Lovesick, by Howie Good

Lovesick cover
When selecting a text for bibliomancy, there are several important considerations. First, is it long enough? Anything under 100 pages doesn’t give the demiurge of chance enough room to operate. Second, are its contents diverse? A tightly plotted novel or a thematically unified collection of poetry is fine for pleasure reading, but for readings of the divinatory kind you need the greatest possible variation in content from one page to the next. And third, does the text combine straightforward syntax and expression with esoteric and sometimes thoroughly recondite content? This is essential. The highly selective listening employed in divination presupposes a broad spectrum of notes in many keys and registers.

Lovesick, the first full-length book by the prolific chapbook author Howie Good, easily meets all three criteria. Even the titles of its five parts are suggestive: “Apocalypse Mambo,” “A Tiny Fugue for Tomorrowland,” “Ghosts of Breath,” “Abandoned But Still Burning” and “Sleep Rituals.” Its main drawback is the lack of a hardcover edition; ideally, the divinatory text should open flat. The author’s own evident secular humanism might seem to be a problem, but diviners and other fanatics have been actively conspiring in the death of the author for thousands of years; one more shouldn’t prevent much difficulty. If some American Sufis can turn a Charles Simic poem into a parable, it shouldn’t be hard to make Lovesick into a manual for the lovelorn or a touchstone for the touched-by-an-angel crowd.

Allow me to demonstrate. I’ll ask a basic question, something for the lovelorn, making sure to phrase it so it doesn’t require a yes or no answer: What does X think of me? I riffle the pages rapidly back and forth under my thumbs, 49 times in all, then catch the edge of a page with my thumbnail. The poem is “Let it Burn.” The third sentence reads, “I can still hear gas hissing from shower heads, still feel the sun like a scabrous hand on my back.” Well, that seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Let’s try another typical question people ask: Should I file for bankruptcy? This time the book opens to “Giant Killer.” Whoa, this is intense.

The barking grows fiercer. In his panic and confusion, the giant trips on the uneven cobblestones. Maybe it’s the drugs everyone took in college, or the years of road rage since then, but people just step around him, pretending he isn’t lying there, huge and helpless.

Another question people are asking a lot these days is Should I go back to school? Tell us, oh universe-in-a-book! I lose count of the number of riffles before I jab my right index finger onto a random left-hand page. It lands on “How to Write a Story,” second sentence.

It’s important that there be
lost children, but the search dogs

should be tired, or even better,
dubious, and with no way

to stop the bleeding
in the region of the brain

that controls our tears.

Now let’s try some questions with farther-reaching implications. How about this: Will the Republican Party achieve a majority in either house of Congress in the mid-term elections next fall? This time I hold the book upside-down just to make sure the results aren’t biased by my right-handedness.

My finger lands on a poem called “The Dystopian Imaginary,” a one-sentence piece that ends:

…wearily wheeling an ash barrel
into the ghostly precincts of dawn,

a stranger’s name flowing in loops
of soiled thread just above my heart.

Sounds ominous. The interpretation, of course, would depend on which political party the client favors. Divination long ago recognized and embraced the observer’s paradox.

What will it take to bring about peace in the Middle East? I ask next. I hold the book behind my back this time. The results are very interesting. As Dave Barry would say, I swear I’m not making this up: it’s “Black Friday,” about shoppers in New Hope, Pennsylvania, entering stores ravaged by an unnamed catastrophe and trying to buy fire in another color besides red. This might sound somewhat discouraging, to put it mildly, but the words “new hope” are there, and with a little creative spinning, the media-savvy diviner should have no trouble making lemonade out of it.

