Monthly Archives: December 2013

Review of “Vanitas, Rough” by Lisa Russ Spaar

By Emily Provencher

Publisher’s Weekly called Spaar’s latest work, “An entrancing world of lush language and passionate imaginings.” Vanitas, Rough features poems about the synchronicity of simplistic complexities in the often mundane face of everyday realities. In the piece, “Trailing Mary & Martha: 3 AM,” Spaar speaks of “unfathomable barking / [and] jaw dumpsters in the cul-de-sacs.” Not the craziest of poetic happenings, but written with poise and understanding.

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The first time, I read this entire book of poetry without having any idea of what the title of the collection meant, or how the cover image related to the work inside the bind. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of poems, and then I decided to look up the definition of the word “vanitas.” It is, “a still-life painting of a 17th-century Dutch genre containing symbols of death or change as a reminder of their inevitability.” (google.com) The pomegranate is a symbol of fertility and abundance in some sects of mythology, especially Greek and Roman. The cover of this collection alone is a beautiful metaphor representing the inevitable rising and falling of abundance and goodness versus the bleakness one encounters throughout different periods of time.

“the shear, the jabbing jaws / in elbow high gloves / & up to the briary cervix, a welter historical,”

A line from one of the early poems, “Old Rose,” had my mouth watering for more sublimely tantalizing words. The overall content of this series of poems is of nothing truly shocking or out of the ordinary, but is still wonderful to read. The language Spaar uses throughout her poetry is astounding.

“Vanitas, Rough” features the hypnotizing lines, “your tongue in me is mine, too… / drunken wasp grazing semen yolk / of split, glazed oyster shells, / Death blowing soap bubbles / out the orbital sockets…” These phrasings captivate readers due to their close-to-absurd wording. They force the reader to go back and read the line over and over because of the terrifically strange content.

It can be difficult for authors to eloquently capture the banality of longing. In Vanitas, Rough, Spaar calls to Emily Dickinson as a muse in “Spring Fever” and “Outliving Emily,” channeling the metric empress of the nineteenth century in her lines of carefully constructed syntax in her pithy diction throughout this series.

The language in this collection is beautiful, but when I was finished reading the book, I did not find myself changed or moved from the experience. Nonetheless, Vanitas, Rough is a beautifully written catalogue of poetry and it is very enjoyable to read.Spaar uses words to illustrate a bizarre myriad of alluring images in her latest publication, it is a great work that writers and readers alike will appreciate.

Author Bio:

Emily Provencher is a twenty one year old english major focusing on poetry at Sierra Nevada College in North Lake Tahoe. Originally from Southern New Hampshire, she moved to California for all the wrong reasons and is still absolutely relishing her decisions to move west three years later. Emily enjoys pondering the mysteries of the universe, drinking Guatemalan coffee, mining for precious stones, reading Tarot cards, cultivating and sustaining of the miracle life from the Earth, and reading and writing poetry with any and all chances she gets. She is new to editing and blogging, but having a pen in hand is simply second nature to her. Emily accepts all criticisms to her work, but she will also not hesitate to criticize yours.

 

Rigger Death And Hoist Another: Dear God! Yes!

 

Dear god! Should have been all I could say about this (by: Chris Muravez)

Rigger Death & Hoist Another by: Laura McCullough (ISBN: 978-1-937854-29-4, Black Lawrence Press, $14)

 

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A professor of mine once said of writers, “We are witnesses” and this line of thought can be felt throughout Laura McCullough’s new collection of poetry Rigger Death & Hoist Another. McCullough has an intellectual and realist personality whose affectatious nature helps to bridge the gap between an academic life and a working class mind. I had the great fortune of meeting her last year at a reading here at Sierra Nevada College. The wisdom and love of life she presented to us has affected me greatly, and can be found throughout much of her works.

