The Capable Heart by Ann E. Michael

The Capable Heart The Capable HeartAnn E. Michael; FootHills Publishing 2011WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
This quietly powerful collection made me care about horses — and not merely because the title derives from a translation of a passage in my favorite work of philosophy, Zhuangzi. Though I have some friends who are into horses, the horse-riding culture has always been pretty alien to me, and on rare close encounters with the beasts I’ve felt a bit intimidated, to be honest. But the narrator, too, was a stranger to horses, as she explains in “Ways We Are Alike”:

I wanted a way to embrace
my daughter’s fascination.

to overcome my own fear, with carrots,
with a lead rope and soft brush.

I touched the withers and the
warm, broad chest;

I held the lead. Let pulsing lips
explore my hands, my jacket.

Horse and author go on to explore each other, in this poem and as the cycle progresses. Michael ponders the attraction that girls and women have toward horses:

Women who have re-centered their lives owing, in part, to horses,
are shy of nothing, strong as horses…

She also examines the interplay between domestication or domesticity and rebellion, as in “Domestic Mutinies”:

Sometimes my outrage gallops
hard inside my ribs
and I feel like Chuang Tzu’s
outlaw horses: domesticated, enslaved,
& utterly capable, in their hearts.

“Dancing Horses” come into their own in a snowstorm:

manes are streaming, necks arched,
an unrestrained blizzard
in the corral where they
toss off the long-bred bit
that is obedience.

Sublimating domesticity,
the screaming stallion wind:
their unbroken past.

In “Boss Mare,” a woman named Rosie embodies the strong individualism of a lead horse.

I can just see her cribbing
her stall, bossing the other mares around: stay back,
do things my way.

Not that the other horses mind. She wields the lead ropes,
she calls at the corral gate and most of them come running—
she’s boss mare.

Is it a sign of the author’s own rebellious streak that she never writes the most obvious poem: about riding a horse herself? The rider is always the daughter, and though sometimes the author or narrator takes the place of the horse, as in “Mare’s Nest” —

Notes and
photos, music, a belt
or rumpled jeans, slippers
slipped off, on, entropy
maybe. Lie in straw, back
toward the stall door. Sniff,
huff, wicker, snore.

— other times, as in “The Indoor Ring,” her gaze shifts away from horses, and she turns to watch swallows diving instead, or — in “Watching a Child Ride Horseback Through Snow” — gets distracted by a preening blue jay and loses sight of horse and rider. The domesticity-vs.-rebellion theme is developed strongly enough that a couple of poems, “Housekeeping” and “Anger Good As Hope,” avoid mentioning horses altogether. But even then, the reader feels the warm breath of the horse and hears it nicker.

This is, above all, a wise book — even if the author would probably disavow any personal store of wisdom, and attribute what lessons she’s gleaned to the horses themselves. As in Zhuangzi, they are teachers by dint of the purity of their natures and their connection to the earth over which they fly, but as such they are not to be taken too seriously. “Evolution of the Horse” ends on a pun; “Stray Horses” are capable of “astonishing vulgarity” and are “pitiable, oafish, indelible as my own failures”; and the “big quarterhorse” in the closing poem, “Riding-School Zendo,” mimes a Zen master with his horsehair whisk.

The stories we tell about horses can never encompass the full strangeness of their being, of course, as poems such as “Putting Down the Mare” and “The Difficult Birth” remind us. And this too is a source of wisdom for those who pay attention as well as Michael does:

We survive drought. Or we do not.
The paint goes back to her grazing,
unencumbered by memory. Perhaps,
next May, I will tell a different story.
Perhaps not.

