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Unread 05-06-2017, 01:28 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Since there are several reviews here that I did for The Alsop Review (which is long gone from the net) and/or Amazon, I should also add my review of Deborah Warren's The Size of Happiness published in 2003. It appeared at The Alsop Review in 2004.

ISBN #1-904 1 30-04-6, The Waywiser Press

The Size of Happiness puts the universe on trial, but Deborah Warren’s poems let it off easy, and with musicality and ironic good sense. She questions the sublime and the enigmatic, the profitable and the futile, and accords equal acceptance to both. Her curiosity is applied to reason, ephemerality, our origins, the varieties of shades of a color, the solitude of the Queen of Spades, whether the Jerusalem artichoke is an artichoke, cancer and its repercussions, why the Trojans opened the gate for the “Trojan” horse, Greek myth, and all manner of unruliness (especially that of love)—and more.

She looks for reason in unusual, as well as in the usual, places. Weightiness morphs into any one of a number of surprises, and her metaphysics is elemental and tentatively instructive. On the subject of love—all-encompassing, glorious and distressing love—she is both analytical and reasonably flippant, as in “Why?”

You want some reason I can cite
for loving him? Go ask the sea
about its bondage to the moody
crooked moon. But don’t ask me.

In “Bargain,” Warren examines how we bargain with God, and turns the profit motive inside-out. What does it mean to make a deal with oneself and then break it? She taps underground resources of maverick wisdom, some of which she seems to have learned from her farmer’s communions with the world of the four-legged. “Sheepdog Trials at Bleinau Ffestiniog” is destined to become a popular favorite, with its close, even preternatural, observation of sheepdogs’ choreography for a “flotilla of sheep.” Her joy in this is contagious.

Sheepdog Trials at Bleinau Ffestiniog

At the bottom of the field, like wooly boats,
three sheep appear. They’re unaware, of course,
that this is a race, and the first one’s gently drifting
off to the left, and another bobbles and floats
the other way, when something—a gale? a force—
tears at them—veers—its direction shifting, shifting—

a black and white Hermes, fur and motion spurred
by a single message, a single mission: To herd.
A centrifugal ewe like a prodigal yacht
sails out in a stately and leisured trot
but huffily reconsiders, deterred
by the scouring dog; and the second and third

who are heading off—confronted, stop:
he’s there; and the trio slews around,
jibing in unison, parallel. Then,
in a climax of ecstasy—he drops
suddenly, puddle-flat, onto the ground
and sends the flotilla of sheep to the pen.

And the lumbering trainer, rubber-shod,
closes the gate with his crook and slogs
across to the dog who, you could say, ran
because he was told to. You could say the man
created the dog. But no—the dog,
who was finally made by the wind, is a little god.

Joy is the coin of the kingdom in many of her poems. In “Landscape in March,” it is translated into the aphoristic remnants of peak experience: hypnotic, matriarchal perhaps, determined, with traces of an ecstasy that comes, with luck, from preoccupation with the natural world.

A number of Warren’s poems show a solemn concern with management. “Managing the Planets” is the title of one section in this collection: the “planets” may be one’s own teenagers, an ailing tree, a herd of ruminants, or a figure in the Bayeux tapestry. Warren holds them up to scrutiny from this angle and that; she will either make sense of them or she will make sense of not making sense. She continually reflects on uncertainty and the tiny handholds it gives up to the seeker. In “Grand Larcener,” she describes the theft of a heart: “although there’s nothing there,/ it’s heavier than the heavy thing that’s gone.” “Hill Start,” about a 17-year-old learning to work a clutch on a hill, asks “How/convince the sweating Sisyphus it will/ (after he tops this stretch) be all downhill?”

She is tantalized by a quote about the Bayeux tapestry (1070-1080) which says “where a certain cleric and Aelfgyva…” but abruptly ends. In “Aelfgyva,” Warren writes:

We’ve all had an Aelfgyva-at-the-palace.
In she jumps unushered some dull Monday
Abrupt as luck—no thread of exposition
Offered in advance—and disappears
Before her sentence even gets its verb;
And yet we’re stuck with her.