Bibliomancy is, of course, not the only lens through which to read this new classic of American surrealist poetry, nor is it necessarily the one I would recommend to the faint-of-heart. You could also read it front to back, breathlessly, exclaiming over the ones you remember from Howie’s chapbooks, saying things like “You’ve lost a couple of words, haven’t you? You look great!” You could keep it by the bed and read it whenever you’re waiting for a phone call. You could keep it on your desk at work, next to the computer, and pick it up everytime you’re waiting for something to download, upload, or update. This morning, I was re-reading Lovesick in between saving videopoems to a different format. And at the moment, I am using it to procrastinate on preparation for tomorrow’s public reading from my Odes to Tools. But hey, here’s a poem that relates even to that: “Clawhammer Snapdragon.” “I stagger out the door under an armload of poems,” it begins,

feverish red ones, friendless gray ones,
dark purple ones like the aftertaste of a scream.

Women cross the street to avoid me.
Cars honk in derision. Nobody asks, Hey,
do you need any help with those?

The poem ends:

I stare as if in challenge
into the hooded eyes of storefronts,
nod hello to words — snapdragon, clawhammer —

almost too beautiful and broken to repeat.

Beautiful. Broken. Now I have a notion of where to begin.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Child of Nature, by Luljeta Lleshanaku

Child of Nature cover
I read the book in a morning, barely stirring from my chair on the porch, while the sky’s milk turned sour in the sun. On page 7, the town drunkard was “Monday’s Saint, guilty of everything.” On page 9, children in an old photograph looked as if they were wearing “lives borrowed from elsewhere,” and a cardinal switched to a higher-pitched song as he climbed the dead elm on the far side of my yard. I skipped ahead to the author’s Afterword and was struck by her suggestion that “freeing objects of their function is the first step toward understanding them.”

In the Lleshanaku family — political outcastes in Hoxha’s Albania — prayer was something done in secret, and they considered it a weakness, “like making love … followed by the long/ cold night of the body.” Winter was ending on page 17, and its sky flattened things with elephants’ feet. On page 18, people maintained that “if you eat books you will eat yourself/ little by little,” and a rustle made me look up in time to see a small groundhog slinking across the yard, head low among the blue myrtle flowers. I found myself wishing I was already finished eating the apple in my hand so I could startle him with a tossed core.

“Spring kills solitude with solitude,” I read on page 20, “imagination/ the sap that shields you from your body.” A book “will be skimmed over impatiently, starting at the last page,” and I knew from the Afterword that here Lleshanaku was talking about her own habits. A wild turkey hollered his lust from above the barn. Trucks in the quarry two miles away labored out of the pit in low gears or shrieked in reverse. “Don’t blame me for losing the ability to see what’s new.”

A pair of chickadees landed in the flowering cherry beside the porch, their legs thin as piano wires, and when the male sang he blended phrases from two different songs. On page 24, a poem was “a bullet without a target” fired into the air, and on page 27, a witness wasn’t “allowed to think/ after swearing herself in on the battered book of truth/ with an illiterate hand.” I tried to imagine growing up in a place where books were rare, truth even rarer, and both of them dangerous.

Now I heard a hen turkey, too, her hoarse want want want want want, and the white-throated sparrow’s Poor Sam Peabody from the far side of the springhouse, that odd, jail-like building now flanked by daffodils. “A prisoner’s dreams/ are parchment/ made sacred by its missing passages,” I read on page 29, and two pages later, shoveling soil on the dead had “become as common/ as sprinkling salt on food.”

When I came to the end of Part I, I was taken aback by the additional blank sheet between the sections. Up in the woods, a two-squirrel chase came to an abrupt end when a third squirrel tried to join in. The guard stationed in a booth at the cemetery gates played chess with himself on page 37, and I looked down at my chair and noticed for the first time how the plastic was worn rough at the ends of the arms, right before the bend where they turned into legs.

Love entered on page 39, and I heard a solitary or blue-headed vireo calling from above the end of the old corral — the only time he sang all morning. A river on page 40 was irreversible, and a train blew its whistle for our crossing, following another river. “In love two bodies become one cactus,” I wrote, copying the poet’s words in my atrocious handwriting. A page later, the slam of a door interrupted my reading of “Particularly in the Morning,” and a moment’s inattention allowed my father to enter the poem with his laundry basket. I glanced up at the other house where a a row of blue socks were already hanging from the line.

