City of Coughing and Dead Radiators

City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, book by Martin Espada

Annotation by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

City of Coughing and Dead Radiators by Martin Espada is what I like to call allegorical poetry. Allegory is a narrative with characters, places, and objects that represent themselves as well as abstract ideas for the purpose of teaching a moral or stating a higher truth. Espada’s collection holds strong narratives that move between El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and urban centers of the East Coast while revolving around themes like the divide between the working and ruling classes, immigration, and the modernism of America. It is his themes and narratives working with geography and culture that make the allegory an exciting form.

One way Espada creates allegory is through the use of characters that represent abstractions. From “The Toolmaker Unemployed:” “The toolmaker / is sixty years old, / unemployed / since the letter / from his boss / at the machine shop” (50). The character of the toolmaker is symbolic of powerlessness of the low-income laborer who imagines, “a bullet / in the forehead, / maybe for himself, / maybe for the man / holding the second mortgage” (51). Other characters like the judge, the landlord, and the lawyer, representing the ruling class, are foils for the toolmaker, Rosa Ramos, and the ex-mental patient, characters representing the working class. Thus, through these characters Espada unveils the tensions between the classes as well as between the immigrant dream and the immigrant reality.

Symbolism is integral to allegory. In “The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango,” Espada writes, “An American reporter, / arms crowded with fruit, / could not see what he kicked jutting from the ground. / He glanced down and found his sneaker / pressing against the forehead / of human skull, yellow / like the flesh of a mango. // He wondered how many skulls are crated with the mangoes for sale at the market, how many grow yellow flesh and green skin” (34-35). Here the skull is a symbol for the violence-death squads, desaparecidos, dictators-in Central America, and the mango is a symbol for our (Americans) connection to this violence by the produce we buy at our corner supermarket that, unknown to us, supports tyrannical regimes in other parts of the world (For example, United Fruit Company in Guatemala). Gregory Orr says in Poetry as Survival: “Symbols can order the conflicts within a poem (including the tension of disorder and order) by concretely presenting them in a single, physical object” (Orr 104). The mango fruit juxtaposed with the skull makes a frightening connection by bringing the violence from “out there” inside the safety of the home, and makes oppression concrete for the reader.

Catholic symbols are prevalent in the collection. For example, in “Who Burns of the Perfection of Paper,” Espada writes, “Ten years later, in law school, / I knew that every legal pad / was glued with the sting of hidden cuts, / that every open law book / was a pair of hands / upturned and burning” (49). The image of the wounded palms alludes to Jesus on the cross and is symbolic of sacrifice. In this poem, like “The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango,” Espada connects an object that seems mundane in our everyday reality to another darker, more painful one. In the former, that is the reality of living under tyranny in El Salvador, while in the latter, it is the reality of the working class in America. Catholic images and symbols are important here because Catholicism is a common and shared religion in Latin American cultures. Poet and essayist, Dana Gioia, a celebrated American Catholic, says, “the Catholic, literally from birth, when he or she is baptized, is raised in a culture that understands symbols and signs. And it also trains you in understanding the relationship between the visible and the invisible. Consequently, allegory finds its greatest realization in Catholic artists like Dante.” Therefore, Espada’s use of Catholic symbols and images speaks in a language that many Latin Americans and Latino-Americans innately understand.

Besides symbols and characters, an allegory can also contain a paradox: a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd, but in reality expresses a possible truth. Paradoxes are also common within the Catholic religion-God being both one entity, God, and at the same time three separate entities, The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit-as well as common within other shared Latin American beliefs like those of the afterlife that stem from Native American roots.

In “In Transient Hotel Sky at the Hour of Sleeps,” Espada writes, “we watched the sky through crusted windows, / till the clouds swirled away / like water in the drain / of a steel sink” (52). The world Espada is creating is one of industrialized nature: “As we studied the white face / of the clock above the desk, / fluorescent hum of 4 AM / a cowboy bragged about buying good boots / for 19 cents from a retarded man, / then swaggered out the door” (52). In this second image Espada expands on this paradox with the industrial setting being inhabited by the character of “a cowboy”-a symbol for wide, open spaces. Later in the poem, a resident walks into the hallway and leaps out a window, “head flapped open like the lid / on a bucket of red paint. // The Newspaper shocked mouths / that day, but the transient hotel sky / drained pale as usual” (54). The paradox is important in order for the reader to question the apathy of the ending.

