Nocturnes by Kathleen Kirk

Nocturnes NocturnesKathleen Kirk; Hyacinth Girl Press 2012WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder
This was the perfect companion for a quiet, rainy spring night. Kathleen Kirk‘s latest chapbook gathers 20 night-themed poems that together trace a landscape of loss and yearning, peopled by memories, dreams, ghosts, lovers and various errant moons. The book begins in Cuba, with a striking image of women wearing fireflies in their hair nets (“Cucuyo”) followed by several pieces from the perspective of a Cuban exile’s family, culminating in the grotesque “Our Son Dreams of the Beast Shark.” It then segues into “Stargazing with My Son,” introducing an astronomical theme that continues off and on throughout the book, mingled with, increasingly, poems about love and desire.

All of which is to say that the book is very well put together. As someone who has written several themed collections myself, I can attest to the difficulty of maintaining a good balance between unity and diversity, as Kirk does here.

Three of the poems are ekphrastic, responses to Whistler’s “nocturne” paintings — not surprising, considering that Kirk is poetry editor for Escape Into Life, a magazine devoted to the intersection between visual and literary arts. But even poems that weren’t sparked by paintings abound with painterly details: “A grey glob” of mortar “lands wet and heavy / on the plastic sheet / like a body part” (“Losing Cuba”), and the narrator’s skin is likened to “these moon-colored leaves (touch them!) / trembling in the moments / just before rain” (“Last Leaves”).

“Almost an Aubade” references Edward Hopper, his subjects “shining in their loneliness,” but unexpectedly turns into a love poem: “After the sharp dream of another, I come back to you…” The book is full of such artful inversions. Possibly the most unexpected poem, “When We Lived at Night” — my favorite in the collection — goes deep into our pre-human past, when “there was no time, / only the moment” and “we lay along the wide limb / of our new existence / in the trees, nocturnal together.”

What’s left of my reptilian brain
still longs to live in the moment,
that wretched clawing in the dust
suspended forever.
But there was no forever.

I relate to the poems about sleeplessness, “Acorns Rolling Off the Roof” and “Naked Dance”:

It’s three oh three,
I’ve dreamed a giant red poppy,
tall as a small tree …

It’s good to be lonely

at a time like this.
I wouldn’t want to wake the sleeping world
from its soft desserts.

There’s only one explicit reference to blues in this book, but if you love blues music as I do, the dominant mood should feel very familiar, that same mix of melancholy and exultation. Like good blues, these poems are never lugubrious, and aim to turn losses into something salutary: “When the time comes, / juncos will feast on this cold” (“Almost Winter”). Or as Kirk says at the end of “Cosmonaut”:

This shining loss is now a thing to be praised,
as stunning as a comet’s tail
or a transit of Venus,
or a black hole swallowing up life as we know it
and spitting it back out whole
somewhere else, without any teeth marks.

Kudos to Hyacinth Girl Press for their selection of this surprising and delightful book.

Book Four by Niina Pollari

Book Four. Book Four.Niina Pollari; Hyacinth Girl Press 2011WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
What are we to think of books of poetry that are deliberately odd? Book Four, for example, does not appear to be preceded by Books 1-3 by the same author. The editor/publisher, Margaret Bashaar, has added completely non-functional stitching and a large button to the cover (and varies this from one copy to the next — compare with the photo on the ordering page). And the poems are replete with metaphors and similes that confound rather than elucidate, following a strategy I’ve come to think of as “surrealism squared.”

This was, more or less, the question that Rachel and I found ourselves grappling with this afternoon as we read our way through the collection. I think our most common response was: “I really liked that, but I’m not sure why.” Which is, to my way of thinking, perfectly fine: it’s my reaction to most modern art, for example. Why hold the verbal arts to a tougher standard of immediate accessibility? It definitely helped to have a reading partner, though, to help suss out many of these poems. And reading them out loud clarified not only the aesthetic appeal of the language, but the extent to which the poems do seem to cohere, even if their coherence is not immediately obvious.

That’s a funny thing, because with Gary Barwin the other day, there were a number of poems where the imagery and language appeared to be somewhat random. That wasn’t the case with these poems. Even when we didn’t entirely understand what they were saying, they still seemed to be going somewhere — they had not only energy but gravity and direction.

When it moved like a pterodactyl inside you,
you knew the world you knew was leaving
and left. You tore the world like a ligament
still in you, and still, somehow. In the memorial
plaza of body parts, there are never enough heads.

(p. 21)

Naturally we had our favorites. Let me quote the short poem on page 10 (they’re all untitled) in full:

Turn antisolar. To a hill you’ve never been down.

Thunder and wildness, maybe the end of the world. On the horizon,
a raw wound’s labium: the bristling day blinks shut

like a cat eye, concealing the blaze-bulb pupil. Now that you’ve left it, you know

what home is like.

Pollari returns to a number of images in multiple poems, lending them a certain talismanic quality — and helping to unify the collection. She seems especially fond of edges, pits, oil, birds and secrets. Her landscapes are stark and often frightening, ablaze with visions which she seems unwilling either to affirm or deny: “I contain // an upside-down rain,” says one poem. Another laments “all these inconvenient spells.” An interlocutor sees angels and wants the narrator to share his/her doubts. “You wanted fuck your faulty / eyes, it was nothing like that. Which I couldn’t give.”

I don’t think I’m imagining an environmental consciousness at work in many of these poems — another thing that added to my pleasure. Here for example is how the poem on page 7 begins:

When the green world begins to leak
is when it begins. Someone pours buckets of black oil
into a canal. Liquid clings to things with skins and pores

and feathers, a girl turns white and sick just watching it.

The fact is that the world doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t necessarily the job of poets to invent new stories so we can continue to feed our delusion that we understand much of anything. Sometimes we learn more by living with the questions, even — or especially — when they’re unsettling, and implicate us in the world’s continual undoing.

Watch the broken down TV
in the dark, drink down the dark
malt liquor: it’s nobody’s
fault, we’ve all just stopped
in here, lit as a TV, blooming like tissue
in a trash fire. […]
How does an ecosystem sustain.
Where can I drive to. What sweet
buds do we have left to pick
my love, my love.
(p. 14)

Perhaps the oddness isn’t as deliberate as I thought; perhaps it’s unavoidable. And for all I know, this really is Niina Pollari’s fourth book. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for whatever she publishes next.