Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 6/13

Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

June 2013

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

Book by David Allen Sullivan
Tebot Bach (www.tebotbach.org)

One of the greatest traits a writer can exhibit is empathy, the ability to not just understand another’s emotions, but to feel them as well. Great poetry would not exist without empathy. (It does help if the reader possesses this ability as well.)

War, on the other hand, requires a lack of empathy. War requires us to turn our enemies into something less than human, into beings we cannot feel empathy for, because they have no feelings to relate to. Only then can we kill them indiscriminately, and survive mentally.

David Allen Sullivan has a great empathy for his subjects, and he applies that directly to the topic of war. The poems in Every Seed of the Pomegranate are written from the perspectives of different participants in the Iraq war. These include soldiers from both sides, civilians, the families of those fighting, and various historical figures. Again and again he demonstrates his ability to get inside the heads and emotions of people whose experience is very different from his own (and ours).

But what he reveals is not difference, but similarity. In the end, we all share a common humanity. In “Ahmed Abu Ali, Shopkeeper” (most of the poems are named after the character they represent), he describes a stand-off between Iraqi citizens and American soldiers outside a mosque. In the end:

One freckle-faced boy

motioned me closer,
tapped a glossy photo where
a baby nested

in a woman’s arms.
Must be his. Had it died? or
had he missed its birth?

Held up my fingers
to say I had four. He took
my hand in his, shook

it wildly, as if
that was the best news ever.
By morning, they’d left.

He also shows how we can have the same feelings, yet react very differently. “Sasha Ksenych, Domestic,” in her poem, describes how her mistress locked herself in her room after news of her son’s death:

Policemen I called
cut the door-chain, then reeled back
when the stink slapped them.

Must be a million mamas
son-less in this world,

but you don’t see us
turning all weepy and soft.
No sir, freedom costs.

Want to see my boy?
Come, I show you a picture.
Was he not handsome?

But Sullivan also shows our shared inhumanity. “Lieutenant Colby Buzzel, Sniper, Stryker Brigade” is told from point of view of a sniper. “Don’t care if he was// just an Iraqi/ kid, I felt nothin’ but glad/ when I stood over// his body, crumpled/ like he was hugging his rifle.” It is balanced by “Omar Yousef Hussein, Historian,” in which an Iraqi describes planting an IED, with the same hatred towards his target.

The book follows, more or less, the progression of the war, from life in pre-war Iraq through the fury of battle, to the returning soldiers, wounded physically and psychically. In this way he reveals the wide costs of war, the numerous lives it touches beyond those fighting. He also exposes the many ways it touches those lives, and the varied reactions to it.

The book is framed by several poems written in the voices of various angels. These poems are much more abstract than the other ones, which consist of concrete, often harsh, imagery.

The one weakness of the book is the fact that, despite the wide variety of characters presented, they all speak with the same poetic voice. All the poems are written with essentially the same diction. The occasional attempts to introduce dialect, such as these lines from “Staff Sergeant Solomon Sam,” “Cordoned-off mosque’s/ tile mosaic bashed in ‘cuz/ we got a rogue tip,” fall flat in their obviousness. Still, this is a minor complaint. Despite the similar language, the variety of personalities and intentions comes through.

One might ask how Sullivan feels able to write in such detail about things he has never experienced. In the preface, he tells how many of the stories in the poems came from Iraqi veterans he taught. In an extensive “Notes” section at the end of the book, he describes the source material for the individual poems. He also answers the question in the opening poem, “Night Visions I,” in which the voices in the poems come to him in nightmares: “Who am I to write/ these words? Who are you to turn/ from these words and rest?”

But the true answer lies in the poems themselves. He earns the right by writing them, by writing them so true and powerful.

G. Murray Thomas

Editor in Chief: RD Armstrong
Lummox Press (www.lummoxpress.com)

RD Armstrong and his LUMMOX Press have managed a great feat—a massive anthology of poets (200 + pages worth!) diverse in style and voice from all over the country that is as impressive as it is daunting. This is a big book. Armstrong says it himself in the introduction, “I wanted a big issue and I got a big issue, no I got a giant issue!” Because of the anthology’s range and its enormous compiling of poems, I feel a detailed review is near impossible to accomplish. So I am going to approach this a little differently. I’m going to begin with giving a brief description of what LUMMOX No.1 is and does, offer my praise for it, and then give my respectful response to a challenging argument made throughout the anthology by Armstrong and some of his contributors.