On page 44, hunger began to rumble in my gut. “What tree?” the poem kept asking. “What tree?” I glanced up at the cherry in time to see the first two petals fall, just two days old. The sheets of a hotel bed on page 49 were “made by anonymous hands,” and the protagonist stretched herself out “like a silk bookmark/ between newly read pages of a book.”

There was “A Question of Numbers” on page 52: “Two people form a habit./ Three people make a story.” The first of many carpenter bees motored slowly past my ear. Five pages later, the peak of a mountain that marked the edge of the familiar world held its snow all year, mirroring the sky, but “like a dogma” never touching it. I decided I liked poems that made me stop to think in the first few lines, even though it made finishing the book in one sitting a more daunting task.

The sun went in, and then it went farther in. Elsewhere the sky was blue, but this was as irrelevant as the memory of happiness during depression — or so I scribbled in my notes. Something odd was happening in Part III: the protagonist was switching genders unpredictably. In the title poem, “Child of Nature,” he or she disappeared at the moment of conception, when the wrong chromosomes begin to mix. On page 65, men were only able to touch the world through their sons, “the way latex gloves/ lovingly touch the evidence/ of a crime scene,” and in the next poem, men without sons were unable to pass on their secret inheritance, “not the secret itself/ but the art of solitude.” She’s onto me, I thought. A fly with a shiny black abdomen landed on the page.

In a “Meditation While Shaving” on page 70, a son remembered his father’s advice: “A power of a man … is measured by the things he doesn’t do./ Passion should be kept hidden, like a turnip!” Rich words, however misguided, I thought. Four pages later, an equally potent image: the mother on an airplane flight reaching one hand under her seat to feel for the life jacket, “Like a child touching a book of fairy tales under her bed.”

I was almost out of room on the sheet of paper I was using for notes, and my writing grew smaller and smaller even as the carpenter bees multiplied: the village madwoman as “history, unable to lay blame on anyone” but cursing all equally on page 79, and on page 85, the moving finger of a man reading from his own diary, like “the finger of fate, getting ahead of itself.” In the last poem, lightning struck a furrowed field, and winter smothered “all fear beneath it,/ a time of awakening.” I slipped my notes between the last page and the back cover, which were two very different shades of white.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Underground Singing, by Harry Humes

Underground Singing cover

I would’ve liked to read this book to my grandfather, the one born in a coal patch town a few miles from where Harry Humes grew up. He too struggled to find the proper names for the things in his memory which he knew as well as he knew anything, like the “long-legged bird … dark blue with a drift of feathers hanging from its neck” that landed for a moment beside the coal slurry pond, while the coal miners’ children “went on putting our ears to the slush, but had no name for what we thought we heard.” When I met Humes at a reading ten years ago, I was shocked by how much he resembled my great uncle, Pop-pop’s younger brother, especially around the mouth. Maybe there’s something to the Eastern Pennsylvania way of expressing oneself that shapes the face, the easy laughter and self-deprecating manner concealing hard truths.

Though his family left The Coal for Pottstown when he was a boy, Pop-pop loved poetry all his life, and his imagination had no trouble filling in gaps in his knowledge, most notably in the genealogy that preoccupied him in his later years. He would’ve chuckled, I think, at the story of Harry’s father telling the future by reading pigeon bones, or the three circus elephants dancing to polka music that prompted the narrator to think of “the old Polish women … of Ash Alley/ and Raven Run” dancing at wedding receptions, “suddenly girls again.” He certainly would’ve understood the impulse to return for a class reunion like the one in the book, where the Master of Ceremonies’ genial, unsettling question — “How do you like all this?” — ripples outward through the other poems. Did any of Pop-pop’s Mahanoy City aunts favor blue flowers as houseplants, as Harry’s mother did, and if so, would he have remembered what they were called? I wonder if he would’ve agreed with the sound of coughing as the one sharp memory from that time and place.

