Poems by Ken Meisel
Somewhere in my memory is a poet I knew who would complain of “thou poems”: unsuccessful poems about love harking back to Shakepeare’s sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day….” I, too, am suspicious of love poems because most of the time they lack the intensity that they supposedly intend to express. How are love poems that don’t even try to say something new supposed to demonstrate passion? Or devotion?
By contrast, Ken Meisel’s collection successfully takes on the challenge of the thou poem. While the poems here do not all fall into the ode mode, they do as rule center on the otherness of love: what it’s like for one person to love or lust another in many iterations, from teenage boys leering through windows at literally unattainable girls in “The Girls at the Vista Maria Home for Truants,” to a nun (sort of) teaching sex ed (“Love was joining./Death was letting go./ Life was the math of it.”), to the composer Robert Schumann desolately telling his wife among war ruins “you are not the red rose / anymore,” to the poet’s own connections and disconnections to love/lust interests. For Meisel, “Devotion is the aerobics of love,” i.e., it has to be exercised regularly, and the poem of that title embodies the otherness explored in the whole collection: “A woman is another country and so is a man” and marriage is “yet another Country that two / must walk sure-footed in.”
Even though there are plenty of lovey-dovey stock props (violins, roses, chocolate, and, well, tongues) they are employed in unexpected ways, such as the aforementioned nun caressing a rose during the “math” lesson thus confusing the heck out of the young narrator. In fact, the collection prevents itself from falling into clichés by not always taking itself too seriously. The poem “My Wedding” starts as such:
My wedding was a fish. It roused itself awake
by leaping out of calm water.
It flip-flopped all over the grass
on a steamy August morning in 1988.
The oddly apt metaphor serves to offset more declarative lines such as “A wedding ceremony is a healing” and says that Meisel has conviction enough to look (and love) deeply.
In the title poem, the narrator says, “today my life seems mended,” but this collection suggests otherwise. This chapbook of prose poems belies an uneasy truce with death, disease, and dying. The word “ache” recurs throughout. The poems are unsettled by unanswerable questions, such as in “Grief III,” where the poet asks of Grief “wherever my mother and father have gone, do you leave them alone there?” The collection varies from works that read like flash memoir to more surreal works that use the odd juxtapositions of dream logic. For example, the poem “Dear Death” asserts “I have had enough of you. I’d rather learn facts about penguins….”
The subjects of the poems are often aging and dying parents and the vulnerability of an infant daughter. Also, the poet’s dislike of possums: “After I hear the possum eating garbage in the garage, I plan to kill it. It’s no comfort knowing the killing gets easier each time.” Many of the poems are direct and accessible, and many of the others take more work to read, circling the subject. As a whole the poems take on fragility from many different directions. In the best moments, McGookey melds the surreal and the direct, in poems like “Another Ache,” which ends as such:
Then the suitcase fell off and the tire exploded. Then the driver got out to look at the lake, it’s calm expanse. Everyone felt worse because nothing had been predicted, no sign of trouble on such a sunny day, while road salt glittered its million cheap promises, and strands of videotape flashed down, then bright, in that clean light.
A four section book topping out at a whopping 158 pages, this tome’s poems engage without bombastics. There’s no need for painstaking quadruple readings (though any reader would enjoy re-reading) – these are immediate poems at an even pace. They glide with all the grace of the title bird, a river of words steadily, surely flowing in a wide, long rutted guttural bed. “Guttural” because these are poems of the body, of its hungers and gratifications, residual as muscle memory, as natural as flesh knowledge. And then, surprise – “Interlude: “Hey Skinny, the Circus is in Town!”” “Interlude” being a perfect word for the third section which departs from the personal-made-public prior themes for a stint under the big top. The entire section enjoys a circus-inspired color graphic header and trades Christmas ornaments, weeding, and old dogs for transient lion tamers, roustabouts, and trapeze artists. The book then winds down with a final section (“The Hidden Permutations of Sorrow”) that returns to themes from the first two sections. Despite the section title’s connotations, these are not overwrought downer poems. Ridl fluidly blends love and clarity, rendering poems that transcend distance between poet and reader.
This review originally appeared in our July 2013 newsletter.
