Boy Returning Water to the Sea by Andrea Selch

Boy Returning Water to the Sea by Andrea SelchThese are, the subtitle says, “koans for Kelly Fearing.” How are the poems koans, and in what sense are they “for” the artist, William Kelly Fearing, whose works prompted them?

for when he’s painting he’s in the ocean
for if the shell had fallen from his hands

for when he grew within her like a Volute or Olive
at first armless

for when the paintbrush fell from his hands
(“Holy Shell Waiting for the Return of the Soul/The Difficult Toy”)

Can we imagine a celebrated 90-year-old artist, one with evident mystic leanings, applying himself to the very non-mystical practice of meditating on Zen or Zen-like questions — questions suggested by a lifetime’s worth of his own paintings, drawings and collages? Wouldn’t that make him, in a sense, his own master?

Everyone and every thing has already come,
already gone, so there’s no hurry …
(“The Zebra’s Secret is Silver”)

And what of the poet then? Shall we liken her to the disobedient monks who surreptitiously recorded the questions of the ancient Chan masters and the responses of their students inside their voluminous sleeves?

Boys will be boys, but then also men:

His mantle is tattered, his feet torn,
and the handles of the basket are gone.
(“Boy Returning Water to the Sea”)

Why are so many animals here — birds, horse, owls, rhinoceros, zebra, giraffes, three pink fish and a mollusc shell — occupying the place of honor?

The cameo paper is filled
with the noise of a thousand birds.
(“Man Doing Isolation, Horseback”)

If we took our cues from birds or beasts, where would we end up?

Above him, in cobalt-becoming-marine,
the four swallows follow;
wherever he’s going will be home.
(“The Night of the Rhinoceros”)

But what sort of wisdom or enlightenment is being sought here, and by whom?

“Shall I dance for you with my one wing
under two orange suns, counting steps
three, four, five, six, seven,
or back off angrily, screeching,

“‘The secret is number one’?”
(“Owl with the Secret of the Enneagram”)

With the poem on the left and the artwork on the right, and their shared title matching the color of the latter, which is call and which is response? Is it inevitable in a work of ekphrastic poetry that the poem follow the art?

But she has stopped, lop-eared, frowning:
Why couldn’t it be one going one way,
the other, the other?
(“Two Giraffes in Arizona”)

Is the absense of page numbering intended to make each facing pair of cardstock pages, with no bleed-through from their neighbors, feel hermetic?

On the cliff above him, the angel Rafe
also hopes, as angels do, though
with his wings pinned back—impeccable.
(“The Place of Tobias and the Angel”)

Why, aside from the printing cost, are so few books of poetry illustrated in color (or at all), considering the extent to which readers of poetry fetishize books? What might we learn from color that the black type and whitespace alone are unable to express?

Not the heat in the summer,
nor the rain, when it rains, nor the way winter
lets you see miles away in perfect focus.
(“Texas is Much Smaller Here Floating through the Equinox”)

But isn’t there a kind of synaesthesia at work in this wedding?

To the eye, it’s nearly red.

Then close your eyes.
(“Large Bird Listening to the Sounds of Purple”)

If I revisit this book tonight in my dreams, to whom will the visions belong: to the poet or artist, to the painted animal or the animal that was painted?

In the gold there was copper; in the blue, fuschia;
and in the butterflies, flecks of the fallen sun’s last rays.
Little pink-faced owl, if she could choose otherwise,
she’d still choose butterflies.
(“Little Pink-Faced Owl with Butterflies”)

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

Goatfish Alphabet by Kristen McHenry

Goatfish AlphabetI am reading this book for the third time in as many years, carrying it into the library like a charm to make the other books talk, and into the gourmet section of the supermarket to awaken lust among the cheeses fresh from their caves. The first few pages bear greasy smudges near the bottom — what had I been eating the last time I read it?

The shoddy design, lack of pagination or ISBN, and other shortcomings of the book as object continue to annoy me, but I find the poems to be if anything more astonishing than they were the last time. I tell myself it isn’t they that are aging but the ripe cheese between my ears. The language is so good, at one point I realize I am actually drooling. I wipe my beard and hastily look around to see if anyone in the cafe noticed. I must be

half-dead with unspoke
(“The Goatfish Alphabet“)

as I slump

inch by mouldering inch,
Towards the soft enchantment of gravity.

