Between Careen and Caution by Heather Burns

Between Careen and Caution Between Careen and Caution: PoemsHeather Burns; Seven Kitchens Press 2011WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
This is one of the more aptly titled collections of poetry I’ve read in a while. It comes from a line in a poem called “Mile Marker 25,” which begins:

Am I on danger’s road, thoughts in motion
Toward the washed-out bridge around the blind curve?
Quick, choose between careen and caution,
Count what I want most, what I’d lose, now swerve
To miss the fox and clip my ghost instead.

And the book does do some wild swerving between poems that are stylistically and semantically cautious and those that threaten to fly apart at the seams. In the former category is a poem like “Comet,” a perfectly comprehensible and well-constructed pantoum, which I must admit, despite my distaste for pantoums and villanelles in general, makes very good use of the typically claustrophobic effect of all those repeating lines, describing a couple’s failure to get out of their too-small apartment to drive out into the country and view a comet. In the latter category, “Bringing in Laundry Before Storm” begins with a fairly random grab-bag of words, and only begins to make sense in the second stanza:

Thunder bulge tree’s crown
Maroon sky hum surgical thread loom

Porch dark as orchard
Cats flick and thump tails

So suffice it to say that Burns covers a lot of ground in just 21 poems, from the sonnet in the voice of a Confederate soldier that begins the book to the wonderful “At a Loss for Words” with which it concludes. Her favorite image (if that’s the word) is wind and her favorite topic is language and the difficulty of communication — and yes, sometimes they come together, as in the poem “General Delivery”:

I left home because Isabelle asked: What is West?
In part, it’s the porous bone of sky bleached and beached in red sand.

The wind plays its little jokes at the canyon rim,
Hurls itself down like a suicide, then yells for help.
You see it on the other side, laughing at its
Throw-the-voice trick.

(Read the whole poem on the publisher’s website.)

Burns is also good at conjuring shape-shifters, such as the “half-minding thin child” in “A Made Place” who “hides with her shadow / Between sheets on the clothesline” and eventually becomes

green inside,
Springy like crisp grass.
Shimmies the trunk of the skeleton tree
And hangs a picture of the sky on the sky.

The day itself is imagined as a shape-shifter in another poem, “Drunk Sun.”

The moon’s eye is half-shut and day hopes that nag
Won’t be looking for a good time tonight—ah—night’s
Now and day’s misthought its bounds again.

A restless, experimental spirit animates this fine first collection, which in its variety mirrors The Seven Kitchens Press Editor’s Series as a whole. Kudos to editor/publisher Ron Mohring for selecting it… and then working his usual magic on the design and execution.

An Eye Fluent in Gray by Gabriel Welsch

An Eye Fluent in Gray coverThe power went out this morning and stayed out most of the day, giving me an enforced Sabbath. I went for a walk, shot some video footage of goldfinches in the budding crabapple tree, and at one point this afternoon actually wrote a poem with pen and paper, using my old clipboard. And I extended my poetry-book-a-day pattern a little by reading long sections of a couple of other books before settling on this one. For whatever reason, Welsch’s somber, resonant voice was a perfect match for my mood today, reading in my strangely quiet living room with none of the usual electronic hums or furnace rumblings.

I first read An Eye Fluent in Gray last November, which was maybe a little too much of a good thing since a number of the poems in the book are set in November in Central Pennsylvania (Gabe lives not too far away from me). In general, I share his fondness both for the color gray and the month of November — the latter especially from half a year away. The title of the chap comes from the third poem, “Life in the Northeast, on a Line from Stevens,” which begins:

One must have a mind of winter
and an eye fluent in gray,
ears conversant in the sting
of slowed blood, in the many ways
to hear snow fall.

Welsch has an eye for the run-down, the worn-out, the spare, the harsh and the barren — kind of the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic translated into rural Pennsylvanian. This is evident even in the two more summery poems that begin the book, the first focusing on “The Oldest Roller Coaster in the World”—

the whole structure lurched
and groaned, as boards popped out
of their joints and snapped back, as metal
whined with strained age…

—and the second, “Black Raspberry Picking by Route 26, Centre County, Pennsylvania,” musing on the recent discovery of a murdered girl not far from the berry patch.

We wanted enough for a pie. Near dark,
fireflies haunted the woods’ edge by the ponds—
scummy effluvium of the water treatment plant,
the backwash of town edged in raspberries.

