Shara Lessley’s first collection of poetry, Two-Headed Nightingale, trails into its pages the aesthetic drift of the numerous journals in which many of the poems were first published. Nonetheless, it is a remarkably tight and effective book, unified by Lessley’s shrewdness and formidable powers of appraisal. She casts her lens here and there, but with great discrimination. The voice behind these poems is a prism that angles waning light on the sharp outlines of objects that will very soon fade, and the end result, in the form of this volume, is the full fruit of a long, tireless pursuit to preserve those outlines at any cost. This is often what readers seek most in a collection of poetry, and something that seems to be sorely lacking among the many recent books overrun with “conceits” and “concepts,” voices diluted by cold irony and hipness. A reader of poetry cannot ask for more than to be shown discarded bits of the world and let into another human being’s personal nightmare of admission. To be shown how and why the wasting of life goes on and what is left to hold onto in the midst of all that irrelevance is the at the crux of poetic expression, and Two-Headed Nightingale comes very close to hitting it bang on the spot.
Lessley is at her best when she is not casting judgment or issuing opinion; fortunately, she does so very seldom. What abounds are her vivid descriptions of the world and its oddities: creatures and nascent plants, the wordless made worded. Opening the book and Part I are three remarkable poems, “Fallen Starling,” “Captive,” and “The Peninsula.” In “Captive” we receive the greatest indication of what is to come, “I might be // capable of love, if only to withhold it.” The starling appraises its own wasting with heartbreaking precision, and at the peninsula an “orange canker // [festers] in the leaves and brush.” There is a surprising keenness for fine detail and description in Lessley’s narratives, which are nonetheless compact and attention-grabbing. The constant gathering-in of the outside world’s harm and ugliness to the sanctum of an inner theater that is home to a lovely and conflicted mind is a huge success.
At the middle of the collection, in parts II and III, the poems “Two-Headed Nightingale” and the strange “The Old Life” prove less accessible at first read. You must pick your way carefully through them, unsure of whether to immerse yourself fully in their trappings. This is an unfamiliar universe of hostile stages, quirky shadow characters and pricked-at-the-toe dancers. But don’t worry, you’ll be back: I’ll explain why later.
One or two poems come and go in this section without leaving as deep a footprint as their counterparts, taking their surroundings at face value. But they are followed by “Genealogical Survey across Several Counties,” “Having It Out With God,” and “Tooth of the Lion.” In “Genealogical,” ancient family portraits of dazzling anxiety and sadness and bloodshed come to life in a fine paean to the past and present with a touching finish that, like so many of Lessley’s poems, leaves you with a hole in your heart and dangling question mark that you ache to replace with a period. “Having It Out With God,” which is positively Sexton-esque, thrusts out the line “If there is a God, I doubt // I have the heart to bear it” in its middle, and the whole of it is so well cared-for and tuned – its lines, its allowances, the surrounding scene it draws on to illuminate the interior struggle – that it stands alone as a fine work of art and demands several readings. “Tooth of the Lion” begins with lists of what is not – and what is, the simple dent-de-lion, or dandelion, is defined by its starkest and ugliest qualities, giving the steadfast errand it runs to seed itself a peculiar glow.
Part IV sees a journey to a darker corner of exploration and explicitness: the father and his unforgivable sins, inability to understand the decline of living flesh that girds and scaffolds, and a sense of groping in near-darkness to grab at what is left of what has gone. The poem “Prometheus as Sparrow” aptly closes this section, harking back to “Fallen Starling.” But now, the bird watches not only its death but its devouring at the vulgar mouth of a crow, and as its entrails are ripped away another voice is interspersed, weaving a cautionary tale in offset italics – that “denial [is] the myth we live and die by.”