I like to think of City of Coughing and Dead Radiators as allegory of the oppressed.  Espada exemplifies how paradox and symbol are central and key when writing about violent themes like poverty, oppression, and genocide, all common themes when exploring Latin America, Latino-Americans, and new immigrants, themes that dominate my own writing.

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Dear Editor

Dear Editor: Poems by Amy Newman

Annotation by: Telaina Eriksen

As a writer who enjoys writing in multiple genres, it is triply hard for me to keep up with reading the work of my contemporaries, the classics, and the wide variety of interesting literary journals in all three areas of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Added to the sheer number of words being published each year are the pesky intricacies of my job, my spouse, two busy children, a home, and trying to remember to floss, to eat right, and to exercise so as not to become crazy and/or morbidly obese.  Not to mention the time spent on my Facebook newsfeed. Or my own writing.

My reading time is protected and feels almost stolen, but it is also a time ripe for distraction. Sometimes I read a book of poetry and my mind will wander. I will have to begin again at the top of the poem because I have no idea what I’ve just read. Did I let the dog back in? Did I grade all my papers for my next class? Does one of my kids need to be picked up? Can we afford laser treatments for this unseemly mustache I seem to be growing at the age of 43? Why is Rick Santorum’s presidential bid being taken seriously? Why did the boy who used to call me a fat bitch in high school attempt to friend me on Facebook?

I have had a long love affair with the prose poem and particularly love to hear ‘experts’ describe what a prose poem is, or isn’t. This is the equivalent to The Super Bowl for a literary geek. When I cracked open Amy Newman’s Dear Editor I flipped through a few pages and nothing but prose poems greeted me.  Additionally, I was intrigued by the title of Newman’s book as well as each poem’s address to an unnamed editor.

Newman’s address to a faceless editor is just one facet of these marvelous poems. My mind didn’t wander here. I sat, riveted in my chair, book tabs clutched in my right hand, marking almost every page as she explored relationships, Catholicism, chess, writing, being an adolescent. The poems she describes in her poems we never see, lending a fascinating sense or yearning on the reader’s part to put herself or himself behind the editor’s desk and see the enclosed poems talked about in the poems.

This struck a chord with me—how many emails, submishmashes, snail mails have I sent off in my life, containing things for  a stranger that I wouldn’t show to my own kin? And then in sending this piece of yourself out you are told by your hardened and wise literary friends to “not take it personally” and “it is just business.” Part of what hooked me into Newman’s book is my own secret longing not to write a professional and puffed-up cover letter to my poems, short stories and essays that I submit, but to send a deep confession to this unseen and unknown person about to take my work into his or her hands. I’ve wanted to send these confessions not for pity or publication necessarily (though hello, publication whore), but for the warm and soothing balm of some sort of understanding from authority. A brief alleviation of the writerly loneliness. Facebook and family aside, writers sit alone and stare at a screen and wonder, “Is this any good? Hasn’t it all been said and done? What if I’m not good enough?”

My heart felt big and open when I read this book, like hearts do when they are in the presence of the very best poetry.  Newman also satisfied my analytical David Shields’ (Reality Hunger) created need for authorial risk and genre-bending. Are these prose poems fiction or nonfiction? They tell a story, so are they even poems?

Newman mixes showing and telling in the best way and her power of observation and clear-thinking blend together in a beautiful soup of language, saint stories, vegetables from grandmother’s dinners, and metaphors of a chessboard offered up in a whole new way. Also, in quite a few poems, she explores the failures of language and the failures of writing instruction and advice. Newman says, “The teacher said, Write what you know, and I thought, if I had to do that, I would cry instead, and miss out on the workshop discussion” (10) and “…an exploration of how wily my grandparents were in raising a tainted child. But if I tell you that, I will not have rendered, which my workshop class says is something that I must do” (38).

Toward the end of the book, the editor Newman addresses remains as silent as God in response to even the most fervent prayer. The vigil Newman’s speaker holds for the return of her SASEs is like the wait and vigil and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And while this comparison is absurd and funny, it is also poignant and touching and points to something that goes even deeper than the gravitas of the saints and Catholicism. It goes to the heart of humanity. For all of our struggles for power, for our love of creature comforts, for our collections of stuff that allegedly will ward off death, for all the noise and bustle that surrounds our lives, don’t we all, even non-writers, hell, even non-believers, pray that someone is listening? That someone, anyone out there, might pick us out to be special and respond to the litany of pain that life has heaped upon us?