Welsch writes feelingly both of deer and of deer hunters, and he rarely seems to lose track of our basic mammalian identity. I was struck by this description of a Christmas caroler from “Ave Maria Outside a Small-Town Diner”:

The power of her throat, the creamy
length her voice implies, the purity
of her sound and its prayer:
everything sacred is of the body—

spirit moves muscle, shapes the eyes,
faith lives in the spark of a brain fed
on the lush fat of the blood
and a body’s cache of longing.

But in “Lovely, Dark and Deep,” the narrator expresses skepticism about his felt connection with white-tailed deer:

To meet their gaze, or to think

we’ve met their gaze, to stare back
as they question a windshield,
all that runs through a mind
seduced by the thought of connection.
As if, because we are both born in blood
and both wear hair, because we both
have time behind us watching woods
stir and darken, we invent
what we see.

Welsch places the poems referencing Stevens and Frost on facing pages, then follows with “What the Deaf Boy Heard” (text available on the publisher’s page; audio at Whale Sound) — one of several poems where listening plays a central role.

These are tough poems, all the more so because of their accessibility. The image I can’t get out of my head comes from “Route 422, Cambria County, Pennsylvania”: the state historical marker for the birthplace of another Pennsylvania poet, Malcolm Cowley, turned into a target for passing motorists:

you hear men
throw bottles at the sign, and the skitter of glass,
dainty as a chime.

Yeah, that sounds about right. As the poem says a few stanzas earlier, “This place … reinvents darkness every night.”

Seven Kitchens Press is offering free shipping on all titles this month. Click on the book cover image above to order this one.


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 just four of those books. Details here.

Household of Water, Moon, & Snow: The Thoreau Poems by Todd Davis

Household of Water, Moon, & SnowThese poems with their clear music and cool, unexpected depths are the perfect palate cleanser after yesterday’s rich fare. Here, for example, is the beginning (minus the epigraph from Walden) of “Thoreau Surveys the Ice,” in which the naturalist comes out before dawn to witness the break-up of the ice. Read it out loud, if you can:

In late March he tromped over rotting snow, hardened
edges, knee-high holes that held the leg until the weight
of want and momentum broke through to the next,
and the next which led to the pond’s scalloped ledges,
the distance between piled winter and spring’s wanton

The chapbook arrived in today’s mail, unsolicited, inscribed with a note by the author too flattering to reproduce here. Todd Davis is a friend and sometime guest writer at Via Negativa, and it probably won’t surprise anyone who remembers those contributions, or our conversation on the Woodrat podcast last year, that he’s now written a cycle of 22 poems about or in the voice of Henry David Thoreau. The chapbook is from Seven Kitchens Press — the featured publisher here last April — which means hand-sewn, beautiful design and typography, everything a traditional poetry chapbook should be. Plus it’s small enough to fit in a large pocket, which means I could’ve taken it into the woods to read deliberately, as it deserves, had it not been pouring rain all afternoon.

Several things occurred to me as I read this. One is that it’s cool to see an author of six scholarly works and numerous journal articles bridging the divide in his own work (and Lord knows in university English departments) between scholarship and creative writing. Harold Bloom once made the point (at the beginning of The Book of J) that every reader forms an image of the author in his or her mind, and that conscientious scholars should at least acknowledge this inevitable quirk or skew. In Household of Water, Moon, & Snow, Todd brings this mental construct into the foreground and makes him speak in a voice that is at once Todd’s and also recognizably Thoreauvian — and at times sounds a bit East Asian, too. And that’s the second thing that occurred to me: any well-educated modern poet trying to reimagine Thoreau can’t help but be influenced by translations of classic Chinese and Japanese literature, a body of work Thoreau almost certainly would’ve loved had he known it. The book begins, as it should, with a deft reference to Transcendentalist belief in “Thoreau Casts a Line in the Merrimack”:

Pickerel, pot, eel, salmon, shad, even more
fish than these swim in the waters of the Self

where he casts again…

Over the course of ten lines, the view broadens into a cosmic vision of the Merrimack River. But wait a second, I say to myself, it was the Chinese who referred to Milky Way as the River of Heaven. And isn’t that an echo of Li Bai’s “Night Thoughts of a Traveler” in the last lines?

…flow outward

beneath the stars and the heavens, the other
rivers running through the glistening black.