Part V is the brilliant Self-Portrait as (Super/Sub) Pacific. One of the most fervent and intricate self-portraits I have read, this work, at 9 pages, builds like a wave over the shoulders of a rising self-image that draws up and pulls into itself everything around it: the sea, the shelf, the creatures below, and the sun above, to depict the splintered psyche that has, along with its memories, “turned to relics; I bury them in sand.” The unifying line, “Mother says the sea is a woman // tossing nature’s greatest curves,” nets in more: ships at harbor, marine snow, turtles laying eggs whose sex will be decided by heat, a nurse shark with a human arm in its stomach, countless animals laying ruthless waste to their prey, and turns it all inward to proclaim “what choice have I but to devour” and “I, too, have found it easy parting with // the heart” until, after the moonrise over the Pacific’s “restless hills,” we are left knowing that “no myth I was holds true.” Instead of presenting as bleak, this rousing completion leaves room for warmth and, dare I say, hope. Self-Portrait as (Super/Sub) Pacific leaves such a resounding smack that my first response was to reread and rediscover what came before it – twice. Those myths, after all – “daughter lover sister other”, were made to be broken, and who better to break them than a voice that can so cleanly bring life to other forms, and reestablish them as new, more dazzling shapes that can, no doubt, be washed away and rebuilt when the time comes.
Highly-recommended. A copy was provided by the publisher.
Lessley, Shara 2012, Two-Headed Nightingale, New Issues, Kalamazoo, MI.
Two-Headed Nightingale at Amazon.com
Author, Pulitzer committee: I am disappoint. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad is a fast, shiny, uncomplicated read, and while I have no single, huge, deal-breaking problem with or complaint about Goon Squad, I have no one thing to be excited about or interested in, either. This is the best book dealing with American life for 2011? Have we completely disintegrated and been compartmentalized into the obvious and thick tropes of our time? Are we to be stuck there forever? Can we get Wifi down here?
Before I even review the book, I’m trying to imagine a potential reader who would do more than just “like” the book. Sure, even I liked it, and I don’t like anything. But someone who would love it? Someone who would feel emotionally connected or close to it?
There are too many cracks in the careful veneer of coolness all over this book to count. I can start with the fact that moving from character to character and POV to POV was laid on a little heavy. In other words, the threads between the narrative sections were so tightly wound as to not be believed as just coincidence or whatever we’re to call it. So, too, were all the characters’ deep-running affinities for licentious behavior and their guilt and their overwhelming senses of shame. With such a large field of people, there was remarkable little depth of character. Egan managed to evince some surprising qualities from one or two of them, but not from Bennie, and not from Sasha, which made the conceit of everyone’s interwoven destinies and parallel or perpendicular courses in life a great, flattening flop. I read a review in which a reader said she couldn’t remember who all the people were. Who was Lou again? Rhea? That reader might need a memory test, because again, Egan is so persistent in making sure you get that you’re reading about one of the fish in a big school that it’s positively headache-inducing.
The most promising and enticing viewpoint was by far that of Rolph and Charlie on the safari. As with so many of the characterizations, though, they were both ruined – and maybe this is just me, who doesn’t like this kind of thing – by flash-forward information about Rolph’s future. When I’m reading a novel, I like this technique (a sudden glob of information that puts you far, far forward into the plot to create drama and gets you there at the end before you’ve finished the middle) to be done sparingly, if at all. This is a difficult technique to master as a writer. You cannot just, of a sudden and in the middle of a deeply emotional scene, say “Years later, Rolph would X, Y and Z.” Can you? Are we doing this now? Is nuance last year?
I was not a fan, either, of the chapter of “slides.” The content of that chapter would have been the most gripping, meaty chunk of the entire book; as presented, it was gimmicky. No thanks.
Last but not least, doomsday predictions and political messages and ethical warnings were stacked on like a ton of bricks toward the end, and sloppily, too. This is in sharp contrast to the obvious way the thematic message was carefully buried in the action and in the characters’ expressions and surroundings. It’s hard not to be heavy-handed when doing things like preaching and foreboding, and it seems Egan forgot the old “Show, don’t tell” advice that we all learn as writers.
