Review Series #10: Dothead

Each month I review a new book for ImageUpdate. Here’s the latest.

Marking the Unseen Eye
Dothead by Amit Majmudar

“It’s not some freak / third eye that opens on your forehead like / on some Chernobyl baby,” writes Amit Majmudar in the poem “Dothead.” “What it means / is, what it’s showing is, there’s this unseen / eye, on the inside. And she’s marking it.” The narrator of this poem is a child struggling to explain his mother’s bindi to white friends at school, and although this book is electric with struggle—“FUGITO ERGO SUM,” declares one poem, taking up the fight with God—these are generally fights more foisted on the speaker than picked by him. Majmudar responds with storytelling, sharp meditations, and the choice of real, embodied human experience over abstractions. Some of these poems send the reader into the bodies of men facing societal violence: T.S.A. profiling, drone warfare, torture. Elsewhere, we are sent into the bodies of Adam and Eve, and of a contemporary married couple who reunite as lovers after the toddler is asleep: “they thumb a lock and make a greenhouse / where once there was a master bedroom. / Orchids push open the drawers. Honeybees / bother the reading lamp…. The scar from her Cesarean / his Tropic of Capricorn.” In “The Autobiography of Khwaja Mustasim,” we hear from an ageless character hidden in the corners of Muslim history: “I was a parrot fed melon seeds by the eleventh caliph,” ”the mosquito whose malarial kiss conquered Alexander,” “the grandfather who guided the gaze of a six-year-old Omar Khayyam to the constellations.” The wordplay in this book is a marvel, sometimes recalling Gerard Manley Hopkins with its near-manic music, as in this excerpt titled “Fe”: “Translate chemistry into Spanish, and iron / is faith—this pile of shavings, / the Devil’s own toenails, the same / ore that’s at our origin, heme. / Of all the metals, the ferrous to me seems / fairest. Aurum is more ardent, argent rarer…” In short: Read this book for its mind, its heart, its art, and for Majmudar’s gift for revealing large things—centuries, cultures—in the versicolor burn of the perfect detail. 
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White

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Review Series #9: Small Mothers of Fright

Each month I review a new book for ImageUpdate. Here’s the latest.

 

Small Mothers of Fright 
by Tara Bray

Beware the omnipresent wings, the iridescent stunner on the cover: they may trick you into thinking that Small Mothers of Fright, Tara Bray’s new collection of poems, is just another lovely book about birds. True, you’ll catch sight of the creatures—thrush and kingfisher and kestrel and wren—in nearly every poem, but they are a foil for strangeness and ache and flashes of rage, all sharply revealed. “Give back your vows old heron,” she writes in “Hold Fast,” “the world’s on fire.” Bray writes like a daughter of Emily Dickinson: Small things are doorways to intense interiors. Bray’s prayers, like Dickinson’s, are ambivalent rather than ecstatic: “Lord, / it’s your brutal earth we make our children for” (“Teaching Lily Dead”). And as in Dickinson, Bray’s language feels not only controlled but curated in the best way, gems of words unexpectedly arranged: “I dream of her spinning like a fairy dervish in my failure.” (“Numbered.”) Failure is a specter throughout the book, particularly the failures between mothers and daughters. The speaker is both, and in the poems that hurt most to read, she is the daughter, returning again and again to the persona of girl. This is a girl who never quite measures up in the presence of her mother and mother figures: “only a philosopher of pine needles,” “only a sorry girl needing work.” The opening poem, “Lacking,” begins, “Forgive the occurrence…” and seems to ask pardon for not just an occurrence but for the speaker’s very being—“me / holding something burned / with something soft.” In the poems where she writes as a mother, however, the tone changes entirely. She contemplates her daughter with a serious-minded fondness, with quiet and observant love. The speaker’s broken mother(s) may have regarded her as coming up short, but she twice describes her own child as “endlessness”: a being infinitely worth watching, respecting, abiding with. The very same words could describe this potent little aviary of a book.
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White

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Abandoned Homeland (Review Series #8)

My reviews for Image Journal appear each month in ImageUpdate.

Poems of Creative Mischief
Abandoned Homeland by Jeff Gundy  

If there be anything curious, anything playful, anything vital noodling just beneath the quiet surface—think on these things. Or ask a question about them. Or make some poems that do both, as Jeff Gundy does in Abandoned Homeland. Gundy’s settings are suburban neighborhoods, classrooms, occasional sojourns to the woods or lakeshore, and several times the poet acknowledges that none of these are on the surface “exotic”—“I’ve lived my life in safe places, not at risk except for boredom and its associated disorders,” says the speaker in “Safety.” But out of this well-walked ground, Gundy unearths a remarkable number of things worth beholding in good light. Many of these poems are titled “Contemplation with” or “Meditation on” something, and whether that thing be swine flu, carnality, or an old Honda, the poet cannot stop speculating and questioning: “Say Jesus had a wife.” “Consider the blind man’s point of view.” “What is the opposite of guitar?” Speaking of guitar—which graces the cover of this book and several poems in it—here’s a Gundian nugget to prompt a shot of wonder: “Not every tree has a guitar in it. But some do.” Some trees hold guitars, and some classrooms are visited by the ghost of Marie Antoinette, and some “bathrooms and churches” contain a respectable man on the verge of creative mischief: “I’m tired of being available. And polite…. / I’m ready to be a bad wizard, to change morons / into moonshine, dutiful drudges into parsley, solid citizens into Corvettes and cottonmouths.”  If, like the speaker in many of these poems, you’ve “yearned to be taken, to be troubled and amazed,” here you will find your spiritual bedfellow—another would-be bad wizard.
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White

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Song Series #8: Innisfree

cricket

A setting of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” to the tune of the Irish song “Charming Lovely Ann” (from Dan Milner’s Irish Ballads and Songs of the Sea). Sung in my kitchen, where most of my singing happens.

