Friday, December 28, 2012

Spots of Time: A Review of Kathleen Johnson's Subterranean Red

Kathleen Johnson, SubterraneanRed (Mongrel Empire Press, 2012)

Kathleen Johnson’s Subterranean Red treats of memory in the form of murmur and of snapshot. Like a character in a gothic novel held captive by a ghostly lover, the poet is haunted by a past she would rather escape and yet, despite herself, courts in her imagination. This past is often evoked visibly in the series of family photos that accompany the text, a technique reminiscent of Jeanetta Calhoun Mish’s very successful Work is Love Made Visible. Rather than bringing back the past, however, these pictures and the poems which they accompany serve to remind the reader that what time has broken can never again be made whole, that memory is always a matter of arranging and rearranging the fragments. Remembering is imagining.

The theme of the past’s constant murmuring in the consciousness of the poet is established in the collection’s first poem, “The Apothecary of Minerva Best.” As throughout the book, memory presents itself as both desirable and painful:

                        I’m left with an ache as faint

                        and elusive as the sound in

                        a conch put to my ear.

                        The ebb and flow now

                        no more than a murmur

                        or a memory.

The image of the conch summarizes well the way in which memory is sought as a pleasure yet remains elusive and painful. Johnson adds to this theme by the use of internal and occasional rhymes throughout the book. The faint rhyming becomes a form of echo, of murmur. Take for example these lines from “Three Generations of Cherokee Women: A Portrait,” in which she describes her great-grandmother:

                        She’s seen them come and seen them

                        go. The stories she could tell

                        I’ll never know. But her hands look like

                        they’ve wrung a thousand chicken necks.

There is enough ghost of the iamb in these lines to accent the rhyme of go and know, but the line breaks skillfully work to half bury the rhyme. This effect is even more powerful in the beautifully evocative “Wild Sand Plums”:

                        Roadside sunflowers face the sun,

                        sway in the wind.

                        Near the cornfield, I bend

                        to pick up a mottled feather.

The rhyme is of course both aural (wind and bend) and visual, the figure in the poem bending in rhyme with the top-heavy sunflowers. Enacting the way imagination constructs the past, the poem builds itself from echoes and murmurs. Johnson’s poems are this carefully constructed throughout Subterranean Red.

Many of the poems in this volume are written in the psychologically frank fashion we have for over half a century now referred to as “confessional,” but these poems nevertheless recognize, as does the best work of Robert Lowell, the role of imagination in framing and shaping memory. The accompanying photos rather than representing proof of a definitive past are offered rather as self-conscious constructions of family history. At times, the photos, like the poems, represent an effort to remake that history, as in “Granddad Scott”:

                        On my wall I keep a picture

                        so I won’t remember him just as a cruel man:

                        in a white dress and turned-up cap,

                        he is a blue-eyed baby


                        on his daddy’s lap.

At other times they are emblems of something more like negative versions of Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” as in “Father’s Day”:

                        And I realize that the line from my dream

                        has something to do with

                        this picture, that even in sleep I cannot

                        rest, but must forever watch

                        him falling off that fence,

                        falling to pieces.

In both versions, be it dream or wakeful and willed effort, the photo represents the activity of the poet’s imagination. The pictures, like the poems, don’t capture the past: they shape it. As Johnson says in “Following the Red Hills Home,” “the imagined is as real as the rest of it.” It is Johnson’s sharp imagination, along with her artistic presentation and self-consciousness, that keeps the poems about, for instance, her father’s philandering from descending into the sort of cheap latter-day confessional poetry that relies on shock and attitude rather than on craft and rumination.

