Poetry for Southern California
By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor
Book by Marcia Cohee
Tebot Bach (www.tebotbach.org)
Marcia Cohee’s Story is a book of beautiful but elusive poetry. It is not easy to tease concrete meaning out of these poems. But in Cohee’s capable hands, that becomes an asset, not a weakness.
Don’t get me wrong. There are poems here clearly about something—economic loss, illness, death. But even those poems are open, open to interpretation, open to wherever the reader’s mind might take them. And there are many more which remain puzzles, even after multiple re-readings.
I can say that many of these poems concern loss, and that is part of their elusiveness. It’s hard to nail down what’s not there. Cohee describes the shape of the hole, not what filled it: “Form is shaped by the absence of idea” (“the Dead”); “And the vase hollows its own shape/ in the window.” (“House”); “When our hollow bodies contain nothing except space/ when space has room for everything that we desire” (“When”).
Cohee admits to the elusiveness of her language:
...How many times,
dear reader, have I postponed it,
led you sideways
down the stairway that doesn’t exist?
(“The Poet at Fifty”)
for some inventive trick of language to fill
this long void, this imagination.
These spaces create an expansiveness in the poems. The more space Cohee creates, the more poetic they become. I’ve described them as elusive, but open might be a better word. Rather than commit to a meaning, Cohee leaves room for meaning to creep in, for the reader to find, or create, their own meaning.
None of this would be possible if Cohee’s language were not so beautiful and under control. Let me be clear; the openness in these poems is not the result of sloppiness, but of careful craft.
Cohee incorporates elements ripe with meaning—mythology, weather and nature—into her poems. One favorite image, fitting with the mystery of her poems, is the labyrinth. She has a sharp eye for the details of the world around her. She combines these into unexpected, almost surreal images: “The sky emptying/ its bottle of reasons.” (“Begin”); “the bone structure of myth” (“Pollution”); “we ask: who are you/ that beats, not like a heart, but like wings?” (“Ignorance”). These images grab the reader, propel him forward, without nailing down any specific interpretation.
Another of her tricks is a subtle repetition. On first reading you may not even notice it. She often repeats lines throughout her poems, but places them in different contexts, so they take on different significance. In the poem “Eurydice” she repeats the line “It is the darkness, however/ which I recommend to you” to great and growing effect. And notice how changing one word shifts a line entirely in “Far Afield,” which concerns a conversation between a doctor and a patient: “Like a dead man, he will not listen” becomes, later, “Like a dead man, I will not listen.”
If you want straightforward poetry, which is easy to grasp, I have a couple of possibilities coming up. If you want something a bit more challenging, yet in the end, more rewarding, pick up Story.
—G. Murray Thomas
Book by Elaine Mintzer
Bombshelter Press (www.bombshelterpress.com)
Elaine Mintzer’s Natural Selections demonstrates that solid poetry can be written about the events of everyday life. She takes the details of domestic life— school lunches, little league, making dinner—finds their poetic essence and, at her best, finds higher truths within them.
She often starts a poem with some such detail, and slowly expands until she finds a deeper meaning in the incident. Broken dishes (“Inheritance”) and cluttered garages (“Sacrifice”) lead her to contemplate the inevitability of loss. In “Abandon” she starts with birdwatching through her kitchen window and ends up contemplating the passage of time, and the changes it brings:
I watch the days go by and wonder
how long before the finch will migrate,
how long the flowers will afflict my nose,
how long this gaudy spring will last,
how long this child will lie across my lap.
At time she can make this leap, from the small and specific to the large and momentous, in the space of a line or two:
the offal we throw away:
liver, heart, gizzard,
grief, anger, regret.
(“For What Ails You”)
Of course, not every poem here is so profound. Many of these poems are just about what they are about. But she still finds the poetic essence:
The dirty cups on the kitchen table
are tea-stained and empty
except for the last drops
on the bottom.
No tea leaves.
There is no fortune for me
that can be told from bits
What you need to know
can be contained in a paper pocket,
wetter than you thought possible;
fragrant and subtly flavored.