The other patrons are like me, I think:

Joined, hushed, we gaze upon
the vibrant core of our loneliness.
Here, for a whole minute,

there is nothing but this hum.
(“Poetry Night at the Shelter: 1”)

It might be largely the effect of sleep deprivation, but

Today I’m transparent—all my buried happiness shows.
(“Jellyfish Dreams”)

This despite my gloomy conviction, as an environmentalist, that

My whole
damn species are fools, always skittering
toward some fresh perfection, always
outgrowing what loves us.
(“Hermit Crab’s Lament”)

But see, this is why great poetry can save us: learn to love it and you will need few other “fresh perfections.” You will ask yourself,

When did this snowy rush begin
to find a place of infinite containment;
to ground itself in the frantic waters
and anchor to the sea with its monstrous beams?
(“Touring the Glaciers“)

The question is,

are you simply willing
to fall out into the open world
with no keys, no mints, no stamps,
not a saltine to your name,
lacking chapstick, phone and change?

And when put that way, I’m not sure I can say yes myself. It’s tough to cut loose, especially (this may surprise you) for us hermits, whose shoes are

sloped with wear, in reusable shades:
beige, black and navy; made for plodding
from coop to kitchen on muscular feet.

It’s far easier to merely

launder the towels,
lay down upon them and dream
clean dreams

such as:

Meeting the morning, drinking the sun through my skin,
Tanned and wholesome as a granola commercial.

The land withholds its blessings, and we feel our rootlessness as a penance. If we “settle in,” it’s

to sit out the landing stage
Of our perpetual half-time.

Maybe the problem is we are trying too damned hard. Maybe we simply need to create space in our hearts and wait.

The fact is that in the end, it came on its own
With such ease, and through the tiniest of spaces.
I knew then the difference between choice and grace.
Outside, the rain continued on, and the people.
Inside, my coffee tasted just as bitter,
But I drank it in a different universe.

Perhaps every true god is a trickster like Raven, who

your bread, your bullets,
your riddles, the last
dreamy petal
fallen to the night table.
(“The Trouble with Ravens”)

I too remember star-gazing as a child:

Who can feel small in the lap of the galaxy?
(“At Seven”)

Until one day in my early teens I did, I felt our entire galaxy’s insignificance, and was terrified to realize that none of our verities, not one, mattered a hair. After that it began to dawn on me that

Want is a sluggard tongue,
seeking its greasy kingdom. It will tempt you full
to bursting.
(“Perfect Weight”)

One could do worse than seek the grace of an addict, who

will be granted provisions and unused prayers,
Not by the angels, but by those you most despise.
(“A Prayer for Reclamation”)

I’m home now. It’s poetry night at the shelter. Beautiful book in an ungainly package, thank you for this mirror into the soul.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

Reading Diane Lockward’s Temptation by Water

Temptation by WaterLive-blogging seems to be making a bit of a comeback lately, but you still don’t see too many readers live-blogging their reading, for some reason. I resolved to try and remedy that today — except that instead of a computer, I used a pen and clipboard and transcribed the whole thing this evening, so it wasn’t quite live, but close. This is the first of four books that Kristin Berkey-Abbott and I are encouraging others to also read and blog about this month. If you do so anytime before the end of the month, please send me the link and I’ll update this post to include it, right up here at the top. Also, we’re going to be interviewing Diane by phone this coming Saturday, lord-willing-and-the-creek-don’t-rise. So let us know if there’s anything in particular you’d like us to ask.

[4/7/11] Kristin Berkey-Abbott: “The Temptations of Diane Lockward’s Latest Book”

[4/9] Dale Favier @mole: “The Lesson of Loss: Temptation by Water”

[4/10] Dale @mole: “More on Lockward’s Temptation by Water”

[4/23] Nic S., Very Like a Whale: “‘Tempation by Water’ — Daine Lockward”

7:51 a.m. It’s in the high 40s and I’m sitting on the porch with my coffee, reading Diane Lockward’s Temptation by Water. There’s “the weather outside and the weather inside,” Lockward reminds me (“Weather Report”). Indeed.