Alice Greene & Company
Throughout Before the Snow Moon there are neither page numbers nor punctuation. Alison chooses instead the natural pause of a line break or syllabic accent to pace readers. Subtle, but apt, as is her subject and voice. The opening lines of her poem: “In Medias Res” immediately call to mind similar lines from William Stafford’s famous poem, “Traveling Through the Dark.” However, where Stafford contemplates the impact and value of human life vs non-human life. Swan’s perspective reads much less anthropocentrically. She is not apart from nature, she is of it. Her communion is her default mode, and to join society is only a pause. In the closing lines of the title poem, the speaker, having been awakened mid-slumber, has gone to the window in search of an owl: “Cold air carried hoots and soughs across the sill / I climbed back under to listen to everything”. These are poems from a grateful, humble, careful poet, one who marvels at the depth of
the world and feels greater responsibility than power.
As the title suggests, this is not your typical foray into the realm of church and saints. It opens with a prose poem introducing an unlikely preacher, then jaunts out on a far reaching tour, finding in each place a moment or two so striking, a few well chosen words fill the page. Don’s vivid account of Haitian mothers’ preparation of sun baked dirt cookies, the only thing they have to feed their children is heart wrenching. “Where are the / guardian angels / to prevent this?” he asks, not as an accusation but as a plea. So it seems fitting this book came out in 2013, the same year the papacy changed. This new Pope, Francis, might well admire the work this book wrestles with. The community of it. How it offers finely crafted moments to both English and Spanish speakers, how it champions the poor, the weary, downtrodden, how it offers a few glimmers of love in a largely dark, moonless sky. The book revisits the unlikely preacher in the final poem, explaining how the list of
his good deeds grew long, and then, after his passing, “they began to forget. And finally the did.” While good deeds may be forgotten, the voice here will stay with you like a good friend.
Review:Magnolia & Lotus
Selected Poems of Hyesim
Translated by Ian Haight and T’ae-Yŏng Hŏ
Chin’gak Kuska Hyesim’s Buddhist poetry survives from 13th century Korea and arrives in this present translation, which includes tightly-phrased imagistic poetry that draws its spiritualism equally from nature and social settings. This collection offers layers of meaning, both from the Buddhist unfolding of significance and from the pairing of the introductory notes with the text of the translated poems.
The opening notes are instructive in how poetry seeks to embody meaning through image and metaphor instead of through direct statement. For example, Haight explains how the boiling tea kettle is a frequent metaphor for meditation in Hyesim. With that one bit of information, the deceivingly simple poems take on new layers. Many water images appear in the nature poems: flowing, frozen, and misty. It’s an easy leap to see water as states of consciousness. “Tea-Spring” brings these images together:
Old moss conceals pine roots–
From a granite hole, a spring gushes its spirit-fountain.
Opportune refreshment is not easy to find–
in this place, I’ll try to brew tea.
Translation in poetry is not transliteration; it is always a creative act, and especially so given the distance from Hyesim’s time and language to contemporary English. The end notes reveal this distance: one poem contains a “six-eyebrowed monk” about whom the translators say “the meaning of ‘six-eyebrowed’ is unknown at this time.” This and other notes offer insight in the meaning of meaning, in terms of both translation and the nature of the universe.
Whatever tools we have we will employ to preserve our memories, the poem among the best of mediums, especially in the graceful hands of Cindy Hunter Morgan. There is no doubt the poems in this chapbook are born of the purist memories – and memory is a fickle motion, that, once stored away, is only fresh once whether it sits for days or decades. After that, it must be repackaged, becomes a memory of a memory and soon, distortion warps it sideways. So when a memory is extra-precious, it is sad to recall it knowing it will never be so sharp again. Thus art. Thus Apple Season.
At first touch, this little book is immediately personal, loved, a hand-made treasure chest. Inside, the poems weave a container as ethereal as any thought, but as reliable as any equation. There is no chance these poems will give out under the weight they carry in memory. So potent are these poems, Apple Season goes beyond the physical weather – each poem in this collection is its own apple and the season is eternal for the reader.
“Hay Season” (p. 15) first appeared in the July 2011 issue of The Michigan Poet . Since then, Cindy Hunter Morgan’s poems have charmed us again and again. It’s with great pleasure I offer this review of her superb work.
This is a full spectrum collection – complete in color, tone, speed, and emotion. As vibrant as fresh blood on snow, as soft as a pine forest floor under foot, as loving as body heat on a cold night, Dombrowski’s poems gather the earth’s beauty, wicked or otherwise and binds that beauty with words strong enough to hold it together. Love poems abound despite the hunted and shot truths. Solemn jokes echo death. Sex and babies and crying. Words unbattered in their old age. Chris is a survivalist poet, one who takes up pack, rod, knife, and knowledge, delivers us from unintentional evils, builds for us a fire mirror, and asks us if we should love to recall our shortcomings and revel in our potential.