Dark Things by Novica Tadić (translated by Charles Simic)

Dark Things Dark ThingsNovica Tadić; BOA Editions, Ltd. 2009WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
4012 A.D. An archaeologist from Alpha Centauri who specializes in the Late Anthropocene has uncovered a strange text. Dark Things, it’s called — the work of a Serbian poet and a Serbian-American translator. She knows little of the wars and genocides that convulsed Serbia in this period, and only fragments of 20th-century poetry have survived — mostly copies of A Coney Island of the Mind, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and Jewel Kilcher’s A Night Without Armor — so she is not sure how to classify the writings in this miraculously well-preserved text. But based on existing knowledge, she and her colleagues generate several competing theories about its origin and purpose:

1. It’s the collected sayings of a Zen or Sufi teacher. The combination of standard syntax, non-specialist language and recondite, gnomic or hermetic meanings strongly suggest utterances intended for an audience of initiates to some religious mystery. How else are we to understand lines such as:

Poor us, we are all kings
when we gaze at the starry sky.
(“Night Passes”)

The rabbit is in the pot, the broom is behind the door.
(“While You Count The Stars”)

Strangers came and took my sheepskin coat.
Now, what will I cover myself with? Only with prayers
and with the light, trembling wings of a moth.
(“Sheepskin Coat”)

Under his coat, next to his ribs,
the collected work of some classic would fit.

Without a friend or acquaintance,
alone like a bone in a soup plate…
(“Book Thief”)

2. These are clearly lyrics for an otherwise unknown death metal band named Novica Tadić, who had an old man as a mascot. Consider:

I’m a cross of human flesh
on which nothingness is crucified.
(“Soldier’s Song”)

You are all-powerful, you are a giant.
No mother gave you birth.

Every street is too narrow for you.

You pull back your shadows, burn holes with your eyes.

Everyone gets out of your way.
(“You Are Mighty”)

We’ll drink each other’s blood
as we have always done
and won’t dream of it anymore.
(“Someone Whispered to Me in a Dream”)

Time races on, bearing you along
toward your last
wretched breath.
(“Ten Fingers”)

3. It’s a reporter’s notebook from the global conflict between reason and irrationality, which eventually spawned the Endless War:

an ocean of hatred splashes over me
every day

Dark things open my eyes,
raise my hand, knot my fingers.

They are close and far away,
in a safe hideaway
beyond nine hills.
(“Dark Things”)

Out of some old thing
(a hideous ruin of a building)
people peek outside

They slap their heads,
chatter, stick their tongues out

Twist their mouths
in every direction
(“Out of Some Old Thing”)

4. These are Wikileaked communiqués from the Serbian ambassador to an unnamed superpower, possibly Hades.

Tonight he shows me
his wire-glass-and-flower hairdo
double-edged lips
five-pointed tongue

Ah he unbuttons
his silk vest
ah, even so, he has a body—
and a gold watch
(“No One”)

We don’t know what he did,
where he went, what he suffered.
He stares at us crossly,
answers to the name of Rat.
(“The Seventh Brother”)

He needs to be an infamous and marked man—
it makes no difference for what reason.
(“He Needs”)

A bird started to sing
on a clear day
over the gallows


Wind lifted the ashes
and spread them
over other ashes
(“A Bird Started to Sing”)

A straitjacket
is being woven
and cut to measure
on you.

5. This is a 20th-century version of a much older text, a lost gospel attributed to the risen Lazarus.

On a low chair, the book
opened by itself.
A gust of air blew—
it was the Lord’s breath.
(“Book, Dream”)

May the earth be easy on him,
since it was only today that we noticed
he was alive.
(“About the Dead, Briefly”)

it’s not easy for the dead to carry water
oh black she-goats black goatherd
oh Lazarus

you need to put your life in order Lazarus
make it clean as death
oh sun
oh you risen from the dead
(“Whisk Broom 50”)

I wandered everywhere
like a God’s fool.
Whatever I acquired—I lost.
what I gave life to—died.

Go into town and buy a spade
as if intending to turn over a garden.

Instead, find your humble place
in the village graveyard,
swing high and dig yourself a grave.

Set it up, decorate it, write on it.

Find your humble place
in a world gone mad.

6. Finally, and most convincingly of all, a scholar of 20th-century children’s literature suggested that this was a children’s book that had grown up and gone wrong, after an abusive childhood.

