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

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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.

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

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