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BOOK REVIEWS

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

    April 23, 2018

    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

    February 1, 2018

    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

    January 1, 2018

    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.

     

    —————————–

    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.

  • Cascade-Siskiyou: Poems by Pepper Trail, reviewed by Alan Contreras

    November 20, 2017

    Painted Thrush Press, 2015, 65 pages, $12

    ISBN 978-1508484356

    Available via Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Cascade-Siskiyou-Poems-Pepper-Trail/dp/150848435X

    The Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon and northern California are what writers of stories of the west, both historic and fictional, call “rough country.” It is in fact about as rough as anyone might ask for in the lower 48 states, particularly in the steep tangled chasms of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness at the western end of the complex. The whole region has in recent years become a land in transition as its history of winter snows is now matched by summer fires of brutal proportions.

     

    This is the home range, if you will, of Pepper Trail, a forensic biologist and one of the nation’s experts on the identification of feathers. It is this country of a thousand borders, this land of stony pockets, hard-faced shrubbery, and random defensive trees, that he inhabits with such poems as “The Border,” which ends with the stanza:

     

          In this world of solid things

          Of wood and stone, rough ground

          And green enduring leaves

          My fingers reach, reach past the real

          Forever seek the border

          Crossed, again and again

          But never found.

     

    Like every poem in this highly local collection, “The Border” is linked to a specific site, Soda Mountain. The entire collection was written on-site and there is a definite sense of immediate experience and hands-on knowledge in most of them.

     

    The great poet of human experience J. D. McClatchy once wrote that the natural world is an “uncongenial” source for poetic inspiration. Setting aside the fact that nature is, as Gary Snyder put it, home, not a foreign place, I can’t help but doubt whether congeniality makes for the best poetic experience. This collection stands for the primacy of what is rooted in the ground, as does the work of Pattiann Rogers, Mary Oliver, Loren Eiseley, and others.

     

    Some poets assemble poems with some structural similarity in order to create the theme of a collection. Trail has instead gathered poems with a commonality of place, so we go from a set of seasonal haiku to longer ruminations on winter survival, human passage, the movements of deer. The genuineness of the poet’s connection to place is obvious in “Haiku – Winter,” which perfectly describes the way kinglets move through the forest:

     

          A drift of kinglets

          Passes, leaves behind only

          Sound of falling snow.

     

    This is knowledge gained from the forest, not read in a book somewhere. There are few birds in the montane forest in winter – there are few human observers, either. There is also in this collection a profound sense of the seasons, necessary for the haiku and densely informative in other poems as well, such as “The Berry Woods”:

     

          How secret and alive, the berry-woods

          All song stilled, the boasting season done

          Nothing to be heard but murmurs and calls

          Bursts of flutter, birds lost within the leaves

          Swallowing the pin-cherries, bright as rubies

          The Oregon grapes, hard and full of spice

          The manzanitas, their little apples sweet

          Today, the world balances dark and light

          The agitations of spring long past

          Summer’s full schedule forgotten

          This autumn work is simply gathering

          Feasting, growing fat beneath the feathers

          Preparing to fly before the cold

          Before winter opens its empty hands.

     

    Let’s unpack this characteristic Trail poem and see what’s in it. First, it is profoundly regional in the sense that the presence of Oregon grape and manzanita in the same place breathes of the collision-space of the moister climate of the coastal northwest with the more sere shrub-forests of California. Then it is about as seasonal as a poem can be, clearly written on or near the autumnal equinox (set forth where it should be, halfway through the poem). We digest (pardon the expression) an evocatively restated outline of recent seasons.

     

    Then the poem, which has to this point been an amiable, detail-rich meander on a ridgeline filled with fruit-nibbling birds, ends with the oxygen-sucking hammer fall of what winter really means in the high country: death. This bold tonal shift in the last line changes the meaning of every previous word: all this cheerful chewing is not a casual avian picnic. It is a desperate bid for continued life by way of energy-hungry migration.

     

    There is some variation in craft and weight among these poems, but the best among them are very good indeed. A review should not reveal all the goodies, of course, as readers should read the real thing, but I’ll mention “False Hellebore,” “To a Young Lizard,” and “Late Riders” as among the most fully realized and thoroughly carved of the collection.

     

    The lizard poem is a reptilian cognate of “The Berry Woods,” but more tightly focused and directive throughout, as though Trail is urging the lizard to get into a safe hole pretty quickly. False hellebore and “real” hellebore get a mutual apology and a taxonomic dusting-off in what is perhaps the best poem in the collection. “Late Riders” is one of the last poems in the book and is, in truth, the natural closer for the collection because the sun descends and the human observers, having seen all the day permits, feel their way home in darkness. Yet, the concluding poem, “Juniper Years,” makes its own claim, concluding:

     

          Time enough to accomplish our own perfection

          To grow, to express in the shape of our lives

          The beauty of our afflictions

          The worth of all the time there is.

     

    I am told that Pepper Trail was named the official poet laureate of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in 2013. And why not?

     

     

    Reviewer’s 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.

  • Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key by Kelly Terwilliger, reviewed by Anita Sullivan

    October 23, 2017

    Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key by Kelly Terwilliger

    Airlie Press, Portland, OR
    ISBN-13 978-0989579964
    2017, 79 pp., $16.00

    Reviewed by Anita Sullivan

    When you pick up a copy of this remarkable book, stop! Look at the cover – really look at it. Across the bottom rests a narrow strip of seashore in vivid blues, whites and browns. Above that, sky takes up the rest of the space. The ratio of sky to seashore is 5 to 1, which may resonate slightly in your vision as a very satisfying relationship. Yet the placidity of this image is interrupted near the top of the page by an odd little island with some old-fashioned people on it who seem to have no idea their small piece of ground has been detached from its own world and inserted into another one. Two distinct realities inhabiting a single place. Already, you might feel the center of your forehead humming with anticipation.

    Then you read the title words: Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key. And the humming grows louder. If you squint a little and move the words around in your mind, you may recognize them as similar to an Anglo-Saxon kenning – an ancient word puzzle where certain words can be mixed and matched in ways that allow them to strike sparks off one another and reveal hidden meanings. For example:

    king     dragon
    hall      cave

    1. The king is a hall-dragon.
    2. The dragon is a cave-king.
    3. The hall is the king’s cave.
    4. The cave is the dragon’s hall.

    Such simple word-sets formed the underlying structure of Anglo-Saxon riddles. Although the four words in Terwilliger’s title don’t fall neatly into this particular pattern, I feel them making a close quadrille with one another: A riddle can be a key, a fish-hook can be a thorn; a riddle can hook you, a key can pierce your heart. Thorn and Fish Hook stand between Riddle and its Key.

    Throughout the book, true to the cover’s promise, these and other words shape-shift into one another in ways that are always surprising, but always completely appropriate to the underlying pattern the original magic formula has ordained.

    The opening section, “Air” is also about water, about breathing and folding, taking in and letting out, jumping into. Entire poems breathe in as one thing, breathe out as another as when one sound shifts in a word/and summons another.

    In “Handkerchief” the poet remembers a father, who sneezed and carried/this crumpled peony in his pocket.

    Folding her father’s handkerchiefs, warm from the dryer, clinging together/like pages of a fragile book, she goes back to the flower image as she folds

                                      soft square
    halving and halving. What if I’d just kept going?
    Blossoms unblooming, reversing
    to a single point
    with everything inside them.

    In “Night Song” she feels her way into the longing of the owl’s call:

    Not sorrow, but the overflow
    of wanting to live, to break open
    all those feathers into night …

    The second section, “Body,” intensifies the theme of falling apart and coming back together to live again (which recalls the ancient enactment of death by dismemberment and burial as a rite of spiritual renewal).

    The first poem begins big – imagining how a whale might die at sea:

    turning softly within
    to something like cream, until
    the skin splits, the rest
    falls away.

    The poet then brings the whale body onto shore.

    What then, strange coat. . . .
    A hill of skin
    enough to hide a house.

    But the poem does not end there: a man rides down the beach on a horse; a group of people stand around the carcass, waiting for him. Where is the whale? Here on the sand, yes, but at the same time forever out at sea:

                 bones still falling.
    I’m sure of it. Slipped from the skin
    they descend through the sea’s green rooms …

    Later in the section, in “Gift Horse,” the horse itself is now dead on the beach, like an old sail blown in.

    The poet, looking at the horse, feels herself changing into an animal: I begin to wear fur. I feel hairs on my skin,/between my teeth, in every breath.

    Half animal now, she reaches into the horse’s mouth, and behind the tongue/ that isn’t there, something jiggles./Riddle, fish hook, thorn, key –

    Two more observations about this amazingly coherent and luminous book:

    First, at the core of all the poems, whether there are people in them or not, is a steadfast and palpable love. The poet’s father is sometimes directly present, as are her two sons, and once they have been introduced, you realize they are, in some sense, inhabiting every poem. “Beyond Swans” begins

    My friend once ate a swan,
    the only thing she was ashamed to admit
    she’d gladly do again.

    And the poem, after immersing itself fully into the magnificence of this bird as cloud god, with its intimacy of weight, slips easily into a memory of the poet being tenderly carried as a sleeping child, up from the beach at night by her father,

    He climbed up and over the rocks,
                and my body felt loose and safe.

    After which, turning back to the swan, she says

    This is how I’d carry her
    the one-who-ate-a-swan, who probably
    never will again, whose burdens now
    have changed their shapes, as burdens do.

    Second, in my own reading of poetry, I especially look out for how much distance a poet is able to maintain between what she is trying to say, and what she actually ends up saying. If this distance is too close, the poem may feel “controlled,” and tend to be merely descriptive or informational. If the distance is too wide, the poem risks veering off into blind alleys of personal symbols or getting trapped in a kind of feedback loop of seductive images or sounds that have detached themselves from actual experience. In Riddle, Fish Hook, Thorn, Key, I believe Kelly Terwilliger has managed – partly due perhaps to her long experience as a professional storyteller – to maintain a perfect distance, thus allowing The Mystery to be doing its essential work to keep the poems honest, beautiful, and strange.

     

    Reviewer’s Bio:

    Anita Sullivan is a poet and essayist who has been part of Oregon’s literary community for 35 years. Information about her work can be found at www.anitasullivan.org

     

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