Andrew Gottlieb Reviews Heaven from Steam: Poems by Carol Light, Reckless Lovely by Martha Silano, Sea-level Nerve (Book One): Prose Poems by James Grabill, and Manual for Extinction by Caroline Manring
A number of exceptional books flung themselves over the transom at Terrain.org in past months, trophy fish offering their colors for consideration with voices spanning a variety of tones, from sharp, playful, and humorous to languorous, calm, and meditative. The writer is a teacher whose voice leads us to a (re)vision of what we may already know. Entire vistas shed disguise as we embrace an alternate way of seeing and feeling via an author’s language. Here are a few from which we particularly enjoyed learning.
A debut book of poems by Carol Light, Heaven from Steam, brings brief moments of life alive in a calm, wise, and steady voice, steady in a way that clarifies the author’s position in things via a felt certainty. These 45 poems in seven sections are often almost stories, little narratives that suggest a prose, but the linguistic acrobatics of the author prevent simplistic description. These poems are painted with a careful hand, a hand aware of the color of sound and the hue of juxtapositions.
Would I miss the way a breeze dimples the butter-colored curtains on Sunday mornings
or nights gnashed by cicadas and thunderstorms?
This seemingly simple start to the sonnet “Prairie Sure” gives access to Light’s control, a question that places us not just in a memory or philosophical mode of thinking—the past, what value?—but as well puts us on stage in what might be an Arthur Miller drama, the kitchen on a Sunday morning, the curtains, butter-colored, shifting, the narrator enduring memories of long nights. Action. The careful assonance, not overdone, but guiding us in easy steps.
Light’s work explores moments of place and landscape, of regret and loss, though it’s coupled with humor, and the manifest wisdom in the poems communicates maturity rather than any bitterness. In “Long Division,” a poem of divorce, she writes:
She feather dusts the furniture and kneads the bread-dough with her fists. And if they’d tried harder? She kept the dog, but the dog died.
There is something masculine about these poems, a tone that reminds one of even a poet such as Robert Frost. It’s partly the nouns like deer, bread-dough, and dog dancing their way through well-controlled forms, but it’s our author, too, whose poems are admirably understated, classically served. And with a touch of clever humor in the vein of Charles Simic or Heather McHugh. In the longer, several-sectioned poem, “Postcards from Ponza, the Prison Island”:
How much happiness is squandered waiting for the end? The present tenses when it can’t accommodate the future.
Whether working in haikus or sonnets, Light has given us a mature book of poetry.
Martha Silano’s fourth book of poems, Reckless Lovely, brings a vigorous, active voice to her verse. There are aerobics here, there is yoga. Silano’s work is assertive and lively in a way that flings the curtains and lets in the sun. In “Ode to Mystery,” she writes:
Mystery of spiraling nautilids, benthic tubeworms, swinging-both-ways squid.
O humans and their enormous heads barely eking through the canal, anointing each other
genius when clearly paramecium deserve the laurels.
One feels Silano’s mind moving along the language clothesline picking only the brightest of items, linking sound and meaning, bringing us back to high school biology class to show us the celebrations of life.
This postage-stamp proportioned book has a variety of forms, but is mostly free verse broken into couplets. There is an ode to Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows, an ode to artichokes, these poems a quirky humor tackling what feels like fresh topics, but there are more serious issues, too. Silano’s “The Untied States of America” is part ode, part epitaph:
America, an orchard. America, we are all going to college in diapers. The prognosis is good, but first a year in Guatemala, a stint with the Nationals,
a frosty cold one. America, you’re a Wells Fargo horse-drawn carriage.
It’s not all laughs; Silano has her intelligent quarrel with the world, her eloquent challenges to living in today’s society, but even these move along with her tendency to short phrases, a staccato pacing that helps create this volume’s energy. There’s a little bit of Allen Ginsberg here, a little bit of Tom Waits, and a lot of Ella Fitzgerald with her bright, clear voice carrying above all of it, scatting along, asking indeed how high the moon. (Read two poems in the book originally appearing in Terrain.org.)
