Poetry for Southern California
THE SAVAGERY OF BONE
Book by Timothy Matthew Perez
Moon Tide Press (www.moontidepress.com)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas
The Savagery of Bone is a complex and compassionate portrait of a difficult man—the poet’s father. Rather than trying to capture his essence in a poem or two, Perez takes an entire book to present the various facets of his personality.
The story unfolds slowly, as different pieces are added poem by poem. The first poem, “Father’s Dreams,” outlines a lifetime of resentments. It opens, “My father dreams of fights with all who wronged him” and goes on to give glimpses of some of those people and situations. The details of each emerge gradually through the book.
The early poems, like “Dirty Work,” “Strawberries, Cabbage, Celery and Rain,” and “Water Pump,” describe a life of physical labor, working on irrigation systems. At times, supporting his family is the only way he has of loving them: “Father calls, opts for the double shift instead of Back/ to School Night” (“watching cartoons”).
This poem also introduces the next theme of the book—Perez’s missing mother: “[he] asks if Mom called. I pretend for him—yes.” The next four poems elaborate on this part of the story.
mother is a prospector; she dug long
ago, hitting pay dirt—a used car dealer
with a sailboat.
she hijacked him from a wife and kids.
she left father behind to help me define
a grief my tongue didn’t know
the shape of.
and whenever I asked father where
mother went he took his index finger,
and would jam it into air
there. there. there. there.
(“there should have been flowers”)
But all this is just set up for the meat of the story, which has been simmering underneath all along. His father is a Vietnam vet, still very much haunted by his experiences there. Perez demonstrates a deep understanding of the workings of PTSD, both its subtle and its obvious qualities. The poem “Sidearm” presents one of the stories which are responsible. In “the secret of monsters”, he describes the general outline of it: “Father, you never talk about it—/ the horror show you hold/ in the wrinkles of your throat.” In that same poem, he also gives us its manifestation:
Father, I learned about death the nights you woke
screaming, slashing your blood-rusted blade
into autumn air only to whisper friend or foe
after it would’ve been too late.
Inevitably, “the wife grew cold and tired toward/ his 1000 yard stares” (“going the way of the dodo”). In this way, the PTSD actually reverberates throughout the book, even though it is not explored until the second half. The Savagery of Bones is almost like a mystery story. Once the mystery is revealed, you can go back through the book and realize that it was there all along.
Throughout the book, Perez’s language is direct, conversational. He realizes that he does not need elaborate language to tell this story. He just needs honesty. The basic details are enough. He uses words to cut down to those basics, not decorate them.
A book like this can’t really have a happy ending, but Perez at least finds reason to hope. For himself, if not for his father. In “to keep awake wondering,” he writes, “we cannot write our beginning,/ but we can forge our own ending.”
WHAT WERE THEY LIKE?
Book by Julia Stein
CC Marimbo (www.ccmarimbo.com)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas
What Were They Like? by Julia Stein, demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of political poetry. On the one hand, poetry can provide a powerful forum for presenting a political message. At the same time, too often the politics overwhelm the poetry; the message becomes more important than the language.
As its title implies, What Were They Like? depicts the real people affected by war, primarily the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stein’s primary concern is Iraqi civilians, although she also includes American soldiers and their families, war protesters, and a variety of other characters. She gives sharp portraits of how the war affects each.
Stein can certainly write a powerful poem. “Dear Joe” presents a series of letters to a soldier, listing all the activities the writer will do with him when he returns; the poem’s impact derives from each stanza being addressed to a different country (Kuwait, Iraq, Korea, etc.), demonstrating at once how far-flung our army is spread today, and how many wars we have been involved in in recent decades. “Muhammed and the White Roses” shows how war has constricted the life of a simple flower merchant. One of the most poignant poems in the book is “Before the War,” which gives a sharp picture of life in Iraq before.
But too often the poems acquire their power through flat statements, rather than poetic language. This is especially true in the final lines with which she closes many of her poems. Too often they end with a line which punches the gut without engaging the imagination. “A cruise missile left her/ paralyzed on half of her body.” (“I Wanted to Believe”); “I ask Congress to stop the destruction of this city.” (“Do I look like a Sumerian goddess”); “she wants to send money to stop the war” (“My Mama Remembers”).
A closer look at the poem “Sleep Well, Baby Boy” will help make this point. The final two stanzas read:
When the army sent him home his ghost followed him.
He clung to his wife; didn’t want to go out.
Once he punched himself giving himself a black eye.
Once he punched his wife, then overcame with remorse.
Once he practiced putting a rifle in his mouth,
his ghost telling him to do it.
He stood predawn winter in the park where he had been married,
smoked a cigarette, finally listened to his ghost
when he pulled the trigger.
The final line here is completely unnecessary. We know what she means. It actually weakens the poem by removing the reader’s imagination. One of the reasons “Before the War” is a powerful poem is that she doesn’t tie it up with a final line like that, she trusts us to understand what happens next.
What Were They Like? delivers a powerful anti-war message. Stein succeeds in her goal of showing the lives of average people swept up in the horror of war. But I’m sad to say it rarely rises to the level of great poetry in the process. Regular readers of my reviews know I like my poetry open-ended. I like to discover meaning in the poems I read, not be slapped in the face with it. Poetry is such a perfect format for expressing ambiguity that, to be honest, I feel cheated when a poet does less with it.