The best poetry articulates something about being human that cannot be expressed in any other way. Amy Newman has done that with this fine collection. Newman illustrates here to writers how to elevate prose to prosody. Newman inspires me to continue to use humor in my narrative nonfiction and in my poems…and to continue to take what “workshop” says with a large grain of salt.

Hoodwinked

book by David Hernandez

annotation by Lisa Cheby

David Hernandez’s recent collection, Hoodwinked,  contains deceptively simple poems.  He writes of butterflies, supermarkets, post offices, and David Letterman.   Of this collection, Carol Muske-Dukes writes, “Hernandez is not fooling around, but this book brilliantly fools with our expectations and inability to focus on what’s in front of us.”   Deborah Lechner writes, “David Hernandez writes fearlessly, unapologetically and coherently of the vital subject of inevitable deterioration.”

However, for me, this book is about memory and storytelling, about the fluidity of truth and reality.  He  poses outrageous questions: “Do butterflies have walking dreams?”     And images that make the eye of our brain spin: from “This is how/ every story telephoned from person / to person becomes after each telling / distorted”  leading us to the tunnel of  images reflecting in the barbershop mirrors, “an endless green tunnel” to “Memory is  murky thing/ always changing its mind” from a poem with epigraphs from the murky memoirist, James Frey.  Later, in “Panoramic,” the poem mocks its own memory distilling the 11 stanzas of the first section down to a single stanza filled simply with “something” (really, in two lines he uses the word four times). 

Hernandez achieves this replication of memory’s murkiness and fictionalization through  repetition.  Thus, Hoodwinked, recreates how we speak and remember and retell and, well,  recreate memories that we un-spin and re-spin until we get the story we know or that we want to know.  We see repetition is the books constant return to memory as well as subtle repetition of words and phrases within poems.  The first poem, “Questions About Butterflies,” is a poem of memory from the speaker’s childhood.  In the poem, the phrase “We are” is repeated, as if recreating the memory, affirming the fiction to be truth.  Later, “butterfly” takes over shifting focus from the “We are” to the reality of the memory:  the questions raised by the butterflies.  “Panoramic,” repeats not through direct repetition, but through the evocation of repetition in mocking the inadequacy of memory or retelling, the blurring of details.   Finally, in the last poem, Hernandez leaves us with one last glimpse of repetition, as ghostly as a memory, starting the final poem with “Through a tunnel,” repeating the imagery of the “endless green tunnel” from “Trompe L’Oeil.”

We never really know when the speaker of the poems is telling the truth or asserting desire truth through the assertion of repetition.  Though, as David says in an interview on “How A Poem Happens,” “There’s a presumption that a poem is more meaningful if the poet describes an experience exactly as it happened, and if he were to fiddle with the facts, then the poem is somehow inauthentic. As if simply sticking to the facts will prevent one from sounding disingenuous. I’m more concerned that the poem sounds emotionally true . . . .”   And on that level, there is no attempt to hoodwink his readers.

Tea

book by D.A. Powell

annotation by Dane Larsen

After flipping past the table of contents in D.A. Powell’s Tea, the reader is presented with a simple, concise warning from the author himself: “This is not a book about AIDS,” (xi). I was struck by such a straight-forward yet unconventional opening statement—writers in general tend to avoid statements detailing what a book is or is not about. Yet, in this particular case, I think it works. I, at least, hold the same belief as D.A. Powell that poetry (and art in general) produced by members of the LGBT community (gay men in particular) is always interpreted/presented/ marketed as necessarily being “about AIDS.” While this book of poetry does, in part, tell the stories of men who died of AIDS, and while it contains allusions to AIDS elsewhere, it is not so much about AIDS as it is affected by AIDS. The book as a whole is a moving entity, a serpent which winds its way through life and death, love and loss, at times illuminated with such levity as only someone who has survived and come to appreciate life can do.

