Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 12/13

Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

December 2013

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

Book by Sharon Venezio
Moon Tide Press (www.moontidepress.com)

Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

In The Silence of Doorways, Sharon Venezio’s poetic persona struggles, and fails, to nail down the nature of her reality. Let me be clear here—the failure of her persona is her tremendous success as a poet. This book captures exquisitely the difficulties of bringing our memories, our relationships, even our identities into focus.

Focus is a recurring theme, though it is rarely mentioned directly. Instead, many of the repeated images are things which need to be brought into focus—photographs, memories, the appearance of the day after wakening. Other images, such as birds and ghosts, are elusive sights, difficult to focus on. The one point where the concept is mentioned directly is late in the book, in the poem “Adderall” which is described as “a round blue pill, a clean line of focus.” That point was an “aha!” moment, bringing much of the book into, yes, focus.

She uses this concept to explore her family and their relationships. Her father spends all his time photographing birds. “He sits behind lens for hours in darkness,/ waiting for the first fleck of sun/ first wing to span.” (“Photographer”) This becomes the entry into her parents’ relationship:

I can’t draw, but if I could for my
mother a sketch of Van Gogh’s Almond Blossoms with their soft
hesitant life for all her looking inward, and for my father a picture of
a red fronted macaw perched on the cliffs of Bolivia for all his
looking outward.
(“College Essay”)

This idea returns in “Returning,” where her sections are titled “My Mother is a House” and “My Father is a Bird.” This becomes key in understanding her parents’ relationship: her father looks outward, her mother looks inward, and they never see each other.

Meanwhile, her brother, a victim of drug abuse, becomes a ghost. The poem “Ghost Brother” presents portraits of her brother at various ages. The final stanza, “Fifteen,” reads:

The ghost is an empty mouth,
opening and closing, empty
chair at the dinner table,
empty eyes floating in his face,
ghost chanting:
Look at me, I’m nothing,
Do you want to be like me?

Bit by bit she turns this lack of focus on herself, until her own body seems elusive, out of focus. “She can no longer feel/ the boundary/ between her body/ and the water.” (“Storm”); “where do you end and the world begin?” ([Untitled]); “her body merges with the wall/ the story is not the body, not/ the wall, but the merging” (“Becoming the Image”); “perhaps Descartes was right:/ even bodies are not properly known by the senses” (“A Brief Moment of Flight”).

Much of this comes together in the poem “Self-Portrait as Camera” (in its entirety):

When I was young
I was just a pinhole projection
of an upside-down world.

I struggled to get a fixed image,
to not disappear.

My shuttered lens opening
like a tiny mirror,
like the hungry aperture of light.

Venezio does not resolve this dilemma. She makes no attempt to, she accepts it as the reality she exists within. The penultimate poem, “How to Disappear,” opens with, “Water knows how to disappear,/ how to empty itself into the sky” and ends on the lines, “A wave breaks into the ocean,/ becomes the ocean.// Each morning it rises,/ newly formed, remembers/ nothing.”

Book by Judith Skillman
Lummox Press (www.lummoxpress.com)

Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

Broken Lines is an interesting, useful but also frustrating book. Skillman has many helpful ideas for the writer, especially on how to get and stay motivated and productive. However, she tends to offer advice without explaining the philosophy behind it. She is much better at practical advice than theoretical analysis. She can tell you how to do something, but not why. At times this becomes a serious drawback.

Take the purported theme of the book: the broken line. The very first line of the preface is, “What makes poetry its own medium apart from prose is, ultimately, the line break.” But she never even tries to explain why this is. Just what is it about breaking lines which turns a piece of writing into a poem? The closest she comes is “Because the goal of a poem is to compress and heighten language, white space can hardly be over-rated.” (p. 32). And that statement is buried in a discussion of caesura.

She does give plenty of space to the ways one can break lines, discussing enjambment and caesura, stanza and beat. But without knowing why one should break their lines, telling us how is of minimal use. (I will admit some of my disappointment here is that I was looking forward to such a theoretical discussion of line breaks, as it seems to me there is much which could be said on the topic, much which is lacking in the world of poetry advice.)

A similar problem arises with her discussion of Ars Poetica (a poem about the purpose of poetry). She suggests writing an Ars Poetica as a cure for writer’s block, an interesting and mostly valid idea. She gives the reader a number of ideas for approaching an Ars Poetica. But she never tackles the deeper question of how understanding why you write poetry could help you actually write it, another topic which seems ripe for examination.

She is much better on some of her other subjects. She has a number of good exercises to stimulate your writing. She has solid, practical advice on how to organize a poetry manuscript, give a successful reading, and promote yourself as a poet. She also has some helpful commentary on dealing with the challenges of the life of a poet, from writer’s block, to staying motivated, to the isolation it often creates and requires.

There is also a serious problem with organization in the book. Early on, Skillman states, “there [isn’t] a place for outlines in poetry.” That may be true, but there is certainly a place for outlines in a book, especially one of advice. The opening section reads like a bunch of blog posts which were thrown together with little concern for order, and certainly no attempt to rewrite them into a cohesive manuscript. It leaps from a discussion of finding one’s subject matter, to line breaks, to free verse, and back to line breaks, with no linking material or explanation as to why she organized it that way. The structure of the book does improve in the latter half, but she still has a tendency to jumble her topics without much of a through line.

With a better organization, this would be a very handy book of advice for poets, especially those who find themselves stuck, whether it’s difficulty writing individual poems, or wondering why they are poets in the first place. If she presented it more as a book of practical advice (just changing the title would help), and then structured so the advice built in a coherent order, she would have a much stronger book. As it is, it contains many useful nuggets, but the reader has to struggle to find them.