No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, by Ann Bracken

NoBarking_front cover

This powerful new collection of poems by Ann Bracken, author of The Altar of Innocence, tells of her work with learning disabled and emotionally disturbed students in settings from inner city Richmond to several Maryland public high schools and colleges.

In the best poems, she helps us see beyond the fierce bravado of the teenagers to the scared child within. The power of these poems comes from Bracken’s attention to detail, her evocation of voice, and her emotional restraint. She holds her sorrow and indignation in check while giving us a chance to get to know these young people before revealing their secrets.

While demonstrating the control that enables the reader to fully enter the experience, Bracken’s generous heart drives these poems. In describing teachers’ struggles with administrators who sometimes appear to care more about numbers and public perception than children, she doesn’t lose sight of the forces constraining the administrators: the numb surrender to seemingly intractable problems, the determination to keep the school running.

In Bracken’s hands, poetry becomes a peculiarly effective way to convey the reality of the classroom. Individual poems are intensely focused on a single person, giving a voice to those whose voices are rarely heard. Together these poems create an unforgettable mosaic of the experience of teaching adolescents, whether they are learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, or stressed in other ways.

The understanding gained from experiencing a student-centered teacher as she works with students, administrators, and other teachers will benefit anyone interested in education and the reality of classroom teaching.

Best books I read in 2016

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2016. Although I read much fiction, I’m a bit surprised to see how many of the books I’ve selected are nonfiction. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought. Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

2. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime. This book changed my view of the natural world.

3. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

4. Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

This collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence. Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. Other essays take us further afield. Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

5. The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seemingly inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning.

6. Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

7. The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison. Through a “chorus of voices”, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

8. Burning Your Boats, by Angela Carter

I love these stories. Actually Carter calls them tales, saying they draw on images from dreams and legends, from fairy tales and the unconscious. While these tales do provoke unease, they also overwhelm with audacity and rich allusions and tangled passion. She layers in the descriptions and emotions until you feel as though the whole thing is going to explode—and then she reels you back with a coolly humorous detail or sarcastic observation.

9. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home: a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent. I love Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises.

10. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

As this story opens, fifteen-year-old June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What were the best books you read last year?

Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship, by Terese Svoboda

9781911335184_p0_v2_s192x300

The poems in this new collection by Terese Svoboda get to the heart of what it means to be human. I wrote a woman at first, but I think their truths transcend gender. Allusive, often playful, they are deeply moving.

Take the first poem, “Whose Little Airplane Are You?” With light but deft touches, she conjures a mother speaking of apricots and clouds and planes, as though in answer to the question What was it like when I was a baby? She apologises for all she had not apprehended then. Yet the immense love comes through, together with the hint of threat that the image of planes coming out of clouds now holds for us.

In “The Talking Tea-Kettle” an enchanting and amusing discussion of spiritualists and their debunkers is sprinkled with calls from a daughter trying to connect with her mother.

Other poems take us into different territory, such as “Orlando is Us” which imagines what it must have been like to be in that nightclub on the night of the attack. “Airport News” uses Dante’s Purgatorio to describe a flight, and will have any frequent flyer nodding and chuckling. Another intensely imagined piece has a father trying to find his son in a parking garage in “Boy on Crutches”. Others, such as “Baghdad Calls” and “Hope Wanted Alive”, speak to our fractured world.

The long poem that makes up Part III and provides the book’s title, looks at our race pell-mell into the future. With allusions, puns and other word-play, Svoboda takes us on a balloon ride of a marriage. She invites us to look at the space between concepts such as “Transportation as transport:/Court-ship.” With references to Spock, DNA, and the Jetsons, she circles around the idea of invention, the future, and the stories we imagine about them.

It is the last section that keeps bringing me back. She begins with the lines “No one imagines/night at noon.” With compelling imagery and concrete details, like gingko trees and the triangle on the Play button, these poems of a loss conjure in us, not just the memory, but the experience of our own losses and help to heal them.

