Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 2/08


Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

February 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...

Dwarf Stars
Anthology edited by Deborah P. Kolodji & Stephen M. Wilson
Science Fiction Poetry Association

I must admit I approached this one with some apprehension. “The best speculative poems of ten lines or less.” That struck me as at once an incredibly narrow category, and, at the same time, one open to all sorts of works of not just questionable quality, but questionable poeticness (if I may be indulged such a construction). But I was pleasantly surprised.

Dwarf Stars contains a wide variety of poetry, covering a wide variety of subjects. Yes, there are poems about alien invasions and robots, but also poetic musings on the nature of reality.

The poems run a gamut of styles and techniques. As I expected, many take the form of mini-stories:

          Testimony Given on the Firing of the Weapon

          Just rock —
          that’s what I saw,
          and fired when they told me.
          One planet, many million lives,
          just rock.
          —Marcie Tentchoff

Often with a punch line:

          back home from the future
          at my stockbroker.
          —Tim Jamieson

Some of these are identified as “Scifaiku”, a form I had been previously unaware of:

          computer malfunction
          our spaceship stalls above
          a Bethlehem stable
          —John J. Dunphy

These are entertaining enough, but conform to what I feared—using the form of poetry to basically write science fiction stories. Not that there anything too wrong with that, except it misses out on the potential of poetry. But other poems in this collection are more in line with my view of the role poetry performs, which is to explore concepts which are not exactly linear.

          music of the spheres:
          the constant humming
          of black holes
          —Darrell Lindsey

Others go further, and speculate on the ultimate nature of reality:

          Astro Nautical

          E(ternity)=(M)orality x (C)abbala^2

          Drowning in the cosmos—
          a life preserver inscribed with atom
          chained in expanding space
          where it rescued me

          sitting at the helm of the letters
          without kippah or cologne or rationality,
          God, like Einstein, smiling behind his cigar
          at the black edge of the universe, burning
          — Dr. Steven B. Katz

For poetry and science fiction actually have some traits in common, ones which make their marriage much less implausible. Both enable the writer to break free of what might be called the tyranny of reality. Poetry does this indirectly, through metaphor; science fiction accomplishes it directly, through the invention of alternate realities. But the end goal is the same, to arrive at a better understanding of our reality, by breaking free of it.

The best pieces in Dwarf Stars do just that. Dwarf Stars can be read in under half an hour, but it takes much longer to contemplate all the concepts it raises.

—G. Murray Thomas

CD by David Francis

David Francis writes sparse, observational poems. Action is at a minimum, and usually consists of walking through the observed landscape. Thoughts and emotions are even fewer. At their best, the poems manage to capture a moment of emotion through this contemplation of surroundings. A few choice details convey what the poet is thinking without actually stating it.

          Nightmarish Building

          An arsenal, you could not see above its mortarish wall
          though it filled a block and had an entrance
          the other side was longer and needed maintenance.
          There black city birds nested.
          I was interested, but could not explain to you
          how I found it an avenue.
          Later, as we got lost and left our map on a grocery sill
          we found our way back to our wonderful room in the dark
          using the nightmarish building as a landmark.

But most of the poems here are too thin, nothing more than a scene described. Throughout the poems there is some hint of a larger story, the rise and fall of a relationship, but we never learn enough to follow it. We never get to know the people in the poems, either the narrator or his partner. All we do is see the landscape they pass through.

The poems are more than just notes on a landscape, a verbal sketchbook. Some unobtrusive rhyme patterns demonstrate that some thought was given to their structure. But too often there seems to be a laziness to Francis’ word choice. In the above example, “our wonderful room” is too easy, and “mortarish” is simply clumsy. I found many other examples throughout the poems.

I also must comment on the structure of the CD itself. The poems are interspersed with musical interludes, also composed by Francis. Except for a couple of poems with musical sound effects, the music remains completely separate from the poetry. Music, poem, music, poem, all the way through. The musical interludes reminded me of the music in NPR newscasts, similar in both style and purpose, which is to break up the flow. The music seems to be there primarily to tell us when one poem ends and the next begins. (Many of the poems are so tentative and insubstantial that such a break is actually needed.) But it never actually interacts with the poems; it doesn’t provide a mood or atmosphere for the poetry, it just gives us a pause to prepare to listen again.

What is strange is that the press material with the CD focused primarily on Francis as a songwriter. As such, he would seem ideally suited to integrate the music with the poetry. Perhaps he was afraid that would make his poems too similar to his songs. But in the end, the effect is disconnect, an opportunity lost.

The result is a feeling of risks not taken. But that is the feeling I got from the entire CD. There is a hesitancy to the poetry, as if Francis is afraid to commit to the emotions behind the poems. As if he is afraid to do more than watch the world go by.

— G. Murray Thomas

Midnight Tea
CD by Brian Michael Tracy, Andy Hill & Renee Safier
Midnight Tea Publishing

Driving with Dante
Book by Brian Michael Tracy
Conflux Press (www.confluxpress.com)

This CD also uses a poem/music/poem progression, but to much better effect than David Francis’ Poems. Midnight Tea alternates between poems by Brian Michael Tracy and songs performed by Andy Hill and Renee Safier. The songs (both classics and originals) are carefully chosen to reflect and expand on the themes in Tracy’s poetry. The result is an effective flow, almost a conversation between poem and song.

The CD starts off with “Jerome,” a poem dedicated to Jerry Garcia, which is followed by The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.” That is followed by a series of mediations on the meaning of water—“Downstream” (poem), “Down to the River” (traditional spiritual), “Because We Are Water” (poem) and “The Water is Wide” (another spiritual). This sort of trade-off continues throughout the CD.

Tracy’s poems fit in well with the spirituals, for he, too, looks for larger, metaphysical meanings in the nature of water.

          Standing knee deep in its clammy calm
          with their polka dots and blue shovels
          they seem to understand the ocean’s ardent returns
          for they themselves are water
          because they too feel the pull of the tides,
          they too shall be forever caught
          between the seduction of the horizon
          and a strange devotion to shore
               (“Because We Are Water”)

Tracy’s poems continue this reaching for larger ideas in the details of everyday life. “Physics” takes the theory of relativity to comment on the challenges of human connection. “The Worship of Fire” uses specific fires to explore our propensity for destruction and war. Yet, like all the best poetry, it is impossible to really summarize in a sentence what Tracy is saying in these poems.

This expansiveness makes Tracy’s poems the perfect partner to the songs. Much like Twenty Poems Against Love (a book of poetry and photography reviewed last month), the key here is the interaction. The poems imply meaning in the songs, and vice-versa, without either ever locking down their meaning. The two together provide more space and opportunity for the listener to interpret, to think about what he or she is hearing. Poetry is by nature an open-ended art form, open to different possibilities of meaning. It leaves space for the listener to bring their own ideas into the mix. This CD takes full advantage of that.

Tracy’s book, Driving with Dante, contains the poems on Midnight Tea and more. The book does allow for a deeper exploration of some of Tracy’s themes, especially the nature of time, which is touched on in a number of poems.

          Beyond the clock lies freedom
          from what we do not say,
          though we look to its hands
          for more than they offer
          more than they can provide.
               (“The Clock”)

It also allows him to indulge his playful side, in poems such as “A Night at the Soliloquy” and “A Little Bit Country.”

Driving with Dante also demonstrates that Tracy’s poems can stand on their own. The songs may provide some extra context, extra interpretations, for the poems, but they don’t prop them up. The poems are strong enough to stand alone, yet expansive enough to interact with the songs.

—G. Murray Thomas