Literary Magazine Review, Vol. 23, No. 4 Winter, 2006 – by Adam Peltz
What Makes for American Poetry?
Three very American elements of the anthology The Great American Poetry Show are found in the names and notes of the poets, themselves. The variety of poets’ names (eighty-three of them) offer diversity and an index of those who are among the contemporary circuit of submissions. The contributors’ notes offer an index of resources, which include a list of journals and small presses that have printed poems, and also patches of around the country from where the poets hail. Additionally, the reader learns that while some contributors hold advanced degrees and work within academia or are working towards it, still others have lifestyles outside of the university teaching world, as a therapist, farmer, conservationist, reference librarian, communications specialist, artist’s model, high school teacher, consultant, publisher, and as writers. And the personnel cover a range of generations, moving from twenty-somethings and students to one ninety-four year young contributor. To name off a handful of these poet folks, listing the credits first: Beau Boudreaux, Stephanie Dickinson, James Doyle, Maureen Tolman Flannery, CB Follett, Anne Giselson, John Grey, Lyn LIfshin, Nicolas Pastrone, Dennis Saleh–
these are poets who circulate in a number of contemporary journals and scenes throughout the United States.
Some of the personnel have published in or are involved with both privately funded and university-housed magazines which include New Millenium, The New Yorker, Indiana Review, Poetry Motel, Puerto del Sol, Mid-American Review, Hunger Mountain, and Skidrow Penthouse. As well, many contributors have been represented by small presses that include Pavement Saw, High Fidelity, Steel Toe Books, Snark Publoishing, Lone Willow, Argonne Hotel, New Horizon, and Red Hen. And the writers hail from a patchwork of places: Virginia, California, New York, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, Florida–New York City, Vienna, Sausalito, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Providence, Half Moon Bay, MT. Lebanon, Brooklyn, Schenectady, Castleton, Pittsburgh, Boca Raton, Omaha, Chicago, Coon Rapids. . . .
But getting away from that bit of life detail, in this collection of poets and poems, the editors aim to capture American poetry according to varied forms and techniques, much free verse and also a mingling of form with current language (anagram, couplets, concrete, use of allusions do make a curtain call). The majority of work comes across as personal verse, poems with a first person speaker that may hold a dose of real life truth, of the poet, though this cannot and should not be substantiated because a writer needs to be afforded the freedom of his speaker.
Geography, real place names, is an important ingredient in the editors’ choices. Some of the poems take place in Galveston, New York City, suburbia, on I-95, in Texas, and in the old country grown into this one. And generational and other rituals, such as growing old with the barber, surfing, cashing a paycheck, “drinking she met a Texan / with Marlboro virtue” (from Christopher St. John’s “The Valley Winds”), are included in the Americana grouping and as a part of geography. There are some Hollywood and movie-like vignettes, poems that explore historical events (three 9/11 poems), dealings in diversity and folklore, iconography and homage to knickknacks ande keepsakes, and overall, the freedom we’re possibly afforded as Americans to consider our alone-ness in a vast continent, and, as demonstrated in a number of works, to travel within this vast land–sociologically, cerebrally, spiritually–and abroad. The anthology, framed between a black dust jacket and the “Intermission,” wherein the reader is expected to ponder what he’s finished reading–then perhaps run to post his own poems–does succeed in explaining a partial definition of contemporary American poetry and opporftunity. And there are a handful of solid and beautiful works.
At the same time, the poems are organized by each poet’s last name, which loses so much of the possibility for poem to riff off poem, to complement and comment, fuel, derail, skip frames, and splice common threads and words. On the other hand, the format does evoke an egalitarian and sshool-like quality, as in calling roll, so seeming without prejudice. Susan Ahdoot’s opener, “Mutiny in the Body,” though it does sound like a film or show title and handles birth and aging, does not introduce themically the entire collection (a big responsibility), as it builds in “my ovaries . . . a diplomatic mission / with sweet talk and promises. . . .” Again, although one should not assume, the poems does seem personal, narrative, an aside rather than confessional or dramatic crafting with a masked speaker, and many of the poems in the collection act with a similar set of cues and stage directions. The final poem, Fredrick Zydek’s “The Furniture at Grandma’s,” succeeds in leaving open a future trail of pursuit. The viewer, after looking through a series of American things and names–“a china closet, the General Electric refrigerator, Gabriel Heater, canned beef,” and this beauty of a sentence
–“Its gong [from a “black onyx clock”] was loud enough to wake the dead
or remind a woman thinning radishes in the garden, it was time to feed chunks of Douglas firs to the cast-iron woodstove in the kitchen and start dinner”–is left with the subtlety and loneliness, busyness, and contentment of grandma’s golden afternoons–a poem that asks the reader to explore what exactly is significant, human, and American.
In between bookends, the reader finds Rachel Delmage’s hollow piece, “House Guest,” which creates a sparse countdown of perhaps the inlaws’ visit. “They’re going through your journal / Drinking your beer
. . . .” Or they’re old friends who are better celebrated these days at a distance: “They’re on vacation / Thinking you are too.” The piece is unpretentious, simple, accessible, and reminds how one can grow away from the part of herself defined by the perspective of others. Following the strained host, the reader finds Stephanie Dickinson’s “Pier Girl,” a thick prose poem that delicately and beautifully describes, in part, a place in Galveston–very regionally American. In “Meditataion in Cape Cod,” Tim Bellows creates tercets that travel through memories and associations of coming of age and understanding–“Most of us grocery boys and ushers want to soft talk / close by. . . an understanding / men at 19 cannot hope to sum up.” Charles Rammelkamp goes for a metaphorical slamdunk in “Fast Break on the Garden State.” And Shari Dinkins’ alone speaker in “Heat & Silence” addresses the freedom one might have to consider her lifestyle, to bathe in solitude, an at once haunting and freeing activity.
