by Ray Hsu
According to Loon Bay
by Hannah Main-Van Der Kamp
by Michael Bradford
Memoirs of an Alias
by Jason Heroux
Post Your Opinion
|Eyes Wide Open
by Andrew Vaisius
At the beginning of Anthropy Ray Hsu quotes the lately resurfacing philosopher-critic Walter Benjamin, "There is no map/ that can hold a bomb." Ostensibly Benjamin figures in the first section-entitled Third Person-yet his presence hovers over the whole volume. The sensibility of the above quote, more in its emotion than argument, mirrors Hsu's own writing and its knowing-through-feeling concerns. The tension created when those concerns are combined with a predilection for concision leads to sit-upright observations like: "Water is always unsatisfied" or "A fist can feed a baby and can build a house. A fist can be safe." or "A father, they say,/ is habit, a god who dislikes/ disorder." or "[A] sharp knife reminds/ a body of itself." or "Beginnings persist: they are more than a mark of where we began." There's a floss of wisdom in those quotes: thinness and strength. Hsu wonders how we write about what we see.
Vocabulary so accidental, so
unexact. Only brute materials. And yet,
even viscera have their direction, simple
enough to forget under our daily skin.
Sometimes the poems can be a little too "unexact." Hsu-who can be as clear as a sunny day at -40C-is completing a PhD at the U of Wisconsin and often flexes his academic muscles and obfuscates with the best of them. "How the sun rises over wire/ makes you think how metal can excoriate." Well, usually I don't think that at all, though I can make any number of other associations. I'm used to jack knives and scalpels rather than sunrises for excoriations. But highfalutin as Hsu can be, I appreciate the strained perspectives to which he drives me. Good poetry intrigues the reader with the promise of a challenge, and any attempt to express a book-length perspective for Anthropy is a challenge. Take the title from the Greek anthrop, meaning "human". Any suggestions? A hint comes in the poem "Almanac" where Hsu contends that the shortfall of a farmer's almanac is its dehuman-ness. After all, the almanac fails to notice the leaky roof and broken fences. It possesses a single-mindedness typical of economics. "Its simple miscalculation turns out to be communal/ disappointment." Reading this book-with the way its images appear out of nowhere and disappear, as if I were driving through a fog, "The engine is a heart...", "The heart is a bucket..."-reminds me of the modern human malaise of constant movement and displacement. Hsu is anything but one-dimensional. So while I might slog through much of this book aching for a map, it is a wonderful, intelligent slog with a gifted young writer.
Personal Effects by Michael Bradford ranges from compact, forceful storytelling to nearly mawkish sentimentality. The book is divided into four sections, and of the four only the first, "Clearing Out", I can recommend without hesitation. "Clearing Out" is a tight prose poem with varying perspectives. It unearths desires, angers, silences and fears using a few spare facts. Gwen marries Earl. Earl works his farm and on other farms, and most often is away from home working. Earl gets bucked off a horse into a fencepost and goes funny in the head. One day he ups and leaves without so much as a goodbye. Gwen then leaves the farm faster than a locomotive to live with her sister. Years later Earl shows up and lives quite close to Gwen, but without having any contact. The tale's sparkle comes in the telling, and Bradford tells only enough to pique our interest. Gwen's brother Lionel berates Earl's proclivity to work thus: "'...try to make sense of what you've missed, your hands raw with field work, your tractor broke down miles from home at dusk. A woman's voice can soften these things.'" Who cares if we'd never hear anyone talk quite that way; it's the poetry of the situation Bradford roots out. The idiosyncrasies and commonsense of rural life are unselfishly portrayed. Bradford trusts the story to the reader. He resists embellishments and repetitions, leaves questions unanswered, and never quite completes the story's circle. This makes the poem very attractive.
