Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 6/08


Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

June 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...

Book by Kate Buckley
Moon Tide Press (www.moontidepress.com)

In A Wild Region, Kate Buckley explores the connections between landscape, memory and history. The landscapes of eastern Kentucky evoke memories, which inspire family stories, which all, inevitably, incorporate the landscapes.

          I carry within me hymns of my mothers,
          stories of my fathers, encoded in blood,
          woven in hair, etched in bend of bone,
          in this place of memory and metaphor,
          of hills and valleys,
          of slow running streams.
               (“The Road Home” p. 13)

The first impression is of harsh lives lived among a harsh landscape. The poems evoke the backwoods, and the hardscrabble life there. Buckley’s style is perfect for this task. Her descriptions are sharp, yet sparse. There are no wasted details, just the necessary ones to set the scene:

          Winter now, crops put away,
          fields heavy with snow,
          jagged limestone jutting out of the ice
          like so many stars on their way to heaven.

          She stands at the door to the cabin,
          hand to her belly, her best muslin straining
          over her seventh, and last.
               (“After the Fall” p. 20)

This tight style is ideal for both the landscape, and the nature of memory. Memory is inevitably incomplete, based more on specific details than on entire scenes. Buckley evokes as much as she describes. “There were shadows in the woods,” she writes, “creatures who watched him on his long walk/ home from the mill” (“After the Famine” p. 18), and these poems are full of such shadows. But as she proceeds, Buckley does get more specific, and the threats become more personal, and more real. Buckley tells tales of murder, abandonment and sudden death.

But the real theme is resilience, the ability to do what it takes to survive. Or, if not to survive, to accept one’s fate. The centerpiece poem, “Ballad of Walking Home,” tells about a woman practitioner of backwoods medicine, who kills a man in self-defense. “As he saw it, she’d killed him already—/ turned his woman against him,/ cut his child from her fading womb,/... They drowned her next morning.” (pp. 33-34) In its short, tight run of words, this poem says so much about gender and society.

Buckley ends with a series of poems about her grandmother, who did survive. “She is the reason I know how kindness sounds: rich, throaty, warm./ She is the reason I talk to myself,/ why I do not fear winter,/ why things take roots in me/ and sometimes bloom.” (“Last Supper” p. 60)

You realize that, for all their tragedies, these are rich lives, lived fully, despite their challenges and, often, brevity. In the end it turns out, first impressions notwithstanding, these are really poems about lush lives in a lush landscape.

A Wild Region is illustrated with some of Buckley’s paintings, which make a nice contrast to her poems, While her poems are sharply drawn images of the natural and familial world, the paintings are for the most part abstract, gentle and warm. Together, they create a balanced portrait of Buckley and her history.

—G. Murray Thomas

DONA JUANITA and the love of boys
Verse Novel by Gabrielle Everall

The first warning sign is in the introduction. John Kinsella writes, “I feel this is one of the most important poetic narratives to have appeared in English anywhere, at any time.” I’m sorry, but (especially as a reviewer) I can’t help but take that kind of hyperbole as a challenge. “Oh yeah,“ I find myself saying, “we’ll see about that.”

The second warning comes at the end of the book, in the notes. Yes, endnotes in a book of poetry. Extensive endnotes, most of which read along the lines of, “Ideas and theoretical concepts are from Barthes’ ‘The Ribbon’ in A Lover’s Discourse and Kristeva’s Tales of Love.”

Okay, I get it. This is an “important” book of poetry, full of “important” ideas.

Now, there is nothing wrong with including philosophical concepts in your poetry (I’ve done it plenty myself). Nothing wrong with basing your poetry in philosophy. But it runs the same risk as political poetry—that the ideas you are trying to express will overwhelm the poetry of your expression.

For the most part, Dona Juanita does give us interesting expression of some interesting ideas. A novel in verse, it tells the story of “young Werthergirl” (a gender flip of Goethe’s “The Sufferings of Young Werther”), who falls in love with the handsome Lot (later called Adymson—actually, it is never really clear if these are the same person, or two different objects of desire), who does not return the feeling. Everall makes clear she is not writing about some romantic notion of unrequited love, but rather pure physical desire. Dona Juanita is an exploration of the nature of that desire. The novel follows Werthergirl from her first meeting with Lot, into the depths of her desire, through attempts to “cure” her desire in psychotherapy, to some final acceptance of her state.

The overarching theme is the union of opposites. The most obvious is the union of genders, which starts with the title of the book, and includes the aforementioned name of the protagonist. There are other unions and transformations. Decay becomes perfume (“perfume harbours decay/ and unified with the other/ turns decay back into/ perfume”-- “Stink” p.18), absence becomes possession, and there is “a suffering that causes jouissance/ and a jouissance that causes suffering” (“Indi Rock God” p. 34). Finally, in the resolution of the book, desire becomes its own satisfaction. This seems to be the conclusion the entire work aims for: we desire because we need to desire, not because we wish our desires fulfilled.

The poems are clever, full of word play. “Her mean phal(lick)ness,” “Stud rock star (lust)re,” “the(rape)ist,” “I am too Glenn Close” (in a poem about stalking). “There is no other half that forms a complete whole the missing twin of a perfect match makes for a stale mate.”

However, for all the cleverness and interesting ideas, I found something missing in this book. Desire, true deep desire, is not an intellectual activity. In fact, it is an anti-intellectual activity. While it is certainly possible to intellectualize about desire, that misses its essence. (Of course, it is in keeping with the theme of the book—intellectualizing about desire is a union of opposites.)

What is missing here is the feeling of desire. I never got a sense of what Werthergirl feels about her desire. Unrequited love/lust is one of the most powerful emotions humans can feel, but any sense of that power gets lost in the philosophizing of this book.

Deep ideas make for an “important” book, but emotional connection makes for powerful poetry. Dona Juanita has plenty of the former, but falls short in the latter.

—G. Murray Thomas

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