I like Andrew Shaffer’s comment on my Goodreads review: “I thought it almost would have worked better as a set of linked short stories instead of as a “novel.”" He’s right; is this what we are now to consider a novel? The disjointed point of view strategy has been employed so widely of late that it’s no longer really considered risqué, but I still struggle with its ability to hold water as a large work of literature. I do not struggle because I am a curmudgeon or a conservative, but because I have yet to see this technique pulled off seamlessly. Until I do, I’m going to hate it. I’m going to positively, completely hate it.
2/5. Not recommended. There are many more virtuosic, understated, vivacious, and exciting books that exceeded this choppy experiment in 2010 and 2011. If you want a contender, read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. I’ll let the two books duel it out below for your affections.
The sexy thing about this cover marketing is that it has a naked woman on it!
People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. -Abraham Lincoln
Watch my back in a minute when I start talking about people pursuing MFAs and PhDs in poetry and creative writing; please, don’t let them sneak up and stab me with a rolled-up thesis draft they’ve whittled into a shiv.
Genevieve Kaplan’s book In the ice house was the winner of the 2009 A Room of her Own To The Lighthouse Publication Prize (say that three times fast) and was published this year by Red Hen Press. The award is given to a full-length book of poetry by a previously-unpublished woman.
Now, once upon a time, I had the occasion to speak about an unrelated topic at some length with one of the editors at Red Hen, who divulged quite cheerily to me that she read for the prize and in doing so tried to “just choose pieces that look like something you would see in the New Yorker” to pass on to the next editor. So. Some things to get into there.
Shortly after finding out that her poetry didn't look like the stuff in the New Yorker, Betty hanged herself in the Filmore C. Pflugerhalter English Building's south wing.
Have you been reading the poetry of the young women and men of the MFA universe? Why not? They’re all reading each other’s poetry, so why aren’t you reading it? Oh. You don’t like it? Because it’s boring and it’s only on sale in university bookstores? You should tell them that. You did? What did they say? They told you they’d put it on Amazon, and that they were interested in the parallels their poetry drew between a 21st century re-imagining of Nicanor Parra as curated by Jorie Graham’s mother? Oh girl, don’t even tell me they said their books had a conceit. About what? An ironic manuscript written as language poetry interpreted by the ghost of Ezra Pound?
I heard one of them was excommunicated from the Skull & Bones club for rhyming. And they don’t talk about Joseph anymore. Joseph expressed himself in narrative imagery. Last I heard he’s working at a co-op farm in Oregon. He sells homemade dishwasher magnets on Ebay.
All bombastic nattering and generalization aside, I urge you to read Bart Baxter’s “Does Poetry Matter?” on the subject of poetry’s deep slide into navel- and mirror-gazing decrepitude. From the talk – given in the nineties! – which cites Dan Gioia,
Poetry has lost the larger audience of educated intellectuals, the doctors, lawyers, clergymen, accountants and business people, the literary intelligentsia made up of non-specialists who once took poetry seriously; who are the market for jazz, foreign films, theater, opera, the symphony and dance; the broad audience who reads quality fiction and biographies and who listen to public radio.
It goes on,
Poetry now belongs to a sub-culture of academicians, funded by public subsidy through a complex network of federal, state and local agencies.
a. There are over 200 graduate creative-writing programs.
b. There are several thousand college-level jobs teaching poetry.
c. This decades long public funding has created a large professional class for the production and reception of poetry.
d. The contemporary poet makes a living not by publishing literary work, but by educating, usually at a large institution, most likely state-run, such as a school district, a college or university, or even (these days) at a hospital or a prison, i.e., teaching other people how to write poetry, or at the highest levels teaching other people how to teach other people how to write poetry.
Before anyone misunderstands, funding for poetry is a good thing. Having gobs and gobs of poets is super. The ability to teach poetry and to make a living from it is an interesting phenomenon to consider as an entity in itself in a time of excess in a country in which academic resources are as abundant as the wild and misguided expectations we have of sending every child to college. Make no mistake about it – Occupy Wall Street, the recession and cash-strapped universities aside – this is a time of academic excess. Compared to one hundred years ago, we are swimming in college students, crawling with teachers and there are poets bristling around every corner. Look out your window if you don’t believe me. See that guy standing perfectly still behind your dogwood tree? He wants you to workshop his latest cento.