I daresay he would’ve recognized something deeply Pennsylvanian in Humes’ combination of plainspokenness and circumspection, in his avoidance of the melodramatic. I remember asking Humes after that reading ten years ago whether he had written anything about Centralia, the town that famously had to be abandoned because of the slow fire burning in the mine beneath it. “Nope. Too obvious,” he said. I know of at least five poets who evidently thought otherwise, including W. S. Merwin. Merwin had to move to Hawaii before he found his true voice, though, while Humes stayed close to home, as Pennsylvanians so often do, and sharpened his hearing.

Humes’ poetry may avoid the most obvious ploys, but that doesn’t mean it lacks in emotional impact. It just means that it’s impossible to predict at which point in a book of his poems I’ll find a lump forming in my throat or my eyes growing damp; it might be a different place each time. And as he suggests in “The River of Eyes,” even such an innocuous thing as moist eyes can be a portent of death, “the eye that it in a year would be gone,/ and in another year my sister gone after great pain” — unlike the indelible scar on his left knee from a fall on a coal bank as a child, “pale blue/ and unblinking after all those years … an oracle of sorts, always sighing or weeping…” (There are so many blues in this book, both of the literal and figurative kind. Kudos to Ron Mohring for designing the perfect cover.)

Memories are always a bit uncertain, but what about our perceptions of the present? Are the trees in heavy winds really as full as they seem of “floor creak,/ and water splashing a sink, plate rattle, hymns”? What about a dead father’s voice in an old trunk full of his things, or the “Underground Singing” of the title poem, the miners’ songs that seem to permeate the world above? The same man who reads pigeon bones carries a special lamp into the mine “to check for gas,/ the flame inside the glass turning color/ at the least trace” — and emerges from the darkness giddy after such a scrying, “almost dancing” home.

These poems are set in a time a couple decades more recent than my Pop-pop’s childhood, but I’m sure he would’ve appreciated the numerous references to a well-loved natural world, a familiarity borne of a boyhood spent largely out-of-doors. If he were still alive, I’d ask him if he remembers people keeping homing pigeons, “direction imprinted on each feather/ and pulse of blood and muscle.” As a life-long gardener, I’m sure he’d understand the impulse to plant trees behind the house, “a little like boats/ moored to the hillside,/ at any moment ready to take us.” I can picture him climbing a steep slope through laurel and huckleberry to descend into a hidden ravine with an abandoned mine tunnel, a secret place all his own, and before leaving it for the final time, maybe even “eating/ a little dirt so [he] would never forget.”

This is a book of mysteries, set in a place with a mythic yet all-too-real underworld that swallows men alive and re-creates itself in the tunnels of their lungs. It would be easy to focus just on that darkness, I’m sure, and neglect the singing. And Humes writes as often of the nearer dark in his family’s dirt cellar, not to mention the hills and rivers beyond. Perhaps the greatest mystery of the book is how a mere 17 poems, so full of hesitations and uncertainties, can conjure up so a complete a world.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month, with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Mother Said, by Hal Sirowitz

cover of Mother Said
When I bought your book the other week, Mr. Sirowitz, it was in perfect condition except for the inscription on the end paper: “DELIA / {from jaime},” which I suppose means that Delia and Jaime broke up and she didn’t want to be reminded of him anymore, though it’s possible that he shot her like the guy in that song “Delia” by Johnny Cash, maybe because she didn’t appreciate the book, and he got rid of it as incriminating evidence. You never know.

“Jaime” doesn’t sound like a very Jewish name — though you never know about that either — but it kind of suggests that some goyim do enjoy your poems about family life. Or at least, Jaime did. And me too: I liked it well enough to read it twice, all 128 pages of it, even if the parents in the book were nothing like my parents, and some of the poems in your own voice seemed a little flat because, let’s face it, you’re not the complex thinker your mother was. But your publisher did an outstanding job shaking down people for blurbs — two of them even compare you favorably with Woody Allen and Philip Roth. I’m sure your mother would’ve been proud to read that.

Aside from the inscription, which is in black ink, it was a very good-condition hardcover — I liked the cover design, and I remembered liking the animations I found on YouTube of a couple poems from the book (even though they were in Norwegian with English subtitles) so I bought it. I put it on a chair with several dozen other books I’ve piled up to read this month.

