Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 11/10

Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

November 2010

By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor and Eric Morago, Associate Reviewer

Book by Jean Barrett Holloway
Conflux Press

This World So Frail is subtitled “Kwajalein Poems.” The poems are based on Holloway’s childhood, especially the year her family lived on Kwajalein, one of the Marshall Islands. Her father, a Navy doctor, was assigned there in the mid-50’s. The poems reflect on her childhood, but they are very adult poems, revealing a mature understanding of events she could not fully comprehend at eight years old.

Take the poem “When the Shadows Run South and North,” which describes the family witnessing a nearby atomic test. Although Holloway maintains the perspective of a child, the horror of the event comes through:

Blackness, then bright light,
then bigger, the sun in the north.
In silence the shadows run back and forth
from the noon in the sky.
In silence your faces
are lit up with fusion, camera snapping its witness.

In seconds the shadows flood back.
You walk home without talking,
no sound but the crunch of your shoes on the coral.
Electric lights watch you
as you eat your breakfast
then stop as the thunder at last shakes your ground.

This poem also illustrates Holloway’s greatest strength, how she uses imagery to communicate ideas in her poetry. The poem is almost purely description; it leaves it to the reader to parse out not only the deeper meaning of the poem, but what is actually happening. She maintains this style throughout the book. She writes about family, history and the violence of human nature, but she always finds the telling image to make her point.

“Sunday Morning Inspection” compares soldiers, neatly lined up in white uniforms, to a bundle of pick-up sticks in her hand, orderly now, but ready at any moment to tumble into chaos. Likewise, “Running on Ebeye” uses a girls’ footrace to illustrate cultural differences, and “The Shark and Its Epilogue” shows the violence inherent in men with a tale of a captured shark:

The men cut the line and jump back.
He thrashes himself across the bloody deck
and over the side where the threads of his life
call his own kind to him.
the men in the air are stilled —
unable to look each other in the liquid eye
and so to find there swimming
that same ocean.

Man’s violent nature is a recurrent theme here. The book is much concerned with history, especially the wars of the middle of the past century. World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, the atomic tests, and the lingering effects of colonization are all covered here. However, these poems are balanced by tender poems about her family, especially her father. These themes come together in “The Dead,” which describes her father’s experiences as a doctor on shipboard during the battle over Kwajalein.

Occasionally, however, Holloway’s desire to make a point overwhelms her poetic instincts. This is mostly true in some her more environmental poems, such as “Requiem for the Stone Makers” and “No Longer Sacred”: “Acidity, clarity, temperature/ set limits/ to reefs.” It also comes up in the one stanza of “When The Shadows Run South and North” which leaves the perspective of the little girl: “The immediate fish/ and the birds are fried,/ intermediate sea life is cooked on one side.” In her effort to make sure the reader gets her point, she actually weakens what is an otherwise very powerful poem.

But these lapses are rare. Mostly Holloway manages to rely on her descriptions to carry the poems. This World So Frail is illustrated with childhood photos of the island and her family. However, her poems are so descriptive, the photos are almost unnecessary. We are already right there, we see the while sand, the blazing sun, the remnants of war. More important, we are right there in Holloway’s mind, both as she experiences these events as a child, and as she reflects on them in her maturity.

—G. Murray Thomas

Book by David G. Lanoue
Red Moon Press

Haiku Wars is a novel build on an interesting but risky concept — it incorporates poetry, in this case haiku, not only into its text, but into the plot. The plot involves a stolen manuscript at an international haiku conference. The conference is rife with tension, primarily because of differences in opinion about what forms a “proper” haiku.

This set-up allows Lanoue to discuss many aspects of the art of haiku, and to present many of the arguments going on in today’s world of haiku (although he places more emphasis on the current arguments in Japan — tradition vs. modernity — than those going on in the U.S. — primarily the value of the 5-7-5 form in English).

Along the way, Lanoue demonstrates his talent at haiku. He writes much the haiku in the book (some are his translations of classic Japanese haiku), which not only reflects the various ideas of what haiku can be, but also the different personalities of the characters. He fulfills both requirements quite well.

