Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 8/10

Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

August 2010

By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor


Dear Don,

Since you found my review of Campbell's Classics a bit on the harsh side, you asked me to look at your new book, Amongst The Detritus, to see if I might have a different opinion of it. I normally do not like to review any single poet twice in a two year period, but I agreed to take a look, and possibly make an exception.

I have carefully read through Amongst the Detritus, and while I do find it a definite improvement over Campbell's Classics, I am not sure it is enough of an improvement to justify a new review. While there are some moves in what I consider the right direction, and some definite strengths in this book which were lacking in the first one, the same problems remain.

Let me start with your main strength, which is cleverness. Although this was also present in Campbell's Classics, it seems much stronger here (or maybe I just noticed it more). Your poems are very clever. They demonstrate a good sense of humor, and a good eye for irony. You are very strong at wordplay, and, as I mentioned before, at metaphor.

But at times it seems that is all you are aiming for—to write clever poems. So I have to ask—is that enough? Can merely clever poems make for great poetry? Myself, I look for something more in the poetry I read (and the poetry I write), some sort of deep insight, or even (dare I say it?) transcendence.

The question is, what are you aiming for in your poetry? If your goal is simply to write clever poems, if you are satisfied with that, then you can stop reading here. Congratulations, you have succeeded. Keep doing what you are doing.

However, if you want something more in your poetry, read on.

Let's start with definitions. What is your definition of poetry? What makes a collection of words on a page a poem?

As for my own definition, I like what my old college professor said, "Poetry is the art of saying it in other words." Another way of putting it is, poetry is finding a way to express the inexpressible.

Poetry should have layers of meaning (and I have been mocked for using this phrase so often). By this I mean a poem should reveal new meanings on rereading it. This does not mean a poem has to be obscure. Quite the opposite: it can have an easily comprehensible surface meaning, but still have more going on than just that.

By any of these definitions, I find your poetry falling short. There is too much surface meaning, too few depths. There are too few "other words." Most of your poems merely state, fairly bluntly, what they are about, and have little more to say beyond their main point. At times you seem afraid that the reader won't get your point, so you hit them over the head with it (this can be easily seen in the political poems which open the book). At other times you seem to fear that the poem doesn't have enough of a point, so you try to force meaning into the poem by one means or another.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean with some of the stronger poems in the book, poems which I think show you heading in the right direction. Take the poems "Intersection Rock" (p. 15), "After a Morning Rain" (p. 65), and "101 at Cat Canyon Road" (p. 101). In all of these poems, you let the images tell the story, let them speak for themselves. You trust the strength of your images.

Compare these to "The Column is a Drum" (p. 115), where you start out with some interesting imagery, but then, rather than fully developing the potential of the image, you hurry to an ending with "what about me, the observer/ who records what he experiences/ leaving a quarter century of poetry so far." This is a variation of your old trick of "and then I put it in a poem," as if the image was only important because you put it in a poem. I objected to this in my original review, and although I found less of it here, you still you use it far too often.

If the image is truly powerful, let it stand by itself, as in the previous poems I mentioned. Or, if the image is interesting for the thoughts it creates in your head, follow those thoughts, let the image write the poem. If the image is not powerful, then "And so I wrote it in a poem" is not going to help. Instead, it feels like a real cop-out, like you needed an ending and weren't willing to put the time in to find the full poem the image was inspiring.

Having said that, there are a couple of poems where inserting yourself, the poet, into the poem does work. "Allen Avenue" (p. 34) works because you make the poet an actual part of the observed scene, not just the observer recording it. Even better, "Every Day Shapes" (p. 92) works by reversing the process—the images are important not because they are in a poem, but rather because the immersion in poetry has enabled the students to see them. This speaks to the power of poetry to transform in a way the other poems do not.

As I have said before, another strength is your grasp of metaphor. I feel you have used this talent to even greater effect in this book. Whereas Campbell's Classics contained a number of poems which were essentially a list of metaphors, here you have moved on to poems which are extended single metaphors. Poems like "Animal Love" (p. 3), "Biology" (p. 19), "Weather in the Body" (p. 24), "Love on a Desktop" (p. 33), and "Classroom of My Life" (p. 96) all build on a basic metaphor (usually revealed in the title). These are a prime example of cleverness in your poetry.

But again, these poems are all surface. For example, "Love on a Desktop" seems to be a game of, How many objects on my desk can I use to create metaphors for love? It doesn't really tell us anything new about love. That's what the best poetry does, finds metaphors which open our minds, make us see an old concept (in this case "love") in a new way.

Which brings up another issue I have with many of your poems. I don't want to presume to know how you write your poetry, but many of these poems read like they were products of a workshop. Sometimes, as in the metaphor poems, it almost seems like they are the result of a specific assignment; other times that you were given a set amount of time to write a poem, so you looked around the room and wrote about what you saw. (A lot of the "so I stuck it in a poem" poems read like this). Unfortunately, there is not a lot of evidence of them being reworked outside of the workshop.

The power of reworking poems is demonstrated here by two poems, "Delicious Revolutions" (p. 54) and "Yes" (p. 123). These are essentially the same poem, with a few changes, changes which greatly improve the poem. The first poem is one of your extended metaphor poems, in this case, comparing various music technologies with food. For example, "At first it was pizzas/ black and spinning" is followed by "a tape the size of lasagna" and then "shiny bagels/reflected digital codes." In "Yes," which uses some of the exact same metaphors, you actually put them to work. In "Delicious Revolutions," your musical tastes change with the evolving technology, the point is the metaphor. But in "Yes" you continue to listen to the same music. This adds another layer to the meaning of the poem (a variation on "the more things change, the more they stay the same") without making it overly obvious, and without diminishing the food metaphor. This turns it into a fully developed poem. I am curious why you included both versions, if you really think of them as two separate poems, rather than an improved rewriting of an idea.