She also tackles the larger issues—sex, religion, death—head-on. But she still stays within the realm of the known. She writes about the comfortable, familiar sex of a long married couple. She examines religion from her perspective as a puzzled atheist. And death is not some abstraction to her, it is her sister, who died far too young, and the baby she lost to a miscarriage.
When she tackles these topics, she produces some of her finest, most powerful poetry. In “Nothing from Zborov” she writes about her father’s childhood in Poland:
“We were poor,” he says,
looking past me,
“so poor you can’t imagine.”
All this time I worried he was in danger of forgetting.
All this time he was afraid he might remember.
Through it all, Mintzer’s language is direct and controlled. While not elaborate, she is deliberate in her use and placement of every word.
It has become a cliché to say that poetry is all around us, one just has to find it. Natural Selections proves that is true.
—G. Murray Thomas
Book by Don Kingfisher Campbell
Don Campbell also writes poetry of everyday life, but to much lesser effect than Mintzer.
Campbell is a hardworking mainstay of the SoCal poetry community. He hosts a weekly workshop/reading at the Catalina branch of the Pasadena Library. This includes the Emerging Urban Poets Workshop, which has nurtured many beginning poets over more than a decade. He publishes the San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, as well as many side publications. He has actively brought poets into SoCal schools for years.
Campbell is at least as energetic in his own poetry production. He is one of the most prolific poets I know, seemingly producing at least a poem every day. At times I, who am lucky to produce one haiku a month, feel jealous of his productivity. But after reading Campbell’s Classics, I’m not so jealous.
As I said, this is the poetry of everyday life. Perhaps Campbell is so prolific because, to him, everything that happens, every thought he has, is fodder for a poem. Unfortunately, he rarely takes it any further. Too many of these poems are flat statements of what happened, what he thought, rather than the open, evocative language which allows poetic meaning into the poem. And then, in case we missed the point that what happened was poetic, he often ends his poems with some variation of “So I wrote a poem about it.”
When Campbell does have a specific point he wants to make, as in his political poems, he is much more likely to hit us over the head with it than to let it develop organically in the poem.
Of course, sometimes what is in front of us is sufficient. Campbell’s best poems are often simple descriptions, when he doesn’t try to force the “poeticness” of what he sees on us:
AFTER A WET NIGHT
with green light
and limbs stretch
above the warming street
even brick walls
in parking lots
have glistening weeds
He certainly can write a love poem, one which might seem a bit (or a lot) sappy to the average reader, but which probably made his intended swoon. He also has a number of quite tender poems about his daughter.
And he does have a way with metaphor. Perhaps too much of a way, some of the poems here are merely strings of metaphors, aiming for some sort of metaphor overkill. (And don’t get me started on his sexual metaphors.)
My mind can be as blank as a TV screen
My mouth can be as silent as a speaker
My heart can be opened like a screen door
My emotion can be a burned-out fireplace log
My eyes can be breeze-filled trees
My soul is a little yellow flower
My optimism can be a chess set on a coffeetable
The problem with most of Campbell’s poems is that the language is too pedestrian; the meaning just lies on the surface. Great poetry comes when the language of the poem opens it up, leaves room for depths of meaning.
Many of these read as ideas for poems, rather than fully formed works. If Campbell really does write a poem every day, I have to wonder if he spends more than a day on any given poem. Perhaps if he took a little more time with his ideas, looked a little deeper for their poetic essences, and found just the right words to express that, rather than just giving us a flat description of what happened.
Campbell is capable of producing such poems. There are a few fine pieces here. Take “Sol”:
Sunlit brown field
Light drawing lines on nearby twigs
in the distance, the gentle rustle
of tall trees
Smell fresh fruit
Manure mixed with dirt
Smoke rising from the temple on the hill
I reach to touch
the warm branches of the mandarin
that crouches with me behind a wall
Pull a globe down
to taste the storage
I don’t feel the need to visit
a priest anymore
I have the sun
Now that’s a poem (I especially like “taste the storage/ of morning”). If Campbell expressed all his ideas that subtly, he’d produce some powerful poems.
—G. Murray Thomas
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