A loose confederation of kinglets moves through the birches, identifiable not by their crowns — the birds are silhouettes against the overcast sky — but their diminutive size and their rootless lack of allegiance to any perch. Hard to believe they ever pause long enough to nest. “Grief, a vagrant huddled in the corner,” I read (“Implosion”). I spot a brown creeper, first on the dead elm and then on the trunk of the walnut beside the driveway, like a nuthatch with its wiring switched, ascending rather than descending, in the same way that spring is autumn played backwards. Or something like that. A squirrel trots into the woods with his black, disinterred breakfast between his teeth.

“Leaving in Pieces” is a lot of fun. “The hairless head was yellowish-white/ and shiny as a peeled clove of garlic.” Poor bald husband!

“This is the season of the centipede.” Terrific opening line there for “What He Doesn’t Know.” I wish I’d written it.

I try to stop hearing the white-throated sparrow’s song as wistful (or the bluebird’s as bubbly) but it’s hard. Like Lockward’s centipede, the birds are “without our human flaws,” but not by nearly as much.

“Pleasure,” I read, and a nearby mourning dove goes “Who-OH!”

“Outside, goldfinches bright as lemon peels” (“Pleasure”). Then in “Stripping the Lemon”: “Would you grate/ my goldfinch/ gold[?]” This is the most gold I’ve read about since Mark Doty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The witch-doctor rattle of our smallest woodpecker, he of the down. “The slow slide of warm stones/ over hills and valleys of flesh” (“Why I Won’t Have a Full Body Massage”).

Crows, crows.

Lockward tends to put poems with similar themes together. Next up is “My Mother Turns Her Back.” Wow, I like this one! “The snake on my mother’s/ back thickens, a python/ bulging with rats.”

Is that a flicker calling from the corner of the field? Sure sounds like it.

The heat effect from my morning shower has almost entirely worn off, and the cold and damp are beginning to get to me. But listen: “I watch my mother// grow down, as if she carries/ a burden of basket, as if/ already greeting the earth.” Simply a magnificent poem.

In “Hunger in the Garden,” Lockward depicts raccoons as forming nuclear families — oops. The deer eating the spring and summer blossoms still in the bud, though, that sure sounds familiar.

“April at the Arboretum.” I’m listening to the cowbird’s liquid lisp from atop the tallest tree in the yard, as usual: the nest parasite and his mate miss nothing. Their eyes are on the sparrow, you could say. Lockward is describing an April sleet storm crushing the flowers. Then… more goldfinches! Yay! “Tarnished, soft, and brilliant.”

The sky suddenly brightens. A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers are really going at it — fighting or courting, it’s hard to tell. You’d think I’d know all the neighbors’ habits by now. “Without the noun of his name” (“Without Words for It”): sometimes the simplest phrases are the most resonant, aren’t they?

I become aware of the highway noise from the southwest; it’s not too loud today. A drone note.

“All the sentences were simple and declarative” quoth she. This is one poem about language that actually doesn’t annoy me too much. Right on cue, the monosyllables of a nuthatch.

“Don’t call him witch doctor” (“Nostrum”). Cool, I was thinking about witch doctors! Not nearly as P.C. as “shamans,” but you know, some so-called shamans are or were, in fact, witch doctors. They could fuck you up and would tell you so to your face, or so certain ethnographers have reported. Anyway…

“Inside the sack, seeds that crackle like grit”: description of eating a fig in “Woman with Fruit.” Lockward is really good at food poems. I’m been considering writing a collection of food poems myself, so this is a welcome schooling.

8:55. Fingers frozen. Maybe it’ll warm up later and I can resume this after lunch.


2:45 p.m. Well, it’s up to 56 degrees. I’ll take it! One rain shower just past, the air smells of ozone and wet soil. Two, or possibly three, wood frogs are quacking in the teacup-sized pond down in the boggy corner of the field.