A few lines later, she goes on, at first amusingly:

And pricks you to embroider her an ending,
Marry or kill her off—or anything
But keep her, flanked by dragon-headed pillars,
Scarlet-wimpled, maddening and hanging
There, beside her cleric, as a question
You can neither sew up or unsew.
But keep her. She’s the thing you need the most—
More than the things you can completely know.

This is classic Warren. She toys with her own curiosity, and the reader’s, to amuse or investigate, and finally finds her level with a conclusion at once matter-of-fact, wise and dazzling. At times, she sounds impatient, as if she protested being put on the adviser’s hotseat once again—impatient, but game. She has no compunctions about applying the distinct impracticality of studying the quadratic formula to her poem’s concern with managing “the problem of desire.”

In “Destination,” she gives a tacit response to Gertrude Stein. The question becomes, Is there ever there?

It doesn’t so much disappear as change
Into a thing that isn’t what you thought
And cackles down the road to rearrange
Itself a little further on—alive
And kicking—yes. But it’s a different spot.

Deborah Warren’s work is New England: ruggedly individualistic, dedicated to her husband and children but hardly in a conventional manner, and dedicated to the earth and things of the earth. She is at home in a cow pasture or a myth, a sonnet or a shrug. Unsurprisingly, her work has received the recognition of the Robert Penn Warren Prize (2000), the Nemerov Sonnet Award (2001), and the Robert Frost Award (2002).

Warren’s work shows that, in the very act of deploying rhyme and meter, weightiness is countered and transformed—into pleasure. If at times that pleasure is quirky, so much the better. She finds music everywhere, and makes myth and legend not only accessible but intimately known and knowable. Coming upon her personal ordering of the universe is refreshing, one of the finer rewards that can be had today.

Terese Coe

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Unread 05-06-2017, 01:35 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Default Review of Powow River Anthology

One more review, published in The Evansville Review, 2007.

The Powow River Anthology
Published 2006 by Ocean Publishing, Flagler Beach, FL
ISBN Number 978-0967291-5-0

“Art makes singularly unglamorous demands: integrity, sacrifice, discipline.”

—Joan Acocella, New York Times Feb. 18, 2007

These “unglamorous demands” are clearly familiar to the Powow River Poets of Newburyport, Massachusetts, founded by Rhina Espaillat. The Powow River Anthology is edited by Alfred Nicol with an Introduction by X.J. Kennedy, and its poets have written more award-winning books and poems than one finds in most other workshops’ most delirious fantasies.

The work in The Powow River Anthology explores contradiction and affirmation, anomaly and economy, the thrift shop and the ledger, lacunae and clutter, love and the mordantly electric. The treatment may be sly or elegiac, erudite or colloquial, ironic or whimsical, historical or geographical. The poems are free verse and formalist, though formalist work is clearly prevalent.

Attempting to see through the lines to the workings and influence of the Powow workshop did not, I am not surprised to say, turn up much in the way of dramatic insight. These poets are too subtle for that. They’re from New England, where winters are tough, women are tougher, men are singularly uncompliant, and compliance is sometimes seen as an admission of defeat.

Rhina Espaillat’s “Vignette” is haunted by images of Andromache on the ramparts of Troy in the moments or hours before the Greek fleet approaches the shore. Espaillat is a consummate verse storyteller whose final lines sometimes create in the reader a sense of emotional ambush due to their understated power, as in the final stanza of “Vignette”:

The mist has cleared; far off and pale,
the cry she heard takes form at last:
only a gull, circling a sail
approaching neither slow nor fast.

The ambush, indiscernible in advance, is a matter of delicious irony in “If You Ask Me,” Espaillat’s rendering of a monologue by the snake in the Garden of Eden. “Highway Apple Trees” is metaphysical and life-affirming, a flight of lyricism and lushness. A slyer ambush occurs in the final lines of “My Cluttered House Accuses Me of Greed,” a leap of wit at once devil-may-care and Dickinsonesque. Espaillat sets up many oppositions in her work: the impulse to collect and the impulse to give away, the desire to forget ourselves and the desire to become ourselves, the desire to let go and the need to hold on. Confidence, earthiness, and acute discernment are the staples in her poems.