The theme of a life worth living is prevalent in her first section titled Membrane where she give us a glimpse of an existence floating and observing the various facets of life that can be found in this world. Of the scottish rigger in the collection’s namesake poem she writes “Oil is distilled, too, as are memories” leads into her ability to create a connecting thought when she continues with:

why we hoist another one, nosing and tasting,
taking sips and rolling our lost
histories around the tongue, so they penetrate-
and distill-
the scarred membranes
hidden inside our mouths

Here McCullough demonstrates the ability to make deep philosophical connections through the seemingly simple act of enjoying a drink. Like Proust with booze. Yet this collection goes beyond that and delves into the reflective realms of C.K. Williams or Sharon Olds. McCullough has injected her works with academic certainty coupled with the wisdom of a woman who has never lost the spark for life. The second section of her work, Dandelions, presents us with the different seeds she has sown throughout her life. Talking about one’s children has been a focus of many poets and has been accomplished in various ways. There is always a lingering doubt within a parent’s mind about how well they raised their family. More often than not, this question is asked straight forward in a confessional looking for absolution from the audience. Yet McCullough has the wisdom to know that nothing is stagnant, and to attempt a redemption from an anonymous audience is foolhardy. Rather, her focus is more on a presentation of what her contribution to our world is. About her son she writes “his body like a ball soaring over the green of this unspeakable world.”

In They Dream of AK-47s she writes about her son’s experiences with a hunting club, a topic long held in reserve for masculinity. Destroying these gender barriers through paternal pedagogy, she gives her son a book of poetry:

Then, on his twenty-first birthday,
Hunter reads one of Jack’s poems out loud.

I ask him what he thinks of it,
but he refuses to comment silence
another weapon
he’s learned how to shoot.

Everyday, I tell Hunter I love him.
Everyday, he says, Hush Ma, I know.

This example shows her formatting; a style whose enjambed lines, indented line breaks, and singular words that put a thought or sense into the reader’s rearward thoughts, that connects seemingly unconnected and disjointed themes in a logic of a poetic witness.

In the last section of the book, The Door, McCullough continues her process of presenting the world in a way that only a poet can. She connects multiple themes that have presented themselves throughout into an almost omniscient commentary that is unwavering, unforgiving, and fearless. “What we need is a queer god” is her claim in Queerness Means Questioning Mythical Norms. I can’t help but love everything about this line. The audacity of the claim would leave spineless readers running for the door. The notion of being able to replace gods at will gives us the power over them. It is a complete reversal of hierarchies, gender norms, and theology. This, in a sense, portrays McCullough’s writing, personality, and wisdom at its best.

McCullough has given us an unapologetic work designed to provide commentary, tell a story, and confess without turning into a banal mewling that so many poets fall into. Too often. Yet her sass is coupled with a unique tenderness that comes from a knowledge only gained through experience. This tenderness is one that gives hope, determination, and foresight to all witnesses of our time. She has challenged everything from parenthood, gender, hierarchies, capital, and faith. Her challenges are that of questions more than critiques. And in questioning she is able to present a universal hope for the future as she writes in The Flags We Raise:

When I say beautiful boy, a flag
is raised in in my chest
that belongs to no country,
but the one all hostages to fortune live in,
one with no boarders
which can not be escaped from,
and of which there is no government,
only taxes, death, and
of course, what pleasures
we can steal along the way.

Chris Muravez is a near 30 college student because he spent way too much time mucking about in the military. He doesn’t regret it; well, at least not as much as what he ate for dinner last night. He likes reading Proust, shopping for sweaters, and laughing in the back of his mind when people challenge his “manhood” for those things. He currently writes poetry and is on a never-ending quest for the perfect pair of wingtip boots.

