Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My First Time Reading with Music and Visual Accompaniment

I’ll be reading a love poem for my wife tonight as one small part of the OBU Bisonette Glee Club’s concert, which celebrates national poetry month with a cornucopia of poetry-related music. There will also be a visual-arts element to the concert. If you are in or near Shawnee, you won’t want to miss this concert, which is at 7:30 tonight in the Yarborough Auditorium of the chapel on the OBU campus.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Terror and Transcendence: A Brief Review of Larry D. Thomas’ A Murder of Crows.

Larry D. Thomas, A Murder of Crows. Virtual Artists Collective, 2011.

        A Murder of Crows is a terrible book. To be clear, it is very good poetry: finely crafted, brilliantly imagined, stunningly vivid. It is terrible only, but powerfully, in the true and classical sense of the word: it evokes a sense of terror in the reader, a kind of dark sublime. It is also a book that, like the birds that fill its pages, rises above the mundane. A Murder of Crows is a powerful exploration of violence and art, of terror and transcendence.
      Thomas turns the bird-watcher’s hobby into opportunity for precisely observed instances of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw.” He signals the frankness of his observation in the book’s opening lines: “By cold, hunger, or the brutal / amusement of a cat, it probably / will die before I do” (“The Sparrow”). The startling combination, made even more forceful by the delaying line-break, of “brutal” and “amusement” is characteristic of Thomas’ tone in this book, which often gives us a vision of bird-life beyond good and evil. A typical example is the gull which descends from a pure sky to “the vile devourment of offal” only “because she wanted to, all / without the slightest twinge of guilt” (“All Because She Wanted To”). A Murder of Crows is a poetic Wild Kingdom narrated by Friedrich Nietzsche, and, like all the best wildlife documentarians, Thomas doesn’t flinch from vividly depicting this amorally violent avian world. Consider this image from “Starlings”:
                                the chunky males
                                will grab
                                baby sparrows

                                by their necks,
                                drag them
                                from a birdhouse,

                                and drop them
                                to burst
                                like ripe figs.
These short lines in groups of three evoke the work of William Carlos Williams and appropriate his emphasis on precision of image, but this certainly isn’t chickens beside a wheelbarrow. Thomas here, as in all the poems of this book, is careful to keep concrete image in the forefront, letting the abstract implications make themselves felt by means of the picture before the mind’s eye. He need not tell us how to feel when he presents us, for instance, with the image of carrion crows pulling their beaks from dead flesh and “stringing it / into bracelets/ of soft, / gleaming rubies”  (“Carrion Crows”). Thomas’ precision of image and concision of language ensures that the terror of each poem is intensely experienced by his reader.

     Yet, there is more to this book than terror; there is also transcendence. Most of the poems are shaped into stanzas of a regular number of lines, thus enacting on the page the struggle of art to master terror. Like great war poets from Homer to Sassoon, Thomas seems driven by the imperative to make poetry from the darkness. The regular stanzas certainly don’t diminish the violence, but they do contain it within boundaries set by the poet. Such an effort to turn terror into art is perhaps the point behind the poem “Red-tailed Hawk,” which describes one of the book’s very few stuffed birds. The taxidermist’s work is described as a “masterpiece,” its “waxen beak” curved “[w]ith the trajectory / of violence.” As in Yann Martel’s recent novel, Beatrice and Virgil, the taxidermist is the poet’s doppelganger, making art from the terror. Thomas makes the point even more explicitly in “Of Five Crows Flying,” in which he makes from the sound of the birds overhead “the dissonant, / interminable sonata / of darkness.” Art never conquers terror in A Murder of Crows, but it also never submits to it. Amidst the blood and guts of “nature red in tooth and claw” art seems triumphant merely by virtue of its ability to exist in the darkness. It transcends by remaining.

     A Murder of Crows is a disturbing and captivating book. In its singularity of subject matter it demonstrates an ambition often lacking in small-press poetry, and the ambition proves appropriate, as Thomas achieves both a unified effect and a philosophical cohesion. This book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but true poetry never is. As Thomas admits in the book’s stunning final poem, his true purpose is, after all, to reveal “the ravenous, reeking / psyche of our kind.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Oklahoma Book Award

Elegy for Trains has been awarded the 2011 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry.