Among the most appealing poems in the collections are also those of Merrill Kaitz and Len Krisak. Kaitz’s “Blue Antelope Elegy” takes childlike (but philosophical) delight in inspired internal rhyme and giddy near-nonsense, for example in this stanza:

Too ethereal for the earthly veldt
the skittish blaubok ducked into the bush
and never grazed again. No benefit accrued
to the blaubok just for being blue.

Fauna are well represented in this anthology. “Goat Song” by James Najarian is a charming blank verse memoir of his childhood among comical goats with “names that seem to be for strippers.” Animal-based irony is evident in A. M. Juster’s “Los Periquitos” (about a colony of breeding parakeets in Brooklyn), Deborah Warren’s “Gibbon Motion” (“less animal than oil”) and “What the Dolphins Know.” Zoological pieces by Midge Goldberg, Alfred Nicol and others are swift-paced, and musical Deborah Warren adds to what is evidently a fertile and wry Powow tradition. Here is Len Krisak’s “Birds from Afar”:

Against what’s left of one day’s light,
They rise, cleaving the cold white air
As if in leaving on this flight
They thought they might not get somewhere.
As dozens wheel back, swoop, and swerve,
Like chaff that’s changed its mind,
Or love that’s lost its nerve.

Krisak’s peculiarly original perspectives betray an outré sense of humor. His mastery of opening lines is clearly evident in “Mrs. Henley,” a glimpse of a teacher who presided over both the studious and the stultifyingly bored in her classroom “Way back when Dinah Shore still roamed the earth.” The heterometrical “Plumbing Emergency” seems to have taken a page from Espaillat’s Book of Emotional Ambushes as well, and powerfully so, but in Krisak’s case the sly wit meanders around to a sudden and soul-wrenching revelation of plausible infidelity. Krisak characteristically alternates the madcap with the meditative.

Michael Juster’s “Letter to Auden” in rime royal (homage to W.H. Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron”) and “Visions of the Serengeti” too are schooled in the deadpan revelation, the undercutting of solemnity (though faux in this case) with irony or horror. The first begins:

Uh, Wystan?
Please forgive my arrogance;
You know how most Americans impose.
Your chat with Byron gave me confidence
That your Platonic ghost would not oppose
Some verse disturbing you from your repose.
Besides, there’s time to kill now that the Lord
Has silenced Merrill and his Ouija board.

“The God of this World to his Prophet” is monkish in comparison, monkish and cautionary, but Bill Coyle’s austerity of voice in trimeter couplets is paradigmatically spiritual and crowned with a fine epiphany. In Deborah Warren’s “Aelfgyva,” the permutations of letters and rhetorical abruptness approach the magical, as does her couplet. Warren’s work is often fast-paced, musical, and highly visual, and her “Thrift Shop” could be a disquisition on mortality despite the fact it is an indubitably authentic memoir of some flannel nightgowns she got for a song (in more ways than one).

There are some poems in the anthology that do not say much of anything nor in any memorable way, but harping on the unsatisfying few in such an absorbing collection would be mean-spirited. Perhaps, as a colleague has suggested, there could be more geographical adventure, more of the seamy side. Michael Cantor’s “The Wind Rides a Harley” is written in High Slang, the most contemporary gear in the book. It is a tour de force of which Hunter Thompson would have approved, and yet, unbelievably…it’s a sonnet.

David Berman’s nod to The Ambush appears not at the end of “After a Family Reunion” but in the middle of it (what follows is the middle of three sections):

What happened? Early marriage took its toll;
The lure of money quick and green enthralled;
One staggered bright-eyed into alcohol;
Our handsome would-be minister was called
To “PR” work, and when his soul was pledged
Beyond redemption, started preaching to
The sexually underprivileged
A gospel of libido, neither new

Nor true. And when they asked me what I did
“Up there in Boston,” I was vague. “I write,”
I said, and straightway stood alone amid
My relatives. At almost but not quite
Forty, I had no wife, no house, scant pride,
Nothing to show and even less to hide.