There are poems here which meet my definition of poetry, which I feel to be fully formed, layered poems. I have mentioned some of them already. Perhaps the best is the title poem (p. 141). This poem uses your descriptive abilities to actually tell a story, a story with a real punch at the end. This demonstrates that you have the ability to create the kind of poem I am describing here, if you just put your mind to it. Use your images, your metaphors, even your cleverness to tell stories with punch, stories whose meaning will reverberate long after the poem has ended.

Finally, a minor point, but one which I find particularly annoying and distracting. LOSE THE FONTS!!! They merely distract, and at times even make the poems difficult to even read. They are like a performance poet greatly overperforming. They say you don't really trust your poetry to stand on its own, you need to dress it up before you bring it out in public.

Trust your poems. Just as you should trust your images to create a poem on their own, you should trust your poems to stand on their own.

I am offering these comment as constructive criticism, and I hope you take them in that vein. If you are interested in pushing your poetry in new directions, these are ideas on how to do so. If, on the other hand, you are satisfied with your poetry as it is, feel free to ignore them, to continue what you are doing. (But then you should probably look for a different critic to review your books.)
I would be very interested in your thoughts on these criticisms. I am especially interested in your definition of poetry, and what you hope to accomplish in your poetry.
Thank you.

G. Murray Thomas

P.S. Please don't think for a minute that I feel I have mastered writing poetry myself. The same criticisms I have given here I apply to my own poetry every time I write. And believe me, I fail to meet them far more often than I succeed. I feel far too many of my own poems are flat statements, that they just say what they have to say, without using sufficient imagery or metaphor to express it (without saying it "in other words"). But this is what I strive for, and, through that striving, I do sometimes succeed.

Chapbook by Peggy DoBreeer
First Eyes Press(adhocink@yahoo.com)

Peggy DoBreer's poetry exemplifies the idea of "saying it in other words." Her poems carry multiple meanings, on the surface and underneath. Often the underneath meaning, while related to the surface, is something far deeper and more profound. Perhaps another way to put it is that her poems are often detailed and specific on the surface, while they express universal truths underneath.

Her poems often tell one story on top, in straightforward but still poetic language, with an emotional undercurrent. The emotions in these poems lie under the words, not on top of or all over them. This actually makes the emotions more powerful, they sneak up on the reader.

For example, several of her poems deal with abusive men. But her anger is sublimated, the surface of the poems is all facts. The anger informs the poetry, but does not drive it.

Here are a couple of key stanzas from the poem "fire trails":

He wanted her to climb
to the top of the tower,
peeling and rickety.
He wanted her there,
on the wooden catwalk
butt cheeks to the sun.

Then he wanted her to jump
rolling over without warning
falling three stories for sport!
He pleaded from the ground.
He wanted a girl who wanted
to climb mountains at his feet.

Through a simple story, DoBreer delineates the dimensions, and the denouement, of this relationship.
Or take the title poem, "little capture" which describes a rape. Again, a couple of key stanzas:

If only he had broken in
through an unlocked window or
posed as an honest repairman.
If only he had smacked her down
or grabbed her from behind.
But that's not how it goes!

He filled the kettle in a most charming way,
poured steamy water over two silk bags
and secretly slipped a little blue pill into
her cup of tea.

Again, although her anger at the situation is clear, her writing is matter-of-fact. She isn't screaming about it, she's just telling the story, letting you figure out her feelings.

She uses this same technique to tackle all manner of relationships, from first love, to lustful desire, to the aftermath of the relationship. Her language is consistently subtle and evocative, rather than blatant.

The poem "layers", quoted here in its entirety, uses a few facts and repetition of language to hint at the changes in a relationship:

The snake had shed its skin a few
days before I arrived. The snake
was active, more active than I had
ever seen it. He said it was because
the snake had just shed its skin.
He said it twice.

He wasn't standing in his usual place
when I got off the elevator. He was
closer to it. I almost knocked him over
trying to get to his usual place but
he was closer to the elevator,
waiting for me.

His mother had sent Georgia peaches
preserved in jars. They had just arrived
that day. He wanted me to taste them.
He was hungry, hungry like the snake,
closer to the elevator, more active
than I had ever seen him.

The poem "backwards" is another example where she packs emotional punch into a seemingly simple poem. On first glance, it appears to be nothing more than a description of an average day in San Francisco. It starts out with the view from the apartment, "From the bay window on/ Fillmore you can reach out/ and grab the wires./ You can fry on the metro lines/ if you wanted". It continues with the cable car ride down to Fisherman's Wharf, and all that can be found and done there. Only in the final lines, "let the salt spray refresh you, let/ it bind you to this freedom, let it/ mimic the hand you used to hold", do you realize the whole poem is about a break-up, and at the beginning the "you" of the poem was seriously considering grabbing those wires.

She applies the same poetic principles to other topics than relationships. "Oh India" expresses her feelings about India through a handful of clear images, from listening to George Harrison, to women fetching water from the well.

Even when she talks about more pedestrian topics, like "shoes," she still uses deeply poetic language.

There are a few more obscure, imagist poems here, poems which rather than tell a concrete story, provide a series of impressions for us to interpret. These poems are generally more philosophical than emotional. Again, the truth she is aiming at lies under the images. They are not as easy to understand; she if often trying to express elusive notions. "[S]tars/ slide into/ future galaxies/ through the slender fingers of your grasp" ("bamboo").

Throughout her poetry, DoBreer provides a stimulating tension between the surface of the poem and what lies beneath. In this way, she creates beautiful, evocative and, for the most part, comprehensible poetry. Poetry that is clear, entertaining and enlightening.

—G. Murray Thomas

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