Tag Archives: Poetry

The Wild Iris

WildIrisImageThe Wild Iris, Louise Glück

Annotation by Sarah E. Miller

            From the beginning of Louise Glück ’s The Wild Iris there is a questioning that begins in the reader; is this flower life or human life? The cycling of her poems from flower to human to seasons to relationship to religion-reigning-over-it-all creates a deep and arduous sadness about the entire book.  Glück achieves this by employing repetition on various levels.

Everything in this book cycles and grows. Through a successful use of repetition, Glück creates a deepened picture of grief and the other side of grief, the moment when one can finally breathe. The poem title “Matins” is repeated throughout the book, usually in twos. It sets a tone of darkness turning to light, a nighttime prayer that ends at dawn. The poems titled “Matins” serve as a sort of break throughout. They are a more human response to the nature call and they are severely honest:  “…it is a bitter thing to be the disposable animal, a bitter thing.” The “Matins” also prove to be familiar to the reader, something we’ve all heard and felt at another time in life, “What is my heart to you/that you must break it over and over/like a plantsman testing/his new species?”

In addition to the repetition of titles, Glück uses questions in the body of the poems. There is not a single poem that goes without asking questions, either outright or implied. At times the question is directly posed to the reader, something that must be answered; in other poems it feels more stream of conscious, especially when Glück uses a dash in place of a question mark. The questions are actively pulling the reader into this world and giving human quality among the abundance of nature. In “Snowdrops,” Glück begins with a human question and delves back into nature, “Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know/what despair is; then/winter should have meaning for you.” Again in “The Jacob’s Ladder,” she utilizes a question we might ask one another but one that is meant for nature, “Trapped in the earth/wouldn’t you too want to go/to heaven? I live/in a lady’s garden. Forgive me, lady/longing has taken my grace.”

Finally, Glück uses repetition at the word level: grief, blue, you, stars, and earth are found throughout the book. This repetition could easily become mundane and give less weight to each word as it is repeated.  However, Glück employs each word to hold deeper meaning each time it is used. For example, the word “grief” is sometimes stacked so closely to itself that the poem begins to take on the weight of the word. In “Violets,” the word is used and defined repeatedly, “…we do not grieve/as you grieve, dear/suffering master; you/are no more lost/than we are, under/the hawthorn tree, the hawthorn holding…” In just two poems later, Glück is using the word grief again in “The Jacob’s Ladder,” as a connection between nature and life, “…I too desire/knowledge of paradise—and now/your grief, a naked stem/reaching the porch window.” Moreover, she places these words in surprising contexts, such as nestled in a monologue from a flower, suddenly giving human quality to nature. Often the flower and plant subjects are grieving their lot in life but they always receive another chance to live and blossom. This notion is often set against the notion of human mortality, highlighting the sometimes ridiculousness of human life. At times it feels as if the flowers are condemning human emotion as in “The Red Poppy,” “I am speaking now/the way you do. I speak/because I am shattered.”

Employing nature, particularly flowers, would seem too “obvious” a choice for the subject of poetry; however, Glück breaks out of stereotypical uses of these tropes through crafty timing and placement of repetition, often of simple diction.   As poets, we often think of repetition as being limited to a poem or only on the word or sound level, but Glück shows us how to think of and use a wider range of repetition without the fear of being redundant or unoriginal across a body of work.

The Cellar Dreamer

CellarDreamerThe Cellar Dreamer by Valerie Coulton

Annotation by Kimberly Bredberg

Valerie Coulton’s, The Cellar Dreamer, is balance and disentanglement,

is an invitation. Her lush consenting lexicon conjures a damp and fertile mood, inviting us to forage the must of root. She leads us by the hand, beginning whimsically “some where” moving through “The Orange Window” prose to the sparse, breathy poetics of “blaue augen” leaving us with no desire to back-again.

In the first section of the collection, we are led by the hand somewhere strange yet familiar (even if we’ve never actually been in a cellar), “listen—green husks/sizzle in wind. a little/silk     gilds the sound:/     big round kernels/of gold./     little emerald—/     I climb your stems thick/      rungs.” Everyday objects become the to entry to the impenetrable.

To enter the prose of the second section, we sit beside a window in the glow of sun. This is where we rest to sort and decipher snapshots, image, cracks, and bent corners. They are not our snapshots, not our history, but at once are intimately ours, “Spatters of light coming into focus: a city lit by night. A white cigarette, a supple line. His broad back dimly haloed. A sense of counting.”

At last, after being thoroughly burnished with the window’s orange, we are brushed with its complimentary blue. The poems in this last section are cooling, meditative, inspired by Michael Pastoureau’s, The History of Color. Visually sparse,                            “her stain slips out of her mouth

across sleeping/                                    ocean,”

these are the poems that spy strange bits of glittering buoyancy and challenge us to linger for the next improvisation surfacing.

On its surface, this volume reminds us to anchor our poems to place, but if we read courageously, if we dare to descend the staircase to this particular earthy-indoor-dank, we encounter what all poets know to be true. Familiarity with a place will not enact the world of a poem. The poet must know that place intimately. When we dare to listen to the dark of quiet of place we will sense its heartbeat, breath, whisper. The Cellar Dreamer reminds us that the great task of the poet is to contour, renovate, tilt the inchoate of place to shelter the unforeseen disposition of a poem.

This collection begins with an inscription from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, “The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls… walls that have the entire earth behind them,” and leaves us haunted with the song of its the lore echoing in our basket of unearthed trinkets as we ascend the creaking cellar steps to the light of day.