Perhaps not an ambush. Perhaps a powow with oneself, a reorientation adapted after having discovered one’s family of artists. The Powow River may have had some influence here after all. It meanders romantically, tumbles down from heights over rocks, slips under the Pivot Bridge, and ices over when it needs to, and every nanosecond brings a different river.

Terese Coe

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Unread 07-31-2018, 02:01 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Default RIP Timothy Murphy

Bouncing this up In Memoriam of Tim Murphy, since the first post here is my review of his groundbreaking book, Very Far North.

He was probably the first poet to strongly encourage me to continue doing translations of metrical poems; also one of the first who saw my first effort at same. And his work became a paradigm for me for short-line poems in general.

I am grateful for the good times with him and sporadic advice he gave me.

Last edited by Terese Coe; 08-01-2018 at 01:22 AM.
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Unread 07-31-2018, 10:08 PM
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Mary Meriam Mary Meriam is offline
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What an interesting thread, Terese, thanks for bouncing it.

I wrote some reviews for Spherians:

Rose Kelleher:

Gail White:

Julie Kane:

Lee Harlin Bahan:

John Whitworth:
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Unread 08-01-2018, 01:18 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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So you've been busy with reviews too, and now I'll be able to read them all in one place! Thanks, Mary. Looking forward to it.
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Unread 08-02-2018, 07:39 AM
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Catherine Chandler Catherine Chandler is offline
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Here is one I wrote on Tim Murphy's Hunter's Log.

It is so very sad that the hope expressed in the final sentence of the review was not to be.

My review of his Hunter's Log, Volumes II and III will be published following the book's publication in 2019.
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Unread 08-18-2018, 08:12 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Default Essay on Richard Wilbur's Collected by T. Coe

Apparently I did not post this here yet, and of course Mr. Wilbur was a member at the Sphere until his much-mourned passing last year. I sent him a copy around the time this was published. For the Spheres, better now than never!

Essay on Richard Wilbur's Collected by Terese Coe, published in Orbis (UK) in May 2007, Issue 139.

Paradox and Wit in the Poems of Richard Wilbur

The erudition, sensitivity, and music winding through Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems can easily instill a sense of insufficiency in the poet-reader, except that his humility and humanity are continual reminders that he is one of us.

One of us, and one beyond us. Few poets have attempted the broad spectrum of genres that Mr. Wilbur’s Collected Poems 1943-2004 embraces, from children’s verse to lyrics for Broadway musicals, from translations from the French of Valéry and Baudelaire to those from the Russian of Akhmatova and Voznesensky, the Romanian of Nina Cassian, the Spanish of Borges. His translations comprise a kaleidoscope that circles the world with yearning, wit, and at times horror (as in the Dante). It’s striking that Voltaire, whose Candide is a send-up of optimism of all stripes, moves from dated fustiness (“Whoever will not be his age/ knows nothing of his age but pain”) to youthful surrender to obsession in “To Madame du Châtelet” (translated from Voltaire, from The Mind-Reader, 1976):

Touched by her charms, so fresh they were,
And by her radiance calm and clear,
I followed her; yet shed a tear
That I could follow none but her.

[p. 163]

Mr. Wilbur too knows how to surrender, particularly to the inherent contradictions and ironies he often presents as insights to image and metaphor. In “A Storm in April” (the opening poem of The Mind-Reader), for example:

But the bright, milling snow
Which throngs the air today—
It is a way of leaving
So as to stay.

[p. 127]

The final stanza of his celebrated “Hamlen Brook” (New and Collected Poems, 1987) makes explicit a similar paradox, this time exploding into schadenfreude:

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

Fibs, lies, subtle pretense and fraud are contended with in “Lying” (New and Collected, 1987), here in graceful blank verse:

And so with that most rare conception, nothing.
What is it, after all, but something missed?
It is the water of a dried-up well
Gone to assail the cliffs of Labrador.