Again that dangerous confusion
of things and people.
I see an ashtray next to a dozing armchair
and say it’s a baby-ashtray.
In the pantry: bottles-maidens.
In the tavern I spoke with a human cash register.
(“Again That”)

Midnight lady
covered with nets and shining scales
walks down the hallway
beating a drum full of mice
(“Midnight Lady”)

Old shoes in the rain
next to a dumpster
wait for the one who will pass this way


Carrying the shoes in his hand,
he’ll find my room and bed
and will lie down in it and then vanish
just as my dream about him comes to a close.
(“Old Shoes”)

I found an empty cardboard box
and sat down in it

My mad old sweetie
will pass this way and buy me
(“In Front of a Supermarket”)

Hey, little marsh, reed, cattail and water lily.
flies flies the gray crow.
here, there, there’s no one in the rotted boat.
let’s set out for the open waters.
let’s turn and lie on our backs forever.
(“Big Mud”)

Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt by Karen J. Weyant

Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt Wearing Heels in the Rust BeltKaren J. Weyant; Main Street Rag Publishing Company 2012WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
Is there such a thing as a coming-of-age poetry chapbook? This is that and more. Although the narrator appears to change from poem to poem, she is always female, rural or small-town working-class in the Rust Belt. The collection won Main Street Rag’s 2011 chapbook contest, and I can see why: the poems are richly evocative, and mingle lyricism and gritty realism in just the right proportions.

I grew up in the Rust Belt myself, and Weyant’s portrayals ring true to me. I was reminded a bit of Jeff Walt’s Soot, thought I think Weyant’s characters are a bit less hopeless, a bit more fully realized. This is also a more ambitious collection: Weyant sets out to define a Rust Belt aesthetic in the opening poem, “Ways of Writing Rust,” introducing themes and imagery that will re-occur throughout. It begins:

Use a red pen. Push October’s full moon through every line.
Scribble down an old barn and a children’s game of tag

that ends with a nail’s scratch and tetanus shot.
Remember to cross all your t’s.

Save the graffiti, the sharp letters, the language,
even if you are not sure if the words are a Bible verse

or lyrics from an old rock-n-roll song.
Scrawl down corner bars and closed stores.

This is one of three poems in the hortatory mode, incidentally, which may explain why I liked it so much. The others are “How to Be a Rust Belt Feminist” and “Advice For All the Rust Belt Cassandras” — the closing poem. Most of the other poems are first-person narratives, almost all of them just about a page long. The almost-title poem, “How We Learned to Wear Heels in the Rust Belt,” actually brought a tear to my eye, I’m not sure why — I guess because the determination simultaneously to learn toughness and cultivate traditional femininity seems so desperate and doomed.

Our world a catwalk, we practiced balancing on construction planks,
railroad ties, backporch banisters. […]

We swaggered our thin hips and thighs,
every strut full of defiant assurance.

But if conformity to social norms seems a stretch, that’s because in other poems girls question religious orthodoxy, collect bees and bones, throw stones at porn shop signs, carry knives for protection, and are troubled by the shunning of the children of scab workers:

I learned grownups knew how to punch,
how to kick, how to spit, how to yell
bad names, like the boys at recess
who threw rocks and sticks at Danny Pontzer
calling him Scab Spawn. I learned
the power of silence, like the way the girls
shunned Stacey Mitchell at recess.
(“Sacrificing Scabs for the Union Gods”)

The poems have their share of natural imagery, too, though much of it’s fairly bleak: a shrike’s victims found during a dry spell impaled on barbed wire and thistle, gypsy moth caterpillars defoliating oak trees on Bear Mountain, and an off-beat portrayal of a gang of dead-animal enthusiasts in “Roadkill Girls”:

For every antler or loose feather, we found
groundhog teeth, a set of claws, soft wisps
of a rabbit’s tail. Sometimes, we grew brave,
flicking maggots from fresh kill, the dull thud
of soft bodies hitting tree bark reminding us
of June bugs hurling against back doors
and bedroom windows. […]
With every bone, we planned our new world,
starting with a single rib from a raccoon.

