Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 10/08


Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

October 2008

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...

Book by Nancy Shiffrin
World Wide Association of Writers

Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

The Vast Unknowing collects a wide spectrum of poetry from Nancy Shiffrin, written over the past 25 years. There is not much clue as the which poems are older and which newer, but that doesn’t really affect the power of this collection. The poems range from simple to quite complex, and cover a variety of topics. Many of the poems concern themselves with family and religion, but she also writes about nature, fairy tales, poetry and the ultimate nature of ourselves and reality

The poems develop in sequence, from relatively basic to much more complex. They also develop thematically, from nature, through society and family, to the deeper questions of death, evil and ultimate meaning.

But Shiffrin doesn’t just proceed from topic to topic, she layers them. After each topic is introduced, it reappears in subsequent poems. So nature, Biblical stories and family relationships build on each other to develop an understanding of, say, the nature of evil (as in “Grief” p. 87 and “Survival” p. 89). In this way, Shiffrin is able to steadily increase the depth of her poems, and to tackle the large questions of human existence.

One of her main questions is, Who are we? What made us that person? She explores a number of sources of our identity, including (by not limited to) family relationships, religion, and the stories we are told when we are young.

Shiffrin has a couple of repeated stylistic techniques, which fit the goals of her poetry, yet have their own (occasional) problems. Shiffrin's poetry is pruned to its barest, most basic language. This often includes trimming most of the articles. This style does fit her intent, which is to get to the basic, essential meanings of life, but at times the effect is choppy and disorienting: “commands/ limb fly  tissue stain tree leaf fluid fertilize earth” (“Snow White”  p. 25).

More problematic is Shiffrin’s habit of including specific details from her personal life, often without any background to them. Some of the time the reader can discern their importance, but at other times the references are too obscure for us to divine the meaning. She also has a tendency to leap from place to place, time to time, topic to topic within a single poem. And at times she leaps from some clear, external observation onto one of those obscure, personal details, and the reader gets lost.

Still, such leaps are often essential to great poetry, or at least poetry larger than a single idea. Many of her leaps do work wonderfully. They are key to her ability to bring disparate elements, the various layers of her poetry, together to illuminate her larger ideas. Take the poem “My Shoah,” here in its entirety:

          MY SHOAH

          Second Cousin Michael just escaped
          from a camp where people take showers in ovens
          he hid in a Black Forest then waited in another camp
          where everyone was cold and hungry
          food sticks to his beard  his hands tremble
          Bobbe strokes a picture
          of Uncle Davy who died in the War
          when the Germans blew up his submarine
          she bursts into tears
          Zeyde says “shush Die Kinder!”
          Cousin Howie and I go into another room
          he says “I went to camp last year
          and had to take a shower every night
          I didn’t like it but I didn’t run away”
          I say I don’t think they mean the same kind of camp

          women in line waiting for showers
          with mutilated wombs monsters implanted
          some refused to be prostitutes
          the old woman I feed and bathe
          gives me a baby’s trusting smile
          I want to bake chollah  cannot chant over candles
          a thousand women queue up behind my oven
          yeasty dough leaks out
          “i’m hungry!”  a child bursts in
          I turn on the stove  cannot strike the match
          solace of singed eyebrows

          those burning blocks of ice
          guards throw bodies in
          some still blowing tiny smoke rings
          the radiator rattles  water freezes in pipes
          I huddle under blankets  the phone rigs
          “girl! get yourself down to this movie!”
          winds whips off the river rounds the corner
          I skid on ice reach out his hand heats mine
          “blue eyes” he snarls at bums lounging on screen
          “they all have blue eyes  you have blue eyes!
          girl! what you doin’ here wit’ me?
          you could have been anything! anything!”

          I pull my sweater tight
          in the platinum afternoon  sun searing chaparral
          I know how swiftly the temperature drops

Here Shiffrin pulls together many of her disparate threads—family, religion, the evil of the world and details from her personal history—and makes them work together. When she is at her best, as in this poem, Shiffrin produces deep, powerful poetry. Luckily, she is at her best more often than not in this deep, expansive book.

Chapbook by Radomir Luza
Dancing Sprite Publications (http://ollav.com/radluza)

Chapbook by Radomir Luza and Don Kingfisher Campbell
Dancing Sprite Publications

Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

I don’t really know how to review 7th Life. How do you review a chapbook which reads like one long suicide note? I’m not just referring to the repeated references to the topic: “Turned on the oven and almost Sylvia Plathed” (“This Trembling Town” p. 3), “I shouldn’t think about hanging myself, but I do” (“Never Belonged” p. 10), and “I think of suicide tonight again” (“They Take” p. 25), to list just a few. These are all very depressed poems, about mental illness, debt, rejection and not fitting in. They even look like suicide notes, slapped on the pages at random angles. I find myself afraid that, if I don’t praise this book effusively, this review could be the final straw for Luza. And while I can praise some of this book, I cannot do it effusively.

This is poetry as therapy. There’s nothing wrong with that; plenty of my poet friends claim that poetry keeps them sane, or at least enables them to get through the day. I would imagine that Luza would echo that sentiment. But poetry as therapy does not always produce poetry as art. Poetry as art takes a lot more effort, and focus. If Luza wants his poetry taken as art (and the fact that he has published these chapbooks indicates that he does), he needs to put in that effort and focus. Some of these poems already stand as art, but many more need the extra work.

Luza’s poetry obviously means a lot to him. There’s a poem called “Poetry Is All I Have.” Another one (“Little Phone”) describes almost losing his journal, and what a tragedy that would have been. Unluckily, it doesn’t say much more than that. It’s a journal entry about losing his journal.