The first thing to be noticed about the poetry in Tea is Powell’s propensity for spreading his poems out across a page, beyond the typical margins of a portrait-oriented sheet of 8×11 paper. To accommodate such an unconventional physical form, the book is set in landscape orientation. The way these poems are spread across each page, in conjunction with the typically short sentence structure, forces a particular pace of reading. It is a rapid pace, littered with pauses and punctuation which cause the reader to stop and think about what he just read: “the truth: he was no monument. sockets I plugged into. warm circles I could make with my fingers” (21). The reader cannot simply breeze through such lines; there is no flowing musicality to lift the tone of a particular line or phrase with jocular lyricism. Yet there is still a kind of motion involved in each poem, stemming from the fact that Powell does not punctuate the end of each line. As one line ends and another begins, there is a momentary sense of continuity in which the reader feels as if the two lines are joined in some artistic grand scheme; and sometimes they are, but typically they are not. Powell brilliantly dances around line breaks, sometimes almost carrying on a thought,––“perhaps the same grit finished us / drawing us together…”  (49) – but usually choosing to only suggest the continuation of a thought  –“who’s doing all this hair? this lack of hair? at the salon we flip through oncology today / some looks we look forward to looking back on…” (48).

Reading through the poems in Tea, there is a sense of humor that seems to belie a book whose first section is composed of elegies for men taken by AIDS from Powell’s life. Powell makes references to disco divas and cartoon curses, Batman and Robin and The Exorcist, and even turns the sound of a certain derogatory epithet into a made-up word: “[admission: I am a phag: afflicted with phagophagia]” (22).  (Phagophagia essentially meaning “eating eating.”) He works in numerous references to the 70s discotheque scene and gay culture, and in doing so paints a picture rife with movement, sex, and life. Yet for all of that sound and light, there is always an undercurrent of death: “the city is dying to be stylish” (48); “into the reliquary of my mattress” (20); “all of your best composing is lament” (57). Still, Powell never allows his poetry to stay under the influence of death for too long: “say amen somebody. the pews are hickory-hard I’m sick of sitting” (65).

Powell’s word selection is particularly important in accomplishing all of the things I have discussed so far. He has a gift for choosing just the right word which will convey a multitude of things at once. This is portrayed to great effect in the title of the book and its individual sections. Tea, aside from being a delicious beverage to be served hot or cold, morning or night, is a term once used in gay culture to mean “gossip.” Now it is more commonly used among drag queens, often abbreviated to simply “t” as in “what’s the t?” (or “what’s the talk of the town?”). “Tea Leaves,” the first, elegiac section of Tea, employs the dual-meaning of “leaves” as both a plant leaf and the action of leaving (as in death); “Spilling Tea” is a rather gossipy section of poetry; and “Tea Rooms” is full of sexual encounters and general sexuality (tea rooms were places where men would meet for sex). In this way, the initially simple title of the book carries so many meanings, all of which are explored and portrayed by the poetry within the leaves of this book.

In the end, Tea is a stunningly beautiful portrayal of personal experiences, seasoned with death, love, life, joy, and motion, and always presented with a twist of humor. It is (as many books of poetry are) a journey, though not necessarily presented in chronological order. Rather, it is a journey of the mind, a journey which D.A. Powell embarked on in order to recognize where he has been and where he was at time the book was compiled. In his own words: “This is how I came to put the elegies at the front of the book. I rise out of ashes. To survive is an astonishing gift. The price of that gift is memory,” (xiii). And we as readers are glad to pay that price with him, for just as the stories in these poems have shaped Powell’s life, so, too, can they shape our own.


Mercy

book by Lucille Clifton

annotation by Glenis Redmond

During my first semester at Warren Wilson College, I was assigned to write a pastoral poem — a poem that addresses the bucolic aspects of nature more specifically, rural life.  When I attempted to write one, I became incredibly distressed, because I could not keep my gaze solely on the positive aspects of nature. Clifton’s poem, “surely I am able to write poems,” in her book Mercy, helped me investigate my complex relationship with the natural environment. Clifton in ten swift lines imagistically demonstrates why the pastoral poem is so challenging for me. Clifton places the reader in the speaker’s mind.  The reader is given access to the speaker’s most private thoughts, while she is grappling with her ability to write poems about “celebrating grass.”   In this first line Clifton’s deft hand is busy layering the work and later on we will discover it is fraught with biblical allusions.  This feels disarming, as it is delivered in conversational plain-speech, yet Clifton is doing just the opposite. She applies tension in the first line as she queries “surely I am able to write poems / celebrating grass.”

