Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Special Edition: Upcoming releases from Bloodaxe Books and Dufour Editions.

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books
[21 July 2006]

This week: Special Edition: Upcoming releases from Bloodaxe Books and Dufour Editions.

by Lawrence Sail
Bloodaxe Books / Dufour, September 2006, 63 pages, $19.95

Unsurprisingly, many of the poems in Lawrence Sail's eighth collection Eye-Baby have to do with seeing -- seeing rooms, people, memories, seeing through shifts in time and place, discerning what gets emphasized between first and second takes, reading how perspective changes perception.

To this end, he employs some interesting artifices: the time-twist of "Working Back", the behind-the-scenes-like eye of "From the Uncut Rushes", his view of the literal world as a collection of made-drafts ("Overhead, samples / of arranged skies"), and the congenial but intentionally misleading host-narrator of "A Matter of Focus."

Death also creeps through the work, usually as a classical reference (Charon, the river Lethe), but perhaps the sharpest moment is where Sail takes his habit for tinkering with "common" ways of seeing/saying, and has it serve how we deal with death in "Reprise", which begins, "Your friends have taken to telling you / tales about yourself", moves through episodes of a life, and closes:

This is simply what the past
can still do, the way it takes you
on to reprise or reprisal,
or re-invents you deftly
in the errors memory makes:
adjusting its facets, collecting
enough anecdotes for a wake.

"Blue Iris" and "White Peach" are both meditative poems, each devoted to a single image and the "intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" (Ezra Pound's phrase) they arouse, but "At the Turn", the book's last poem, really makes the most of that mode. Throughout its three musical nine-line stanzas, the speaker is virtually left out, in favor of beholding the falling leaves of a smoke tree during that hinge of summer-autumn, that thin membrane between life and death, that line we all walk, that moment of emotional either/or.

"Convalescing at the Coast" takes that mode and ruins it. Sail begins with his talent for landscape, detail, and restraint, then simply directs too much with an italicized quotation, followed by a simple exposition on the letter's source and context ("Thus Thomas Mann/at eighty, recalling/his July beach-hut ..."). Yawn.

Sail can also bore us with classroom-like references to painters, two poems presented in both French and English, and an excess of rhetorical and chronological sign posts (such as, by now), making some of the work seem more like mini-essays with line breaks, more glare than gleam -- they code "academic."

Nevertheless, Sail's concern is "how to count the broken bones / and still reach out for rejoicing." He isn't an innovative poet in any of the usual ways: form, mode, voice, subject matter. However, in terms of the examination of how we see what we see, this work's vision is diligent and consistent -- nothing new, but somewhat rare, and Eye-Baby certainly does "reward" (even if it does not compel) re-reading.

Andy Fogle Amazon

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I Studied Once at a Wonderful Faculty
by Tua Forsstrom
Bloodaxe Books / Dufour, August 2006, 135 pages, $22.95

It's rare to find a writer that seems to echo so many others while remaining wholly her own, but Tua Forsstrom is such a poet. In this gathering of three past books and a recent sequence -- The Snow Leopard, The Parks, After Spending a Night Among Horses, and Minerals from 1987, 1992, 1998, and 2003 respectively -- she hums right past linear narrative and refined exposition in favor of the associative, lyrical imagery we find in W.S. Merwin, Carolyn Forche, and Pierre Reverdy. We also get the tonal twists-through-repetition of Gertrude Stein, the intimate buzz of Frank O'Hara, the unflinchingly radical tangents of John Ashbery, something of Emily Dickinson's hermetic mischief, and a whole lot of Rilke.

But don't let all that crap fool you; as much as a highfalutin poetry reader can "do" with her work, Forsstrom is happy to swoop a brand name into her vision:

Juvena Skin Concentrate
on face and throat.
There is something that is preparing
its departure, fussing with foreign
currency, mumblingly trying
to attract attention.
But everything's all right, I say!
Over the pines in the west the sky is on fire.
Juvena Hydroactive Care
on temples and throat.

Much of Forsstrom's work is multi-tonal like this: mundane, ailing, worried, ecstatic, rapt. The rest of her work is no less "mono": she'll deliver a bleak epigram, then expect you to keep up with an epiphanic comma splice like "In the photographs your / eyes are a shade / asymmetrical, there is / no formula for human beings." She'll follow gorgeous imagery and profound realization with indifference, and follow that with hope. We have the blunt scientific accuracy of "A Nebula is a mist of incandescent garbage" and the summative remark "There is a despair as inescapable / as ice, the fishes' white-shimmering sky." She practices the "ability to see: the disintegration of / matter, the damp, the fine / cracks, the silence, that everything rots." There are epigraphs galore and sometimes we'll even get the fragment of another poem in the center of an otherwise blank page, giving a sense of secretive, dream-like conversation. It's not always easy to work through this stuff.