“If Only Humpty Dumpty Had Been a Cookie”: I’m not even that crazy about cookies, but this poem has me salivating. Damn.

And then there’s “Learning to Live Alone,” something I know a little about. “Trees that capitulate to nothing,// and speckled sparrows that light on the lawn.” Yep, companionship is where you find it. (Helps to be drunk, though. Then every beetle is like a brother.)

A chipmunk’s alarm call. The sun won’t quite come out.

“To a Potato” solidifies my intention to make twice-baked potatoes for supper tonight. “I love the smell of you just before baking,” I read. Wonderful ode. Then it’s on to “My Dark Lord” and: “Lay me among the potatoes./ Shroud me in a shirt of loam and peat moss.”

“Spying on My New Neighbors” describes a modern suburban heiros gamos, “his hoe dropped on her rake […] flowers blooming/ from ears and eyes, the red peonies of their mouths.” Nice.

One of the wood frogs has a sudden burst of enthusiasm, or maybe a fit of rage. Hard to tell. But excitement is running high after so many too-cold weeks.

There’s a “scrim of evergreens” in one poem, and a “scrim of trees” in the very next poem. That’s at least one scrim too many. One per book is pretty much the limit. I fault the editor there. But from the latter, “Bathing in Forest Dusk,” I absolutely love these lines: “I breathe the duff/ of deciduous leaves,// leave my sorrows/ among moss and mushrooms,/ among lilies of the valley/ and jack-in-the-pulpits.” And: “Your trees breathe/ me in.” Wow.

Two doves exchange baritone clarinet notes, as they are wont to do.

“When Pigs Flee” almost makes me like feral pigs. That’s something. And then it turns into another good food poem, by talking about all the pork products these pigs won’t be in. Yay, a mention of scrapple!

Was that a rumble of thunder? Crap.

Nice capture of the photobug impulse in “Capturing the Image.” Then more thunder. And more potatoes! “Jesus Potato” is written in one of those annoying forms that repeats the same rhyme words in a cyclic pattern, but it has too many good lines to dislike. The potato turns into the Pope by the end, a cool move that might be opaque to anyone who doesn’t know Spanish. (Or maybe I am reading into it.)

I read “The way lightning sometimes strikes,” and there’s a flash of distant lightning. Really! May God strike me dead if I’m lying.

The rumbles seem to be growing more distant, but here come some fat raindrops rustling the leaves. As long as it doesn’t blow in, though, it can rain all it wants.

“Ecdysiast” — bitchin’ title for a poem about an exotic dancer. Her gaze is “at once smoldering and icy.”

It’s getting dark four hours too early. This can’t be good.

“The chunk of day we appropriate/ for happiness, when we will be happy/ because that is the appointed hour” (“Happy Hour”). Yeah, mandatory fun sucks. But Lockward really evokes the mood well.

The scattered raindrops multiply into a mob. A squirrel races from the tulip poplar.

“Filbert” — a poem about the Charlie Brown of nuts. “You’re that kid whose mother named him/ Filbert.”

Oops, that flash was kind of close. The rain has already stopped, though. This storm is a bit of a filbert.

Ah, the obligatory dead-animal poem: “A Murmuration of Starlings.” I like it though, especially the ending, which laments the mass poisoning of “Birds who’d sung their own song/ and wooed their mates with lavender and thistle.” As a conservationist I do feel there are times when local eradications of invasive species are appropriate, but that doesn’t — or shouldn’t — make such actions any less horrible, or we who are the uber-invasive species any less culpable. Poems like this are essential reminders of, uh, how much we suck.

Another shower, but the thunder is now to the northeast. Well, most of it, anyway. Temperature down to 55. The smell of smoke. There’s a typo on page 61, I think, “draught” for “drought.” The poem is “Supplication to Water”: “I have polluted the pristine lake, peed in the pool, … I have … prayed for your conversion/ to wine.” A great litany of sins. “Catch me between the devil and the deep deep blue./ Let me enter the same river twice, for I am grungy.” I love this poem! Also, use of “grungy” more than atones for the earlier double-scrim offense.