The problem is not the number of poets, but that only poets read the vast majority of the content being produced by many of these university rats because it is, as I mentioned, boring. In the last year, I have attended reading after reading at which only poets were in attendance. Not a listener to be found, just more poets, waiting for their turn to share. Your typical reading anywhere, not just on college campuses or at the nearby bookstores and libraries, typifies the spirit of a network of writers who write for themselves, for other writers, and for the ability to say “I did it. Someone who writes poetry liked my poem.”
Your average first book by an MFA or PhD candidate is missing the important heartbeat and freedom a poem needs to be good: its voice. That is not to say its voice as in first-person, detached, or the device employed by the poet to get it from the top of the page to the bottom. I’m talking about the thing that makes it beautiful, haunting, sad or meaningful and would compel a lay person to read it. A certain je ne sais quoi, perhaps. It’s called universal appeal, and you don’t produce it by writing clever, fresh, impressive, or intentionally confusing bits that can fit on the back of a postcard. You don’t produce it by writing to assignment. You produce it by writing because you can’t stop writing and you’re good at it.
I don’t have the alchemical secret to producing this product; if I did, I would be operating a factory in China’s Zhejiang province.
No one would print my poems today. I said what I meant! I said how I felt!
Once more, before further misunderstanding occurs, the onus is not on the poet to ensure that the reader understands. Bad poetry holds the reader’s hand, worse poetry throws flowers at him, and doggerel sprays Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds in his face. John Ashbery (whose poetry I do not particularly like, but who nevertheless has repeatedly managed to capture the imagination of many people – lay and learned – with his broad ability to describe and his masterful command of language) said it well in his acceptance speech for the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters he received at the recent National Book Awards ceremony:
“As long as I’ve been publishing poetry it has been seen as difficult and private though I never meant for it to be. I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves to something which may change us.”
Indeed, although again, work that tends to the obscure and self-indulgent and deliberately cross and grumpy will reach few readers. The balance is struck with poetry that is both difficult and revelatory. For instance, I have just this week been reading some poems by Tranströmer, one of which is called “After a Death.” It’s the sort of poem you think you have in the bag, until you realize you’ve no idea what’s going on. The difference between a Nobel prize winner and an academic poet? I was in Tranströmer’s poem, and didn’t climb out until I had rolled around in it for a few hours and thoroughly given up, feeling the afterglow of the attempt to understand, and the movement of the poem’s slope to its finish. If I went into the kind of academic poetry I’m alluding to, I’d freeze to death before I managed to pull myself out by its wide margins.
Which brings me to Kaplan’s In the ice house. Here we have the hushed work of a poet who is scared to death to show her hand. When I was a little girl, I was terrified, no, horrified, no, scared shitless of the things that would “go on my permanent record.” I got the idea of a permanent record into my head from who knows where, but once it arrived, I spent years erasing things and throwing notebooks away, and when I was compelled to pour out my heart, it went into the darkest corner of a three-ring binder that I hid under newspaper clippings and was sure someone – probably a neighbor, police officer or the cutest guy at my middle school – would discover it if I left it unguarded while I was in the shower. What if someone knew my deepest thoughts? What if I said the wrong thing? What if I was a bad writer?!? If I was, I was, but I could never let anyone else find out.
Ms. Kaplan, please. Put something on your permanent record. You spend 85 pages looking over your shoulder, writing upside down and backwards with cramped hand and clenched jaws about something – what? Domestic life, home, ice storms. Birds? Decidedly birds. I never knew how boring birds could be until bang. More birds! More ice storms, more kitchens. Hey. Listen, if you have something to say about kitchens, birds and ice storms, say it as often as you want. But “Float and lie and weave and have // no other contact than the wind” (65) is not a poem. (That’s the whole poem.) “With the breath of swift again. // Along the limbs of all trees.” ( 34) No – I refuse to pretend that this is the kind of poem that needs and deserves to be written and published. Lift your arm and expose your vulnerability. Yes, you can get hurt doing this, but you can also get the poem out.