Embers: A Novel in Poems

Embers: A Novel in Poems by Terry Wolverton

Annotation by Marianne Woods Cirone

As a genre jumper from fiction to creative non-fiction, I had hardly planned to add poetry to my repertoire as a third genre.  So, when I saw that Terry Wolverton’s novel, Embers, was written in poems, I didn’t expect it to be accessible to a complete poetry neophyte like me.  However, I felt compelled to read this book and I am so glad that I did.  Embers is beyond accessible—it mesmerizes and transfixes; it is a genre-bending work which is true hybrid of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry.

The skeleton of Embers consists of Wolverton’s family history (detailed in an extremely helpful timeline) beginning near the turn of early 20th century, with the birth of Marie Girard, and ending almost 100 years later.  Each poem represents a significant event in the life of the character depicted, a vignette fully brought to life through the perfect storm of imagery, insight and emotion.   The book’s structure divides the poems into two “books” of roughly a half-century each, preceded by a prologue containing a flash forward of Marie, one of the book’s main characters, from beyond the grave, as well as a flash back, to the Native American tribe who resided on the family’s land previously.

As Wolverton has explained, she took the basic facts as she knew them and fleshed them out by envisioning the specific scenes which she depicts with such vivid imagery.  In the excerpt below, the story of the bartender, Michael McCarthy, the surrogate father for Marie’s child, is told in second person.  I have highlighted a few of the especially vivid words:

…The nickelodeon
trills a lullaby.  Now your dreams
are glass, tumblers and goblets,
punch cups and schooners, glinting
in continual twilight, and each
must be filled.  Ambers and oranges,
absinthe and burgundy.  You spend your hours
pouring color, watching it drain away (21). [bold type added]

The words highlighted in bold show some of the unusual and vibrant imagery that Wolverton used to create the dramatic effect, rather than saying, “he was a bartender.”

Although Embers contains many extraordinary “events,” some of the most memorable scenes contained small but unforgettable detail which breathe life into the moment.  For example, when Marie Girard approaches the monsignor to request an annulment, Wolverton writes:

Adolph had no use for priests
so she went alone to the cathedral to petition
the monsignor.  Fingering

one fraying strap of her thin pocketbook, she stood before
the straight spined priest and fixed her
gaze on the gray veins that branched
the marble floor (26).

The image of the woman “fingering one fraying strap of her thin pocketbook” and then fixing “her gaze on the gray veins of the floor” made the scene so real and so memorable to me, that I emotionally connected to this very tormented character.  Even though the events surrounding this character’s life were quite dramatic, these small details made me feel not only that I knew her, but that I was her.

Deftly, Wolverton skates between scenes in first, second and third tense, and even creates interior revelations of minor supporting characters with free indirect style.  Every poem has its own style and structure, befitting its significance:  past tense, present tense, left-justified, centered, single-spaced, double-spaced, a scene, a letter.  The variety isn’t gratuitous or jarring, but instead is subtle and appropriate to the message.  The word choices exhibit an exactitude  rarely seen—I could make a list of the verbs I loved:  scuffs, clotted, steeped, preens, scuttles, silvers, blitzing.

I have had not only the great fortune to read Embers, but to also have Wolverton for my mentor during one of my project periods and have had benefit of her insights into the creation of this novel:   the intricate weaving of fact and imagination into a living, breathing piece of art.  In fact, the written work has been the basis for a brilliantly performed live jazz opera.  As I go forward with a family history of my own, I will often refer to Wolverton’s example in Embers as an excellent example of mind-bending, genre-bending creativity.

Fire & Flower

book by Laura Kasischke, Laura

annotation by Stephanie Glazier

 

Kasischke’s principal trick is sound. She leans heavy into slant rhyme and, at first ( through the first third or so of the book), I delighted in it. And then…I began to feel almost talked down to after so much sneaky rhyme.

“Gotcha!”

“Gotcha again,” is the experience I began to have.

I think this is a danger with using so much of the same sound mechanism in one book. It’s one problem with form, I suppose.  

Yet, there’s something else happening with this slant rhyme. It’s at once greatly associative and dissociative. In one of her excellent element poems “Dear Air,” she writes “…white grapes spun themselves from sun/ and water on their vines—in-/ candescent thumbs, clear-/ blooded and alive” (26).  Here she is likening the human form, to the grapes by anthropomorphizing their bodies. She’s also using metonymy here, part for the whole, and not just any part but the thumb, one bit that separates us from other animals close in the progression. She is associating herself to the grapes. She is associating the words “vine” and “alive.” But the strangeness of that pairing, the newness of it, is dissociative. The idea of blood being clear and in fruit is dissociative. It puts me in another realm.

It makes my jawbones hum.

When I go into a nature poem, I expect some romanticism—and I’m lead into Kasischke’s poems this way. I’m made to believe (“Dear Air” not “To the Air”) that there’s some sweetness to be had here. And there is, but it comes at the cost of not knowing what she’s going to do next. She almost mocks romanticism with her rhyme: it’s flip and new and female and dare I say, hip.

I don’t feel completely safe as her reader – which kept me reading, now that I’m thinking of it.

Another reason I’m not totally comfortable is her use of image. First of all it’s brilliant and strange and deeply unfamiliar.

And also, she doesn’t always come back for me. That is, she doesn’t loop back around in the poems to make meaning of an image as I think she will (should). “The Baby Learns to Say Baby,” opens “Flowering bulbs just under the snow…” (47).  In this four page poem, there is nary a mention of flowers or bulbs or snow again. (Unless the bulb is simply a stand in for the baby.) Her images are somewhat difficult to map, if they are meant to be mapped. Though I do have this feeling –how credible—that she just means me to experience them for the sake of themselves, for the sake of the moments they serve. I think I like this…and I have this feeling while reading (as I do when I’m discovering something new) of looking around silently saying, “is she allowed to do this??!??”