Unfortunately, a mouse came along and ate a three-inch-long strip from the dust jacket, top center, right above the word “Mother.” I don’t know why it didn’t sample any of the other books on the chair. There must be something special about yours, although I know some readers will disagree.

The mouse was kind of a slovenly eater, leaving two bite-marks in the cover — obviously it never listened to its mother either. I would be more upset about this if I’d bought the book new, but fortunately I only paid 80% of $4.50 — the bookstore was having a sale. I might not have bought it otherwise, though if I hadn’t I would’ve missed the occasional gems of wisdom in it. I reproduce some of these below in case people don’t believe me, having only heard you on NPR’s All Things Considered or seen you on MTV’s Spoken Word Unplugged — fine programs to be sure, but always more concerned with the flashy or freakish than anything thoughtful, and afraid to devote more than a few minutes to any one topic. That’s fine if all you want to be is a slam poet, of course, performing for drunks in bars, but I’m not sure that’s why your parents invested so much in your upbringing and education. They’d have wanted you to be taken seriously, especially when the better part of your schtick consists in repackaging their own words to you.

So even though I realize you were probably not trying to be wise, I did notice a number of sayings that would not be out of place in any collection of proverbs. Forgive me if I omit line breaks when transcribing these. If people want the line breaks, they can get a hold of your book for themselves, which I encourage them to do if they can find it in a public library or used bookstore, and can keep it away from the vermin which seem so fond of it.

The more you visit the dead, the less you have to say. (mother)

I happen to be wrong tonight. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be right tomorrow. (father)

Each time I hear my dog bark, she might be asking for you. (girlfriend)

The morning only starts after you’ve made your bed. (mother)

The night plays tricks on you. It makes you think you’re smarter than you are. (father)

Save [God] for bigger things, like if one of us gets sick. (mother)

Even a bum has to work hard convincing people that he’s really poor. (mother)

Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean the airline will let you fly for free. (mother)

The most you can do is make sure that when [death] comes it doesn’t cost you an arm & a leg. (father)

She says she’s very fond of you, but people say that about puppies they’re about to give away. (mother)

Words are everywhere. They’re in your shoe & in the label of your underwear. (mother)

The way to avoid a crisis is to speak in general terms. (therapist)

You tell a stranger your life story. But when you visit me you shut up. (mother)

They claimed that they improved on the Bible by adding the New Testament. But you & I both know that when you try to improve on something by making it bigger, like adding more bread crumbs to the meatloaf, it’s never as good as if you just left it alone. (mother)

Great metaphor, Estelle Sirowitz! You see, Hal really did love you to immortalize your words like that.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Bear Stories, by J’Lyn Chapman

Bear Stories cover

Welcome to the chimerical wilderness of neo-animism, a “forest built from a tree,” a “specific world in a dense abstraction.” Step away from mindless consumption; rent yourself a cabin and engage in a more mindful brand. Trace the meat back to its source. Become a connoisseur of the hunt, gather stories of appetite and violence, gaze at auguries through telescopes and read your own entrails. I know in my gut what a hunger for narrative can do to a poem, how it can lead one to toy with non sequiturs and build alluring traps from a spare rib. But this book is set before the genesis of numbers: its pages are brown and speckled and its cover is a summons to the dissolution that awaits us all. I got it several months ago as a gift in the mail from a poet in Oregon. The protagonist, who may or may not be the author, is hot for the hyperbole of heat and need, in heat or out of it, married to the bear or the barmaid. The book is small enough to fit in a pocket, and in fact I have taken it into the woods with me, as much to introduce it to a real woods as to savor its dense language, printed almost to the edge of the pages. But it’s cold out this morning, so this time I’m reading it in the living room of what I never thought to call a cabin. I hear a squirrel’s claws on the kitchen window and what I suspect is a young woodchuck bumping against the cold air return duct under the floor. (Isn’t it nice of the furnace to take back the cold?)