I’ve written before about Svoboda’s earlier collection, When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley, and Anything That Burns You, her incredible biography of the influential but now mostly forgotten Modernist poet Lola Ridge. This new collection builds on the strengths of those earlier works. If you enjoy word-play and are ready to be moved, I encourage you to explore these poems.

What poem have you read recently that moved you?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

In Black Bear Country, by Maureen Waters

9780988637603_p0_v1_s118x184

Waters says in the Preface, “The bears, which appear in the title poem, are intended to suggest unpredictability, the mysterious and dangerous aspects of experience as well as the possibility of love.” The image and her explanation of it serve as a thematic summary of the poems in this collection.

In the title poem she says of the bears, “For all their size, they move silently, uprooting boundaries, nudging possibilities.” I like the way she challenges boundaries herself, immersing herself in Ireland, its myths and the place itself, the place her parents left for the U.S. Her description of the roofless house of gray Connemara stone, “the storied source”, and the ancestral memories it calls up is stunning in its controlled emotion. She says, “even the ghosts had vanished.”

Unpredictability is everywhere, whether it is a house fire, sudden storms, the aftermath of Katrina. Most of all it is apparent in the losses, the loss of herself, of her son. She says, “these children are not predictable.” And later: “On the lawn Brian is beginning to climb / the voluminous branch of a willow tree. / He cannot know / that it will snap / in the prodigious grip / of a tornado.”

This is a stunning way to approach great grief, obliquely, using a screen of imagery. The tree and tornado. And she speaks of him as having crossed a boundary. I think this use of imagery is one of the great benefits of using poetry to delve into memoir. Through a poem’s music and concise imagery, we bring the reader with us into the experience.

Another benefit is that these brief poems, most no more than a page, often capture a single glimpse of the past, a single moment we remember out of all the moments we’ve experienced. And this is how memory works sometimes: throwing up a scene seemingly at random. The poet then must make sense of it, as she does remembering a joyful moment of picking hyacinths with her sister. “Yet, this was earthquake country,” she says. Although “we sensed the trembling of the earth, / the sullen hiss of rising tide” they are carried away by their bliss, sure that such beauty would last forever.

I appreciate her poems of the Hudson River Valley. No delicately dancing daffodils, Waters gives us hawks and vultures, ruined gardens and floods. She believes the hemlock—“Seared by lightening [sic], wind and blight”—is the spirit of the place. Yet she finds hope in small things: “the precise point a rivulet wells up into / a pool . . . we cannot detect / the slightest movement. But something is / surely there.” I treasure that “surely”, the pause it creates, the certainty behind it.

There is love, too. Not just the love of children and rough nature, but an exploration of a thirty-year marriage to a man “known and yet unknown”.

These are poems to read again and again.

Is there a memory you have of some event, some moment so insignificant you don’t know why it has stuck with you?

The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte

9780962152436_p0_v1_s118x184

I came to Whyte’s poetry, somewhat to my surprise, through his writings about work, about how even seemingly mundane work can be a pilgrimage. I’m interested in that moment when work ceases to be just a job and becomes, in spite of all our kvetching, something that gives meaning to our lives, something that we can invest with our sense of ourselves. Easy enough to do when it’s poetry, but what about when it is selling perfume or delivering mail?

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Here’s the beginning of “What to Remember When Waking”:

In that first
hardly noticed
moment
in which you wake,
coming back
to this life
from the other
more secret,
moveable
and frighteningly
honest
world
where everything
began,
there is a small
opening
into the day
which closes
the moment
you begin
your plans.

The short lines make it feel as though he is groping his way, slowly, towards something that will turn out to be important. As the poem continues, the tone veers away from the informal and becomes that of a guru delivering wisdom before ending in questions. It’s an interesting sequence and representative of the poems here.

There is wisdom, and surprise. And the tentative groping, the occasional sermon, the questions give power to the insight that emerges.

These are what Ron Padgett calls “transparent” poems. As Leslie Ullman describes in “Press Send: Risk, Intuition, and the Transparent Poem” (The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol 48, No 4, February 2016), “By ‘transparent’ Padgett was referring to use of language that does not depend on form, sound-work, metaphor, condensation, or complexity of thought.” In other words, setting aside all those things that I particularly love about poetry in favor of straightforward language.

