Poetry for Southern California
Our Senior Editor G. Murray Thomas has put together the latest CD's in our craft for your ultimate listening pleasure (once you get the CD that is). We will provide listening selections when available. And from time to time Murray may review books, or broadsides or god knows what...
THE SECRET BOX
Book by Kathleen Tyler
Book by Douglas Richardson
The Sacred Beverage Press
Reviewed By G. Murray Thomas
These two books of poetry, although very different in subject and intent, both demonstrate that the strongest poetry often comes from the fewest words.
Kathleen Tyler writes powerful confessional poetry. The Secret Box opens with a devastating series of poems about various forms of childhood abuse, foster homes, and a mother’s death.
Now, one problem with confessional poetry is that it is easy to get caught up in the confession rather than the poetry. To start wondering how much is truth and how much is art. I found myself struggling, and ultimately unable, to construct a coherent story line which would encompass all these events. But that was a problem with myself as a reader, not with the poetry. In fact, it was a reaction to the strength of the poetry. These poems are so visceral, so true, I had to believe them.
Further, Tyler is not trying to tell a story here. She is trying to create poetry. In that, she succeeds marvelously. The details she gives are the ones necessary to makes these poems work, not the details that might tell her life story. These poems work through the strength and economy of their details. She gives us just enough to hint at the meaning behind the poems, while still creating the tension of a situation without resolution.
Take the poem “When I Was Six” (p. 14):
Children scream across the playground, running in their games’
delirium. He chooses me
to carry around the tether ball pole on his knobby teenage shoulders.
I am the queen.
The other girls’ faces go dark with envy.
It begins to rain. Scrawled in huge letters on the side of the
equipment shed: Bitch.
Under the bungalow, the dirt is black, moist. He unzips his pants
and takes it out.
With two fingers, he slips down my shorts. I have never felt
anything so warm.
He has freckles, wavy hair. One day the grownups run him off.
That’s all I remember.
This poem is powerful because the details she includes are so strong, and the ones she leaves out prevent our fully grasping what happened; they withhold the expected catharsis.
Here’s another example, “Why I Left Florida” (p. 20):
One Saturday afternoon at the bowling alley when I was eight, I
ran off. Shrieking with cleverness, I hid behind racks of shoes,
flashing pinball machines. The thunder of balls rolling down
lanes, smashing into pins, was so loud that I could not hear my
mother call. When I giggled my way into the house, her head was
cradled in the hook of my father’s arm, his fist slamming into her
face. After all, I was his favorite. For years, they tried to make it up.
Easter egg hunts in the park, home-made sun dresses, summers at
Indian Rocks beach. But I still hear muffled shouts, the closet door
splintering when she crashed into it. Sobbing, my mouth pressed
into the carpet. Please. I don’t want to be so terribly loved.
Tyler brings the same control and punch to her later poems about cancer. From “Last Gift” (p. 27):
not ask the names of things, she said. Love only their light, their
form. The shape of the radiologist’s mouth: this could be benign,
this could be deadly.
I did not find the final section of poems, about marriage and divorce, as powerful as what came before. But that was not because the poems are any weaker; Tyler’s technique remains firm. I think the opening sections are so emotionally devastating, the topics so overwhelming, that the normal foibles of modern romance seem tame in comparison.
The Secret Box demonstrates the true power of poetry—how a few well chosen words can pack the most emotional punch of all.
Douglas Richardson, in Sugar Fish, is not writing confessional poetry. Nor is he even trying to tell any sort of story. He is trying to get at the ultimate truths of the universe. But he also knows how to make poetry work through language pared down to its bare essentials. He is aware that the immensity of the universe is contained in its tiniest details. He gives us those details in such a way that we can see, or at least sense, the immensity behind them.
In the eye of the galaxy
I am a fragile luminary
with skin for burning
bones for breaking
lungs for collapsing
and a deathbed for waking up.
(“In the Eye Of” p. 8)
Planet earth, an oracle;
land and sea, a strategy;
lion and zebra, a zigzag;
(“Quietude, a Word” p. 9)
Richardson often starts with the mundane details of the world around us, but then he find an unexpected juxtaposition. He knows that poetry lies in the gaps between unrelated items.
At least there is wood and brick.
At least there is cold coffee.
At least there is a woman
standing in the exit looking south,
her left arm resting on her tailbone,
her fingers, heavily ringed,
jingling keys that open the Mazda,
the front and back house doors,
the liquor cabinet,
the desk drawer where the revolver
will remain unused for a lifetime.
(“At Least There Is a Woman”p. 33)
He also utilizes dream imagery, sometimes blatantly (“Three Dreams, August 17, 2001” p.35), sometimes more subtly. Dreams often create a sense of some larger meaning than what is actually happening. When done well, dream imagery repeats this sense. (When done poorly, dream imagery merely becomes incomprehensible). What’s important here is the sense of meaning. The reader doesn’t have to understand the imagery, they just need to get the hint of something behind it. Often, the reader will fill in the empty spaces from their own lives, their own thoughts, even their own private gallery of images.
I love performance poetry. I not only love it, I feel that performed poetry is responsible for much the popularity of poetry today. Still, I can see where it sometimes has detrimental effects on the writing of poetry. One of these is a tendency to over explain, to fill the page with words to make sure the audience doesn’t miss anything. A listening audience is less likely than a reading audience to make the leaps which Richardson’s and Tyler’s poetry demand. Luckily both of them have resisted the temptation to overdo it. They both leave the gaps in and trust us to make the leaps necessary to appreciate their works. Poetry is better for it.