Later adding, “Odd that a thing is most itself when likened,” he surmises:

…It is a chant
Of the first springs, and it is tributary
To the great lies told with the eyes half-shut
That have the truth in view…

Enigma and ambiguity are the poet’s stock in trade, planted in the fertile ground of his genius. In “Sonnet” (Advice to a Prophet and Other Poems, 1961) the central paradox carries a novel yet comforting frisson, an indication we are in the presence of the ubiquitous: “In what would be the posture of defeat,/ But for that look of rigorous content.”

It’s a short skip and a jump from contradiction to irony to wit, and Mr. Wilbur’s translation of “The Prologue to Moliere’s Amphitryon” (from Mayflies, 2000) traces the distance. Here Mercury complains bitterly to the lady Night that hateful poets have most unjustly deprived him of a chariot:

And, given my unjust and dismal fate,
I owe the poets endless hate
For their unutterable gall
In having heartlessly decreed,
Ever since Homer sang of Troy,
That each god, for his use and need,
Should have a chariot to enjoy,
While I must go on foot, indeed,
Like some mere village errand-boy—

[p. 61-62]

One of the more difficult poems comes from The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947). In “Objects,” the poet clearly pays homage to mysticism and Mother Earth when he sings, as if inspired by Demeter, “they guard the plant/By praising it.” He writes, “…A quick/ Change of the eye and all this calmly passes/ Into a day, into magic.” A different poet might have written “into day”; “into a day” trumps that. The final line, however, approaches the margins of madness, at least the latent madness in the Cheshire grin. “Fearfully free” recalls that existentialism is one of the many nets (among which are religion, philosophy, games, the busyness of life) that save us from free-floating in the Void.

“Antiworlds,” a Voznesensky poem, is one of the numerous tour de force translations rendered in his 1969 Walking to Sleep, and comes to us as a deliriously witty and delicious send-up of sci-fi fantasy.

In “Lot’s Wife,” translated from Anna Akhmatova, one is made more aware of the primacy of seeing. Reading “Who, for a single glance, gave up her life,” one begins to try to comprehend how vision is not merely different from hearing or feeling, it is an alien world, even an antiworld. Contemplated at length, it may seem each of our senses is an anti-universe in itself. What happens when one sense is removed from the others and they must stand alone?

Wandering through this spectrum of profound studies in reality, the poet’s investigation careens among the serious and the seriously flippant, through “Rillons, Rillettes,” “April 5, 1974,” and “Flippancies” (all from The Mind-Reader), for example. Agonizing over whether “non-non-A” is simply “A,” the reader may suspect the poet is taking a poke at his puny human intellect, and rightly so. Eerie and mystical, the poem with a date for a title describes a primordial slide that metamorphoses into blossoms; and “Flippancies” is a brilliant ironic performance assuring us that nothing is on hand when it arrives. This is the amusing antiworld of Mr. Wilbur.

Translated from Valeri Petrov, “A Cry from Childhood” (from New Poems, 2004) inhabits pathos subsumed in comical displacement, while Mr. Wilbur’s own “Prisoner of Zenda” (from The Mind-Reader) reverts to a similarly childlike joy in whimsical rhyme and wordplay.

Reading “A Wall in the Woods: Cummington,” one may begin to ask oneself what manner of otherworldly intelligence haunts this encounter. In a vicarious trip to the Northeast woods complete with transformation, those who remain still enough can find, feel, see and hear the movement in this solitary walk’s epiphany:

“Of the brave art of forage/and the good of a few nuts /In burrow-storage. …

“And of how we are enlarged/By what estranges.”