There are nine poems in this book called “The Birds,” thirteen poems called “The Ice Storm,” and about sixteen thousand called “The Landscape.”
I tried to accept this; I did. But I am the reader, this is a book, and it is absurd. Running all along the undercurrent of In the ice house are footfalls, paces that quicken, walkways, the birds; there are empty rooms, the wind of a person walking out. There is much. But there is no voice. There is nobody. Most of the poems are between 2 and 8 lines long. Poetry can be this short. But taking as an example pages 28 to 31, there are four poems that are shorter than 8 lines each, and even taken all together they do not make up a single poem. Care to finish these? This is a great, risky liberty to take with a reader’s time and patience. Make me turn pages for you while you work through your personal issues, or make me work to figure out why I am still reading your writing in the first place, and you have done each of us a disservice. All of these birds and landscapes are just interesting rocks picked up along the way, rolling in a tumbler until they look smooth enough. Careful, though, not to leave them tumbling too long, because what’s unfortunately happened is they’ve been diminished to single grains of sand. You can’t prune and clip and finish so much. Leave it wild and overgrown at the edges. That’s what resonates with people.
In places, such as “In the Lack of My Voice,” there is a dodgy, hinting approach to giving an audience, then a retreat. In the previous poem “Begin By Counting Sheep, White Buds on the Plant as they Appear,” there are moments of trouble and excitement: “The upholstery comes up easily // In my hands, there is so much to replace,” and ends with “It all comes in a run and I remember everything.” (25). Problem is, I have no empathy for or understanding of the place from which this was written, for the speaker, for the ideas expressed: nothing. There is no appeal past the end of the page.
There is one good poem that I actually enjoyed: “An Unpeaceful Symbol.” In it is what I think the entire book tried to be.
Even the curtains are restless.
The whole house awake
at such a time,
the doorknob graying.
An objective established– let the nonessential go. Let the flowery things die. Try to be nice but
The dirt piles
as each shrug becomes a comment, sigh an inquisition– the state is fine, the day is
bland, don’t forget
your keys. (32-33)
The problem with the rest of the book is solved here (though it unravels quite quickly again and goes back to haunting the backs of buildings and peeking around corners): a living, worried, honest being emerged out of the neatly-piled stacks of words. The dirt pile shifted.
Keep writing. Keep writing, all you thousands of well-groomed messes who rightly call yourselves poets, but stop being so afraid of yourselves.
I'm having a hard time getting my poems published.
Me too. I think it's because we have feelings. Have you tried writing in a wittily-absent way about nothing?
.. Well, I'm just saying, you could.
Kaplan, G. 2011, In the ice house, Red Hen Press, California.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher.
Mindful of the blossoming cold, the rest of the year folds out both ways with writing like this to usher it in and wave it goodbye. In Thrush Poetry Journal, Amethyst Arsenic and Carte Blanche there are some surprising bits of revelry and of personal celebration, there are odes to wildness and choice words for love, and there are excoriations of time and kicks to the neck of doldrum that you can click your tongue at and then wrap around your shoulders for warmth.
Thrush Poetry Journal is a new kid on the block. Their inaugural issue has just come out, and it’s a loud and feathery delight.
Helmed by Helen Vitoria as Editor, selections in the first issue include Maureen Alsop (When I last believed you, // dust froze over our bones.), Ocean Vuong (Outside, the crow opens its throat // and punctures your dream //with another’s voice.), Nathalie Handal (A traveler // returning // everywhere), Ada Limón (It saves // by not trying, a leaf like some note // slipped under the locked blue door) and Rachel McKibbens, whose poem “The Ordinary Pattern of a Sexton Beetle” rears out of the gate like a crazed stallion:
The first time he saw you naked,
his lips blew back and a cemetery of children
poured from his tongue. He barked at your breasts
like a lunatic. His heart, remembering its
youthful mechanics, ka-thumped like an unstuck gear.