This award is given annually by the Oklahoma Center for the Book, a state affiliate of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, and honors one book each in five categories (poetry, design/illustration, children/young adult, non-fiction, and fiction) either written by an Oklahoman author or addressing a subject directly relevant to Oklahoma.  
Here are the past winners in poetry:
1990: Wiliam Kistler
1992: Carol Hamilton
1993: Jim Barnes
1994: Carter Revard
1995: Joy Harjo
1996: Francine Ringold
1997: Renata Treitel
1998: Betty Shipley
1999: Mark Cox
2000: N. Scott Momaday
2001: Carolyne Wright
2002: Ivy Dempsey
2003: Joy Harjo
2004: Laura Apol
2005: Francine Ringold
2006: Leanne Howe
2007: Carl Sennhenn
2008: Sandra Soli
2009: Nathan Brown
2010: Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: Alan Berecka, Remembering the Body

Alan Berecka, Remembering the Body. Mongrel Empire Press, 2011. $15.00.        
               “Finding your voice” is a writing cliché second in prominence perhaps only to “write what you know.” Yet, as a reader, one does look for poetry that in some way distinguishes itself from the crowd of contemporary voices. Alan Berecka’s new book does just that, moving beyond a distinct “voice” to offer something even more rare: a discernible poetic personality. Berecka’s poems seem, to borrow a metaphor from Montaigne, consubstantial with the poet, displaying a unique mind and distinct viewpoint on the world. The personality enlivening Remembering the Body is witty and clear-sighted yet also conflicted and, above all, empathetic.
                Sadly neglected in recent poetry, wit had its heyday as a literary value from the early seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, but, through ceaselessly rewarding word-play, Berecka makes a good case for its comeback. In “Rewriting a State Motto,” for instance, the possibility of bird-watching in New Jersey leads to a string of images caught between the literal and the half-dead metaphor: “odd ducks / jail birds, dirty birds and flipped birds.” This is witty in the contemporary sense of being funny, but it also exhibits wit in the literary sense of the term: it is apropos, evidence of a lively mind making unexpected connections that, once made, seem inevitable.  This quality is also evident in Berecka’s use of line breaks. Consider his appropriation of Shakespeare’s Caliban, whom we are first led to see in his familiar bestial state, perhaps breaking some small animal over the rocks for his brutal meal, before Berecka, through a clever break, wittily revises our image of the famous beast: “Caliban cracks the spine / of each volume of his new OED and consumes / each word” (“Vollard Fails Caliban”). True wit in a poet enlivens the wit of the reader, takes the mind for a rewarding ride, as Berecka does repeatedly in Remembering the Body.
                Berecka’s wit sometimes manifests itself in extended metaphor (what an earlier age called “conceit”). The best example of this tendency may be “The Theology of Dodge Ball,” which considers the coastal residents’ prayers in hurricane season in terms of a cosmic version of that hated gym-class ordeal. The poem raises classic questions about the justice of God by examining the troubling correspondence between “the jock” who “stands armed / on his side of the court” and “the God of mercy / and compassion.” The end result of the metaphor is a powerful bewilderment: “The spared will  heap praise / on a loving God, as a stained ball / slowly rolls back across a gym floor.” This is deadly serious wit.
            “The Theology of Dodge Ball” is also a great example of the conflicted side of Berecka’s poetic personality. Many poems in Remembering the Body, especially in the second part of the book, take up the problematic nature of faith in the contemporary world. Berecka seems drawn to believe and yet rejects the too easy pietism that often infects contemporary Christianity in the form of Joel-Osteen-like optimism or anti-body neo-Gnosticism. In “Shopping for Miracles: Lourdes, 1979,” the poet seems to counter naïve optimism by suggesting that real faith is modeled not by pilgrims seeking miraculous deliverance from the holy water of Lourdes but rather by his mother who “remained / bedridden and continued to say the rosary / through her pain every day until she died.” In response to the undying heresy of the Gnostics, Berecka offers the collection’s title poem, which first flirts with paganism as an alternative to disembodied Christianity before returning to an orthodoxy strengthened by doubt:
                                Once grace with this glimmer of Christ
                                freed from Gnostic beliefs, I return
                                to give thanks  for the creed
                                which states that Christ rose
                                to reign forever, his body restored –
                                a bright, blood-filled vessel – molded
                                in the image of the Creator, as are we.
Berecka calls us to remember that the faith of the Christian is faith in a man who, like us, inhabits a physical body, both glorious and capable of suffering. In fact, the glory and the suffering are as intertwined in Berecka’ poetics as they are in Christian theology and tradition. In poems such as “Easter Art” and “The Price of Art,” Berecka suggests that beauty comes from pain (Not that Berecka’s counter-Gnosticism is always morbid: consider the delightfully fleshy “My Bone of Contention with Roethke,” in which the poet declares in response to Roethke’s famous line about lovely bones, “I know a woman lovely, / and I mean lovely, in her flesh”).
                Such a theory of art born out of pain must put a great emphasis on empathy, on art as consolation in a fallen world. Berecka accordingly has filled his book with narrative poems in sympathy with a poetic type one might best describe as the “noble loser,” a figure who seems, in some way, to represent essential humanity. Narrative verse is, we are told constantly, a distinctly unfashionable choice, despite the fact that it is utilized by many of the best contemporary poets, including David Mason and B.H. Fairchild, to whom Berecka pays tribute in one poem in the book. Berecka, however, bodly defies fashion to offer, instead, poems that satisfy the reader with a fullness of imagination. In fact, the poem “In Defense of the Narrative” pits the narrative poet’s work ethic –describe in terms of a pinball game: “Ignoring / the lights and playing the game” – against the perhaps flashier poetics of the Imagists and their imitators. Such hard work pays off in stories of troublingly beautiful outsiders, like the “Litvak” champion of flatulence in “The Assimilation of Vita Perkunas,” a character unlikable in a number of ways but whom Berecka manages to stir up empathy for regardless. Sometimes in Remembering the Body, the story seems to originate closer to home, as in “the Prophet,” which tells the tale of the poet’s uncle hiding in the cellar and drunkenly praying for mercy in fear that Neal Armstrong would knock the moon from orbit. The scenario provides easy laughs early in the poem, but by the end Berecka has brought us around to see the truth in his uncle’s fear. Watching “a production line where robots / spot weld cars” and thinking, perhaps, of his own hard-working immigrant forbearers, Berecka realizes how fragile is the gravity that holds all our worlds in orbit, how suddenly a known universe of the personal sort may be obliterated. Many such characters inhabit Remembering the Body – Aunt Helen who talks to cows, Santos the drunk who talks to Jesus – and each one teaches us something about being human.
                There are many more stand-out poems in this thoughtful, engaging volume. Both “Sins of the Father” and “Flashes,” for instance, are masterful blends of narrative and personal lyric, finely paced and vividly imagined. Though he may occasionally count himself among his own “noble losers,” as in his tribute to Fairchild, in which he calls himself “a minor league poet,” Berecka has written a winningly witty and humane book indeed. Remembering the Body is clearly a major league accomplishment.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Scissortail Authors