[p. 53]

“Personae,” also from Mayflies, is suffused with the sibling love and rivalry that poets and musicians feel for one another’s work. The humor works in counterpoint to one’s being at a loss to explain the poverty of the poet in comparison to the lifestyle of contemporary pop musicians. Originality, wit, irony, and paradox: these are the weapons brandished in this poem and many others in the Collected. Throughout Richard Wilbur’s lifework, anomaly, acceptance, patient faith and wonder, sly wit, and dazzling correlations are in copious evidence. Over and over he proves modesty, a certain pride in good work, and reserve are among our strongest and most valuable defenses. In this poetry of articulation and paradox, he has planted a standard of lucidity of vision.

The poet, mindful of the daring lives
Of bards who dwelt in garrets, drank in dives,
And bought in little shops within the means
Of working folk their soup-bone, salt, and beans,
Becoming, in the cause of literature,
Adjunctive members of the laboring poor,

Ascends the platform now to read his verse
Dressed like a sandhog, stevedore, or worse,
And wears a collar of memorial blue
To give the brave Bohemian past its due.

Musicians, who remember when their sort
Were hirelings at some duke’s or prince’s court,
Obliged to share the noble patron’s feast
Belowstairs, or below the salt at least,
Now sweep onto the concert stage disguised
As those by whom they once were patronized.

How princely are their tailcoats! How refined
Their airs, their gracious gestures! And behind
The great conductor who urbanely bows
Rise rank on rank on rank of noble brows.

[p. 48]

Last edited by Terese Coe; 08-18-2018 at 08:40 PM.
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Unread 08-18-2018, 08:28 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Default Review of David Mason's Arrivals by Coe (2005)

This review was also published years ago, but I realized recently it might not have been posted here either. And it wasn't, at least not in this thread. It was published in Orbis (UK) in late 2005 or early 2006. This is the original review, about 500 or 600 words longer than Orbis' usual reviews, and Nessa O'Mahony edited it as she liked, which looked great to me.

Review of David Mason’s Arrivals

Published by Story Line Press 2004; ISBN # 1-58654-036-X

David Mason is a man poised between the reflectiveness of full maturity, the curiosity and compulsion of young manhood, and the sagacity of childhood. He retains much of the wonder natural to a wise child, especially in his meditations on landscapes. The depth and breadth of his perspective, his lucidity of expression and longing are suffused with past, present, and future time, visits decades old and visits to come. The geography of his new collection of poems, Arrivals, encompasses the Midwest and the West, India, New Zealand, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and other locales unidentified but palpable.

In his poems of Greece, in particular, thousands of years dissolve into nonexistence; only the stupefyingly hard physical environment throws him into rapture, the rapture of sheer presence:

We had walked a whole day on high ridges
somewhere between the heat-struck sea and peaks,
each breath a desert in a traveler’s lungs,
salt-stung, dusty, like summer’s rasping grass
and the roughness of stone. Biblical thorns
penned us, while the stunted ilex trees
shadowed the path. It seemed from these dour fields
we could not emerge on anything like a road.

—from “Agnostos Topos”

I stiffly climbed the gate (now chained and locked)
and walked the point of land and knew each tree—
nothing but private memories, after all.
It wasn’t the loss of time or friends that moved me
But the small survivals I was here to mark.

—from “Kalamitsi”

He is at once the restless stranger driven to gypsy tramping by who-knows-what past events and the ingenuous philosopher given to insight. Does it sadden the poet that “None lives who can name the dead of that place/ with its raided passage aimed at Ailsa Craig”? Those lines from “The Chambered Cairn” are more accepting, however, and far less restless than the following, in which he speaks to himself at the end of “Mumbai”:

Mason, you’ve come to the other side of the world—
Why can’t you lose yourself on Nehru Road?

I’m tempted to answer that Mumbai could be a dangerous place in which to attempt to lose oneself. As he says in the first line of that poem, “The crowd’s no apparition on Nehru Road.” No, not at all! And the fact he states that tells us more about his state of mind, of course, than about Nehru Road.

Unfathomable but compelling restlessness and sweetly jaded age are two ever-present poles in Mason’s sun-filled topography. He opens “In Transit” with:

The urge to settle never stays for long,
nor does desire to move like a windblown seed
when days have no more purpose than a song
at midnight, drifting from the olive trees,
or books you packed but cannot seem to read.
The passing stranger is well-known in Greece.