Early on he uses haiku composed by the protagonist (known only as Poet) to illustrate his emotional progress from heartbroken over a break-up (“on Memorial Day/ I remember/ her kiss” [for the sake of space, I will quote all haiku in a single line, with line breaks indicated; in the book they are presented as three line poems]) through reengagement with the world (“all fluffed up/ for his speech/ squirrel”) to reawakening desire (“teasing the strippers/ walking in/ walking out”).

Later on he uses different haiku to demonstrate the personalities, and talents, of the members of a haiku workshop Poet attends. He does the same thing at the conference which forms the meat of the story.

As I mentioned, he also illustrates various academic arguments in the haiku world through example. There’s a beginning haiku poet in the workshop still employing 5-7-5: “his dad is the coach/ for the little right fielder/ little league is hard,” which Poet reduces to: “the coach is dad/ little league/ is hard.” The arguments, and examples, get more extreme at the conference, whether arguing over the use of simile in haiku (using classic Japanese haiku as examples: “like colorful birds/ set free in the trees.../ blossoms”), or the even thornier questions of how abstract haiku can be. One of the attendees composes haiku which all contain the surreal image “tower of cellos.” For example, “war monument/ the tower of cellos/ collapses.”

Still, Lanoue is more concerned with the arguing than the arguments. Haiku Wars presents an amusing but accurate portrayal of the sort of arguments which arise in the poetry community (or in any relatively insulated group). Any resemblance to real poetry communities is, I’m sure, purely intentional. Although the book takes place in New Orleans, I’m sure SoCal readers will recognize familiar characters and situations in their own community.

Although the arguments are, on the surface, about questions of art and style, they are revealed to really be about power. Lanoue presents several examples. One is how the editor of the most prestigious haiku magazine has tremendous power over the other poets through his ability to accept or reject their work. In this way he effectively wins the arguments of style by publishing only those haiku which fit his notions of “proper” haiku. He also exercises his power in a particularly nasty manner, through sharply worded rejections. There is also the moderator of an online haiku discussion group, who bans participants who disagree with him. In both cases, what might be abstract arguments about style turn into personal vendettas.

In a risky move, Haiku Wars is narrated by a ferret. Normally I have problems with any book about humans narrated by an animal (which seems to be a popular trend right now) because the animal narrators usually seem too aware of human nature and motivations. That is definitely the case here (and there are some definite contortions necessary to place the ferret in the middle of all the action). However, the ferret’s awareness is explained right off the bat — he is really a bodhisattva come down to help Poet achieve his next step of enlightenment. You can either accept this concept (or perhaps conceit) or not; but it not only provides for an entertaining narrator, it also allows Lanoue to propose a solution to the petty quarrels the book chronicles.

Namely, we are all merely dreams in the mind of the Buddha, none of this really matters.

In the end, Haiku Wars is both entertaining and, yes, enlightening, about the nature of haiku, about the ultimate nature of life, and about the pettiness which often interferes with our enjoyment of either.

G. Murray Thomas

Personal Poems
Chapbook by Radomir Vojtech Luza
Poets on Site

It is never unusual for a poet to rely heavily on the personal, exploring their own life through metaphor in order to process the trials they have endured. If done well, the reader too can find a kindred spirit in that poet, and new means to understand the sometimes-cruel circumstances of the world. But if the poet falls short in their task, a personal poem can easily become so personal no one but the poet who wrote it can understand its meaning.

In Radomir Vojtech Luza’s collection of poems, aptly entitled Personal Poems, put out by Poets On Site, the speaker (who I can only imagine is in fact Luza himself, because of the title of the book and the epilogue concerning his father’s death) tries to reconcile feelings of loss, grief and nostalgia over such subjects as unrequited love and his relationship with his father surrounding the days before and after his passing.

By no means are love and death unfamiliar themes, but that does not make them any less worthy of a poet’s attention. They are powerful in their universality. The question is, however, does Luza do so in a way that is fresh and interesting while allowing the reader means to connect with the poet’s self-reflection?

My answer is—I don’t know. The collection of poems as a whole suffers from one crucial pitfall—a general lack of clarity—that time and time again serves to disconnect the reader from the work. While it is obvious that Luza writes with a genuine openness about his life with imagery grounded in honest emotion, too many syntactical and mechanical errors, as well as over-reaching metaphors, leave the reader lost. I don’t believe this to be the poet’s intention. It is clear that Luza has a deep yearning to share his personal experience with the reader, but unfortunately his questionable understanding of grammar does him and his poems a great disservice.