Now this here’s some rain. (Have the coltsfoot flowers that were out along the road this morning — first of the year! — folded up, I wonder?) Time to put the potatoes in the oven and do a quick check of email.


4:33. It’s down to 53F, though the sky is once again brightening. Sound is coming out of the east now, whatever that might portend: traffic going through the gap.

I read: “She remembers how you slid into this world ass first,/ a comic reversal forewarning who you would be” — a poem about an asshole (“It Runs This Deep”). If breech birth is destiny, I’m in trouble.

This may well be the definitive asshole poem against which all other asshole poems will henceforth be measured. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s… perfect. Must get Lockward to read this for the podcast.

A robin is singing — first one I’ve heard since this morning. Nothing remarkable, I realize, but hey, it’s been a long damn winter.

A very good poem about peaches, followed by “You Offer Lychees to Your American Friends,” in which the speaker is trying to convert her Chinese friend to chocolate, urging her to “Learn to love what is decadent,/ what grows in other gardens.” I like the subtle way the topic of inequality is broached.

“Kerfuffle”: a poem made to read out loud, so I do. Again, Lockward places like with like, the decadent pleasure of language right after the chocolate. “He was onomatopoetic,” she explains.

Another poem about a male lover, “Side Effects,” is just what it says: an artful list of dangerous side effects. Impressive. I also can’t help thinking that if this could be reworked into a ballad, it might very well go platinum on the country music charts.

Song sparrow now. A car coming up the road. Another small thunderstorm rolls in — or is all the same, very relaxed storm? “The tinny sound of steel,/ wind swirling…” (“There Where Love Had Been”)

“I … want to believe/ the trees are a sign I could be wood” (“The Desolation of Wood”). Me too.

Getting dark again. This will be a day with multiple dusks.


5:25, 51F. I’m back from eviscerating the potatoes and refilling them with their new and improved flesh. Thunder still. A squirrel chisels open a black walnut. “Inside that shell, the sound of regret, relentless as any ocean.” (“How is a Shell Like Regret?”) This poem reminds me of my shell-collecting grandmother.

Reading “The Temptation of Mirage,” I make appreciative noises at “the levitation of lake.” The poem ends with a night-blooming cereus, too. Can’t go wrong with that.

Another fruit poem, “Love Song with Plum,” has some wonderful word-play with the near-rhymes: plumb, plumes, plumage, plummet. Another one to read out loud.

“‘No Soup for You!'” — In a book with so many edible things, you can’t not include an evocation of the great and holy ur-food. “I believe in the power of soup,” she says, and conjures up a Whitmanesque soup kitchen where (contrary to the title) all are welcome.

No sound now but rain and distant traffic.

“This is the geometry of longing” (“Phone in a White Room”). I’m glad she included this poem, so different from all the others in the book with its dystopian dreamscape. It’s a good antidote to the soupy utopia.

The rain’s easing up again. A crow calls. (Pretty much the only calls I get are from crows.)

“Twilight” features a baby who is also a muffin, “his pure buttery goodness…” Why is this not disturbing?

“Seventh-Grade Science Project”: last poem. The speaker is collecting butterflies all summer, her parents recently separated. She left her “multi-colored fingerprints/ on everything I touched.” Deft move to close with an ars poetica in the last two lines.

Time for supper.

Gospel Earth by Jeffery Beam

Gospel Earth“A big book of little poems,” says the press release. Except not all the poems are little, and not all the contents are poems. This is a sprawling book, an unruly book, and as I read I vacillate wildly between admiration and impatience. Perhaps that’s fine. Some of my favorite prose works are similarly undisciplined: Zhuangzi, Moby Dick, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and lord knows the Bible. Not bad company! Still, my editor’s hand itches as I read yet one more page of superfluous epigraphs that serve only to overwhelm the micropoems that follow, and titles that lie heavily on certain poems, closing off alternate interpretations. I feel as if I’m on a nature trail with too goddamn many signs to tell me what I’m seeing.

