a journal of modern society & culture

Poetry!

Bill Nevins

Poetry!

With in- person poetry readings curtailed by Covid 19 restrictions, this time of Zoom, Skype and Facebook readings has become an opportunity for poets and poetry fans to meet across lines of state, national and even ocean boundaries.

Via such online gatherings as Cultivating Voices, I have “met” poetry colleagues throughout and beyond North America.  And while in semi-isolation, I have had the pleasure of reading some of their recent books.

Here is a brief selection of a few recently -published books by some of our world’s far-flung poets. I hope you may check them out and enjoy. I will plan more selections for future issues of Logos. Your comments are most welcome. bill_nevins@yahoo.com

The Migrant States by Indran Amirthanayagam (Hanging Loose Press, 2020).

In this time of closed borders and limited travel, the voice of the experienced literary traveler is most welcome.

Such travelers, or migrants, historically include restless poets like Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and others. Indran Amirthanayagam, an admirer of Whitman and Ginsberg, shares in this book of confessional and lyrical free-verse some cogent first-person declarations of “the migrant”. This fine book also examines the vital impact of migration on the USA, despite the anti-immigrant hostility of the Trump regime. The book’s cover rather mischievously portrays various American states detached from one another and “migrating” on the page—Texas and a few other states seem to be floating free of the Union!

A Tamil and an immigrant (via London) in his youth to the USA from his native Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) and a naturalized citizen as well as a professional US Foreign Service diplomat who has served in Haiti and Mexico and now lives in Maryland, Indran Amirthanayagam well knows the joys and pain of frequent change-of-place, and the longing for past places and times, even for an ancestral home-land (Ceylon) that no longer is found on any map.

“Exile is the modern condition, Ceylon felled/like a poplar, but how did Java vanish,/or British Honduras?”

(from “Curtain Call”)

Amirthanayagam’s previous volume of poetry, Uncivil Wars, reflected upon the brutal 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka which ended in the Sri Lanka military’s ruthless, crushing defeat of the Tamil Tigers insurgency and the closing of all hopes for Tamil independence. In a sense, this migrant can never go home.

Yet, Amirthanayagam also asserts that poetry itself is an ever-present “home” or sanctuary for the itinerant poet:

“The band dropped me for my original songs. They

wanted to play covers, earn a bit at parties. They made

excuses. I cried quietly turning rage into shame,

became a scribe then in the monastery of poetry.”

 (from “When I Quit Punk and Took Holy Orders”)

Poetry also has taught Amirthanayagam a deeper appreciation of his adopted homeland, America:

“I became a citizen/and learned later/from Whitman/that America/contains a/contradictory/brimming multitude,/which Lorca discovered/as well when he walked/downtown from Columbia/the year of the Great Crash/writing Poeta in Nueva York.”

(from “English Migrant”)

The Migrant States includes two sections of poems in tribute to Walt Whitman, as well as a section of selections of Amirthanayagam’s own English translations of his own Haitian Creole and French poetry written when he was stationed in Haiti.

“To know this country,/when you palaver with people/in the street,/you will discover/all kinds of lies, histories . . . “

(from “Haitian Conundrums”)

This is a fascinating and enjoyable book, a migrant journey which takes many surprising twists along its path, as when the author seems to admire and perhaps identify with a cobra who can

“trap Man only when/he walks unaware through/the night and steps/on a mine that rears/and bites his leg or hand.”

(from “Cycling”)

Though this collection touches on dark subjects—suicide, isolation, deaths and political injustice—overall it seems an optimistic, hopeful vision that prevails.  As host of the monthly spoken word series Poetry at the Port, Indran Amirthanayagam enjoys sharing the stage with “voices at all points of entry” and in this fine collection, The Migrant States, he generously shares his own experienced voice with us. Recommended.

Frolic and Detour

By Paul Muldoon (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2020)

Paul Muldoon is one of the most famous living English- language poets, yet his best work is rooted in a distinctly Irish (Gaelic) sensibility. Born in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1951, Muldoon spent many years in Belfast. He emigrated to the USA and has taught at Princeton University for more than thirty years and he has served as Poetry Editor of the New Yorker magazine. He also writes rock lyrics and hosts a monthly variety show, “Muldoon’s Picnic” in Manhattan.

He is the author of thirteen poetry collections, is widely anthologized, and he has won the Pulitzer Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. Like his mentor the late Seamus Heaney, Muldoon is an exquisitely- conscious non-combatant survivor of the long civil war/national rebellion euphemistically known as the Irish Troubles. The New York Times Book Review has described Paul Muldoon as “one of the great poets of the past hundred years.”

I am a long-time fan who has read most, if not all, of Muldoon’s previous books, and as such I must say that Frolic and Detour strikes me as both fresh and, in many places, surprising.

Muldoon in these poems plays with words and shatters clichés and deftly reimagines poetic forms—all Muldoon trademarks—and the dancing music of his lines is undeniable.