From out of the bubbles and suds emerges the ailing mother in Stewart Florsheim’s “The Hairdresser” (Florsheim’s name recalls its own American picture of shoes) wherein the generational practice of getting one’s hair washed and styled with the regular employee, “the only one who can fix my hair the way I like,” almost becomes the routine that keeps an old person alive. The character in the poem retains her grace in her pursuit, into the end of her life, of looking like a lady. And Florsheim is able to write in a variety voices.
Anne Giselson’s ekphrasis (art represented in words) “The Mermaid” moves in couplets to bring together memory, American iconography, advertising culture, generational attitudess, gender roles and sexuality, and a list of good old cars and card games–“there was the Model T, ’29 Packard, ’27 Cadillac / with the hood ornament I loved, the streamlined woman, modern, breast / thrust into a nonexistent wind . . . my aunts and / grandmother played rummy and pinochle.” Posed alongside the hood’s keepsake is a “picture of Charles Lindberg standing on the rocky Atlantic coast / the wind slashing gun-metal grey waves . . . .” Taking a similar approach in “Tierra Del Fuego,” her speaker observes a character picking through the landscape of a map of Argentina, in the library. Their daily silent encounters exist in her mind, and she fears he will cease to exist, perhaps thrown out of the establishment, if she misses a beat. “His ragged snores rumble / over southern South America, where it’s so southern it turns / northern. . . . Each day I am more concerned, that if I stop coming / he’d disappear, taking Argentina with him . . . .” They do not know each other–he with nowhere else to go–and she, too, explore the exotic Southern hemisphere and vie for its survival, and the poet grows a comment on maps and mapping the imagination and the connected or disconnected brush of elbows, and unknown or far-reaching places within both.
“So Long,” David Palmer’s short, strong, eight-line offering, may get lost in its placement near the middle of the book, but at the same time can be interpreted as the heart of this anthology. Here, alphabetizing becomes
serendipitous: “When his wife left him / it was three days before he noticed. . . .” And the poem goes on to sting with the sometimes intellectual and emotional dichotomy of “Virue” and “Love,” of loving one’s work and somehow closing off to a loved one, of studying the two against actually living–a potent commentary for the writer. The reader grabs a sense of a gradeuate student or professor who becomes wrapped up in his work and the headiness of processing relationships, connections, philosophy. Is the speaker hiding? Is the reader a lot like the speaker? Is the road to divorce an American trip? In grace Bauer’s “Cafe Culture #1,” the speaker overhears a conversation betweeen a man and a woman, a mistruth–“I know she is / telling a lie, because she says it as if telling / the truth was simple. . . .” The poem goes along, noting subtle tells of behavior, to climax in indifference, resignation, denial, forgiveness. This is a work of note in the collection.
Beau Boudreaux, Dennis Saleh, and Tom Smith deliver something different in their work as they clearly produce masques or personnae. Boudreaux creates a tender sensual yet tense moment in “Constantinople”: “She begins slicing small pieces of bread / goat buter and chives start to fry / she is naked kneeling on the worn rug / thrown at an angle across the scarred floor. . . .” In his five part “Dream of Freud’s with Revelations of Four Clues and a Fate, Dali, 1951,” Dennis Saleh blends ekphrasis, short tercets set in columns without punctuation
marks–so sharp but blurry–allusion, and vivid imagery to create a compelling and thoughful collage: “Years / beseech / memory // like / the / stars.” And Smith recreates from The Early History of Rome in
“Livy’s Dream,” of “brutes, bumpkins, boars.” And poems arrive about 9/11; a World War II veteran; Antietam; Hector E. Estrada’s “crazy abuelo” character and Mexcaltitan of folklore, culture, and cancer; a reference to the Lone Ranger and the discomforts of womanhood, a loss of childhood; and Nellie Wong’s account of Li Hong on the occasion of her eightieth birthday–a Chinese immigrant: “you were always / Present in your onw body, you who worked / As a domestic as a teen, sweeping, cleaning. . . .”
Finally, the editors, themselves, have poems within the body of the show. Nicky Selditz opens “Ever Nearer the Gutter” with the speaker’s movie-like aside: “You know how it is / with new dragons to be slain / every other day. . . .” and works toward or through demons of a sort. Madeline Sharples brings a mother’s mourning–“before he went crazy / and decided to leave us / way before his time”–and letting go of his clothing, those reminders, listed in “Black Bomber.” And Larry Ziman’s prose poem
tempts the reader and the space pilot along a rambling journey until a “sensous voice” indicates the identity of the pilot, Buck Rogers, in
A number of the poems, however, do not leap from the page in their imagery and neither sound nor strike with the subconscious intensity or resonance that one might expect from a book called The Great American Poetry Show. Still, the collection does succeed in bringing into print, together, an array of contributors and stories that in the end make the
experience enjoyably American–for their breadth, consideration, and subject matter. Through an exploration of place, ritual, and the freedom to write, this anthology attempts at a statement on American poetry and poetics. The results are there in print.