Maybe reading a book like this straight through is a mistake, but after reading for an hour or so I found I was beginning to miss the signs of human civilization that are nearly impossible to escape on this globe, especially in the places Beam identifies as the origins of these poems, places in Italy, France, Ireland and North Carolina. Where are the roar of jets, the rumble of motors, the jarring clutter of powerlines and subdivisions? Then, too, despite a fine homage to William Carlos Williams, who famously declared “no ideas but in things,” there’s a relatively limited vocabulary of images which after a while feel more like ideas and less like real things: wind, water, tree, sun, etc. The book begins to feel narrow despite its girth. The nature mysticism begins to feel unearned, and the persistent vatic tone starts to ring hollow for me.

It is of course unfair to complain that this isn’t quite the book I would’ve preferred to read, but I’m not trying to write a fair-minded review, simply share my response as one particular reader with my own set of biases. The thing is, I found a great deal to like, too. I penciled little checkmarks in the corners of pages I liked, and flipping back through the book now, I see that I’ve marked at least a quarter of all the pages, which if I extracted them with an exacto knife would make a book about 50 pages long. Even in the section of the book called “Green Man,” almost all of which I would’ve jettisoned had I been Beam’s editor, I find some lines that strongly resonate:

In order to make sense
of the ground
I build an earthen hill & sit upon it
(“The Green Man’s Man”)

Another longish poem, “Foggy Mountain Sutra,” has two lines I’d love to see alone on the page:

Anxious to waken anxious to go out
What grey bones dance me to my grave

A short poem called “Resurrection” has so much I like, I am itching to white out the title and the last word, which sits in a stanza by itself:

What late fire-dragons
fume from my body
What purples
What frosts

The night tastes bitter

moss on my tongue


And don’t get me wrong: there are poems where I wouldn’t change a thing, such as “Treatise of the Daisy.” (Well, O.K., the typographic daisies separating the three sections were a bit much.) And here’s a poem where both the interpretive title and the vatic tone seemed just right:

Revelation of Beginnings

The cities pray but
not for long
Soon they will bend

Tall grass

There’s a poem just three words long, including the title, which I really admired —

Thrush’s Parable


— though I suspect that if you aren’t familiar with the wood thrush, hermit thrush or veery, it will probably make you shrug.

One more example shows I think the kind of gnomic quality that Beam was going for in many of the poems, here with great success to my ear:

The Visitation: Moth

No flame to explain me

The section called “MountSeaEden” was my favorite. None of the poems in this section have titles at all (except in the Table of Contents — an interesting compromise), and we’re told they originated from “Traversing the Healy Pass, Caha Mountains, Beara Peninsula, Ireland” with two companions in Autumn 2006. They seem appropriately light and free, and their cumulative effect lends power to the individual parts, where mountain and sea are blended to dizzying effect.

Sand in sandal

Leaf-print on pillow.

is one poem, and here’s another I really liked for some reason:

Thrifty mountains

bright & mineral

where herds graze
where saxifrage assumes

I hope I don’t seem like I’m damning this book with faint praise. I got it as a review copy, but if I didn’t own it and I saw it in a bookstore, I would probably buy it, because I do love micropoetry and there’s a lot here to admire and learn from. Beam clearly understands how brevity can make a piece more suggestive and powerful. I just wish he’d applied that lesson to the whole book.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

Blameless Mouth by Jessica Fox-Wilson

Blameless Mouth by Jessica Fox-WilsonThere are — it occurs to me as I finish this book — too many love poems in the world, and not nearly enough poems about desire. But before I sat down with Blameless Mouth this morning my attitude was, I’m ashamed to say, more skeptical. I’d read two or three of the poems quickly, like a shopper, like a consumer, like one of the protagonists in this book: wanting it, maybe on the strength of the elegant cover, but not really sure I needed it. How original, I said to myself, poems about hunger — one of those words like bone or stone or scrim or palimpsest that makes me raise an eyebrow when I encounter it in a poem. The title of the book even comes from a line in a poem called “Hunger.” Yikes! But as the lead singer of the legendary underground thrash-metal band Violence once said: If you’re gonna call yourself that, you’d better be able to deliver the goods. And, as it turns out, Fox-Wilson definitely delivers the goods.

