Poetry for Southern California
RUMORS OF FALLIBLE GODS
Book by Peter Ludwin
Presa Press (www.presapress.com)
Rumors of Fallible Gods is a sort of travelogue. Peter Ludwin’s rich poems describe his travels through Latin America (where most of the book takes place), Greece, Turkey and the Far East, before ending in Spain, with an arrow pointing back at the Americas. But these are not tourist poems. Ludwin’s concern is with people, not scenery.
Most of his travel is in the Third World. Even in Greece, a young soldier “earned/ a fraction per month/ of what we traveled on per week” (“Orpheus”). Although he writes about Tienanmen Square and Aung San Suu Kyi in the latter part of the book, for the most part, the poems are not political. He is more interested in how one lives in poverty, their resilience, the adjustments one makes.
He does this by befriending the people he encounters. From the taxi driver in “Celia,” to the lady selling empanadas in “Existential,” to the Greek truck driver in “Apollo in the Time of John Wesley Harding,” he engages with their life, their feelings. Yet he does remain an outsider. Many of the poems are observational, watching the life of the village, while trying to understand it. Part of this separation is, of course, cultural. As was the case with the Greek soldier, no matter how much he involves himself in their lives, his own life remains much different.
His own restlessness also separates him. These people are rooted in their place; he is the traveler. In several poems he takes as his totem the vulture, “the mirror I search/ for a sign of my blue-flowered heart.” (“Transition”) He expresses the difference in a discussion about marriage in “Celia”:
When I tell her I’m single and have no kids
it comes as a surprise, even a shock.
How can I explain in my basic Spanish
how doubt can bore like a beetle into choice,
leave a perforated husk that rasps
like brittle stalks of corn? How when that happens
one becomes like the captain of a three-masted ship
who ponders where to drop anchor—
this bay or that cove—and in that moment
of indecision discovers the tide has gone out,
a reef gashed his timbers, water is pouring into the hold...
Ludwin is on a quest here, and it is not for a place to drop anchor. As I indicated, he wants to understand the lives of these people, how they survive. But along the way it becomes a spiritual quest, a search for those “fallible gods” of the tile. The spiritual is almost always present in these poems, even amongst the deepest poverty. Rumors of Fallible Gods upends the standard question, “How can a just God allow people to suffer?” It becomes, how can people, despite their suffering, find salvation and grace?
In “Existential,” he describes “the gordita woman, a mestiza crone” selling empenadas:
And you, gordita woman?
I believe in you as others believe
in Exxon or The New York Times,
the way I used to believe in the Lone Ranger,
a masked redeemer unscarred by doubt,
a range rider whose shirts never creased.
What I see is what I get. Digging for change,
you feed me in places neither of us
has drawn on our worn, tattered maps.
Or consider “Canonized,” about various criminals (a thief, a rapist) who have become patron saints to various causes in Mexico. The title of the book comes from “Batopilas Canyon to Huimayvo,” which describes a difficult hike up a narrow canyon. “From here on, we step/ where mad angels bloom./ ...Sounding the alarm, birds/ high up the canyon walls lift off.// Rumors of fallible gods.”
But the answers he seeks—personal, political, spiritual— remain rumors, remain elusive. Like those high-up echoes, they are present within these poems, just never quite concrete. The final line of the final poem (“Here Columbus took ship, sword pointed west.” from “What I Saw in Seville”), leads us back to the beginning in Latin America. The search never ends.
G. Murray Thomas
Moonman New and Selected Poems
Book by Clifton Snider
At over 450 pages, Clifton Snider’s collection of new and selected poems, Moonman, published by World Parade Books, is a monster of a book. It looks impending; however, once you crack it open you learn just what kind of creature it is—it’s the benevolent beast a child’s imagination might conjure up to comfort and protect them from the cruelties of a difficult, confusing world. I admit I was daunted by its presence on my nightstand, but I was a fool for being so. Moonman is a gentle giant, a career-spanning collection of necessary poetry that is meditative and healing. Snider, a master observer, offers us poems on the natural world, social and cultural climate, love, loss, illness, and death. Through it all, his voice serves as spirit guide—examining human experience, he takes us on a journey of both great pain and joy, while reminding us there is celebration in living.