And yet there have been plenty of poems I’ve loved that would qualify as transparent poems, some of them in this collection. There are poems here about the night, about friendship and solitude that I will come back to again and again.

What makes them work? Ullman says, “. . . the transparent poem can be disarming, conversational, and to a degree easy to grasp in one sitting, but rich with implications and reverberations that expand during subsequent readings . . .The transparent poem takes what it [sic] is at hand, which more often than not is the accessible stuff of quotidian life, and makes it fresh. Pushes it a little beyond its expected territory.”

Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seemingly inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning. And I am reminded that even those jobs we take up thinking to earn enough to survive while holding our true selves aloof, even the least of them can accept all that we can bring. It is what we bring that matters, the challenge and the risk.

What is one of your favorite poems? What about it appeals to you?

Voice of the Mourning Dove, by Alexis Rotella

voice of the mourning dove

Haiku is more than counting syllables. The one thing most people know about haiku is that it is 17 syllables in three lines of five-seven-five, but many haiku poets writing in English urge us to throw out that rule. There are linguistic reasons related to the differences between English and Japanese, among which is that in Japanese haiku what is counted are sounds rather than syllables.

The most important reason, though, is that focusing on syllable count ignores the true essence of haiku which is to include the reader in a single moment of experience. It may be a profound moment or poignant or ruefully amusing, but it is an emotional one.

I’ve always thought of these as “moments of being”, a phrase Virginia Woolf coined in her essay “A Sketch of the Past” to refer to the sudden, direct experience of the reality behind our everyday life. I’ve also thought of them as awakenings, as in Thoreau’s “To be awake is to be alive.” They come in a flash and are gone as quickly.

This collection of haiku by award-winning poet, Alexis Rotella, reveals how a tiny poem can capture that fleeting moment.

Even in
my bones
the fog.

In a post on Writer Unboxed, Barbara O’Neal wrote “Ordinary life is where all the miracles are.” She described using the phone app 1 Second Everyday to record a one-second video everyday. This practice reminds her to focus on the present, and that “One moment of detail, one second of true observation, can give us a wealth of information.”

Recently I was lucky enough to take a workshop with Rotella, author of fifty books, former President of the Haiku Society of America, editor of Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, and founder/editor of the senryu journals Brussels Sprout and Prune Juice. She used works by many poets to illustrate aspects of haiku, such as the use of kigo, a word indicating a season.

Country club—
sprinklers going
in the rain.

She said that the pruning necessary to create effective haiku can help us become better prose writers. We may find our skills as “ruthless editors” extending into other aspects of our lives, such as simplifying our living spaces. The pruning is not for its own sake, but to reveal the seed of emotion in that moment, what Rotella calls its energy.

Many of us are trying to be more present in our lives, to practice mindfulness. The haiku in this collection remind us of the beauty that lurks in a second of experience. Rotella says, “The art of haiku is really meditation.”

Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Terese Svoboda

9781936182961_p0_v2_s192x300

How could I have never heard of Lola Ridge before? A central figure in Modernist poetry, she seemed to know everyone: from Robert Frost to Amy Lowell to H.D. Praised by people like Stephen Vincent Benét and Louis Untermeyer, she was considered one of the top American poets. Her fiery poems describe the real life of immigrants and others struggling to get by. A lifelong anarchist, she was devoted to the ideal of personal and artistic freedom. She worked for years with Emma Goldman and participated in many political protests, including the outcry against the Sacco and Vanzetti executions and the railroading of Tom Mooney.

I have become accustomed to the way once-popular artists and activists disappear from the cultural consciousness. I have heard the argument that the guardians of the Western canon needs to let go of the belief that only white men can write lasting literature, and add more women and minorities (and new majorities!). I’ve shaken my head at the way hysteria around World War II and McCarthy’s reprehensible anti-Communist tactics attempted to wipe out the memory of the social reformers, labor activists, anarchists, socialists and, yes, communists who were active in the first half of the 20th century. But I’m still surprised that I’d never heard of such a prominent figure.