The book has what I guess you could call a fugal structure, with the same stories repeating in different keys: Eve and the apple, Grimm’s fairy tales, a child in a shipwreck, a placeless Middle American upbringing, the blandishments of glossy magazines. Even the sort-of title poem appears again at the end of the poem, as “Hunger, Revised,” which is such a cool idea I wish I’d thought of it first. One effect of this was a kind of obsessive feel that intensified as I proceeded through the book, pausing only for lunch. Fox-Wilson may not be the first American poet to tackle the subject of consumption and consumerism, but why should she be? There could hardly be a more crucial topic for our national discourse, should we ever decide to have one. And off-hand, I can’t remember the last time I saw it done so well.

O.K., this is the part of the inevitably inadequate review where I try to compensate for its inadequacy by quoting liberally from the book under consideration. I like animal poems, so naturally “Feeding Habits of Foxes” would’ve appealed to me even without the clever autobiographical turn at the end:

I think I am afraid
of my own natural red hair,
point of my teeth, my silent
stalking ways. No matter

which cage I put you in,
I cannot escape
our common name.

In “Waiting for Snow White,” a girl standing in line with her family at Disneyland has her menarche. The opening lines set the scene perfectly:

I waited in line for the ride when it happened,
swallowed in a thick red stream of sweating, sunburned

One of the magazine poems is called “I Turn the Page, Like Waving a White Flag,” a title which could almost stand on its own as a micropoem. It ends with the speaker wistfully recalling “my life before// all my purchases,” a moment in her childhood when she sat on a swing eating a slice of watermelon with uncomplicated pleasure, how delicious it was, and

how I giggled
with my mouth still full. Where is my receipt

for that moment? I need to know. What was
the price for that young girl’s joyful pink heart?

Due to following a lot of blogs by Buddhists and those influenced by Buddhism over the years, not to mention my own environmentalism, I suppose I’ve been led to consider this topic of wanting and the mental habits that feed it more than most people. So I think it would be unfair of me to make very much out of the three or four poems in the book that struck me as less than amazing, because they may strike readers not as accustomed to the topic as essential. What’s really worth focusing on here is that the book as a whole is engrossing, inventive and never descends to didacticism as it wrestles with its sexy but disturbing questions: “Can we teeter together/ on this knife’s edge/ of having and wanting”? “[W]hen I finally/ touch the center,/ what will I find”?

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

Movie Plots by Nick Admussen

Movie Plots book kit

This is syncretism at its most perverse — idiosyncretism, if you will: the word made celluloid, the world herky-jerking past in a series of unplayable movie pitches. Our hero is an author with half a mind to leave us in the lurch. You print the pages yourself following instructions on the web, fold them into the stiff gray cover they send you in the mail and prick your fingers with a needle sewing it together, all for five dollars: Epiphany Book Kit No. 1. Thirty poems square as movie screens, albeit mostly taller than they are wide, set in a font from 1680. I start them while I am making breakfast and overcook my eggs, but the eggs, eaten with “Murder Mystery,” are still delicious. It is not the first time I’ve read the poems, but it’s the first time I’ve read them in the intended order. This time I see how each movie begets the next, but I lose the sense I had the first time of being in on the joke, perhaps because I am imagining how I would film them: Nick’s text as script for a documentary narrated by someone more sonorous than God, or perhaps dribbled out into closed captioning while something entirely different plays on the screen, such as footage from a minicam strapped to the head of a dog or the security cameras from a 24-hour peep show, though the latter might be so meta as to cause a feedback loop. Without reopening the book, what stuck with me? Bullets getting married, a knife-ship big as a house, a superhero named Peace who saves the day with one eye-popping blow, the Zhuangzi butterfly turned into a sci-fi virus, the wit, the energy, the sense of things flying out of control, the desire to stay in the theatre for another long read.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

Join the Via Negativa Poetry Month book club!

On March 2, I announced plans to again read and blog a book or chapbook of poetry a day throughout April. Many thanks to all who sent review copies (and if I promised a copy of Odes to Tools in return, I’m planning a trip to the post office soon!).