This anthology takes its roots from the LUMMOX journal, which Armstrong put out for eleven years beginning in 1995. He shares in his introduction how his nostalgia for that journal motivated him to move forward with this project: “I found myself missing putting out a magazine…So, I hit on the idea of a yearly journal. But not a small magazine like before, I wanted something big.” And big is certainly what this anthology is. Besides the usual call for submissions, Armstrong looked to guest editors from various regions such as New Mexico and Boston to assist in the selection of poets and give the anthology a cross-sectional feel of contemporary poetry. The result is a collection of poems that will surely have something for everyone—a fine example of poetry’s diversity today. Also included in the anthology are a few interviews, reviews, and essays, as well as some art and photography. There is a lot of meat to this anthology—a lot of reasons to keep it on your nightstand and return to it again and again.

I believe compiling an anthology like this is important work, and I applaud Armstrong for his vision here. As I mentioned before the book is as impressive as it is daunting—I feel the organization and layout is a little inconsistent and could stand to be a bit cleaner. However, I have no qualms with the book’s content. It celebrates poetry in a way that is accessible to the casual reader, while still engaging the more seasoned poetry-vet. Thus, this anthology achieves a wide audience range—something I feel poetry shouldn’t shy away from. I also admire Armstrong’s choice to “push the poet behind the poetry,” to have this anthology stand on the merit of the poems included and not the names of the poets contributing them. While this is a point I admire and even agree with (yes, a poem should be praised before the poet), I want to address Armstrong’s criticism over poets attempting to market themselves—his feeling that there is a “shift from the poem as a vehicle of expression to the poem as means to promote the glory of the poet.”

In “The Coming of the YUPOETS,” one of the essays in the book, Steve Goldman seems to vilify any poets who market themselves in hopes to build their audience.

He writes about the “careerist ambition practiced by increasing numbers of poets and would-be poets, a kind of relentless, compulsive self-promotion, which if it weren’t so damaging would be almost comically ludicrous.” I don’t think such ambition is ludicrous. Yes, a poet’s primary ambition should always be about the work—the quality of their craft complemented by the sincerity of their passion to put meaningful words to paper—however, a poet shouldn’t be faulted for thinking beyond this in order to gain readership. There’s a fine line between self-promotion and self-gratification; I feel Goldman cannot distinguish this separation: “No angle is left unexploited in the quest for self-publication, e-mail, website, etc. I haven’t looked up in the sky lately, but if I saw skywriting advertising Joe/Jane Schmuck’s reading, (or worse yet demands to be given one,) I wouldn’t be surprised.” In a perfect world audiences would gravitate towards poetry on the sole basis of the poems, and nothing else. But, we live in a time where things such as presentation do matter and should be taken into consideration if we’re trying to get read—which I’d argue is a common goal for most folks calling themselves writers. The trick is to do so with humility while never forgetting the poetry should always come before the promoting. A poet should never sit down to write in the hopes the poetry will move their persona into the spotlight. I do wholeheartedly agree when Goldman stresses writing should come “spontaneously, from one’s heart, one’s soul, one’s agony, one’s life, one’s conscience, one’s wry comedy, one’s love, at least from one’s wits.” As long as a poet is doing this, I do not see the harm in their marketing themselves to advance their readership—hopefully in doing so they turn their audience onto even more poetry than just their own. I don’t see how that hurts anyone.

This yearly anthology is a wonderful vehicle to help poetry (not the poet) gain readership. I hope Armstrong continues with the diversity by asking new guest editors to assist with each edition. I hope he continues to make the issues massive (well worth the $30 asking price…if you break it down that’s only $2.50 were it a monthly magazine!). I hope he continues to include provoking, critical essays on poetry. I hope future issues are a little cleaner in appearance, if only so the readers’ eyes are spared some strain. All that said I support Armstrong’s endeavor to churn out future issues of LUMMOX and wish him the best with it.

— Eric Morago