This biography rescues Ridge from history’s dustbin. Svoboda embeds us in her life, from her birth in Dublin in 1873 through emigration to New Zealand as a child, then to Australia, and finally to the U.S. in 1907 where she mainly lived in New York City. Her travels didn’t stop there though. Always on the edge of bankruptcy and starvation, she scrounged money for trips to Mexico, Baghdad, Taos, and California. She was awarded residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony.

And always she wrote poetry. By including so many poems and fragments of poems, Svoboda give us what is truly a writer’s story: Ridge’s experiences and convictions drive her fierce work that captures the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, the dreams that possess them and the forces that beat them down. Here is a poem from her first collection The Ghetto and Other Poems:

Debris
I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.

Described as fragile and intense, Ridge often invoked images of fire in her work. She went on to publish three more collections, each more popular than the last. She won awards like the Guggenheim, and edited the avant-garde magazines Others and Broom, as well as Margaret Sanger’s magazine on birth control. While editing Others and afterwards, she hosted weekly soirées in her one-room apartment to discuss art and freedom. These lively gatherings drew famous and not-so-famous writers and artists and activists, including William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Alfred Kreymborg, Mitchell Dawson, Jean Toomer, John Reed, Louise Bryant, and Evelyn Scott.

The New Critics, who rose to ascendancy during WWII and afterwards, insisted that poetry should not be political in any way and claimed that women, with their overactive emotions and weak intellect, were unsuited for writing anything but love poetry. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Ridge’s poetry, so famous in her lifetime, sank into obscurity after her death in 1941. Svoboda compares the way Ridge’s influence on Crane and others has been lost to the way few today know of how TS Eliot drew on Hope Mirrlees’s Modernist masterpiece Paris while writing The Waste Land.

I hope that Svoboda’s biography helps to bring her back into the light.

What early 20th century poet fires your imagination?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Best books I read in 2015

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the twelve best books I read in 2015. Although I read much fiction, I’m a bit surprised to see how many of the books I’ve selected are nonfiction. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield

The nine essays in this book contain much depth and beauty. In them, Hirschfield explores the magic of poetry, pulling back the curtain to show what makes some poems work. Her insights leave space for the imagination, equally inspiring for poetry readers and those who write.

2. A Map of Glass, by Jane Urquhart

Within this absorbing story of Sylvia and Jerome and Andrew lies a profound meditation on love and memory and geography and change. I was deeply moved by this story and came to a new understanding and acceptance of losses that still haunt my dreams.

3. Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set among a motley group of people living on barges on the Battersea Reach of the Thames, this Booker Prize-winning novel follows Nenna, a woman struggling to make a home for her two young daughters. This image of being neither on land nor at sea underpins the lives of the people on the barges. All of them live in the littoral, hanging onto the edge of survival. Fitzgerald is often quite funny, her humor coming from the absurdity of life’s situations and some of its people. However, rather than satirising them, she treats them with compassion and respect.

4. Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick

Gornick’s highly praised memoir, Fierce Attachments, explores her relationship with her mother. In the introduction Jonathan Lethem calls the book “mad” and “brilliant”, but it is more than that. The story of these two women, and the other men and women drawn into their orbit, drives forward with an intensity and, yes, ferocity that I’ve rarely encountered.

5. Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain

I’ve read a lot about the Great War: poetry, history, memoirs. What I hadn’t thought much about are the women. The land girls, yes, and the misguided women handing out white feathers, but not about the nurses or the women waiting for the next letter from the front and anxiously scanning the lists of the dead. Vera Brittain’s brilliant memoir fills that gap. Written in the early 1930s, she describes the horrors that stunned her “cursed generation” in a calm yet unforgiving voice, the voice of the sternly practical and compassionate nurse she became.

6. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee

In this rich and readable biography, Hermione Lee gives us not just Fitzgerald’s story, but also a discerning evaluation of her work. By giving us the events and people that shaped and influenced Fitzgerald as a writer, this remarkable biography sheds new light on Fitzgerald’s novels. Plus I love that it sent me back to read all the novels again.