The next poem, “Thoreau Hears the Last Warbler at the End of September,” reads very much like a Wang Wei poem, and the one after that, “Dreaming the Dark Smell of Bear,” sounds distinctly Daoist as it contrasts the protagonist’s cabin-building with a black bear.

Look at bear’s house: a hole
in the snow where great puffs of lung
rise through the roof of his dreaming.

There’s more than a bit of Zhuangzi in this dreaming, too, of course — and sleep and dreaming form a leitmotif in the collection. Since I happen to know that Todd is familiar with all that literature, it’s no great insight on my part to see it as an influence; I’m just impressed by the seamlessness of the weaving of voices. Todd’s own, typically unsentimental view of nature seems pretty close to what Thoreau also believed. In fact, when I encountered the first two poems written in the first person, it wasn’t immediately obvious whose voice they were meant to be in.

Those two poems, by the way, might be my favorites in the collection, at least after this first reading. “Eating an Apple” and “Give Us This Day” both challenge scriptural authority and widely held assumptions about work and sustenance; the latter is something of a forager’s manifesto. Picking black raspberries, the protagonist wonders:

Who blessed by this dark
sugar could stay quiet?
Ants wander drunk
into my bucket, across
the visible world
that feeds us, that makes
an offering each day:
beach plum or paw paw,
morel or puffball, even
the spider-legs
of purslane
and the sharp
bite of sorrel.

That bite, I decide, is a Davis hallmark: relationships with the natural world in his poetry are rarely one-way, and never purely aesthetic, but transactional, characterized by loss as well as gain and a certain element of risk. A poem called “The Virtues of Indolence” stars water snakes, and is followed by a meditation “On Beauty” that uses as its exemplar a poison ivy vine. Like Thoreau himself, Davis seems most concerned with learning how to live well, with eyes open to death and the perils of beauty and usefulness. A graceful elegy and evocation, this book, and a fine companion on a rainy April afternoon.

Seven Kitchens Press is offering free shipping on all its titles throughout April.

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 just four of those books. Details here.

Long Corridor, by Lisa Sewell

Long Corridor cover
I thought it would be appropriate to finish out this month of intensive reading with a book of poems that are each creative responses to a text. I read each poem several times, but a few still remained above my head — hard to believe I was once a Comparative Literature major! Fortunately, I don’t mind getting out of my depth if there’s a pay-off, and most of the time there was: the language was interesting, and some of the composition techniques were impressive. One poem had lines arranged in a palindrome-like manner, for example, so it read almost the same backwards as forwards. Another was “completely composed of phrases from Cordelia’s speeches in Act I, scene i” of King Lear.

Some of the poems that I felt I got a firm grasp on I really liked, such as “The Eden Express (1978),” about an American Jew making Aliyah and attempting to reconcile her liberal beliefs in civil rights with the reality of anti-Arab prejudice and persecution and the invasion of Lebanon. Of the IDF soldiers she was romantically involved with, she wondered

Four years later
which ones blocked the exits at Sabra and Chatila
firing flares that lit the camps up
like a football stadium and claimed
“We know, it’s not to our liking, and don’t
interfere” as you continued to let hormones
crush the odor and burning, the cranky sound
of tanks and unended future of returning.

In “Little House in the Big Woods (1968),” the narrator envies what appears to have been a more grounded and authentic upbringing than her own modern, strip-mall surroundings.

O semi-circular drive and window seat
tract dining-room living and kitchens
of three-bedroom half-acre homes
in my own pan of cubed ice not snow
no sugared maple leaf hardened toward delight.

A poem about the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans takes as its text Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. As in other poems in the chapbook, the lines in italics are taken directly from the text:

…but in the air above the Superdome
where pigeons fly, it was a desperate SOS

the low stifled sound that arises
from the soul when overcharged with awe

from the lost yards and fumbles
the interceptions that added nothing to our gain.

To my way of thinking the book could stand to be a little less cerebral; there’s a certain desolation at work that I’d like to encounter a bit more directly. And this is the only Seven Kitchens book I’ve seen where the design was a little off: the font, Nicolas Cochin, actually impedes easy reading. But I liked the concept, and would love to see more poems in this vein — might even try writing some myself. An image in the final poem, “a Personal Matter (1978),” captures for me the essence of this book about stories and how we receive them:

Months later in the movie theater of refuge and refusal
with the once known and reliable in shambles
and a story nothing like hers unfolding rapidly in light
and shadow’s indivisible progress across the screen

the low unmentionable chord returns
or climbs from the murky depths, a drowned bell
striking and deepening in rings.

Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library. I’ve been trying to read a book a day for National Poetry Month, with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Though the month is now up, I hope to continue blogging books in this fashion on a regular basis.

Soot, by Jeff Walt

Soot Sootpoems by Jeff Walt; Seven Kitchens Press 2010WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
This might just be my favorite so far in the Keystone Chapbook Series from Seven Kitchens Press. For one thing, the poet is very local: I can’t tell you how cool it is for me, as someone who grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, to read poems this good by a guy who grew up in Clearfield, just one county over. For another thing, the publisher took the hand-made aesthetic so literally with this one, he appears to have personally added the inky fingerprints to each copy himself, in addition to the usual hand-cutting and stitching. I say that because the pattern on the book cover image here, which I stole from the Seven Kitchens blog, is quite different from the pattern on my own copy, and they’re from the same printing. The only way this could be cooler would be if they were the author’s own fingerprints, but since he currently resides in Hawaii, I don’t imagine they are.

But the poetry is of course the main attraction, and these poems left me pretty much speechless, which might be why I’ve been nattering on about other stuff instead. I love how over-the-top some of the images are. The sky before a storm is “suddenly the color of rotting meat.” A smoker’s heart is “stained yellow from yearning.” Anxiety is “a dog that always needs walking.” There were a few things in the book I didn’t think quite succeeded, but I always admired the brio. Because Jeff Walt is, as they say in hip-hop circles, keeping it real. I was hooked from the opening lines of the lead poem, “All Day I Have Been Afraid.”

I heard Mrs. Lee scream Kill me! Kill me!
from inside her house and I did not move.

At noon, all the dogs in the neighborhood
began barking wildly. Was it an unbearable truth

told in a pitch only they could hear?

Clearfield Country has the most strip-mined acreage of any country in Pennsylvania, so the subject of the title poem came as no shock:

Down deep they dug, the men
of my family. Shovels & picks,
backs bent. Night on their grave
faces. Monday blues black
every bituminous day of the week.

Though a mere 20 poems long, Soot presents a broad cross-section of Western Pennsylvania working class experience. One poem describes becoming a regular at a neighborhood bar. Another takes us through a sex shop. “Joyride” captures the weekend car culture:

Every Sunday we cruised
in Uncle Jack’s rusted Cadillac,
driving by the sign that marked the edge
of town, honking at stray dogs,
our lives abandoned and hungry.
Swigging Black Velvet
from a silver flask, he was a man
mastering the profession of debauchery.
His hands cracked, fingernails black
from ten hours a day behind
the dragline, excavating his own heart.

These are far from the subtle, understated poems of Harry Humes, but strike me as no less authentically Pennsylvanian. Exaggeration and swagger are a big part of the culture, too, especially in this part of the state. The eponymous “Three Drunk Angels” are “Sick/ of saving lives, escorting/ each delirious spirit from its hollow// body,” and by the end of the poem, the souls they’re charged with have been reduced to plastic shopping bags fluttering down the streets and getting stuck to the bottoms of shoes (soles?)–

Just another something
for the dog to bark at, its owner asking,
“What is it boy, what’s there, what do you see?”

As in the opening poem, the dogs are seers. There are a lot of dogs in this book, and not all of them are well treated. In “My Brother Walks His Neighborhood at Night,” the protagonist is “scavenging the streets” for a lost dog named Lucky, who sounds as if it had every reason to run away. By the end of the poem, the protagonist is in confessional mode.

As a boy, I wanted to kill
everything smaller than me: beetles sprayed
with AquaNet, butterflies smacked
from the bright air, wings dipped in motor oil.

No wonder the angels get drunk behind Fat Jack’s Tavern. By the end of the book, I needed a drink myself.

I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month (or trying to — I missed yesterday) 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.

Spring Melt, by Katherine Bode-Lang

Spring Melt cover
This began as one kind of book and finished as something else. No, wait, that’s not true. I began as one kind of reader, with one set of expectations, and ended as another, with the change occuring around page 15 (out of 29 total pages of poetry). Which perhaps not coincidentally is where I resumed reading in mid-afternoon, after getting up from a long nap.

When I set the book aside this morning, I had been reading about the speaker’s mother being in love with boats and spending her vacation at a shipyard, despite the family having no boat of their own: a very interesting poem, but thoroughly in the realist, autobiographical-lyrical mode. Then in the groggy afternoon I resumed with “Sorting the Socks of the Dead”:

When they died, we wore their socks
on our hands for the winter. Puppets
with holes, our fingers poked out like ears.