This time I am trying to read Bear Stories as if the speaker in every poem were really a bear, in keeping with the book’s own thought-experiment or being-in-the-world-experiment style. But it doesn’t work. The first page in Animism for Dummies says, Know your animals before they know you. I begin to think that Chapman’s bears are really raccoons: bear-like, to be sure, but more charming and much less discriminating, adaptable to the habitats eviscerated by human habitation. Her wolves are bloodthirsty mustelids. I do not think this is a fable about consumerism, but it could be. Consider the raccoon’s obsessive-compulsive washing of its food. Consider its sense of fun, its legendary appetite for sex with multiple partners and its highly marketable lucky penis bone. The protagonist claims she knows nothing about “the fish in the bottom of the river … the winter birds in their molting. I cannot tell the difference between this tree and that one.” But she says, “I want no project except to watch and to give over the body to the body.” Chapman’s prose poems are full of beautiful fragments, the kinds of trinkets a raccoon would hoard. Even more tellingly, she compares her stories to wasp nests, with their drones and sugar wrapped in paper. But now I am feeling a bodily urgency of my own. The morning coffee has run its course, and when I go out to urinate I station myself, as I do so often, in front of a dead wild rose with rapier thorns, as if my hairless trouser mouse feels some primal need to face down the sharp-fanged weasels of the wood. This is the easy bravado we bring to what’s left of the wild these days, forgetting that the midnight oil we burn day and night is nothing like mother’s milk, and that we could be getting almost all the meat we need from the motherly oaks.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

This April Day, by Judson Mitcham

This April Day cover

Easter morning. Another perfect day to sit outside and read, pausing to watch the sun pour through red maple blossoms and forsythia. This might be why I prefer poetry to fiction: it does not take you completely out of the world. But Judson Mitcham comes from rural Georgia, from cotton fields and church suppers and sandlot baseball, and I am made to reconsider what I think an April day might mean. I’m seeing double, which is always a good thing.

Where an earlier book of his might’ve looked Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, a poem in this one sports an epigraph from Ecclesiasticus, and soon I am finding fresh apocrypha everywhere. Mass mailings sent to a man eight years dead bristle with significance. Lines of pure poetry are fathered upon a couple at an airport whispering in an unknown language. By page 29, I too am “getting lost on purpose.” A Klan gathering turns out to be little more than a worship service, and rock guitar riffs a legacy “from unknown men with second-hand guitars.” For some reason, the truth of these simple assertions gives me chills. An old woman writes a love letter to a man named Clarence, who used to make up stories about the drivers of cars going past in the darkness, and I can sense that attraction, too. Who needs the truth when an artful invention will do?

The church bells are ringing in town, but I can’t make out the melody, only the notes. (It sounds odd to put it that way, doesn’t it?) I read, “God’s editors erased what they thought not right,” about the pious canon-creators and their deafness to any laughter on the part of Jesus. A few pages later, there’s a poem in four parts called “Laughter,” and oy, it is as close to difficult parable as anything in the book. Mitcham knows how the smell of insecticide might provoke longing, how a fart at the right moment can be redemptive, and how the sound of one’s own laughter can prompt a sudden recognition of home, even when

The developers had cut
the old oaks, leveled off the hills, even made
the road go straight where it shouldn’t have, so
the homeplace seemed like a lie he had told
all his life, to himself.

I read these apocrypha just as I read the Bible: with great enjoyment tinged with a little bit of wistfulness for a storytelling tradition I could never quite feel at home in. But homelessness is the natural state of most poets, and Mitcham (or at least his protagonist) is no exception. He flees from a proselytizing woman on an airplane only to encounter in the concourse full of strangers his own “hope of someone waiting there/ who loved me.” A poem called “Home” is set in a home for the elderly, where “a history of groans began to grow/ till the sing-song noise made sense.”

A Cooper’s hawk begins to chitter up in the woods. I think of the hermit thrush I watched sing from a branch beside the porch two hours before, the quiet, ethereal song seeming to come from a great distance. “We are,” says Mitcham, “like/ the hymns once played on the out-of-tune piano … versions no one else/ will ever reproduce.”