In “Raven Mocker” Johnson gives us the raven as an image of, among other things, poetic inspiration, something beautiful but also dark and dangerous. Such a bird is a fitting mascot for these poems, alive to the point of tense contact with death itself, earthly scavengers yet transcendent in flight. Subterranean Red is a poignant, powerful book of poems that will be reread for many years to come.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Four Great Titles From New York Quarterly Books

My second book, Lapse Americana, is due out from New York Quarterly Books on February 2. In the meantime, here are four of my favorite titles already out from NYQ Books:

These poems are simultaneously tough-minded and tender-hearted. For example, check out the opening lines of “A Typical Day 31 Years Ago”:
                        was watching my mother die.
                        Part of the tumor that would
                        eventually strangle her
                        came out of her mouth
                        like a cheap party trick,
                        just in time for the feast
                        of the epiphany.
Weil’s Catholicism (see his brilliant two-part essay on that topic on The The Poetry Blog) leads him to a poetics that emphasizes the sacramental and the incarnated. The poems abound with physical detail, real images of real life that point to the paradoxical dignity we find in bearing the indignity of humanity. The poems are direct and smart. This may just be the best book of poetry I have read this year.

This book makes me think of C.S. Lewis’s observation that the sonnet sequences of the 16th century were not narrative but rather “symphonic.” I think what Lewis meant is that the background story (whether Shakespeare’s love triangle with the “Dark Lady” and “Young Man” or Sidney as Astrophel in love with Stella) is felt rather than followed. That symphonic effect is certainly evident in After the Ark, which has as its background story the marital dissolution of the poet’s parents and the death of his mother. Johnson doesn’t give us a blow by blow account of the end of that marriage or of the end of his mother’s life; rather he invites us into the emotional landscape of a family’s collapse. The result of this technique is that we are moved along with the poet. He doesn’t dictate to us what he felt; he invites us along for the emotional ride. Much of this emotion is conveyed through powerful images, doing much to revive Eliot’s concept of the “objective correlative.” Consider the last two lines of “Pageant, Christmas Eve”: “Houselights snuffed, the dark became an empty / ribcage, the tree our flickering heart.” Wow! Another very effective image is that at the end of “Flood” in which, sitting beneath a tin roof listening to the rain, the mourners for Johnson’s mother “put her shoes outside and watched them fill.” That is a powerful image of absence and loss.

Maybe I should declare up front that Amanda Bradley is a friend of mine from graduate school. But then again, so what? I have lots of friends whose books I don’t like, and I simply avoid reviewing them. Amanda has saved me a lot of awkwardness by writing a very good book. The best description of this book is probably its title, which captures well the unique blend of the harrowing and the whimsical that one finds throughout Oz at Night. A great example is “To Thomas Pynchon Regarding The Crying of Lot 49,” which would seem to inaugurate a new kind of poem: the academic confessional. Recalling the agony of digging through Pynchon’s book, she says, “Was that on purpose? I want to punch / your reclusive face. Where are you, Pynchon?” The poem is funny, especially to anyone who has struggled with the intellectual demands of academic work, but it is also very personal. Finding herself lost in a maze of critical theory and interpretation, she ends with the confession that “by page 111, I couldn’t believe myself.”  This is a witty poem on the academic life, but it is also a very brave poem about self-doubt. In some ways it reminded me of Ginsberg’s “America,” and I wanted to add “It occurs to me that I am Thomas Pynchon./ I am talking to myself again.” Other poems in the collection wrestle with the same issues of identity and self-doubt. In “I am not what I would like to be nor what I will become,” she says “I am not Matt Damon, nor someone who carries an alligator purse.” This is a very striking way of addressing identity and the painful process of deriving it by means of negation. The poems in Oz at Night are not confessional in the Plath, Sexton, Lowell mode, but they do leave one with the impression that Oz is an internal landscape, as simultaneously alien and familiar as the depths of our own minds revealed in dreams.

Margrave offers something rarely seen in contemporary poetry: wit. It’s not just that the book is often funny, though it is. I mean “wit” in the seventeenth-century sense, the play of intellect. “Perishable” is a good example of this quality.  Margrave begins the poem with a description of cleaning out his recently deceased father’s refrigerator and ends with the observation that “a man is more perishable than his food.” The poem has certain Donne-like qualities, the witty conceit and the memento mori. Indeed, memento mori – the medieval and Renaissance trope of calling to mind one’s impending death – is the unifying theme of this book. Margrave treats this theme with humor and genuine pathos.

