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...
Disclaimer: I know all the writers I am reviewing this month. Not only do I know them, I consider them all good friends. Good enough friends that I will readily admit I cannot be totally objective about their writing. (One question does arise here—do I consider them great writers because they are my friends, or did they become my friends, at least in part, because they are great writers?)
So I find myself in an uncomfortable position. Three good friends have produced three great pieces of writing, and the normal standards of book reviewing say I can’t tell you about them.
Screw that. I’m going to tell you about them anyway. You can either believe me about how good these two books and a CD are, and go buy them immediately. Or you can ignore me because of my bias in this matter, and miss out. Your choice.
Book by Rachel Kann
Yes, I am jealous of Rachel Kann. For years I have moved, sometimes easily, sometimes uneasily, between writing poetry and writing fiction. But I always have, deep down, considered myself a fiction writer. So I had no problem with Rachel being a better poet than I was—poetry was not my “strength.”
Then Rachel decided to “try her hand” at fiction, and Bam! Out of the gate she produces a book far better than any fiction I have managed to write in forty years of trying.
Rachel gets it all down. Her dialogue is realistic. She can nail a character in a gesture, a comment, or an article of clothing. And, most important (especially in this day of uneventful short stories), her stories are interesting. They snag you with the opening paragraph, and keep you snagged.
Rachel’s great strength is understanding human relations, especially the emotional games we play. The games we play to protect our emotions, which end up isolating us farther. In “Angle of Repose,” the two characters are obviously attracted to each other, but neither is willing to take the first step, for that would make them the weaker one in the relationship, the one to fall in love first. In the end, all their struggles come to naught, for they both fall in love, without establishing a basis to begin a relationship.
Rachel never loses sight of the fact that we really play these games out of a sense of weakness, not strength. Even the total asshole in “Do It All the Time,” (the one who says, “The more insecure a girl is, the more tail you get. Saves you a grip of loot, an unexpected side benefit.”) plays his games because he can never undo the mistakes of his past.
In fact, it is this understanding which makes Rachel’s stories so interesting. In a couple of her stories (“The Historian” and “Disappearing”) she uses surreal and/or supernatural plot devices to get the stories going. But even these stories remain interesting not because of the fantastic touches, but because of how they affect the characters interaction. Rachel seems far more interested in that interaction than her plot devices.
For example, “The Historian” is about a young man who can see the future. But the best part of the story is her depiction of an exchange between a Kinko’s counterman and a 3 a.m. customer, which rings hilariously true to anyone who has patronized Kinko’s at that hour.
Most of the stories in 10 For Everything deal with more “mundane” topics. But Rachel’s writing, and her understanding, are so strong that her descriptions of the ways we hook up, or don’t, and break up, or don’t, are more interesting than a boy who can predict the future.
Buy this book. You won’t be sorry.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING
CD by Steve Ramirez
At first listen, Steve Ramirez’s Night of the Living struck me as a sampler, offering up the various styles of poetry Steve is capable of. There’s a poem about poetry, a poem about food, a poem about travel, and a poem about a dysfunctional family. There are also two poems based on mythology, one ancient (Orpheus) and one modern (The Fantastic Four).
I also call it a sampler because I’m familiar with Steve’s work, and I know this to be just a fraction of what he’s written. (He has an entire series of poems about superheroes.) In fact, this is a just a fraction of the great poetry he’s written; many of my favorite Ramirez poems are not here.
But calling the CD a “sampler” implies a certain randomness. On closer listening I soon found a theme running through most of the poems on the CD (except, admittedly, for the “Ode to a Brownie,’ which is nothing more or less than it claims to be). Like Rachel, Steve is concerned with how we humans fail to communicate. Steve does spend less time than Rachel analyzing why we don’t communicate; his interest is more in the how:
When she joined conversations,
all she added were commas and quotation marks,
planted along a field of periods,
waiting for the drought of her tears to end.
She tried learning sign language
but all she could spell was a fist...
(“Black Canary in a Coal Mine”)
Your kiss reminds me of being born
because I don’t remember it at all.
It must’ve happened, because here I am;
and there you are with a post-prom-date-mistake frown on your face.
(“The Unbearable Torchiness of Being”)
The other thing which links these poems is the confidence of Steve’s delivery. He is sure of what he has to say, and (perhaps ironically) of his ability to communicate it. This comes, no doubt, from years of performing his poetry publicly.
Steve himself did an excellent job on the production of this CD. The musical backing is just enough to add color to the poems without ever overwhelming them. My only complaint about the production is that I found the Zombie news stories in “Night of the Living” to be superfluous. I’ve seen Steve perform this poem a number of times, and it makes its point—that the true horror stories are found in “normal” households—just fine without the effects.
Sampler or not, Night of the Living does a great job of introducing Steve Ramirez and his poetry. And I happen to know there is much more where it came from.
KINDNESS FROM A DARK GOD
Book by Ben Trigg
Moon Tide Press
Ben Trigg loves the cover of his book. I know because I’ve heard him say so a number of times. I can see why. It’s a simple but dramatic picture of a frail woman offering a flower to a hideous dark beast. It’s a beautiful cover, and quite fitting for Ben’s poems.
The irony is that what the cover depicts is not “kindness from a dark god,” but kindness towards a dark god. But it does contain the hope that the dark god will return that kindness. That is, after all, the only way to rescue humanity from the various dark gods of our world: by offering kindness first.
The dark god in Ben’s poetry is the basic cruelty, prejudice and misunderstandings of mankind. Again and again, Ben meets that darkness with kindness. Ben consistently holds out hope that the world not only could be a better place, but will. That we will treat each other with kindness and understanding.
Much of Ben’s poetry concerns the search for love in a cold world. Although Ben often presents himself as unable to find that love, his poetry has a deep, underlying humanity that proves him to be deserving.
Ben’s poems are much like Ben himself, subtle, unprepossessing, yet holding a deep humanity inside. Not to mention a great sense of humor. His poetry is a poetry of economy; he writes short poems that know what they want to say, and don’t waste time getting there.
When Ben hits his target, his poems are quite powerful. Like “Ritual” (p.44): “I wasn’t important enough/ to keep her car on the road.” Or “Spelling Lessons” (p. 16), here in its entirety:
Your name is in every poem I write.
Sometimes it is spelled “orange,”
sometimes “new” or “found” or “hope.”
Once it was even spelled “thermodynamic.”
Spelling doesn’t matter,
it’s always you.
When I read so others can hear,
I flash a secret smile.
They hear a poem about rain and traffic
I read a poem about you.
To me, that is a perfect description of how poetry works.
However, Ben’s brevity doesn’t always work to his advantage. In some poems, such as “Frank and Joe” (p. 34), it does feel like Ben should have pushed a little harder, that the poem, in its brevity, takes the easy way out.
And I must say I found the “Poker Poems” unsatisfying. They read too much like what they are, writing exercises which fail to cohere into a meaningful poem.
Like Rachel and Steve, Ben writes about the inability of people to connect. He often writes specifically from a first person perspective, a personal awareness of his inability to connect with someone. But unlike the other two writers, who seem satisfied to describe the lack of connection, Ben does offer a solution. Which is to let down one’s guard and reach out.