Few of the other poems in the book shine so brightly, however. Part of the problem is that Bradford writes a mainly descriptive line. One poem, "Your Hands, Sliding" is erotically supercharged, so it stands out, and there are quotable lines ("I am spread wide with listening.") But while individual poems possess some interest, they don't add up to anything satisfying. They don't carry us anywhere except back to the proud moment of their recollection. These poems rely on the reader being impressed with what Bradford remembers as impressive (like sticks of chewing gum saved in the glove box of an old woman's car to repair a hole in the gas tank). And in family-related poetry, such reliance makes the poems vulnerable to sentimentality. Bradford gives us a eulogy at a funeral, the problem of a new writing pad, and fishing with his son. They are all nice poems, but I rarely remember nice poems. Nice poems are perfect in their own nice world, and demand nothing from a reader-except sympathetic niceness.
Hannah Main-Van Der Kamp's According to Loon Bay frustrates me to distraction. It is by turns brilliant and verbose. It is also way too long. Main-Van Der Kamp overtaxes my patience trying to pack everything into this book. Even the poems' typesetting appears crammed with hardly any space to allow a poem to breathe. "What Proceeds from the Mouth" is a good example of this. With a September chill in the air, the poetess pulls out a sweater from the drawer and finds it moth eaten and "see-through as lace." Yet it provides warmth. The poem doesn't stop there. It ruminates on tongues, languages, clouds and the heart. This poem-by-association exercise can be fascinating if energized; aimless and irritating when slack. It also leads her to eyebrow-raising logic, as in this sentiment:
Observation is prayer:
prayer is to notice
what I notice
and give only partial trust to experts.
The "experts" here are writers of a field guide to the birds, but she attempts to elevate her observation to a level that has no business being confused with knowledge and science: i.e. prayer. Prayer is a focusing down upon, while observation is an opening out into. Do I nitpick? Her poetry has that effect on me. To be fair, Main-Van Der Kamp can be acute in her observations, and multileveled in her interpretations:
Consonance is a repose that requires no resolution,
a purity dream.
Dissonance, a choral skill of some difficulty,
when it is hit perfectly,
In any case, Main-Van Der Kamp is thoughtful and skilled, and deserves attention. A judicious editorial cull of the poems in According to Loon Bay would have produced a more inviting and treasured read.
Jason Heroux's first book, Memoirs of an Alias starts grimly with a take about an artificial leg chucked onto the author's front lawn. The leg morphs from a thing of plastic, leather and steel into a thrashing limb when finally thrown into a lake. We're in a Heroux poem, so we're pretty much up the creek without a paddle, and on amoral waters. Keep your eyes wide open and your ear to the earth, seems to be Heroux's moral. Things happen. Wonderfully bizarre things. In "The Spoon" a man converses with a terse, fearful spoon. It seems this item of silverware fears drowning. Unmoved, the man holds it under soup level for a long time: "The handle twitched. Little bubbles appeared on the surface of the soup." You might snicker. I sure did. However, don't we humans have a long history of cruelty and brutality for what we don't or cannot understand? Heroux knows what he is doing here. The horror comes in the form of a spoon instead of the My Lai Massacre, or the war in Iraq. In a kind of companion piece a doctor removes the shadows from people for free. He stores them in canning jars.
The jars are so dark.
They all look the same.
And no one knows whose
Presume the shadows represent whatever is depressing, evil or black in our lives. The stored shadows are interchangeable. You get the picture.
Heroux, startled by minutiae, makes us see with his eyes. In "Today I'm More Alive Than Usual..." he's a little doorstep everyone walks over, a forgotten ladder leaning against a wall, a cigarette butt, and the first three-only those first three, mind you- snowflakes falling. Heroux embraces everything and everyone without pretension, and without sacrificing the dark for the light. He confesses in "Happiness", "It's okay to cry quietly to oneself for no reason. It's okay to feel alive for only ten minutes a day." He believes it. So do I! Heroux has written an amazing debut, at once deceptively simple and encouragingly complex. If he doesn't write another book this one will suffice, but I, for one, will be severely disappointed that we wouldn't be blessed with more of Heroux's grace and humour.