“Encheiresin Naturae” consists of fifteen sonnets arranged as stanzas of a long poem celebrating an Irish harvest, in which the last word of each stanza is the first word of the following stanza. What a joyful harvest word- dance it is!

Yet, along with such controlled yet wild song is also a profound seriousness as the aging poet Muldoon, like his late friend and collaborator the rock composer Warren Zevon (with whom Muldoon co-wrote “My Ride’s Here”), weighs in on the toll that life takes on friends, colleagues, and on the poet himself. There are laments for Leonard Cohen and for C.K. Williams and other artists, a poem in tribute to Bruce Springsteen, as well as a deep-diving examination of Muldoon’s own connection to other Muldoons, those buried over many decades as children in the horrid mass grave recently uncovered at Tuam, County Galway, in the west of Ireland. Muldoon, identifying with his and our unknown, lost relatives, shares the grief of the discovery of this most unnatural human crime with a deft critical reference to the more natural animal world, “in that unthink–able world where a wasp may recognise another wasp’s face / and an elephant grieve for an elephant down at the waterhole.” (from “At Tuam”)

Fittingly, in the book’s final (and title) poem, “Frolic and Detour”, Muldoon, who earlier in this book slyly references Yeats’s seances, gives us more than a hint at the bright magic he himself glimpses behind the dark realities of our shared world:“so wren-music/offers druids a permanent link between/this world and the one nearby” (from “Frolic and Detour”)

This book is a treasure, its poems to be savored and revisited again and again. Highly recommended.

Cement

By Sarah Menafee (Swimming With Elephants Publications, 2019)

Sarah Menafee is an advocate for unhoused and poor people in San Francisco and a founding member of both the Union of the Homeless and of the Revolutionary Poet’s Brigade. Her poems in Cement are as lyrically sharp as broken glass on a city sidewalk and fiercely precise in their channelling of controlled rage against American social injustice in the Age of Trump.

With the pandemic raging, our country’s unhoused are in horrible jeopardy, as much at risk from this plague both on the streets and in crowded shelters. Menafee gives expression, in spare lines of devastatingly-dry words, here to those many suppressed voices we just might not hear as we huddle in social isolation or timidly walk masked and at distance from home to grocery store or sidewalk café.

Some examples:

“plucking greasy chicken bones out of a dumpster/came by and snatched a piece of the breaded skin/a woman asked for what was left and the biscuit heel” (“Heel”)

“my young friend/slept under wadded news-/papers and their lies/underground/in the BART station/or near a dark dune/ . . . in the rains/or dry I wept/over his dreaming/limbs/ . . . gonna need another revolution/just to get a little sleep “ (from “manifestos”)

“even though plenty was left they wouldn’t give him any/he was this blind guy Greek/Diogenes: the only place to spit in a rich man’s house/is in his face (from “this blind guy Greek”)

“let the cement/have its moment/to cry” (“Cement”)

We are fortunate to have brave, keen-eared poets like Sarah Menafee among us. Without them, we might miss the desperate, angry voices which our society ignores at our profound peril. Cement is a powerful cry of pain, and, like William Blake’s pair of fierce poems on “The Chimney Sweep”, these fierce poems are a just warning to the greedy and unjust among us. Recommended.

Bittern Cry

by Fergus Hogan (Book Hub Publishing Group, 2019)

This is an intriguing first volume of lyric poems– autobiographical and often mystic and nature-flavored–  by a Waterford, Ireland- based educator and family therapist. Born in Uganda in 1971, Fergus Hogan grew up in Ireland where he now lives.

In Fergus Hogan’s poems we as likely to share a glimpse of fairies dancing as we are to taste the treasures of the wild natural world: apples, acorns, streams and ponds. There is more than a memory of early Yeats here, and yet Hogan is his own man, with his own very masculine vision.

That vision includes a brave recognition of how life includes failings and sad regrets, along with joys and accomplishments. In the several sections of his composition “In Search of a Poem for Self-Forgiveness”, Hogan paces his quest according to the Celtic seasonal feast-days, from Bealtaine and Summer Solstice through Samhain and on to Imbolc and Spring Equinox, a charming journey.

Small narrative details deftly bring Hogan’s revelations home, as when, towards the end of his poem “Bittern Cry”, when a father recalls the bittersweet memory of a long-ago outing with his now apparently alienated child: “A tangled mess of fishing rod—left, thrown in a temper/after a day on the water being blown into reeds,/casting into rocks and shallows,/snagged lines, lost hooks, angry voices/carried on thin air: you’re not listening to me/I said. You said: Same!”

Fergus Hogan reveals a very human, imperfect yet hopeful persona in this fine collection of poems. One finishes reading Bittern Cry feeling one has made a new friend. That is a fine accomplishment for a book of fine poems. Recommended.

I hope you read and enjoy some or all of these books. I will review more such in future issues of Logos a Journal of Modern Society and Culture.

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Bill Nevins is a New Mexico- based retired University of New Mexico educator and a poet and an organizer of poetry readings. bill_nevins@yahoo.com