7. A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

My book club rarely comes up with a unanimous verdict on a book, but we all loved this book by Anne Tyler, as we have loved other of her books we’ve read. It’s not just because she writes about Baltimore, and specifically the part of Baltimore we are most familiar with. I think the quality that we love in Tyler’s novels is her ability to give us people who, with all their quirks and flaws, yearn for something better and have faith that they can get there, people whose stories play out in families so true that we recognise them immediately.

8. On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee

Set in a future version of Baltimore, called B-Mor, Lee’s latest novel represents a logical outcome of the tensions currently tearing the city apart. We have the story of the B-Mor community and we have the story of one young woman, Fan, who leaves B-Mor in search of her boyfriend, Reg, who has disappeared, apparently removed by the powers that be for their own purposes.

9. Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith

Sometimes you want a big, fat novel; sometimes you want a small, quiet one. Only 112 short pages, Smith’s novel follows a young woman during a single day. Twenty-something Isabel is many things: a thrift-store aficionado, a librarian who repairs damaged books, a child of divorced parents, a resident of Portland, Oregon. But most of all she is a person whose imagination is both deep and wide.

10. Maps for Lost Lovers, by Nadeem Aslam

The rich, luxuriant writing in this novel felt like lowering myself into a hot perfumed bath after a long but rewarding day. Poetic doesn’t begin to describe the fragrant mass of images and sense-impressions that fill every sentence. Aslam’s personification of the natural world adds to the atmosphere of mystery, of legends handed down through the generations. Aslam presents his characters with compassion, gently asking the reader to recognise the reasons they act as they do. And he wraps the story, with its many pairs of lost lovers, in the beauty of the world in all its flavors and in the intoxication and deep comfort of love.

11. I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman

I’ve long been a fan of Howard Norman’s novels and memoirs. I especially enjoy the way he conveys the magic of ordinary moments. Reading this memoir is like listening to my best friend tell me stories. Most of us, especially in our later years, feel the need to discover or construct the narrative of our lives. Norman shows us a way to piece the past together without forcing it into an artificial pattern.

12. The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer

Moehringer describes how, growing up without a father, he finds a refuge with men who hang out at Dickens, the local bar, where Moehringer’s Uncle Charlie is a bartender. As we get to know them, each one stands out in brilliant eccentricity coupled with a deep, if flawed, humanity. Moehringer treats them with the tender dignity that Anne Tyler so reliably employs with her misfits and oddballs. His great achievement is making these men with their beer bellies and balding heads, their drinking and gambling, their apparent aimlessness (beyond getting drunk and having a good time) into heroes.

What were the best books you read last year?

When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems, by Terese Svoboda

51lpdIv78FL._AA160_

I keep coming back to the poems in this newly released collection by award-winning author Terese Svoboda. They are not always easy to read. Some I still don’t understand, but others call me back with their fierce tenderness, their blend of humor and tightly controlled anger. She writes about small betrayals and huge atrocities, a man who leaves with a stinging goodbye and Japan’s lethal human experimentation in World War II.

Some poems speak of experiences in far-off places such as New Guinea, Japan, Polynesia, New Zealand. Others tell of things closer to home. But I warn you: they are not for the faint-hearted. These poems cut close to life, telling the truth about the violence that co-exists with beauty and art. For example, “Slaughter of the Centaurs” tells of finding, amid a soft green mist “the coarsely forelocked boys,/none more than fifteen,/beardless, death//catching them cantering,/berets cocked, weapons not.” And then there is “Eurydice Abandoned in the Caves of Hades”:

You hire a guide. See several waterfalls,
a dock for a boat, and why not a boat?
You rock to a shore where bats rise as gulls.
Or fall. Such silence. You keep your head low,
wade black pools, one for each of the senses.
You light a cigarette, unnerved, defenseless
in the blue of that smoke. You see the roots
of trees — your sisters’ hair unpinned — you see
what leads out. The sky! Then the guide rapes you,
steals your purse, and disappears. You really seethe.
Oh, god. Even Orpheus has lost it.
You can hear him through the rock, if that Shit!
is him shouting. You say, Let the stones drip
their milk.
You’ll sing louder, sing till you drop.