Two stanzas later, he reveals: “But the only Eden that could ever claim /you wholly disappeared beneath the waves.”

This reader would have liked to know more about “the only Eden.” What was it: a lover, a civilization, a coral reef, a time gone by? He ends “In Transit” with “You are as happy as you’ll ever be.” Ambivalent, ambiguous, indistinct, suffused with recurring and wretched loneliness: all travelers have felt this “in transit.” Indeed, accessing that loneliness is one of the more edifying reasons for travel, certainly for the artist. Travel is a study in the self.

As Mason notes in his magnificent extended meditation on “Aoteroa, land of the white cloud” in “New Zealand Letter,” “the inarticulate/ we try to voice before it is too late.” In this poem, however, his quondam loneliness is nowhere to be found; small wonder, as he is traveling with his wife. Thus his candidness about mood and attention is a revealing and accurate gauge, perhaps, and the reader is privy not only to a place but to an intimacy of perception and comprehension all too rare today.

“The Dream of Arrival” moves into rhymed tetrameter after a number of blank verse poems, and its authenticity, charm and lyricism enhance the tale of Odysseus’ rather bleak but emotion-filled arrival on the shores of Ithaca.

W.S. Merwin believes David Mason’s work is a kind of “American Pastoral.” This is true of much of his work, but his 33-stanza dramatic narrative, “The Collector’s Tale,” strays far from that genre. Gothic and haunting, in the diction of the youthful but desolate Midwest, it is an invented and highly compelling folk tale in iambic pentameter, with gentle slant rhymes that impel the narrative forward. The story somewhat recalls that of David Mamet’s brilliant play, American Buffalo: the secondhand/junk shop setting, the slow suspense of confrontation with the outsider/drunk, the desperation for survival or materiality, and finally the grotesque and the violent.

I knew the man. We dealers somehow sense
who we trust and who the characters are.
I looked at my inebriated guest
and saw the fool-as-warrior on a quest
for the authentic, final recompense
that would rub out, in endless, private war,
all but his own image of the best.

Maybe I was shouting, I don’t know.
I heard him shouting at my back, and then
he came around between me and the case,
a little twisted guy with yellow teeth
telling me he’d call the fucking cops.
I found the jawbone of that buffalo.
I mean I must have picked it up somewhere,

maybe to break the lock, but I swung hard
and hit that old fucker upside the head
and he went down so easy I was shocked.

—from “The Collector’s Tale”

The italicized lines indicate Foley’s speech; Foley is the unwelcome drunk who collects Native American artifacts and comes to the narrator’s home with a tale so unnerving and authentic that it bleeds where you read.

Mason’s dramatic poem reflects more on the history of racism in America than does Mamet’s play, and it is the masterpiece in Arrivals. Moreover, it establishes David Mason as a preeminent poet of American narrative in the formalist tradition. It boasts sweep and mystery, hypnotic if tawdry life and ghastly death, time past and future, a dead eye for reality and a very live ear for natural diction. It is a tale to be brooded over, but even then will remain elusive—despite its uncanny depth of characterization and an ideological subtext that owes much to the Civil Rights movement. There one may find other notes suffused with the indelible 60s as well. “The Collector’s Tale” is Americana at its most brutal, passionate, and grotesque.

This is David Mason’s third collection of poems. His first, The Buried Houses, was co-winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize and his second, The Country I Remember, won the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award. He may not have emerged “on anything like a road,” as he says, but his “small survivals” are victories of empathy, reflectiveness, and an imagination that reaches effortlessly into the collective unconscious.

--Terese Coe

Last edited by Terese Coe; 08-18-2018 at 08:36 PM.
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Unread 08-18-2018, 09:28 PM
John Isbell John Isbell is online now
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 3,575

Thanks for posting these reviews, Terese! Good to see 'em.

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Unread 08-19-2018, 10:04 PM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: New York, NY
Posts: 7,472

My pleasure, John.
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