Reading Matthew Sweeney’s Horse Music

By Bryce Bullins

“Naked, exposed to the frost of this most unhappy of ages, with an earthly vehicle, unearthly horses, old man that I am, I wander astray.” Thus marks the opening page of Matthew Sweeney’s latest collection of poetry, Horse Music (Bloodaxe Books, 2013 ISBN: 978-1-85224-967-0). It is a quote from Franz Kafka’s story, A Country Doctor, and a wholly fitting one, along with quotes from Edward Lear and Walter de la Mare, that serves as a preface to the poetry collected here. It’s the sort of biting, awkwardly funny, self-deprecation that Sweeney’s poetry often evokes. Horse Music has no overall theme per-se, but rather, is a collection of one-off fables about dwarves, recollections of long-dead or still living relatives, and of loves present and former. In a phrase: it is a sweeping exploration of life. Sweeney’s voice is unique in that while combining traditional narrative style poetry (albeit condensed narratives and often in media res) he blends elements of black humor, Kafkaesque territories, and what Sweeney himself calls “alternative realism”, to hook his readers and make Horse Music a pleasure to experience from cover to cover.

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The poems in Horse Music don’t stray far from Sweeney’s other work, and rightfully so. After publishing poetry collections since 1981, it is fair to say Sweeney has found his voice. Horse Music may represent the flourishing of his voice, however. Deftly paced and lyric, Horse Music is amalgam of voices from across literary tracts. Influences of Kafka are abundant, unsurprisingly so, given Sweeney’s extensive background in German literature, specifically Kafka, but there is a more subtle craftsmanship at work here. Sweeney deliberately makes strides away from not only the two domineering figures of Irish poetry: W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney (though there is a poem for Seamus Heaney within Horse Music, “The Tunnel”) but his contemporaries, Paul Muldoon and Ian Duhig. Sweeney keeps what the British Council on Literature calls an “inherited Irish interest in narrative”[1] while keeping a keen interest in the themes in the great works of German literature. There is no disrespect toward his fellow Irishmen but rather a nuanced respect that Sweeney builds over their foundations and then takes toward new horizons. Gone are the “well-made-poems” and in their place come byzantine ornamentations in the form of micro-narratives that spread out across ages. If Sweeney’s poems were written in such a way as to ape Yeats or Heaney, they would be nowhere near as enjoyable as they are in their present form.

While Sweeney’s poetry is at times self-referential, it would be remiss to call it “confessional.” Instead, Sweeney obfuscates his poems in ornate tapestries of illusion and black humor. Nowhere is this expressed more than in this reviewer’s favorite poem in the collection, “Waiting”, wherein Sweeny bemoans the perils of always waiting for one thing or another and the doldrums produced therein:

I’d like to knife my partner, the postman,
my publisher, the bank teller, my neighbor.
One day I’ll emigrate to Antarctica
and befriend the penguins there. (9-12)

Sweeney is able to parse words we usually don’t want to consider together to create a new fiction for us to partake in, all the while still grounding us in the present.

It is clear from Sweeney’s writing that he stays away from the heady realm of surrealism and magical realism but rather focuses on connections, subtle and otherwise, in the form of metaphor and fantastic imagery. In “Sausages”, Sweeney makes connections between the “six [of them] inhabiting the same gut… / waiting on the hot pan with spitting oil” (1-3) to his “long-dead grandfather” (6). More grim is that each sausage has within them a meta-piece of said grandfather. Sweeney is able to take something as banal as frying up sausages and is able to trace the lines of interconnectivity in them to an intensely personal plain. Though the image is initially grotesque, it becomes something of an episode of bittersweet memory:

…so my grandfather lights a cigarette,
opens a bottle of Guinness and swigs it,
sitting down at the far end of the table
the table I will sit at when you’re browned,
and I’ll eat you, one by one, with mustard,
raising a black glass to my grandfather. (16-21)

Horse Music is at times morose, but more often than not, heartfelt and warm. The broadness of its scope is well suited to its narratives and its intrigues. It is the everydayness of Sweeney’s poetry that makes it so appealing now and what will make it so enduring for the future. Horse Music is available now via Bloodaxe Books and is distributed in North America by Dufour Editions Inc.