John W. Marshall
(poetry book reviews)
Some of the books reviewed here have come out since the last publication of Switched-On Gutenberg, others are due to be published in the next few months. A month in parentheses indicates when the publisher expects the book to be available. These reviews are by John W. Marshall who, along with Christine Deavel, owns and operates OPEN BOOKS: A POEM EMPORIUM (2414 N.45th Seattle, WA 98103 (206) 633-0811).
Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters, Debora Greger (Penguin; paperback $14.95; November). These poems are both about and informed by Ms. Greger's growing up near the Hanford nuclear reservation, where her father worked. Ms. Greger is a talented poet and here she mines a rich vein--her childhood religion, the small American dusty town youth, and the incredible history happening nearby but unacknowledged. And perhaps most importantly poems toward the end of the book concern traveling in Italy. While in Venice, from the poem "The Desert Father," Ms. Greger saw "generation sinking into generation,/to open water, the view as sudden as a vision." All the poems unite then: a memory of her father stepping from a bus, "holding--//the way old saints were painted/holding tiny churches on great books--/a black lunch box" leads her to "Venice is desert, the old painters knew/this the leafless light...//so blinding that a desert father squinting,/preoccupied, was all that was missing." This is truly a stunning book; read it and be ready to marvel and weep.
Common Carnage, Stephen Dobyns (Penguin; paperback, $14.95). It's difficult to know what to say about Mr. Dobyns and this book. He writes like no other American poet, perhaps no other poet, allowing his imagination to move through difficult landscapes, asking difficult questions. In the opening poem, "Winter Nights," children wait on a curb for the owners of nearby parked cars to come reward and them for washing windshields--"Their hope was a red blossom they knew would open." Dobyns follows this with a quick litany of sad lives he's witnessed, and closes back on the kids with "How could I live without their example, the sweet/and ever so fragile expectation of happiness?" Why and how to live are the central concerns of these poems. The last poem in the collection, "Crimson Invitation," is a meditation on whether one would want to live one's life over. Mr. Dobyns offers no answer, and makes it clear the question is nowhere near an easy one. In that poem there is an image of a woman working at a table of steaming offal in a slaughterhouse, who "lifts this/scarlet mass with both hands, offers the ghastly/and lovely, this rich and conflicted invitation/to the planet." Indeed, this is collection of conflicted invitations which I find undeniable. It's a hard collection to put down.
The Gift of Tongues: Twenty-five Years of Poetry From Copper Canyon Press, edited and introduced by Sam Hamill (Copper Canyon Press; paperback, $16.00, hardcover $30; November). Poetry from more than 100 writers who published with the esteemed Copper Canyon Press during its first twenty-five years. Denise Levertov and Edgar Anawrok are here; W.S. Merwin and Kawamura Yoichi are here; Pablo Neruda and Cheryl Van Dyke are here. In other words, people you've heard of and people you haven't heard of are in this mixed-bag anthology which, if it was arranged chronologically rather than alphabetically, would have read something like a history text. Mr. Hamill's introduction is a prize for anyone interested in the workings of a small, successful literary press, and the anthology closes with an annotated bibliography of all titles published by Copper Canyon, including some very limited editions. Mr. Hamill writes at least one sentence, and often more, about each publication: sometimes about type choices, sometimes about the situation that led to publication, sometimes about his view of the writer's talent. For my taste, the bibliography alone is worth the price -- there is something fascinating about the poetry publishing process, and this is one of the best entrees we laypersons are given. Maybe someday Mr. Hamill will publish a memoir, until then we can try reading between these lines.
The Terrible Stories, Lucille Clifton (BOA Editions; paperback $12.50, hardcover $20). Ms Clifton's poems are direct and powerful in a way few writers' are. I am tempted to say she writes skeletal poems, because they do what they need to make their point but are only scantily fleshed out with description or wordplay. But these aren't skeletal; they're wiry, sneaky poems that speak in the curt voice of a hardened soul, a wise person. This book has a section on a woman with breast cancer, and another section charged with Ms. Clifton's, a black woman, travels in the south -- subjects in most writers' hands that would leave me well on the outside. Somehow Ms. Clifton manages to touch on my life with hers, surely one of the marks of true poetry.
Even in Quiet Places, William Stafford (Confluence Press; paperback $12, hardcover $20). This book collects the poetry from four limited edition books, and one chapbook, published in the 1990's by Mr. Stafford, who died in 1993. As customary with Mr. Stafford's work, these are short, meaty poems that work by mixing a western American directness with a somewhat Spanish-like deep image and sense of duende. The opening piece, "Another Language," ends with the sentence "Speakers of the new language are seeking not just freedom of speech but freedom in speech--their own life embodied in language." A difficult act of rebellion which Mr. Stafford succeeds at time and again.
The Body Mutinies, Lucia Perillo (Purdue University Press, $12.95 paperback). The title poem in this collection is one of the best I have read on the fairly well-covered subject of learning something unpleasant from a doctor, a subject I pay attention to. Ms Perillo handles it in a stunningly simple, direct, and ultimately beautiful way--a poem for future anthologies, I predict. Unfortunately, little else here moves me as much. She is a good writer, and I'm often taken by her solid imagery, but I am rarely interested in the things she is interested in. Or is it that she hasn't convinced me I should be? I'm not sure. Certainly this book is worth looking into.
Copyright 1996, John W. Marshall