Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 11/09

Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

November 2009

By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor

Book by Paul Kareem Tayyar
Tebot Bach Press (www.tebotbach.org)

It is a cliche that you can’t write a good poem about happiness. Like most cliches, this is based on the truth. Most happy poems turn unbearably sappy. Yet Paul Kareem Tayyar has written not just one good happy poem, but a whole book of them. How does he do it?

Tayyar succeeds in this mission by focusing on the things which make him happy, not on the emotion itself. Only occasionally does he even say these things make him happy, he just lets the objects of the poems speak for themselves:




I sit upon my rooftop,
Watching mothers call their children early home to dinner,
It is dark outside and they’re only an hour home from school,
I watch as the chimneys begin to do their winter’s work,
The headlights of the local cars burning like a thousand little moons.
(“Town Poem”)

He likes to sleep in the basket between your knees,
There are days when I come home to find the two
Of you lost in the quiet dreams of an evening nap,
The windows open, the curtains dancing like
Cotton ballerinas, the music from the bedside radio
Playing the songs I often hear you singing in the shower.
(“The Two of You”)

As might be expected, many of these poems focus on memories, whether of his obviously happy childhood and loving parents, or of his courtship and eventual marriage. Even incidents which might not have been so pleasant at the time they happened are remembered fondly. “Fountain Valley Bullit,” for example, recalls a car ride with his farther which was terrifying at the time, yet is now presented with affection. Other memories are written almost as jokes, amusing anecdotes from his past where the last line serves as a punchline.

Inevitably there are a few poems here which slip over into sentimentality. In “Tales of a Suburban Dreamer” he writes:

...I am still willing, after
All of these years, to believe she and
I are only in early years of a love
That will span not only this, but several
Other, worlds before it is done.

Luckily these poems are few and far between. For the most part, Tayyar walks the tightrope between moving and maudlin carefully.

Not all of the poems here are happy ones. Tayyar does cover such issues as homelessness, wars, political repression, and the trials of the immigrant. But even in these poems the overall tone is of optimism and hope. A prime example of this, a poem which treats a negative subject in a positive way, is “Her First Trip to America, After a Lifetime in Iran”:

My grandmother
Couldn’t speak any English
But when
We got to the sea
With all the young girls
In blue bikinis
Children playing football
On the sand
And not an armed soldier
In sight

I knew exactly
What she was saying to my father
Her smile
Wider than the ocean that
Had made her

Tayyar’s writing style is direct and straight forward. It is precise, but not overly poetic. The poems are realistic and detailed.

One problem I do have is an overuse of enjambment. Line breaks such as “People you had grown up with/ Were dying, which meant that/ Your laughter came at a cost” (“When I Was a Child”) or “the curtains of their hair pulled/ Back, undone, quiet as the wind he rode, singing like the/ Choir of his joy,” (“Child Moon”) do not add to the meaning of the poems. Instead, they disrupt its reading. These abound throughout the book.

But this is a minor quibble. Overall, this is an interesting and moving collection of poems which prove that depression and angst are not the only emotions suitable to poetry.

—G. Murray Thomas

Novel by Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster

I’ll be honest. I might not have noticed Tayyar’s overuse of enjambment had I not recently read this novel by Nicholson Baker (author of Vox and Human Smoke).

The Anthologist is a strange book (but then, aren’t all of Baker’s books?), a commentary on poetry disguised as a novel (or is it vice versa?). It tells the story of one Paul Chowder, who is supposed to be editing an anthology of rhyming poetry, but is too distracted by his separation from his wife to complete the introduction. Along the way, he has a lot to say about poetry.

My impression is that Baker really wanted to write a book of poetry commentary,  but decided that wouldn’t sell, so he tacked on a flimsy plot and called it a novel. The problem is that, at least to this poet, his comments on poetry are more interesting than his protagonist/narrator, pining after his ex-wife.

He has some things to say about rhyming poetry, though not as much as might be expected. He does assert that rhyme fell out of favor because Swinbourne used up all the good rhymes in English, an entertaining proposition.

More interesting are his comments about meter. Meter seems to be what really interests him in poetry. He claims that every line has (or should have) an extra, silent but accented beat at the end of the line. This leads directly into a rant against the overuse of enjambment (which eliminates that extra beat). After reading this, I suddenly saw unnecessary enjambment everywhere, including Tayyar’s book.

The Anthologist is also a good portrait of writer’s block. It’s not so much an analysis of its causes, although there is some of that. It is more a description of its manifestation, all the tools and tricks a writer uses to avoid writing: finding the exact right place to write, tasks that need to be done first, and so on.

In the end, I think Baker might have been better off just writing his book of poetry commentary. This book is still going to appeal primarily to writers, and the novelistic parts of it do not add substantially to that appeal.

—G. Murray Thomas

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