That’s one of the problems with this book. Many of the poems read like journal entries. While I believe there is poetry in every moment, I do not believe that recording every moment makes it a poem. There are poems about buying a car, sitting in the Social Services office, sitting in the Social Security Office (a very different office), hanging out in Carmel, and so on, and they all feel like they were transcribed directly from his journal to the chapbook. There isn’t that extra push that would make them poems. If Luza aspires to poetry as art, he needs to make his poetry mean something to us, not just to him.

The thing is, Luza has a definite poetic talent. There are pieces here I consider fully formed poems, such as “If I Can Make It Back Home by Noon” (p. 14), “43rd St.” (p. 20), “The That” (p. 24) and “Out Here” (p, 29). And there is only a shade of difference between these poems and the weaker pieces. These poems also take a specific occurrence (a journal entry), but they work with it, find its deeper meaning, or at least find original language to express it in. The starting point is the same, the end result is elevated.

And Luza certainly can deliver an original line:

     “This utter exclamation of neon and never, blankets and blenders, onions and oreos” (“7th Life” p. 2)
     “The heavens will unfold like blankets/ And start to make sense” (“If I Can Make It Back Home By Noon” p. 14)
     “Over there the moon gazes and glazes donuts of freeway lemonade and Fahrenheit tans” (“SD” p. 15)

The problem is, he often follows a great line with a mundane one. The following examples are all taken from the same poems quoted above:

     “And the end always seems like some kind of beginning, some sort of middle that never Finds its momentum, its very veracity” (“7th Life” p. 2)
     “The dream in my brain will become that reality” (“If I Can Make It Back Home By Noon” p. 14)
     “While I an artist misinformed and undiscovered toil on the 7th floor of the Horton Plaza parking structure writing poems in my car because your Downtown is too expensive and your dogs have learned to bite” (“SD” p. 15)

My advice to Mr. Luza is this: if you want your poetry taken seriously as art, edit and rewrite. If you’re already editing and rewriting, do more of it. Search for those deeper meanings, and that original language. You have the talent to produce some fine poems, but you needs to focus and hone that talent to produce them consistently.

Oh, and please line up your poems neatly on the page.

Everything I say about Luza’s poetry in 7th Life is confirmed by his selections in To The Nines, a chapbook he co-authored with Don Kingfisher Campbell. Here somebody obviously selected a handful of Luza’s poems. I don’t know whether it was Luza himself, Campbell, or even a third party, but the selection makes all the difference. These are real poems, with something more to say than just journal entries.

There are many of the same themes of loss and depression as in 7th Life, but here they are harnessed to a poetic muse. Luza also finds focus by writing about specific people (Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer) and places (Vienna, MacArthur Park).

Campbell has, apparently, much less inner turmoil to work through in his poetry. His poems here are, for the most part, light-hearted takes on specific subjects—sex, poetry, French toast, growing a beard. He does tackle some larger social issues—the L.A. riots, the contributions of Latinos to our cultures, the ways we perceive (and misperceive) each other—but even here his touch his light, his outlook hopeful.

My main disappointment with To The Nines is that the poems seem only tentatively connected to each other. Dual chapbooks like this are a wonderful way to establish a poetic dialogue. But I don’t detect a real dialogue here, so much a two children clamoring for my attention. There is some minor exchange of ideas, but the threads are thin, and no overarching theme is developed. It works as a sampler of two poets, but not really as a coherent collection.

CD by Larissa Shmailo
Song Crew (www.songcrew.com)

Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

Larissa Shmailo does not think small. On Exorcism, she is trying to do nothing less than exorcise the demons of human evil.

Exorcism starts with “Vow”: “We will love like dogwood/ Kiss like cranes/ Die like moths/ I promise.” Then she launches into “Warsaw Ghetto”:

          I am the Warsaw Ghetto
          I am the Underground Railroad
          I am a hero
          I am the people who sang songs
          who said the Lord’s Prayer and the Shma Israel
          as the Nazis lead them to the gas chamber.

I usually have trouble with poems of this sort, which place some personal claim on the suffering of all mankind, but Shmailo pulls it off with her conclusions:

          In the ghetto, in the sewers,
          there is a record,  a diary like mine
          of people who loved
          of people who fought and won
          no matter what anyone says.

This poem is also necessary to the theme of the CD, as it introduces both the evil of the world, and the power which may rescue us. “Don’t tell me there is no god,” Shmailo says, “Who else helped me?/ It wasn’t you.”

Over most of the rest of the CD, Shmailo explores the nature of the spirit world, and its power over us. She draws on a variety of religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism) and their universal belief in such a world, independent of our material existence. Poems such as “How to Meet and Dance with Your Death,” “Skin” (“Skin is just sausage we call home”), and “Bhakti” (“You will be my body, never returning”) all delineate aspects of this spirit world. Also fitting in this theme are two poems she covers, Anna Akhmatova’s “Dante” and Joseph Brodsky’s “New Life 2.” In all of these poems, she asserts that there are forces beyond our material lives which are able to influence, guide and, yes, redeem us.

She concludes the CD with the title track, an attempt to exorcise one specific evil, the massacre of My Lai, through a recitation of its details, and, by implication, calling on this spirit world.

While this is the overarching theme of the Exorcism (and it is, for the most part, a powerful and effective theme), it is not all that is going on on this CD. There are a number of individually powerful poems here, such as “The Gospel According to Magdalene,” “Bloom,” and “Abortion Hallucination.” They all fit, some tightly, some loosely, into the larger theme, but also stand well on their own.

Although, in the end, I’m not sure if Shmailo has convinced me. I’m not sure I can accept her ultimate optimism. I’d like to believe in a larger spirit, capable of redeeming us, capable of removing our evil, but my agnosticism wins out. I’m just not sure it’s possible.

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