And I suppose that quote, which includes the closing lines of the poem, serves as well as any to showcase the subtlety of Weyant’s political stance. Whatever I might’ve thought I was going to get with a title like “Roadkill Girls,” this was something altogether more surprising — and disturbing. Starkly realistic as the poems in this collection may be, this is not old-school social realism with the characters flattened to conform to some ideological agenda. Instead, there’s a generous and imaginative humanism at work.

By the end, the lives and thoughts of these working-class girls and women seem not only compelling but admirable and worthy of emulation. In a literary tradition dominated until quite recently by men of privilege, and still largely the province of the middle class, such lives are nearly invisible. So I’m really glad that Karen Weyant has put together such a strong collection, and I hope there are many more to come.

Thirty Years in the Rain: Nikiforos Vrettakos as translated by Robert Zaller and Lili Bita

Thirty Years in the Rain Thirty Years in the Rain: The Selected Poetry of Nikiforos VrettakosNikiforos Vrettakos; Somerset Hall Press 2005WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
Diamond-like and deceptively simple: that’s how Rachel described the dozen or so poems I had time to read to her from this book today. I concur. These poems combine the plain-spoken lyricism of, say, José Martí’s Versos Sencillos, the fierce affirmation of Jorge Guillén’s Cántico and the pellucid quality and light-drenched landscapes of Eugénio de Andrade’s best work.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Who the hell are Eugénio de Andrade and Jorge Guillén?” If so, you’re hardly alone: poetry in translation is an extremely minor concern of American publishers, and few Anglophone poetry fans seem aware of much beyond our own linguistic borders, save for a few luminaries such as Neruda, Rilke and Lorca. That’s a shame, because Greece alone has produced many great poets this past century: C.P. Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, Angelos Sikelianos, and Odysseas Elytis all deserve a place on any poetry-lover’s shelf. Add to that roster Nikiforos Vrettakos, a member of the “Generation of the 30s” evidently as revered in Greece as any of the others I’ve just listed, but unknown here until Robert Zaller and Lili Bita began to collaborate on the English translations collected in Thirty Years in the Rain. I hadn’t heard of him myself until just last month, when I happened on this blog post:

January 1st marked the centenary of the birth of the Laconian poet, fiction writer, essayist, translator, Athens Academy member, and Nobel Prize Nominee, Nikiforos Vrettakos. Therefore the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and tourism has declared 2012 Nikiforos Vrettakos Year.

Since he didn’t win a Nobel Prize for Literature like his two contemporaries Odysseas Elytis and George Seferis, Nikiforos Vrettakos is less-known abroad. In Greece though, he is a poetry giant, taught in schools, and many of his poems are set into music. People go back to his poetry for “his tenderness and boundless humanism”.

Working my way through Thirty Years in the Rain, I found many things to admire. Vrettakos returns again and again to the rugged massif of his childhood, the storied Taygetos. As a nearly life-long dweller in the considerably less rugged Appalachians, naturally I appreciated this kind of imagery. His most direct treatment comes in “Stone Petals”:

“Taygetos isn’t a mountain.” I didn’t
discover it, but found it beside me
when I was born. It stood by. Later
I dreamt of it as a kind of church—
at the center of the earth.

Its bells chiming, scattering
petals over the nations.

This short poem also demonstrates two other things I liked about the book: Vrettakos seems very comfortable with religion as a repository of mystery and wonder (without necessarily being a believer himself, I gather), and his poetry betrays a certain attraction to the via negativa — which wouldn’t be at all surprising for someone from the Eastern Orthodox homeland. This latter tendency expresses itself in his nuanced appreciation for darkness and silence, which is all the more striking for its contrast with his general heliotropism. Take for instance “Liberation”:

My soul dances today, winged,
looking to alight on a branch
of light, to hear, see, say
whatever can be heard, seen, said.
It’s good to know, and know well,
that the thing you are
was hatched out of darkness.

As for silence, he imagines in one poem, “Beside the Others,” an entire “volume of silence” among his collected works. (Vrettakos was apparently a very prolific author.)

In it is everything I hid
and everything within me that
hadn’t had time for the long journey to the light.
The pages are huge, too heavy
to lift. No one will read it.
God will take it as it is
and put it in his heavenly library.