When I walked in on the two of you, I thought:
Look at how he grips her waist,
like a crook holding a television.
The poetry in Carte Blanche’s new issue, #14, hums beautifully with pieces by Rusty Morrison and Michelle Barker. Its highlight is crushed diamond of confessional truth, “Motherhood ~ Obsessions” by Lesley Pasquin:
herbs bought in the throes of
gourmet dinner clubs now shriveled in their
glass bottles, a litmus for the total
disinterest in anything to do with food.
Start your day with a
kettle of boiling water,
mind the baby and those
tiny, fragile, reaching hands.
Amethyst Arsenic’s winter 2012 issue 2.1 arrives with a mixture of fizzles, bangs, ditties and wallops. John Phillips’ “Crawlspace” wriggles under the skin (No wind touches them: // Ragged ghosts of old webs, // Yellow bones of recent ones, // The shimmering scales of new. // Deadly blackberries sit at their corners.) and Mangesh Naik’s “Earthquake” and “OOO” sigh with crumpled resignation (Shadeless bulbs from heaven will blink too. Everyone else should let doubt speak through the faded pen strokes of the complaints register.), while Elio Iannacci’s “Colaturatura” sings overtly and Michael Hanner’s “Physical” beams and laughs at the lot of everything:
Someone is perpetually hammering on my egg
to hand me my morning’s Windsor knot.
Breaking through the shell of dawn,
my small list for the doctor, Is it cancer?
The alarm clock was designed with good motives.
Richard Nixon did the best he could.
All of this is the flailing of an arm of art and creation that has too much free time and resources at its disposal, and won’t survive the passing of the next decade. Missing from this edematous falderal and clique excess is the imagery and lyric quality that makes good poetry a vessel for the memories, observations, elegies and declarations of men and women whose hearts beat with a desire to transcribe life and meaning into words. When you get hold of writing like Ruben’s, don’t let it go unless it’s to show it to another reader. . . . Read More: → Next Extinct Mammal
Six hunters. Mélanie Horst (later Aimée); the French countryside, 19–. (A guess from the cars featured later, such as a Renault 6, roughly 1970). She walks up to one of the hunters, who is delighted to see the 35 year old, attractive woman. She shoots him, with a shotgun, in the stomach while he . . . Read More: → Fatale
Following a mysterious process unknown to and misunderstood by even me, I have built a glorious tower of books and a stack of anthologies at once foreboding and inviting: one to read, the other to sample from and nod at approvingly, time to time. . . . Read More: → Summer Reading
His idea that every author references the previous texts of the masters, the Bible, myths and so on is an interesting one, but only insofar as he can teach the method of of extracting the references and divining the reason a given myth or Bible story was injected into a work by its author. Far from doing this, he cherry-picks examples (Toni Morrison features heavily along with the exalted Angela Carter, Joyce, Hardy &c.) and milks his points out of them. His examples are deliberate Shakespearean ironies or nuanced myths. This instructs nothing and no one. Show us how to find the veiled symbols and archetypes in works of fiction that are not blatant re-hashings of Hamlet. . . . Read More: → The Poor Man’s Education: How to Read Literature Like a Professor
One of the best things about Vonnegut, revealed here, is his ability to take the kind of flashy middle-American writing you would expect to find in an advertisement for toothpaste or garters from the 50s and turn it into a whip that lashes the victim and the author. Reading “Confido” three times I couldn’t be sure whether he was attacking himself for being too self-examining, psychiatry for giving patients too much liberty to think about themselves, or the Mrs. Finks of the world for living showboat salami-complexioned lives and racing the engines of their huge cars in front of their neighbors’ houses. . . . Read More: → Look At The Birdie