I will most likely recommend more from NYQ Books in the months ahead. In the meantime, if you want to get a better sense of the philosophy behind the operation, see me review of editor Raymond Hammond’sbook, Poetic Amusement. Or, better yet, buy a copy of Poetic Amusement and read it yourself.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Anna Myers (my mom) receives the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book

            Near the beginning of her masterly novel, Fire in the Hills, Anna Myers gives us this exchange between young Hallie and her dying mother:
          “Ma,” said the girl, trying not to scream. “Ma, you can’t die.”
          “We all do, child. We all do. There is worst things. Sing to me, Hallie. 
            It  will rest us both.” (2)
This brief bit of dialogue sums up much that is great about my mother’s work. Her novels are rooted in the common human lot of suffering, in the ties that bind us together even in the hardest of times, and in the universal song that transcends the sorrow: “Sing to me, Hallie. It will rest us both.” Anna Myers comes from folks who know suffering and from folks who know how to tell a story, a long line of yarn-spinners and survivors. Thus, her books often begin with sadness, like the gut-wrenching first line of Red Dirt Jessie – “My sister Patsy is dead” – or the heart-rending execution scene with which she opens Spy, her account of the life and death of Nathan Hale. This story structure, this motion from pain to the pleasure of narrative, reminds us that the stories we tell are born from our sorrows and that our strength to face such sorrow is often born from the stories we tell.
          When these stories belong to all of us, we call them “history,” and much of my mother’s career has been dedicated to bringing history alive in narrative. Red Dirt Jessie, is set during the Great Depression, a stark backdrop to mirror the emotional depravation of its young protagonist and her father. In Assassin, the turmoil of the Civil War matches the inner turmoil of young adulthood as Bella wrestles with her identity, the possibilities of good and evil in her young soul a microcosm of the equally polar possibilities within her young country at a great moment of crisis. Anna Myers knows that the stories we call history are the stories of individual lives. In Rosie’s Tiger, Rosie herself says so:
                   I didn’t understand much of what the newsmen said. It took me the                      
                     longest time to get it straight that the United States was mad at   
                     North Korea and wanted to help South Korea.  But all along I 
                    understood that Ronny might not come home. When I set two  
                      plates out on the table for super, I’d look at his empty chair and                       
                      be so awful afraid it might stay empty, always.
My mother’s novels remind us that the stories we share as history are stories of empty chairs and of changed lives. Her work reminds us that the big events on the world stage matter most on the individual level: the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic matters to a boy most in the form of his lost family; the great Galveston Flood of 1900 matters to a little girl most in the form of her lost friend; even World War II matters most to a girl from Oklahoma in the form of her missing father. This humane understanding of history reminds us why it is so crucial to know where we have been; it instructs us on how to think most deeply about where we may be going.
          Such an approach to story-telling is a contribution to the sympathetic imagination of the reader. When we read about richly imagined characters facing challenges that, no matter how fantastic or unusual, have some element of the struggles of reality in them, then we become better at imagining the thoughts and feelings of others, great literature’s contribution to the moral good coming not in the form of maxims and rules but in the form of refined empathy. Like Homer’s Odysseus, my mother’s characters are shaped by the suffering that is common to humanity, that is shared among us all. In Fire in the Hills, Hallie’s own capacity for sympathy is expanded when she learns of the sorrows that shaped Mary Jones:
                   Hallie trembled as she passed the jar. She was over-whelmed. Mary,                   
                   even Mary Jones, had churnings inside her, feelings she had laid out                    
                   there in the lamplight. The ache in the girl was magnified. It was  
                    an  ache for Mary and her lost Lucy, for little Dovie who muttered 
                   ‘Ma’ in her sleep, and most of all for herself, mortally wounded,   
                    but unable to say so. Tentatively she laid her hand on the woman’s 
                   shoulder, and Mary patted it as she swigged down the yellow elixir.
The sort of connection my mother describes in these beautifully restrained words is the sort of connection forged again and again between her readers and her characters. It is a feeling that makes us all better equipped to love our neighbors as ourselves.