The emotional tone of the poem is still quite warm and welcoming at this point, especially with the first word of the poem.  The word “surely” washes over us, with reassurance.  It is the first word that we encounter.   Generally the word conveys confidence, but in this instance coupled with the world should, the speaker declares too much, so we as readers sense doubt in this phrase and one can sense a but not too far off in the future.  At the same time, Clifton cleverly layers this line with a biblical allusion. I reminded of Psalms 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”    This texturing ignites the poem and signifies not only doubt, but also implication. Everyone is implicated:  the speaker, man and whole the racial history of America.  All of this is tied up in her inability to write a pastoral poem, but Clifton implicates God as well.  This taboo takes us to a precipice.   This implication asserts goodness and mercy does not follow the speaker, but unrelenting fear and hate does. As the House of God is nature, Clifton implies the speaker is not at home anywhere, for nature is everywhere.  Therefore, there is no escape.

In this poem, even when the reader thinks there is breath or rest, there is none.  Clifton employs her classic poetic signatures such as: sparse punctuation, no capitalization and plain-speech that lends to these moments of faux respite.   The casual and relaxed language only gives the reader the appearance of space or rest. Every tree, rock and person resonates as an obstacle between the slave and freedom.    This rest in the poem amplifies in a deceptive manner, by creating space that is only a figment.  This strategy allows Clifton to metaphorically cover much ground, by placing the reader in the middle of an antithetical pastoral poem rife with historical land mines.  One cannot step in this poem, without setting off a charge.  Clifton demonstrates what it is like for her to write a pastoral poem.    The enjambments in this poem create a breathless run-on experience disorienting the reader.  The reader starts with a seemingly harmless image of a person “celebrating grass,” then Clifton offers the opposite of celebration.  The reader finds themselves in the middle of mourning and fear in the most unassuming images such as: “the blue /in the sky, flowing green or red /and the waters lean against the / Chesapeake shore like a familiar.” Yet, the pacing and the lack of punctuation speed the poem up and lends to the foreboding imagery.

Clifton amplifies the imagery through personification.  Water leans against the shore.  This is a peculiar way to describe water.  As the reader goes in for a closer look, Clifton embodies The Middle Passage with this imagery. She creates lulls through repetition of the word surely in the poem.  Yet, this second surely is followed by the conjunction but which indicates a turn.  This turn ratchets up the temperature in the poem full blast.  The trees become personified too.  They “wave their knotted branches.”  She does not mention lynching in the poem, but allows the impression of the images to do that work. The “knotted branches” invoke pain. The waving connotes swinging and Billie Holiday’s, Strange Fruit comes into view, as the lyrics from this famous song come to mind, “black bodies hanging from the Poplar tree.”  The poem’s success is in its subtle impressionistic nature.  Clifton implicates without outright telling or pointing. The images bleed through layer after layer.   The last three lines of the poem, Clifton pressurizes by using the interrogative, why.

why
is there under the poem
always another poem?

I coined the term anti-pastoral after this poem as Clifton  addresses  the precarious relationship that many African-Americans have with nature.  She links the tree imagery to historical wounding, by weaving into the narrative, the weighted African-American plight. Though slavery is never mentioned, Clifton implies it through pressurized imagery alongside plain-speech.   Studying how she compresses has instructed me craft-wise.  Her spring-loaded approach creates the element of surprise, which allows the meaning to reverberate and create a haunting effect. She has inspired me to continue to search for ways to pressurize my poems, to create freshness and unpredictability without forsaking my narrative drive and understand how resisting a form, can be a powerful means in which to create.

Face

book by  Sherman Alexie 

annotation by Lisa Cheby

Alexie’s poetry is a hybrid of formal poetics and experimental genre bending compounded by the often-conflicted aesthetics of these various traditions.   In the guise of formal poetics, Alexie challenges the reader’s place in poetry and mocks almost all schools of poetry – reader response, biographical, confessional, historical, and formal.

Alexie divides his book into four sections.   The first section, “War Stories,” establishes conflicts to be woven throughout the text:  life versus death (“Avian Nights” and “The Father and Son Road Show”); fathers versus sons or old generations versus new; nature versus humans; whites versus Native Americans; Alexie versus his own histories.   In the second section, “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” Alexie examines the multiplicity of cultures at his disposal as an artist and the multiplicity of worlds he must negotiate in asserting his identity.  The third section, “Size Matters,” moves into a celebration of mundane moments of humility.  The final section, “Ten Thousand Fathers,” gives us new and old mythologies of his origins as a poet.