Stylistically the first thing one notices is Luza’s disregard for punctuation. Aesthetically I can understand why a poet may make this choice; however, it should be done only to serve the poem, never to detract from it. The absence of commas and periods in Luza’s writing only intensifies the confusion of his lines, which already suffer from syntactical mangling. Take for instance the following lines from the poem, “full moon over halloween:”

it would over power the dark like deserts do skies and rock and
rollers do time
the dark we must have or there would be no night no light no sky

Now it took me a few reads to make sense where one thought ended and the next began, and the phrase, “the dark we must have,” kept tripping me up because of its awkward subject verb arrangement. This occurs throughout the book. In lines from his poem “goodbye love goodbye” I am still confounded as to what exactly what the “dracula” simile means—unsure if it’s a continuation of a thought, or an entirely new one:

dark hairs on your bulbous forearms like dracula the blood in your
tear drop of seas
my decision was made my heart attacks agreed my purple beautiful
desert flower I know you no

Here is an instance where punctuation again would certainly help clarify the poet’s intended meaning. Without using any punctuation in these three lines to separate clauses, the verbs, “was” and “agreed,” can appear to be grammatically incorrect. It makes the reader work harder than they should to understand what Luza is trying to say.

As for his line breaks, I began to believe the long line/short line form Luza seemed to be utilizing was to aid in the separation of thought in lieu of punctuation, but soon found his use of enjambment was haphazard at best. Ultimately one is left reading a line without pause, and thus without any cues from the poet how to discern content.

I know these examples may seem arbitrary, almost like I nit-picked them from the collection, but I assure you that is not the case. There are an abundance of instances like these, along with many spelling mistakes and other typos. This is a concern of mine as a reader, because the moment I come across errors such as these I am automatically taken out of the poem and forced to correct grammar—becoming editor to it, rather than simply its audience. This leaves me asking an important question about this collection: Did these poems ever undergo any kind of revision? Were these errors made because the poet himself lacks understanding, or were they just the result of brash publishing?

Aside from his poems’ mechanical troubles, too many of Luza’s metaphors are too staggering for their own good. Yes, the success of a good metaphor is found in the poet’s ability to compare two dissimilar things—the strength of the metaphor being relational to the distance between that which is being compared. However, all too often Luza’s imagery is too far-reaching, creating incohesive metaphors that don’t allow the reader any better understanding of the emotions the poet is trying to process. An example of this can be found in the poem, “my colonel macaroni” in which Luza addresses his “sister cousin” (I’m already confused going in, because I do not understand what a “sister cousin” is):

majesty genius of gyrated jellyfish below the south pole of my
solitary soul to

hold you like family like a friend in a space reserved for ribald roses
wounded like your long hair

While the last two lines make some sense, the lines above them regarding the “majesty genius of gyrated jellyfish” are too abstract to allow the reader to grasp any concrete meaning.

Does meaning always matter? No, of course not. Sometimes a poem’s mood or tone can indeed convey the poet’s intent. However, Luza’s writing is already plagued with so much convoluted meaning from poor grammar, that his bizarre use of images does not always help his poetry.

But Luza is not without some redemption. Every so often his images do surprise, and he succeeds in pairing words together in startling moments of poetic flair. Some of my favorites in this collection are: “pirate of my heart,” “carnegie hall veins,” “burning down the mona lisa instead of its smile.” Luza also on occasion can end a poem with a profound punch, such as the last line in “close to close,” which reads: “god embraces good and bad poets the same.” Luza proves in these instances that he has a gift of thinking quite poetically and that his self-reflective journey is worth his writing about it, but my overall advice to him is that he needs to learn the art of proofreading and revising. Or at the very least, he should entrust a good editor to go over his work with him before his poems see print.

—Eric Morago

For the latest news about G. Murray Thomas, visit www.myspace.com/gmurraythomas. Now available: Paper Shredders, an anthology of surf writing. Order it from your favorite bookseller.

Eric Morago is the author of What We Ache For, published by Moon Tide Press. He teaches poetry workshops to at-risk youth and is the California Workforce Association’s Poet in Residence. Eric holds an MFA in Creative Writing from California State University, Long Beach.