Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 12/07


Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

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...

CD by Barbara Bullard

It is tempting to write about this CD from the obvious angle. Barbara Bullard is a blind poet, and she writes about that experience. Even those poems not directly about her blindness hint at it, with the use and emphasis of the other senses—smell, sound, touch.
It would not be wrong to write from that angle. Starting with the Braille on the CD cover, Bullard makes no secret of her blindness. She writes about it with a bracing honesty. “Just Once” rages against its deprivations. “Write Me the Stars” is at once painful and accepting of her condition. “As They Disappear” actually describes the advantages of fading eyesight:

Faces have no lines
no wrinkles
no scars...
Surprisingly, faces grow prettier
more perfect
not dull
as they disappear.

But it would be too easy to write just from that angle, and it would miss much of the beauty of this disc. This is sensual poetry in the truest sense of the word. These poems engage all the senses. To write of Bullard as a blind poet would imply that she describes those other senses so well only because she has lost her sight, a conclusion which denies her deep poetic talent.

“15 West Campbell Road,” a fully fleshed-out childhood memory, implies just the opposite. Its descriptions of the scents, the sounds, the touch of the world around her indicates that she was fully aware of all of her senses long before she lost her sight.

The kitchen teems with unparalleled smells of
chickens frying, rich gravies bubbling, cinnamon toast broiling
the morning coffee boiling and perking and dripping
and sugar iced tea pouring from a far bellied stainless steel pitcher
into sweating glasses.

Notice how, even though that sentence is introduced as being about smells, it brings in all the other senses as well.

Writing about Bullard as just a blind poet also risks missing much of the beauty of her poetry. For she is concerned with far more than her disability, or even the sensual beauty of life. In the title poem, she says:

Who is left here?
Who wants to read words about a few drops of rain on leaves?
Who wants to know how they are like murmurings of prayer
not yet formed in folding hands....
Who will hear the gathering grace
this ripening rain?

Here Bullard’s true subject matter comes through—the search for peace in the storm of life. She has her particular handicap to deal with, but she makes that struggle understandable, universal. We all have our problems, we all want “the gathering grace/ this ripening rain.”

—G. Murray Thomas

Into the Arms of Pushkin
Book by Carol V. Davis
Truman State University Press (tsup.truman.edu)

Into the Arms of Pushkin contains poems written during and after a year in which poet Carol V. Davis lived in St. Petersburg. They describe her experiences in that city, from the mundane of buying groceries, to the standard tourism sites, to the sublime of listening to her son’s violin tutor conduct Shostakovich. A recurring theme is her struggles with the Russian language. But that is only an introduction to her deeper theme—the very nature of communication.

There is a definite progression to Into the Arms of Pushkin. The book starts with the disorientation of a new city and a new language, then describes the rebuilding of communication, not just through language but also music, until Davis arrives at some understanding of the city around her, and her place in it, and in the world.

The opening section, as I said, deals with disorientation. It explores how key language is to our sense of place, even of self. “Two months into my stay/ and I no longer know how/ to form the words/ this is my home/ in any language.” (“Jars of Pickles, Jars of Beets” p. 15). Language is security, safety:

I want you to know what it is
to stumble in another language,
An old woman asks sweetly,
Are these your children?

Her voice slides into rebuke
when I fail to understand.
It is then I hurry to enclose

my children set adrift in the unknown.
(“The First Nights in St. Petersburg” p.3)

These early poems are highly descriptive, painting sharp portraits of St. Petersburg, its environs, its architecture, its weather. It is almost as if, without language and its reflections and philosophizing, Davis can do nothing but observe. Physical reality becomes total reality. This is not a weakness; St. Petersburg comes alive in these poems. Davis uses stark language to describe a stark landscape; the reader is right there with Davis, in both her observations and her confusion.

There are hints of marital trouble back home, another source of disorientation. Hints of communication problems even with a shared language. Only the poem “The Hours Between Hours” (p. 16) really explores this issue, with its speculation on what is shared in friendships vs. relationships. “I have been thinking, what we choose to reveal:/ how in editing a life you can recreate it, ... This is what I did. There are no regrets./ But the revelation is to the friend,/ not the husband left behind.”

The second section of the book is a series of poems about her son’s violin teacher. In them, she explores music as a form of communication. In “The Violin Teacher Plays Bach” she describes the images created by the music. “The Violin Teachers in Rehearsal” explores the erotic nature of music. Davis draws a parallel between language and music in her imagery, describing both as physical entities:

Before bed I choose the words
I will need for the next morning, lay them
on the desk chair with the folded clothes.
(“Living in Another Language I (Winter)” p. 5)

Where do the notes go?
Compressed in the rafters of this centuries-old
palace or crumbled into the pockets
of the men and women who come and go alone”
(“The Violin Teacher Plays with His Orchestra” p. 45)

By the third section, Davis has acquired enough language to find her place in the city, and she starts to delve into the culture around her. But she still finds the struggle to communicate. Three of the poems deal with the Prison of Crosses, across the street from Davis’ apartment. Families of the prisoners stand outside at night, calling to their loved ones inside. The prisoners attempt to respond by blowing paper notes out the windows. It would seem very little actual communication actually occurs here; the families cannot even see the prisoners, the notes collect on the ground. But that’s not important, what’s important is the attempt.

Which is the message of the book as a whole. What’s important is the attempt to communicate.

The final section brings it all together—music, Russia, history, tourism and the telling of tales. Plus the nature of language. These are the most developed poems in the book; while the poems in the other sections tend to lean against each other for elucidation, the final poems all stand on their own.

I am a little afraid that, by concentrating on an overarching theme, I have actually sold Into the Arms of Pushkin short, by implying it has a narrow focus. While I find the primary concern of the book is the nature of communication, there is much more going on in these poems as well. As I have said, they present a sharp, street-level portrait of St. Petersburg. In addition to language, they explore the nature of music, travel, politics and uncertain relationships. This is a marvelous book of deep and varied poetry.

—G. Murray Thomas