For the purpose of this review I’m going to look at a couple of the newer works found in the collection, but I assure you they are quite indicative of his style and craft. While I’ve introduced Snider as having a compelling poetic voice, he is also quite skillful in the writing of a great poem, showing mastery over technique, detail, and language. Snider writes from the brain as well as the heart—the end result is a one-two-knock-out-punch of a poem. In his poem, “The Blond,” he perfectly demonstrates this well-balanced combination. In it, the speaker laments over a man whose name he cannot remember, a stranger he’d admire from afar at the beach during the “hormonal 70’s,” only to happen upon the same man again a decade later, now dying of AIDS. Snider’s use of imagery throughout the narrative is vivid and smart. He describes the gay beach in which he’d lust after the man as a “brew of oiled bodies,” and he cleverly creates contrast in his depiction of the man when he runs into him years later:
a scene at the butch bar
in North Long Beach. He’d lost
lots of hair, gained a shrunken face.
I particularly like the effectiveness of Snider’s use of enjambment—choosing to end a line on the word “lost,” creates multiple layers of meaning and engages the reader in its subtext. By the end of the poem, the speaker learns the man did indeed notice him, allows him his closure, and mourns him among “unnumbered others:”
Why did he talk to me?
I was the only person he recognized,
this itself a wounded surprise.
He wanted to say good-bye to someone,
to bid farewell to the life he’d had.
I obliged and learned his name,
evaporated now like unnumbered others
I knew and did not know.
Again, Snider excels in his strong use of imagery; he describes his surprise as “wounded” and names are not merely forgotten, they become “evaporated.” Snider also revisits the first line/idea of the poem, which is that he “can’t remember his name” in the poem’s conclusion, thus connecting the beginning of the poem perfectly with its end. The final line, “I knew and did not know,” is a somber moment of mixed emotion—an ending that is as eloquent as it is effective, calling the reader to feel that which the speaker must feel.
Snider continues to show his strength for vivid detail in the poem, “Whitman’s Armpit.” The title alone is a winner—humorously alluring—and I dare anyone not to be enticed by it. The poem is simple in execution: the speaker says he knows a woman “who could not taste or smell./She fed from a tube on her side.” Sadness for her state is implied, and the speaker lists all the smells he’d prefer to “take to the other side” rather than be robbed of the sense come his final days. In the crafting of his list, Snider smartly reveals just what kind of man the speaker of the poem is—what in life is important to him far beyond each distinct aroma:
I’ll take the stink of the toilet,
the skunk, the sewer, the dead animal
if also I get the scent of Eternity
from a bottle, lavender from a bush,
night-blooming jasmine, sage,
an orange grove in the spring,
burning fire logs,
the ocean at twilight,
scent of oil fresh on canvas,
pages of a book newly published
or off the shelf of a vintage store
or library,—better still
a musty mansmell, clean,
unperfumed, Whitman’s armpit—
yes, that would suffice
to take to the other side.
The imagery in this list is quite vibrant and certainly works to create a sense of identity. I appreciate the speaker’s willingness to accept the awful smells of this world, if it means he keeps all the ones that bring him joy—how this poem serves to remind the reader that we must all outweigh the bad in life with the good, that in the end it is worth it. Speaking of endings, this poem’s is splendid. The reader is waiting for the title’s context to appear, and for it to do so as that which is the best scent the speaker can think to go out on (both in life and as the poem’s closing) is both surprising and exceptionally tactile. Snider turns scent into something with real weight—it is a strong finish to a solid poem.
Snider is a poet who writes with a quiet ferocity. Understanding language is sacred, he chooses his words with great care and crafts poems with surgical precision.
This attention to technique compliments the meditative nature of his work and aids the reader to see the world in ways they had not thought to look before.
Yes, Moonman, is a large (but worthy), career-spanning collection whose mere spine may very well intimidate the other poetry books on your shelf, but it deserves a place on that shelf nonetheless. Because of its vast content, I assure you this collection doesn’t just have something for everyone—it has a lot of somethings for everyone. Snider should be essential reading; his are poems that stick to the ribs the way a hot, home cooked meal does in the dead of winter—they nourish the spirit.
— Eric Morago