I had a wonderful time at Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, at East Central University in Ada. Even taking time out to teach my Friday classes, I managed to hear twenty-five poets, novelists, short-story writers, and essayists. Here’s a list, with a few notes and links, of authors I heard over the course of the three day festival:

1. Shirley Hall
2. George McCormick (reading an absolutely brilliant short story).
3. Ken Hada (reading from Spare Parts, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award).
4.Alan Barecka (reading from Remembering the Body).
5. Rilla Askew (first chapter of a new novel!)
6. The one and only Jim Spurr, of Shawnee
7. Jason Poudrier (Jason is an Iraq War veteran, whose poetry offers a powerfully affecting view on the war).
8. J. Don Cook
9. Me (reading from Elegy for Trains).
10. Jane Vincent Taylor (a smart and engaging poet)
11. Jeanne Dunbar-Green
12. Arn Henderson
13. Carol Hamilton (reading from Umberto Eco Lost His Gun, another finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award).
14.  E.K. Mortenson (reading from The Fifteenth Station, a very powerful cycle of poems).
15. Mark Walling
16. Larry Thomas (former poet laureate of Texas and author of, A Murder of Crows and many other books).
17.  Nathan Brown (reading from Letters to the One-Armed Poet).
18.  James Brubaker
19. Sarah Webb
20. Patrick Ocampo (who has a new book out from Mongrel Empire Press).
21. Tara Hembrough
22. Dan Wilcox (all the way from Albany, NY.)
23. Dean Rader (reading from Works and Days).
24. Ron Wallace (reading from Oklahoma Cantos, yet another finalist for the Oklahoma Book Awards).
25. And the grand finale: Billie Letts.

I also picked up a number of new books I hope to review on this blog soon.

What a great festival!