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Other Acreage (Review Series #7)

My reviews for Image Journal appear each month in ImageUpdate.

Poems Radiating the Heart of Lent
Other Acreage by Becca J.R. Lachman

There are precisely 46 poems in Becca J.R. Lachman’s Other Acreage—a neat correspondence with the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter—and should you begin the book today (and do a little catch-up reading) you will embark upon a most pleasurable daily discipline for Lent. Nowhere do her poems mention this liturgical season, but they radiate the heart of Lent: the leaving-behind of what must be left behind, the painful wait for literal and spiritual spring. The goal of all Lenten disciplines, of course, is not the discipline itself but a more vital life in Christ, and this life-to-the-full is what Lachman seeks. Raised Mennonite, she leaves behind the trappings of her religion (though not its commitment to peace and justice), and craves a life in which she might “cry at the beautiful / God looking out of a stranger, make my life / from something sung / out of joy, not out of training.” A series of poems in which St. Francis is relocated to the modern day United States intimate that this life might not be so impossible as it seems; the transported Francis does things that any of us might do: read Rumi to a dying man; offer comfort at a car wreck; listen compassionately to strangers—in this case, customers at his burrito buggy. (Conversing with polar bears at the zoo might be out of our reach, but we can dream.) Lachman inches her way to joy with tiny rebellions—getting a tattoo, for example, but an ivy leaf so tiny that the tattooist scoffs, “you / don’t want a tattoo, you want a birth- / mark, lady.” Meanwhile, on the land where her family has dwelt for generations, the past falls away more dramatically. The farmhouse is sold, the mother church trucked to another location as “condos went up on Shawnee / burial mounds.” Old ways crumble. Snow melts. Hope sprouts in grief. We might pray, along with Lachman: “O / holy armor, please, please be orange: poppies’ / warm lanterns led out from the grave each May.”
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White

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Dead-Serious Play (Review Series #6)

My reviews for Image Journal appear each month in ImageUpdate.

Dead-Serious Play
The Milk Underground by Ronny Someck

“I’m a pajama-Iraqi, my wife’s Romanian / And our daughter the thief from Baghdad. / My mother’s always boiling the Euphrates and Tigris….” Poet Ronny Someck’s family emigrated from Iraq to Israel when he was a child, and for readers unfamiliar with the cultural history of twentieth century Israel, experiencing The Milk Underground—newly translated from Hebrew into English by Hana Inbar and Robert Manaster—may feel a bit like walking midway into Part Seven of a long-running conversation. Images are the covers on deep wells of meaning; phrases point to a thousand lines of history. But Someck’s voice is so winsome, even whimsical, and his ponderings so universally human, that any reader may linger here and find delight. In the opening poems, Someck speaks as the daddy of a fiercely loved daughter, writing in “Four Pieces of Advice for a Dancing Girl”: “Remember that from the moment of your birth, I’m ripping out / Tiles burning beneath your feet.” Love often couples with violence; love letters surface alongside dark jokes about the guillotine; divine mischief dots an earthly mess. Someck invokes the God of the Hebrew Bible, the Holy Spirit, Buddha, and Aphrodite, at one point painting God as “the greatest erotic director” who takes pleasure in every created thing, from “whores” to the “five green flames” of cypress trees. And Someck himself seems capable of imagining himself into every kind of human life or earthly object. In one poem, he walks the daily round of an Arabic-speaking student at Tel Aviv University, a student who must carry a transparent backpack to avoid harassment by police. Elsewhere, the poet playfully claims that he himself is “Charlie Chaplin’s cane, Marilyn Monroe’s / panties, Gary Cooper’s pistol.” To read this book is to read letters from the core of human life, letters written sometimes in crayon, sometimes in soil-black ink, and sometimes in blood.
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White

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Only So Far (Review Series #5)

My reviews for Image Journal appear each month in ImageUpdate.

Questions of Unfulfilled Longing
Only So Far by Robert Cording

When we’re turned away at the thousandth mile, having traveled 999 before it—when our labors of love never reach consummation—when we can’t get no satisfaction—well, what do we get instead? Robert Cording’s collection Only So Far poses this question from its very first poem, “Kafka’s Fence”: “Haven’t we / always known we’d reach an end we couldn’t complete, /  the promised land a step away, still unreachable?” From there, Cording mines the thoughts of a motley (and century-spanning) crew of human beings. The poet’s father, who “gave up dreams early on,” has a two-word answer: “Want less.” In “Essence,” Lucinda Williams yearns for a lover in “half sob, half sigh” while Teilhard de Chardin insists our yearnings are “aimed / at an Omega Point that drew us / not just onwards, but upwards….” In “The Field,” a pondering Augustine harrows for a harvest of “happiness he knew was surely real”; in “The Beginning,” a crowd of men hollers lustily at the screen in a dirty movie theater, never satisfied with what the actress reveals. All of these poems are pellucid and easy to enter, even as the question they ask—what we do when we’re allowed “only so far”—contains enough difficulty for a lifetime. Eventually, Cording turns his eye to those who have mastered the art of claiming the consolation prize: sunset-gazers who take pleasure in “a saucer of light / we lap like cats”; the painting-restorer who finds peace in his anonymous niche. Even at the penultimate mile marker, Cording seems to say, we may find gleanings of satisfaction. The final poem, “No-Name Pond,” finds the poet in the role of “restorer” himself—“putting back / a few stones tumbled by time” in a pond full of little cairns—and content to be so: “it was good to be here, / to watch flycatchers and kingbirds, / a heron that kept flying off / and circling back to the place it left.” No human is exempt from the pain of unfulfilled longing, and readers who feel its pangs will find comfort in these pages.
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White

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