The book declares war between the poet and critic, between the oppressor and the oppressed through a battle between formalism and experimentation.   Alexie appropriates the rules of form to undermine the history of literary domination by white men.   “War Stories” and “Vilify” are highly crafted formal poems dismantled and disrupted by extensive footnotes, a risky move, flirting with pretension and imitation (didn’t Eliot already challenge the folly of footnotes in “The Wasteland?”).  Alexie’s footnotes are commentary, digression, and political protest.  The reader must decide how to read the poem: straight through, or do we follow the trail away to find our way back to the base poem?  In “War Stories,” the first footnote undermines the speaker/poet’s authority, “He wasn’t really my uncle.  I lied” (18).  This footnote leads to another footnote to tell the true story, the truth of law, turning this poem about something akin to a bar fight into a dialogue with history.   Unlike Eliot’s footnotes that mock the self-referential nature of literature and academics, Alexie exploits allusion and exposes how poetry and literature often mask the stories that lie beneath.   While subverting dominant traditions, Alexie shows off his mastery of them:  the poem’s six tercets are matched by the six tercets of the numbered footnotes, which lead to a tercet of prose footnotes.   (Later it the book, he makes a similar move where the footnotes for a sonnet create a separate sonnet that adds commentary to the original sonnet.)   For Alexie, form is not just a tool; there is a deliberate link between form and content.   The form is a means for him to speak his truth in a world that wants to suppress his voice.   This forces me to examine how form functions for my poems and challenges me to see how form does not just add structure, but can actually subvert that from which it came.

Similarly, Alexie mixes formal verse with prose segments throughout the book.  In “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” Alexie poignantly merges Native American storytelling with Western/American poetics.  The poem starts with a prose section whose mythic voice blurs the lines between truth and reality;  “Six years ago, or maybe it was eight or ten . . .” the speaker begins by inviting the audience to let go of the need for precision, a very western, formalist requirement (79).   Once the scene of the powwow is set, Alexie transitions into an English sonnet that recounts his encounter with a former bully.   At the end of the sonnet he relapses into expository prose to reflect on the lesson of this incident, the sonnet.  A pattern of dialogue between cultures and the two selves of the speaker is established between the prose and the sonnets.  The next sonnet focuses on another character that he must battle in his quest for identity.   He again uses the natural argument structure of the English sonnet to make the point that “It was all shoe goddamn texts / By all those damn dead white male and female writers / That first taught me how to be a fighter . . . ” (80).   Alexie resists the idea that his identity and power comes from only one culture; he claims the voice of both the Native Americans and western literary traditions.  To emphasize this unity of self, each sonnet and prose section is enjambed.  The next sonnet praises Dorothy Grant, who, through fashion, like Alexie through his poems, creates hybrids of Native American and mainstream expressions.   Interestingly, Alexie ends on a sonnet:  “This sonnet, like my reservation, keeps/ Its secrets hidden behind boundaries / That are simple and legal at first read . . . ” (81).   Though his prose seems audaciously honest and exposed, it is in the control and boundaries of the formal verse that Alexie reveals the more vulnerable, raw emotions and insights, like the quiet clarity after a storm of rage or grief, like the unspoken truth of every joke.   Likewise, the prose creates the mythic stories we create to explain our world, which may be just as true, or even “more impressive” than actual truth.   With constant play of language and story, the reader eventually gives up on the idea of absolute truth and autobiography or confession, is forced to meet the poem eye to eye, at face value, as we all want to be met in life.

There is much more to be extracted, for the writer, from Alexie’s Face:  the examination of his use vernacular, his depiction of the body (reminiscent of Olds), and his exploitation of the confessional voice.   Yet, for me, Alexie exemplifies how form can be used to serve the poem and the voice, rather than finding a poem or voice to serve a form.

The Moon Reflected Fire

book by Doug Anderson

annotation by Lauren Schmidt

This is by far one of the best books of poetry I have ever read. There are so many memorable moments in this text that after only one reading, I am able to quote some of the poems in here. Yes, the success of the book is partly a result of the book’s subject matter—the Vietnam War—but in an undertaking such as this, success becomes incredibly difficult. A poet runs the risk of sensationalizing or exploiting the horrors of war. A poet might be accused of being opportunistic or too singularly-focused. Anderson avoids these criticisms completely in this book. It is, as a result, a harrowing and heart-breaking portrait of a period in our history. I said of Tony Barnstone’s book Tongue of War that every American should read it: I would say that even more emphatically of The Moon Reflected Fire.