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Night Mail: Selected Poems by Novica Tadić

Night Mail by Novica Tadic
It ends before it ends, “neither in the title nor in the poem,” and I feel sorry for flames that started out as feathers. A sparrow darts into the cedar tree and doesn’t come out — I’m watching — and the tree twitches all over like someone with a bad case of scruples. Novica Tadić looks a Trojan horse in the mouth and finds a comb.

There are many ways to descend and this poet knows all of them. He goes down to the salt cellar and finds the unknown soldier’s unknown uniform, maybe. And he would try it on, and listen to the martial music, and pledge fidelity with the tip of someone else’s tongue. Yesterday, my mother watched a large, dark milk snake mating with two small garter snakes, and refused for a while to believe in what she had seen: out of such refusals is this kind of poetry made.

The cast of characters includes something monstrous on every other page — most often a chicken, or “the life-giving zero.” Musical accompaniment is provided by “a drum full of mice” and “a giggle made up of the screams of the dying” — that kind of thing. The poet disappears into the set.

At this point in my reading (p. 51, “Nightingale”), a log cock alights on the side of a nearby birch, crest bright as a stop light, and starts whaling away with his deconstructionist’s hammer and nail. Someone opens the night curtains and discovers that the streets are filled with marchers: all the city’s cats have gone on strike. “Our Jesus” is “a pincushion,” a hairdresser campaigns for God’s empty seat, and an anti-psalmist prays for the ridicule of his enemies. Against the white of the page I can make out the blur of a hair on the end of my nose, that almost-invisible flesh-colored companion of all my reading.

It’s Holy Saturday, which means (among other things) that we have silence from the quarry over the hill. The poet says “now” and it sounds like an imperative to me, he says to bring a chair outside and I get the feeling I’m being watched, which of course I am: everything watches everything else, as Tadić says on a page I’ve already lost track of. “From the penetentiary quarry/ the song of songs reaches us,” he writes. (Or Charles Simic does, at any rate.) It’s all there in black and white — the magpie, I mean. Page 90. You can’t miss it.

(Click on the thumbnail to go to the book’s page in Open Library.)

Notes from the Red Zone, by Christina Pacosz

Notes from the Red Zone

It’s been “re-bound,” the first in a series of chapbook reprints from Seven Kitchens Press: saddle-stitched with red thread and knotted in the middle. Notes from the Red Zone, say the red letters, but in the cover photo, the air around the cooling tower is green, and I can’t help translating into the lingo of the aughts: Notes from the Green Zone, with depleted uranium the link between the Hanford nuclear plant in Pacosz’ long poem, set in the early 80s, and our invasion and occupation of Iraq. We were searching, we said, for weapons of mass destruction, as if there were any other kind, as if we were not the chief authors and publishers of that story, tying the red knot at the center ourselves: the dust of vaporized DU shells that will be causing birth defects in Iraqi children for generations.

Why reprint such a book in 2009? Because the Cold War didn’t really end; we are merely in its half-life. “Slogans come easily,/ Life through death/ and they find comfort/ in the promise/ of resurrection,/ rapture in a pure land/ beyond this one.” The poet is a nomad and an interrogator, wondering “where the edge is/ and why there needs to be/ a form, something contained,” wondering about the word enemy. What is the link between domestic violence and war-making (“the woman/ short   indian/ wrinkled face/ purpled with bruises/ not sure she can continue/ paying the price”), between alienation from the natural world and hostility toward the other (“blue whale, Polish Jew, tiger, witch”)?

“How long have you lived here?” she asks the women, but the answer, “all our lives,” rings hollow. No man goes down to the river without a fishing pole, knife, hatchet or chainsaw, and no woman goes there alone at all — except the poet, wearing her alertness to the omnipresence of death like a red wool coat. “The conversation turns abruptly/ to the quality of roads/ leading out of town.” The one thing we all have in common is our desire to escape.