Some poems examine the family, and our familiar/unfamiliar Western milieu: the twisting power of money, a rescue in a library. Others celebrate small moments such as an evening when “a kid changes/into her tutu and tap shoes/and sings ‘Swanee’ by the light/of the high beam.//We go wild. Even the baby,/nude as a June bug, tattoos/out a step.”

I love the word play, especially when Svoboda uses homonyms to create layers of meaning, like kakekotoba, the use of pivot words in Japanese poetry. Here’s an example from “Fuel Adieu!” where the narrator imagines herself as a seal: “If you//lichen on Facebook the box/unlichens, living living living/on margins really singular//for the green electricity/that meets its demand, the seal/no-friended on account of/gamboling on lichen . . .”

Some poems seem bound together more by sound than by the sense of the words. Others use imagery to distance the pain enough to write of it: a dog trapped in a wall, a car leaving the road, a brother on blue satin. Either way they touch something deep and hard and true. These are poems where humor walks hand in hand with an unswerving attention to the dark things of this world.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

On Wings of Song: A Journey into the Civil Rights Era, by Molly Lynn Watt

41RcvTm+xnL._AA160_

Molly Lynn Watt’s latest poetry collection is a memoir of her work in the Civil Rights movement in 1963. It compellingly captures the time and the emotions surrounding it, the dangers and the innocence.

The book opens with a few poems describing incidents from her childhood that introduced this New England girl to racism and Jim Crow. The bulk of the book is made up of poems describing a time in the pivotal year of 1963 when she and her husband and two toddlers went to Tennessee to lead the new Highlander School, dedicated to training interracial volunteers to register voters in the South.

Traveling through the South, they are exposed to Jim Crow in chilling incidents. Their integrated caravan is refused service at restaurants and gas stations. Worse, they learn that trying to register voters can have fatal consequences.

She captures the fear in terse, direct lines. From “Tonight”, describing their first night at the Highlander School.

fireflies spark by the window
cans rattle in the alcove—
Mr. Tillman Cadle is arriving

we’re weary fake sleep
feel Tillman hover
sense his shotgun over us
throughout the night
Tillman stumbles and mutters
there’s going to be trouble

As it turns out he is the owner of the land, which he’s provided to the school. He’s there to guard them, not harm them, but as the author says later in the poem “Tillman Cadle/knew trouble when he smelled it”. The young family and their friends are about to meet trouble first-hand.

The final section of the book ponders the changes since that time, from her elderly mother’s apology for refusing their phone calls back then to her granddaughter’s refusal to vote, not understanding how fragile and incomplete this armistice is.

Watt says that she chose to write this memoir in poems “to limit my discomfort” in reliving that terrifying time when hatred and prejudice bared their face to her. For a memoir to matter, for it to grab the reader and not let her go, you have to plunge back into the storm, the one you thought you’d come to terms with long ago. The emotions are still there for you to find if you dig deeply enough.

Watt does. Each poem rings true.

There are plenty of other reasons for using poetry to write memoir. Poetry’s concentration of experience into a few lines makes the reader pay attention to every word and has the power to shock us into experiencing a revelation or moment of deep emotion.

Too, poetry’s use of imagery can assuage the author’s fear of revealing too much. Wrapping secrets in metaphor and motif not only gives the reader a tantalizing challenge, but also offers the author a semblance of protection. And a poetry collection, by breaking the story into fragments, mimics the way our memory works: an image here, a bit of dialogue there, a certain smell or glance of light.

Watt’s book is something to treasure, capturing a time and a body of experience that too many now forget. It’s a valuable resource for anyone curious about using poetry to write memoir. Most of all, though, it is a collection of powerful poems that leap from the page.

Have you read a memoir written as poetry? What did you think of it?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author, who is a friend of mine. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.