplets interspersed by strong single lines:

                                                My right hand, reckless, sought a second

                                                 flamed bloom, its dab of deckled gold, its

                                                 bottomless black velvet cup. Dragon-

                                                flies were gilding river air…

The poems describing the poet’s mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s employ symbol and detail to move the experience beyond the mundane. In “Sometimes,” she writes:

                                                An indigo cloak clasped at her paper throat,

                                                my mother is stepping

                                                deep and deeper into a mute forest wing-lit with

                                                birds, a basket of seeds

                                                clutched in her hand. Once in a while, she

                                                remembers…

The last section (Witness) contains both poems of a deeply personal nature and those that touch on wider themes like war from a mother’s point of view. The section moves from a poem about a family’s pet burial ground to a courthouse where a teen is given into state custody to the speaker examining an oil painting about WWI. It links feelings of love and fear that mothers can’t separate. In “Bearing/Bearing Down,” the speaker says:

                                                to be turned inside-out,

                                                laid open for the universe to witness bairn emerge

                                                from a body that was barren …

and in “A Blessing”:

                                                                 … Child who

                                                tore from my body, who blooms

                                    now most beautiful…

The narratives in this section are gripping. “But You My Son” had me speeding through the first time as if it were a thriller. I was holding my breath as the nurse raced to the son’s apartment to try and revive him, not knowing if this poem was addressed to a living or dead son.  

she gears through stop and flashing lights

to thrust the fail-safe key

into your apartment

lock, she bursts into the tossing dark

where the great factory

of your breath…

I appreciated the end-notes Montgomery provides as they give some background, and confirm some of my guesses, and also the acknowledgments. The latter offers a glimpse into the community of poets within which she works.

All in all, this is a rich collection of poems celebrating and lamenting women’s lives, with intimate glimpses into some of the deepest pain women endure, and full of vivid wonder at the miracle of birth, of life.

BIO:

Catherine McGuire is a writer/artist with a deep interest in Nature, both human and otherwise. She’s had four decades of poetry in publications such as New Verse News, FutureCycle, Portland Lights, Fireweed, andon a bus for Poetry In Motion. She has four chapbooks out: Palimpsests (Uttered Chaos) and three self-published (www.cathymcguire.com). She also has a full-length book of poetry, Elegy for the 21st Century (FutureCycle Press) and a deindustrial science fiction novel Lifeline (Founders House Publishing). A new chapbook, An Inner Quicksand, will be published next year by Finishing Line Press, and more short stories and Lifeline’s sequel are due out from Founders House Publishing.

The Moon’s Soul Shimmering on the Water by Doug Stone , reviewed by Erik Muller

Self-published book, 2018, 53 pages, $12.00

ISBN 978-1724418180

Available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

To write 21st century poems in the manner of 20th century English translations of Chinese poems by Ezra Pound or Gary Snyder may seem an affectation  ­– I use this word knowing that I, too, write this way. In Doug Stone’s second collection,  however, the manner becomes a means to realize poems on important themes and to create a distinctly imagined world.

Here are many props of Chinese originals: lots of moon, a cup not a glass of wine, a hut, a well, fishermen, an old woman packing firewood, a small fire burning to ash. Central is the white-haired old poet, accurate to Doug Stone of Albany.

The question is, What can the poet make of such materials?

The book’s title suggests these are reflective poems, and the poet speaker is a fine companion through the changes of seasons and daily routines, even the impacts of war. He sits, gazes, sips his wine. He accepts calmly a scene that is not particularized by a local name, yet is specified by image:

Heavy fog has rubbed the landscape away.

(“First Morning of Spring”)

Thunder cracks like storm-snapped pines.

(“Catching Snowflakes in My Wine Cup”)

A brood of baby rabbits shiver in the rib cage

of a horse where his heart should be.

(“Another Battlefield”)

If you’ve read Chinese translations, you’ve felt a general effort at the calm unfolding of sequences that begin with external observation and move to the speaker’s state of mind, which is allied with the description. The three sections of “Autumn Reflections of an Old Poet” illustrate this, two of them beginning, “From my window.” The distant hill, which the poet describes in moonlight, is where he earlier wrote poetry, yet he now assures himself “new poems are just / another cup of wine away.” Watching crows for hours “preen away / crusted blood until they shine,” the poet wonders

What is it about my life

that I find beauty in a flock

of polished crows?

Sharing wine in the third section, he listens as his friend speaks of his wife:

Each time he says her name

something flickers in his eyes

like a flame wakened

in a bed of straw.

Friendship is a theme in the poetry Doug Stone emulates. The book’s last section makes a startling leap: it presents his original poems as an exchange between the great Du Fu and Li Bai. This is as daring as adding several more sonnets to the Shakespeare canon! The book has prepared for this to be credible, to complete Stone’s imaginative grasp of a world. Here are traditional moments in Chinese poetry: poems of parting, of reading the distant friend’s poems, of receiving the traveler’s answer, of recalling the long-dead friend while pausing at the sound of a death knell.

These poems sound accurate given what little we know of these poets’ friendship. Du Fu whispers his friend’s poems

to the willows who recited

them to the crickets, frogs, and nightingales.

How they sang the night alive with your words!

(“When I Read You New Poems Tonight”)

In straits, Li Bai reports, “My donkey skuffs a skiff of snow / for the last sweet blades of grass.” (“These Withered Autumn Wastes”) Years later, Du Fu laments his friend’s death, consoled by memories of youth spent together and by “the moon’s soul shimmering on the water, / the soul Li Bai was trying to gather in his arms.” (“Du Fu: On the Death of Li Bai”)

Doug Stone’s first book, The Season of Distress and Clarity  (Finishing Line Press, 2017), supplied some of the strong Chinese-inflected poems included in the second. That book ranged across several of the poet’s interests. It touched upon Russian writers, U.S. cities, and desert and ocean – usually not part of Chinese lyrics. Close to home were the hard drinking and driving found in persona poems of his actual, though imagined, Albany. So, Doug Stone’s new work can resume any of these. Whatever material this poet elects to write about, he will surely use it in an imaginatively compelling way.

Biography

OPA Board member Erik Muller is a poet living and working in Eugene. His book of essays Durable Goods: Appreciations of Oregon Poets was published by Mountains and Rivers Press, 2017.

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.