Nor is silence without its perils:

If silence spoke,
erupted, exploded—it would level
every tree in the standing world.

And in “Inexplicable,” the eyes of an unnamed beloved contain “A silence / filled with what can and can’t / be deciphered.”

Vrettakos was a leftist, like most Greek intellectuals of his generation, but departed from the party line on many issues. I particularly appreciated the poems on peace, which he often seemed to equate with poetry as a natural impulse of all life:

I’m immersed in each brook on whose flow
the word Peace runs like a psalm.
(Because the waters are a thinking sun).
(“Address to a Peace Conference”)

But his apophatic instincts led him to decry the fetishization of peace, too:

All that’s left of peace
is an empty word, a shed garment.
It’s scrawled everywhere, as if
to mock its own countenance:
the divine plenitude, the sap that flows
from flower to flower, the poetry.

Yet still I wouldn’t want
to find it among my own pages,
like a white corpse in a casket.
(“The Empty Word”)

Vrettakos himself describes his work best: he is an overflowing cistern whose waters come “half from / earth’s grief, the rest from its miracle” (“Cistern”). Toward the end of his life, he wrote:

I’ve said my piece,
it’s enough to know that
here and there, now and then,
I’ve added my song to the birds’.
(“All I’ve Said”)

I think I want to be Nikiforos Vrettakos when I grow up.

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.

Balance by Robbi Nester

Balance BalanceRobbi Nester; White Violet Press 2012WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
It’s always a relief when a friend’s collection of poems turns out to be terrific. I got this one when it came out a couple months ago, so this morning’s reading was my second time through these poems. And I was even more impressed than I had been the first time.

It helps that I like poetry books that are illustrated and thematically unified. Each of the fifteen poems in Balance describe a different yoga pose, helpfully and adroitly illustrated on facing pages by Nina Canal’s inkbrush paintings. And I think it says something about the quality of the poems that even someone like me with no particular interest in yoga should find them engrossing.

Essentially what these poems do is document a rediscovery of the human body. In “Paschimottanasana,” for example,

I am rowing my boat
along the quiet river.
My ribs open like a magnolia
flower, its stiff white petals
only this morning furled
in the burnished bud.
Legs strung tight as sails,
I hoist myself up …

Or as another poem, “Uttananasana,” puts it:

I am an explorer,
entering the ancient city,
descending into another world.

Nester’s imagery is cosmic — in a Nerudean rather than a New Agey sense. The narrator takes the planet itself, the moon and “the hills / [that] undulate under the clouds like fish / in the shallows” as her teachers; travels back to her childhood to become a “god of volts and ohms” and a “curious dolphin”; imagines herself as aspen and fern fiddlehead, whelk and two-headed snake. Nearly every image feels necessary, and the language is just as terse and taut as one would wish, given the subject matter. These poems are very well-made things.

Much as I liked the illustrations, I can’t help wondering what I would’ve gotten out of the book if I didn’t have them there, not knowing otherwise what the names of the poses mean. What would I have imagined based on the poems alone? Would it have made that big a difference? Maybe not, but I don’t think I’d fully appreciate the lack of arbitrariness in most of the imagery, the precise and delicate fit between metaphor and pose.

My favorite poem is all about fit — which is to say, fitness, if that word can still be redeemed from shallow consumerist notions of the body, in which we are continually exhorted to be more (or perhaps less) and different from what we are. I hope the publisher and author won’t mind if I quote it in its entirety:


These feet have seldom met.
all lifetime long, fated to tread
their single paths on yielding earth,
to press parched soles against
unsympathetic streets, they
desire only new routes, never
dreaming what they truly seek.
Yet arch to arch, each toe
pressing its long-lost opposite,
these feet have met their match.
Bound in a forced embrace, they find
a blessing in this union, welded
in a prayer to all things lost,
to what was always there.