          My mother’s finely drawn characters have lived out their stories in various corners of this country – Memphis to Massachusetts – but her work has again and again returned to speak of the particularly Oklahoman brand of character and of suffering. Auden said of Yeats that “Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.” When I read, in Tulsa Burning, of the struggles of young Nobe Chase, I think a similar dynamic might explain my mother as an Oklahoman writer. But this place has done more than hurt my mother; it has also gifted her with a kind of emotional honesty that rejects sentimentality, a sense of optimism without a blindness to reality, and a belief in the existence of human goodness despite our history of violence. All of these characteristics are evident in Nobe’s words as he stands at the grave of his abusive father:
                   I started to think that maybe Pa was in heaven after all. It would 
                   sure take God to understand a man like him. I figured if Pa was up 
                   there, he’d   likely be able to look down and know the words that I 
                    wished I could say. (149)
If mad Oklahoma hurt my mother into poetry, it also touched her with its rugged beauty, gave her a prose as clear and strong as summer wind over the prairie. And lucky for us it did.
          Anna Myers’ accomplishments are too numerous to name here in their entirety. She is the author of 19 novels for young readers. She is a four time winner of the Oklahoma Book Award: for Spy in 2009, Assassin in 2006, Graveyard Girl in 1996, and Red Dirt Jessie in 1993. She is a finalist again this year, for her latest book, The Grave Robber’s Secret. She won the Parents' Choice Award in 1996, for Fire in the Hills and the Gamma State Author's Award, 1997, for Graveyard Girl.  In 1998, she won the Children's Book of the Year Award from Bank Street College for The Keeping Room. Other honors include the Honor Book Award, Society of School Librarians International, 1999-2000, and Gamma State Author's Award, 2000, both for Ethan between Us; another Honor Book Award, Society of School Librarians International, 2001-02, for When the Bough Breaks; a Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People citation from the Children's Book Council/National Council for the Social Studies, 2003 for Tulsa Burning; and yet another Honor Book Award, along with the Pennsylvania Young Reader's Choice Award, 2004-05, for Tulsa Burning.  Her books have been named to such prestigious lists as “New York Public Library’s Best Books for the Teenaged,” “New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books to Read and Share,” “Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books,” “ALA Quick Pick List” and “Independent Book Sellers Pick of the List.” She has been included more than twenty times on the children’s choice lists for various states. And, perhaps most importantly, has received innumerable letters from young readers, both avid and reluctant, praising her compelling stories and relatable protagonists. It is no surprise to me that she now joins Rilla Askew, Joy Harjo, S.E. Hinton, Bill Wallace, N. Scott Momaday, and so many other great writers in winning this prestigious award.
          My mother often tells me how proud she is of me; she’s that kind of mother. But tonight I want to say how proud I am of my mother, not just for the list of accomplishments I just read to you but also for what these accomplishments and her work itself, say about who she is. Like Hallie Horton, she’s a fighter and a survivor. She doesn’t give up, ever. I saw that over the years I was growing up and she was honing her craft, writing each night, watching the mailbox for news, continually starting again and working on. I saw it as she struggled alongside my father against cancer. I’ve seen it again as she has stood alongside my sisters and me in our own personal challenges. I’ve seen that look in her eye, a look I saw also in her mother’s eye, that says I can be hurt, I can be wounded and scarred, but I can’t be overcome. For as long as I can remember my mother has been reciting to me, in bits and pieces as appropriate, this poem by Langston Hughues:
                    MOTHER TO SON
                   Well, son, I'll tell you:
                    Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
                    It's had tacks in it,
                    And splinters,
                    And boards torn up,
                    And places with no carpet on the floor—
                    But all the time
                    I'se been a-climbin' on,
                    And reachin' landin's,
                    And turnin' corners,
                    And sometimes goin' in the dark
                    Where there ain't been no light.
                    So, boy, don't you turn back.
                    Don't you set down on the steps.
                    'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
                    Don't you fall now—
                    For I'se still goin', honey,
                    I'se still climbin',
                    And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
In her eighth grade English class, my mother had me memorize that poem, but what I really committed to memory, what I really got from my mother is that through art, through its transcendent beauty and infectious compassion, we make our suffering into something more. In our stories, we climb, even when the way is hard. Even as we celebrate a lifetime’s worth of achievement tonight, my mother is climbing still.