There is a literal and figurative whirling throughout all three books included here: snow, sand, silt, wind, the mind, the past, perception, language. It seems the more we pay attention to this transient world, the more we're confronted with its impermanence, so much of Forsstorm's work is concerned with footholds and familiarity:

In foreign cities too
we make ourselves something that looks like a home:
A green
tree we pass in the rain and get attached
to without knowing its name. I don't want
you to be distorted.

At first glance, the poems' floating quality might seem trivial, as if you could just hover along with the work into whateverness -- and it's true enough, as far as "vibe" goes. But Forsstrom is a win-win second read: it is "easier" than the first, having acclimatized to the textures, tones, and turns of her language, and we notice more nuance, subtlety, depth. We notice how central a passage this is:

I dive into the cool water, stir up
silt, particles float slowly, minerals

like the oak-blossom bud's starry hairs float
in amber through thirty million years, shimmering

in the lake's water when I dive, everything
is stirred up, gets cloudy, shimmers

This ordinary marvel, spurs a vision of the minute and the infinite, the gritty and the grand. This is work which strikes that elusive, challenging, and charming balance between the erudite and the child-like -- a remarkable quality in poetry of any nation, of any age.

Andy Fogle Amazon

+ + + +

The Sea Cabinet
by Caitriona O'Reilly
Bloodaxe Books / Dufour, September 2006, 61 pages, $19.95

Caitriona O'Reilly's first book, The Nowhere Birds, won the 2001 Rooney prize for Irish Literature, which means it was the best book by a "new" Irish writer all year long, poet or otherwise. My guess -- partially confirmed by the scraps I've been able to find online -- is that it was more lively than this second effort.

O'Reilly's work is ambitious and demanding: five of the book's 30 poems are in sections (working out to something like 22 of 61 pages), the vision is wide, Melville is intoned, museums are toured, and the book's core imagery -- that of the sea, the coast -- attempts to address both human and natural erosions, disappearances, fadings-away -- of the land, a love, a trade, a past. It is formally adept and well researched.

The five sections of the title poem "The Sea Cabinet" -- "The Ship", "The Mermaid", "The Esuimaux", "The Unicorn", and "The Whale" -- tour the Town Docks Museum in Hull, England, relaying the history of the whaling trade: captains who died on voyages home, destroyed ships, grieving-but-partying crews, archaic tools. The speaker views model icebergs, whale skeletons, the plaster heads of a married "savage" couple from the Cumberland Straits brought to be exhibited for two days in England, a "mermaid" manufactured for visitors' fascinated gaze, and a convoluted discussion of the healing drink to be made with a unicorn's horn, and how the unicorn may be based on the narwhal whale.

There's a lot to digest in all this history, all this factual background, all this pure information. It's a lot to ask before we even get to the poems, and the last section, "The Whale", finally returns our patience:

The twenty-ninth letter of the Arabic alphabet
is nun, which means 'a whale'. 'A fall, a fall'

is what the Arctic whalers called, meaning
'a whale'. God rested the Earth on an angel's
shoulders, the angel on a rock, the rock on a bull,
and the bull on the back of a whale. Beneath

is water, air, and darkness [...]

This is a rare compelling moment in an otherwise laborious eternity.

The ending of "Poliomyelitis" is just a touch convoluted, the extended metaphor of body-house-clothing in "Duets" goes way too far to remain engaging, and "Lag" and "Persona" seem to be more formal exercises than poems. "Gravitations" is the familiar "observation of landscape leads to meditative connection" poem (and that's just fine), while "Electrical Storm" has the sea and sky serve as the tonal backdrop for a slightly overwrought look back at a failed romance.

Maybe my literacy is that of a lazy American, but even as I'm interested in the ideas of some poems on second and third readings, I have to fight like hell to actually pay attention to them. I don't mind working hard as a reader, as long as there is some pleasure in that work. Most of those sequences read like vaguely poetic encyclopedia entries. Most of the short poems seem contorted, all tangled up interesting rhyme scheme, mightily pleased by the bloodlessly ceremonial sentence. O'Reilly's knowledge and level of refinement are -- yeah, sure -- to be respected, impressive. But I read to be interested, not impressed.

Andy Fogle Amazon

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