What I admire so much about this book is its honesty. The reality of the stories and people found here is startling and often hard to read. (I will admit to crying a few times.) But these moments are often balanced by the tender moments that reveal these characters’ humanity, most often in the form of regret, sorrow, and the suffering the speaker endures many years after the war is over. The book, therefore, is a complete scope of this terrible experience and is most appropriately dedicated to the soldiers on both sides of the fighting.

The first poem, “Night Ambush,” establishes the tone that runs throughout the book—emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. The book begins in medias res. Based on the details of the poem—“I have forgotten the why of everything. / I sense an indifference larger than anything/ I know. All that will remain of us/ is rusting metal disappearing in vines”—it is clear that this speaker has endured an awful lot by this point. Anderson has effectively conveyed the “indifference” that will permeate many of the poems to follow.

From the first poem, Anderson moves to “Infantry Assault”—a poem that gruesomely portrays an American solider killing a man who is already dead. The poem is more of a glimpse into the psyches of the soldiers at the scene—some of them rueful, some of them enjoying the carnage—rather than a narrative of a man doing something terrible. It examines the “why of everything”—“I thought maybe/ he was killing all the ones he’d missed.” The poem concludes on the haunting line, “how our bones knew what we’d done,” a motif that will resurface in many of these poems. The poet appears to be more concerned about expelling these stories through these poems as a way to free himself than gratuitously sensationalizing the horrors of war.

There are a number of poems in this collection that show the speaker’s humanity. One such poem, found in the first section, is “Purification.” Rather than condemn a speaker who admits to having a sexual encounter with a fifteen year-old Taiwanese mother, the reader pities him. Perhaps it is, in part, due to the fact that the sex is never really mentioned—only a moment where he tastes the young mother’s breast milk. However, I’d argue the reader’s sympathy comes from the fact that the speaker tells the story in such exhaustion and with such honesty, a reader cannot help but be moved by the poem’s final two lines: “I want to be this child’s child. / I will sleep for the first time in days.” Another poem that achieves this same sympathy is the first poem in the final section, “Rain.” The speaker admits to masturbating beneath his sheets as a way, perhaps, to feel human again, or relieve himself of all the angst he has stored during the war. It is a very real moment, one many poets might shy away from for fear that it is too human, too shameful. Even more remarkably is the presence of the nurse in the poem. We see her humanity as well.  Nowhere in the poem does it suggest that she’s disgusted, yet it is clear she knows what he’s doing behind her back. Her permission for him to be as vulnerable as he needs to be is a stunning moment in this book.

The quiet, tender poems in this book balance poems such as “Two Boys,” a narrative that details the efforts one of his fellow soldiers went to in order to shoot Vietnamese boys and the “wistful damn” at his failure. It’s no surprise that a poem like “We Sweat” comes immediately before it, because it is also one of those quietly brave poems. It details the speaker’s fear and his need to pray in a place where “the gods are not familiar. / Who knows what prayer provokes? …When you cannot scream, pray.”

The second and third sections are truly unexpected approaches to telling the stories of this war. The second part, in effect, explains the artist’s role in revealing the truth around him, no matter how difficult. He does this through the Spanish Romantic painter, Goya. The allusion to Goya achieves a few things. First, it demonstrates the parallels between the times these two artists expose in their work, thus showing that nothing changes. Second, Anderson reveals the need for books like this to be written and paintings like Goya’s to be painted. Finally, he illuminates the struggle of having to do it.

The third part of the book reveals the Vietnam War through the Trojan War and characters in Homer’s Iliad. By doing this, Anderson is again drawing parallels between not only these two wars, but all wars and all the horrors these men endure in fighting them. Poetically, these two sections break up the narrative that was established in the first section while continuing along the same themes. Though we are not reading about the war solely from the speaker’s perspective, we are engaged by the same obsessions we found in his voice.

The final section returns to that speaker to show what happens in the aftermath of war. In this section, there is recklessness, alcohol and drug use, fear, an inescapable haunting, and ultimately, redemption. His redemption stems from the hope that what he has done in writing this book has freed him and others who read it from the toxins of that war. (The Biblical note that precedes the entire collection is proof.) By book’s end, the speaker does not claim that he is cured of what he has seen and done, but that he will survive all he cannot purge.

This is truly a startling book in that it characterizes a certain consciousness for many men who survived this or any other war. Books like this are necessary to our own survival.