Too many of us literary types spend too much time in our heads — I know I do — and in any case distraction is urged upon us from all directions, even (I’m told) at the gym, where screens beckon and iPods abound. That must be why I found this collection so refreshing. I’m only sorry it wasn’t longer. By poem 15, I can feel my breathing beginning to slow and deepen. Lord knows how fit, how well-balanced and rooted in my body and in the cosmos I’d feel after 15 or 20 more.

The Porcupinity of the Stars by Gary Barwin

The Porcupinity of the Stars The Porcupinity of the StarsGary Barwin; Coach House Books 2010WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
I ordered this book on the strength of the author’s video for one of the poems in it, “Inverting the Deer” (embedded below). I’d never heard of the author before, though he seems to be quite well known in Canada as a fiction writer and children’s author as well as a poet.

I’ve been dipping into The Porcupinity of the Stars off and on for a week now, and when I went to read it in a more methodical fashion this morning, I was a little abashed to realize how heavily my poem of last night, “Garden Party,” had been influenced by Barwin’s imagery. There’s no mystery where that nearly forgotten memory of buried TVs came from: the book fairly bristles with images of televisions and burial, and even the burial of televisions. Here, for example, is “Planting Consent”:

I carried my TV down the stairs
buried it on a hill
with a beautiful view

by spring a small antenna
sprouted in that place

somewhere under the earth
wispy clouds and the wingbeats of birds

Barwin is a surrealist, as this example demonstrates, and my favorite poems in the book were those that explored just a few images, as “Planting Consent” does. Some of the poems failed to cohere for me — which isn’t to say I didn’t still enjoy reading them. More than anything else, this book is fun, and even the craziest or most experimental poems have memorable lines and images. For example, the opening stanza of “A Roof Floored” —

the stone hopes for flight
the way a goose
wants power chords

— made me chuckle, thinking of Aldo Leopold’s treasured “goose music” turned into heavy metal. And I loved its closing lines, too:

we sit before the mirror
use night as a balast

So my inability to make complete sense of the poem as a whole is almost beside the point. I’ve read countless more accessible poems that didn’t make as big an impression.

Surrealism often serves decidely bleak poetic visions — I’ll be blogging at least one example later this month — but Barwin’s vision in these poems seems more comic than tragic. When dismemberments occur, they are more in the spirit of Rabelais than Goya. Nor is the comic worldview unequal to the global crises of the 21st Century, as Barwin shows in poems such as “We Are Family”:

an organism which sleeps
soft as a cloth

a baby in a bed full of babies
and the earth full of babies


I wake and switch on the bedside light
there’s a glacier in my bed
ice, it says
snow, it says
it turns and presses its cold mouth on mine

and “Shopping for Deer”:

when I die, I will remember the deer
I will remember its wheels and antlers
I will remember its flesh and lightning
its womb of silver bones

The title poem was a bit of a disappointment, being entirely too random for my taste, but the longer poem immediately preceding it, “Small Supper,” was a masterpiece, beginning with what I took to be a variation on the age-old conflation of human souls with birds — “we placed our shadows inside birds / where they couldn’t be found” — and ending with “a bird’s small shadow … in my chest”. Even in such a potentially serious poem, though, humor crackles in lines such as “The shadow of a shadow / is my friend” and “it’s not so much that Polly wants a cracker / but that the lark wants its small supper of sky”.

Barwin employs a large vocabulary of cultural references, ranging from the Old Testament to jazz to, in one poem, “old testament jazz.” I read a number of these poems to my friend Rachel, who felt that some of them evoked for her — and perhaps betrayed the influence of — specific surrealist painters. They’re certainly very vivid. I guess my take-away impression is of a wildness that seizes and infects, an ensorceling that is by turns grotesque and cybernetic.

I’ve barely begun to quote my favorite poems from the book; suffice it to say I’ll be returning to it often. I do want to mention one other thing about it that pleased me: it’s printed on very good quality paper, the kind with a grain. (Sorry, I don’t know much about paper!) So while the publisher does offer ebook options, I’d recommend paying a few dollars extra for the print edition. Also, it may not be apparent from the small image above, but the deer on the cover is wearing athletic socks. Which is almost as cool as the deer in the video Barwin made:

Watch on YouTube