AMNESIA AND WINGS
Book by Larry Colker
Tebot Bach (www.tebotbach.org)
Reviewed by Eric Morago
Larry Colker’s first full-length collection of poems, Amnesia and Wings, published by Tebot Bach, is an absolute gift to its readers—boldly quiet, romantically reflective, and sharply honest. It is that reclusive old neighbor who one day, when you knock on their door asking a small favor of, starts sharing their stories with you—hours later you find yourself transfixed and transformed by every tale. This book is the punch you didn’t see coming, the earthquake Los Angeles was warned about, and the complete stranger who becomes the lover you never forget. Colker choreographs a perfect slow dance between heart and nostalgia with poems that fearlessly explore past passions and lost love—showing the reader there is a distinct beauty in remembering.
The first poem in the book, “Crossing Over (Exhibit #204)” is an interesting choice to begin his collection with, but fitting. In it, the speaker comes to a “strange land,” a museum dedicated to the life of “Larry Colker” with an assortment of memories encased in glass displays. The poem’s title hints this is that ethereal moment before death, and Colker creates a fresh spin on the all too familiar life-flashing-before-one’s-eyes scenario. It would seem to make more sense for a poem like this to be placed later in the book; however, by starting with it Colker sets the collection’s tone—preparing the reader for an impassioned and insightful journey of reflection. We also become familiar here with his use of language, discovering how it’s precise without being too direct:
There is not enough heat in this place,
and I can’t get used to everything turning gray—
buildings, food, flowers, hands, eyes.
Music gets harder to hear.
This stanza is a beautiful example of one of Colker’s greatest strengths as a writer—his ability to craft lines that both provide and imply meaning. The lines, “There is not enough heat…” and “Music gets harder to hear.” work to create context, but also suggest such longing that the reader cannot help but imagine the very same ache in their bones. Colker is a master at making the reader feel—not just think—over his words. The poem ends with an exquisitely haunting image of a small child crying over what he has seen in the museum—the life put on display in front of him—and he looks to his parents and asks, “if they can go home now.” This final line is a swell of subtext; I find myself asking if “home” is the other side, if the small child is the disappointed-self of the speaker, and ultimately if there is any hope to be had in memory?
Colker does well to never answer this question outright throughout Amnesia and Wings, but gives the reader more than enough to come to their own conclusions. Many of his poems address the loss of love with a sense of acceptance, rather than regret. One of my favorites is “Transgression” wherein the speaker and his wife host a colleague and his date (a high school student) for dinner and find themselves coveting that which the unconventional couple has—passion. The speaker confesses:
Our thoughts are elsewhere, though. Oh, John, I think,
you lucky bastard, while my wife, I’m sure,
is thinking how hard Lisa’s heart is beating.
Colker’s narratives are quiet introspections that speak volumes; there is a restraint to his language that serves to make the emotion behind the line more honest, more effective. He’s also unafraid to allow the speakers of his poems to appear flawed, responsible for their own pain. The last two lines of “Transgression” read like an admission of fault:
That night my wife and I do not embrace,
and dream of breaking one another’s heart.
In “The Caterpillars,” Colker expands on the theme of a broken marriage and finds apt metaphor in a larvae’s transformation into butterfly. While the transformative comparison to a butterfly is nothing new in literature, it is Colker’s association of ‘amnesia’ to the creature’s rebirth that is unexpected and curious. Colker proves with this poem, as well as others, that he’s skillful when it comes to employing surprising metaphor, engaging the reader with new ways of reflection. This poem, however, differs in its tone from “Transgression” in that the speaker longs for forgetting. He wants his “memories of crawling [to] vanish,” and by the poem’s end becomes painstakingly wishful:
When the woman I married woke up
next to the wrong man,
that was my signal
to become inert,
I want to be great,
I want the caterpillar’s gift to the butterfly—
amnesia, and wings.
The final line here is where the collection pulls its title from, and it provokes thought—is memory too painfully grounding?
I’d argue no, that the act of remembering brings about its own freedom—be it from acceptance of past transgressions, or wonderment over life’s more miraculous moments. In the poem, “Legend,” Colker conveys the latter of the two exquisitely with his narrative of an older man who befriends a beautiful girl swimming at the Y. When the girl tells the speaker that she’s unhappy in her marriage—afraid except when swimming—he tells her the legend of the selkie: a seal-woman who can become entrapped in marriage if a man steals her skin when she takes human form at night. Colker intertwines the myth of the selkie with the girl’s narrative effortlessly and through the speaker’s recounting of the legend we see just how much he dotes on her. “What if you started now to believe in what you are?” Colker writes before his speaker confesses if she were to do this he knows he’d lose her. When we find in the final stanza that she’s taken the speaker’s advice—has found her skin and been released—Colker presents to us just how important such a memory is:
My friends think I am crazy to believe this selkie stuff.
That’s not the point: enchantment, even for a day,
can make a whole life bearable. I have proof enough.
“Legend,” like many of the collections’ poems, does not give answer—only works to provide possibility, for the reader to interpret how they will.
That is why Amnesia and Wings thrives; Colker has compiled a collection of finely crafted poems that guide a reader through its themes, rather than dictate the direction we take in our interpretation. The end result is a book that invites rereading, awarding us with new discoveries each time. What I took from it may be different than how you see it, but there’s no argument that Larry Colker is a poet who knows how to give the reader something to chew on. Amnesia and Wings is a necessary book of lesson and love, learning and longing—but most importantly it is so full of heart that it’s hard not to hear Larry Colker’s own soft pulse beat from its pages when tucked away on your bookshelf.
(Editor's note: Yes, Larry Colker is our webmaster. However, I feel that this review is an objective take on his book, not at all influenced by his being a part of Poetix. Also, I agree with the reviewer that this is an amazing book which deserves a large audience. GMT)