How should we think of a president who works actively to reduce nuclear stockpiles at the same time that he advocates a dramatic increase in nuclear power — and expresses skepticism at an enemy’s ability to make the same distinction between weapon and deadly tool? Who in Washington really speaks for nature now? While I am pondering this, the news comes in that the Environmental Protection Agency has at long last “clarified” the guidelines for coal mining to outlaw most forms of mountaintop removal in the Appalachians. Ah, clarity! That thing we read poetry for.

This is a short book, dangerous as a shiv between the ribs, requiring — in my case, at least — three tries to reach the heart: red zone. Maybe it’s time the poet faced some questions herself. I call her up and she answers on the second ring.

(Click on the thumbnail to go to the book’s page in Open Library. My conversation with Christina Pacosz will be featured on the Woodrat Podcast next week.)

UPDATE: Listen to the podcast.

These Happy Eyes, by Liz Rosenberg

These Happy Eyes, by Liz RosenbergMore light comes, she says, through horizonal windows: this is why her poems are in prose, and I suppose it’s also why the book is square, opening into double panes the color of thick cream. In the oddly blurry author photo on the back cover, she rests one, over-exposed hand on the branch of a Japanese maple in its autumn glory, but inside, the world is sharply focused, and more often than not it’s winter or early spring. She has numbers for the mailman — 1, 2 and 3 — rather than letters. Whatever she sees she becomes, or wants to, until it threatens to crush her in thirteen chapters. I don’t know that I have ever read a poet so attentive to the breathing of other people. She notices the spaces filled by flying snow, shadows, and the smoke from her neighbor’s chimney: “Nothing so small it does not drag an immense tail along behind it.” She listens to children. “What exactly did Kryptonite do to Superman? Krypton: his birthplace. Did it make him homesick?” The publisher’s logo, a woolly mammoth drawn in too-great detail, appears twice, the first time on the half-title page, a sombre, hairy contradiction to the words above it, These Happy Eyes. As I read, slumped in a plastic stack chair on my porch on the morning of April 1, three deer walk by in their ragged molting pelts, ears backlit and veined like autumn leaves that forgot to stop clinging. Woodpeckers drum, and some of the birds whose names this poet doesn’t appear to know become almost anonymous again, the familiar turning unknown — just the opposite of what she quotes Hölderlin as saying. I find an old index card with the draft of a poem scribbled on it and tear it into little bookmarks. Soon the book is bristling with these fragments, which are the same cream color as the pages. “I am,” she says, “not made the way I was taught to be.” My furnace rumbles to a halt and I catch my breath, read the last two poems in a new-found silence.

(Click on the thumbnail to go to the book’s page in Open Library.)

The plan

National Poetry Month logoAn exercise in close reading: that’s what I’m planning this year. I’m going to try reading a book of poetry a day, first thing in the morning after I come in off the porch, instead of just the usual half-dozen poems. And then I want to try writing about it: about the book, about the reading experience, or about whatever thoughts or memories it might shake loose. And because I do believe in the value of what John Miedema calls slow reading, these books will probably tend to be pretty short, though I have found that with the right level of concentration, it’s possible to read fifty or more lyric poems in one hour.

Why am I doing it? Three reasons, I guess. First, I love poetry books, and I feel I haven’t devoted nearly enough space to celebrating them here. I’ve been trapped in pre-conceived and rather boring notions of how to write about books, I think, and I’m hoping to break out of that.

Second, I’m curious about what a month-long immersion in poetry reading will do to me. Will it be mind-altering? Almost certainly. Will it change the way I read poetry? Maybe. Will it prove to be an overdose, and send me rushing naked and screaming into the streets? Well, let’s hope not.

Third, I do want to be part of the whole poetry month thing, and share a bit of fellowship with other poetry bloggers. But I’ve always had a hard time joining group activities, so if everyone else is writing poetry every day, I have to be reading it. I do hope to make time for reading the new poems that will be appearing on other people’s blogs, too, though. And maybe even writing a few of my own.