This sudden swerve into strangeness was as delightful as it was unexpected. I read the next two poems, “Rainy Season” and “The Second Year,” in more of a Garcia-Marquezian frame of mind, which turned out to be a good fit for their bleak industrial subjects: a pulp mill shutting down briefly for Christmas and a scrap-metal recycling yard. Then the strangeness returned in full force with “She’s Heard It Said if It Weren’t for the Sky We Would All Go Mad.”

Her mother writes: I fear the gray bowl about us,
the wooden spoon you put to it. You have such clear
eyes: you see the halos of the sun, its drifting, flaming spots.
I want you to let the Black-Eye Galaxy go.

I really like being thrown off-balance like this. If I feel I understand every poem in a collection, I don’t enjoy it as much as if there’s still a solid core of mystery in it.

My five-year-old niece Elanor stopped by after supper (“I like your house, Uncle Dave, ’cause it got lots of books!”) and wanted to help with the typing. Sure, why not?

elanor dad mommy fdgdrygbfjgjgdggh xjhjkhdb dkes utawvbuytq piouyvb dfghfhg ujssfjcyhu fgdfyfchcui87fguyc rthhfhfh hgcnsx sffjhkdjoplrr fnvkvjvobbazrff vgtyrfbvf ggftgbryhgrvtyf vvvwf uccyhgcv5t78fc rtfdghmnc cgfvcgv3erfgudjnc cfvdfrfcrfc dbdczqwzzhn bdug guf yhfxFCJNZSUJVFGIKCRFJV dgfikch vvcvvgggggh nfhfdgvzs fihfivguvvg cujdcuu JK IX

I go back to the opening poem, “Diagnosis,” which is about taking a nap with the windows open. Hmm. Now I can’t help wondering if the unusual length and soundness of my nap might not have been due in part to my reading of this poem in the morning. I even slept through a phone call.

Each window is a gaping mouth without a tongue,
our noises rumbling up from deeper down.

That works as a description of the contents, too. Poems are windows, are they not? And this solid, habitable first collection of poems echoes with the borborygmi of thaw and flood.

(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.)

Still, by Deborah Burnham

Still cover

Still isn’t: something is always stirring just under the surface. My hands grow colder as I read: winter has returned, “like a mirror/ whose silver dries and drifts across the floor,/ leaving a window on the wall that shows just/ the wall itself…” The stone face on the cover — sad, contemplative, turning green — colors my reading of the poems within. I love sycamores, and there are sycamores on almost every other page, clinging “to patches of uncaring earth/ refusing their own beauty,” their “patchwork green and brown// like a room where the bookshelves have been stripped,/ the curtains taken down.”

In the title poem, an ivy plant cut at the root in autumn holds its dried leaves all winter, “stem and branches stuck on the brick/ like the veins of some huge flat/ animal, shaped like an open hand,” and I am left to imagine how it must sound in “the snapping wind” — and what might be happening in the house within. In the next poem, it’s someone else who has lived through a “year of silent anger,” and in the poem after that, it’s the neighbors who have gotten divorced: a delicate indirection that reminds me almost of Japanese court poetry from the Heian period. Even in the last poem, when Burnham writes about baseball and Art Tatum, that sensibility persists. I rub my finger over a tiny curl at the edge of the page left over from the cutting: the quiet eroticism of a handmade book, its alluring stillness.

Like Humes’ Underground Singing, its mate in the Keystone Chapbook Series for collections by Pennsylvania poets, Still manages to satisfy despite its brevity — even at times to astonish. It’s like the lake in “Learning How to Want,” “that cradles bodies who have forgotten how to sleep.” Being short on sleep myself this morning, I am glad to have found it. I emerge refreshed, as if from a bracing dip.

(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.)

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.)

Woodrat Podcast 13: Christina Pacosz, chronicler of an at-risk society

Christina Pacosz

Topics include the Womanspirit movement; lessons from Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly; where the title “Notes from the Red Zone” came from; fear of the Other; our place in the natural world; Christina’s childhood education, her stint as a visiting artist in North Carolina community colleges and how she met Steve Sherrill; remembering William Stafford; working with “at-risk youth”; remembering Alton Fred Brown.


Theme music: “Le grand sequoia, by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

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.