How deep the sea asks James Grabill in his new book of poems, Sea-Level Nerve (Book One): Prose Poems. Grabill’s language is an ecological Tao of sorts, a mingling of science and epigram that poses crucial questions of the natural world and of humanity. These are prose poems, more than 70 of them, arranged alphabetically by title. There is water everywhere, a shallow water table supporting the float of it all. In “Floods of Peopling” he writes:
Overpopulation continues to erupt from poor villages on wrists of rivers.
Later, in the poem “In the Presence of Stone,” he writes:
This rain from the ocean comes in cold, with its arms open, naked and seemingly inevitable.
Grabill’s awareness of the natural world’s floundering under its human burden perhaps drives this collection, but his lyricism softens the call. There’s a calmness to his language, something refreshingly monkish. The tone is that of a wise elder observing, considering, both skeptical of his peers and their actions but accepting and understanding of the vast scope of the universe.
But what’s perhaps most interesting in the collection is the surreal nature of the juxtapositions, language choices that reveal a poet taking chances with language, creating new meanings, upping the complexity of the work. From the poem, “In and Out of Time”:
The vast experiment of the cells makes us related. Day climbs out of the future underground history near a few billion hammers pounding in the massive coliseum of ideas
In just two sentences we go from the cellular to the abstract. We leap from the present to a future, and then feel back in the present, as we realize how familiar the hammers are and sound, the feel of the monotonous nail-driving.
Thus, there’s challenge here, even as moments of calm like a flat sea prevail. The reader will engage with the book as Grabill expects them to. In the opening poem, “A Few Peels Around the Onion Core” he reminds us:
You lift a finger because you are a person of interest and no one is alone.
Caroline Manring’s debut collection, Manual for Extinction, is a how-to guide to the diminishing world, to existence, to our human nature, where abstractions umbrella witty, poignant specifics. Manring is a selective teacher, leading us down the hall, beckoning yet always two corners ahead, urging us on to the next image perhaps before we know we’re ready. In the poem “How to Number the Abundant Things While They Are Still Abundant” she writes:
we must make endings meet this is a place called Earth
I hurried to the fence & said I too wanted
The longing here grabs us as the poem finishes, the narrator at the fence, the human wanting, but it’s also the beauty of that specific image happening on a place called Earth, the declaration, the link to language and writing and death (endings, not ends) that captures our admiration.
We must be clear. Manring will give you few easy environmentally-oriented platitudes. This is not that book. To the contrary, this is a manual with no easy step-by-step directions. The pieces are here, but the assembly will take some work. Similar to Dean Young, the juxtapositions will long-stride you to places that offer as many questions as answers. In “How to Factory Farm” she writes:
No matter how many times you count you still have to cram
your tenderness down their throats so they can die well, as with a prayer or a flash of heavy silver from the generous heaving water.
We have the possession of counting paired with the tenderness of killing, the religious generosity of the most dangerous sort of water. These are poems to be read and read again, an activity that will reward with newness.
And though these examples may not make it clear, Manring plays with form, in fact, quite actively. There are simpler forms with short or long couplets; there are stepping stones spread out across the page, spacing employed to distance elements of the work; there are justified paragraphs of prose; there are unconventional nursery rhymes, there is an adapted Old English, Chaucer’s alter ego playfully taking the modern page. Punctuation, too, gets it play day with occasional commas opening lines. But always paired with the comfortable recognition of any form or tone is the challenge of Manring’s language, her adaptation, a creativity that earns respect.
To close, we cite the entire poem “How to Abandon Prose”, where Manring writes:
If you can scoop names from your mouth like minerals you are a quarry where one can see the earth clear as a bedroom.
She has an agate somewhere; there won’t be an autobiography. She knows her collection so well it is
no longer hers.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook, Halflives (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.