A number of people expressed interest in my regimen, but understandably, only a couple indicated they might be following suit. Today I want to invite y’all to join me and Kristin Berkey-Abbott in a somewhat more modest undertaking: to read and discuss just four books of poetry next month, one a week. Here’s what we’ll be reading:

Week #1: Diane Lockward’s Temptation by Water
(Publisher’s page,, review in Rattle)

Week #2: Luisa A. Igloria’s Trill and Mordent
(Publisher’s page,, review in Galatea Resurrects)

Week #3: Ren Powell’s Mercy Island
(Publisher’s page,, review in Velveteen Rabbi, review at Carolee Sherwood’s blog)

Week #4: William Trowbridge’s Ship of Fool
(Publisher’s page (be patient),, review in Gently Read Literature)

We welcome participation in any form, but we encourage you to borrow or purchase all four books and read them at your leisure. Kristin and I will both be blogging our responses (which may or may not resemble traditional reviews), and if you’re a blogger, we encourage you to do the same, and let us know about it so we can interlink. Discussion can take place in multiple blog comment threads. Critical responses are welcome as long as they are constructive, not snide or dismissive.

Kristin and I will also be interviewing each of the four poets by phone for the Woodrat Podcast, insh’allah. If you are able to read the books in advance of our phone calls, we’d welcome suggestions of what to ask and which poems to have them read on the podcast. So here’s when we’ll be doing that: April 9, Diane Lockward; April 13, Luisa A. Igloria; April 23, Ren Powell; and April 25, William Trowbridge. Also, I could be persuaded to include one more person in those conference calls, so let me know (bontasaurus[at]yahoo[dot]com) if you want in on any of them.

A word on how we selected these four. I emailed Kristin the complete list (as of a couple weeks ago) of books I was planning to read next month, and we went back and forth about it. Obviously we are both guilty of bias in favor of friends and poets who are active online. Some friends didn’t get considered because we didn’t learn about their new books soon enough. But I will be looking for podcast guests long after April… including, I hope, my co-conspirator in this, who is a wonderful blogger, poet, and theologian, and seems remarkably sane for a Floridian.

Finally, for those of you who can actually contemplate parting with favorite poetry books, I want to echo Kristin and put in a plug for a Poetry Month-related initiative by Kelli Russell Agodon which I strongly support in theory if not in practice: the Big Poetry Giveaway 2011.

Basically, bloggers give away 2 books of poems at the end of April. The first can be your own book, and the second is to be a FAVORITE book of poems of your choosing.

People will come to your blog and leave a comment saying they’d like to win your book and at the end of the month, you randomly choose two winners and mail them out the books.

Books needed for Poetry Reading Month

Last April, I read and blogged about a book or chapbook of poetry every day (except for the two days I took off to produce poetry-related podcasts), and this year I’m planning to try and repeat the performance. A few people have already sent me review copies, but I’ll be happy to add more to the pile, which has 21 titles in it so far. Click on the foregoing link for examples of the kind of response-post I tend to write. My postal address is on the Contact page. (But email me first to make sure I don’t already have the book.)

Incidentally, in the comments to my summary post last year, I talked about possibly launching a site to promote the idea of an International Poetry Reading Month as an alterative or complement to NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month), but I decided I just don’t have the time for one more project — especially if I’m hoping to do this myself. Besides, experience has shown that I am spectacularly bad at organizing and motivating other people. But if anyone wants to join in, I’d love the company. If you’re pressed for time, try just reading a chapbook a day. The point — for me at least — isn’t to see how much I can read, but to see whether I can bring my full attention to what I do have time to read (taking time off from looking at the news, catching up with Facebook and Twitter, etc.). I also don’t require myself to read only recently published books, or books I’ve never read before: any book of poetry is fair game, so long as I read or re-read it from cover to cover that day.

Another freedom I might allow myself this year is to listen to a collection of poems as an alternative to reading some mornings. For example, there are now five audio chapbooks from Whale Sound to choose from, and any one of them would be worth another close listen. For those who consider this a daunting project, by the way, note that the total listening time for these chapbooks seems to range between 9 and 21 minutes. Most people could fit that into their morning commute.