The Winter Poetry Roundup was late, and the Spring Poetry Roundup is early. One of these roundups, I’ll actually be on time. But any time is right to explore the words of the finest poets of our community, so I don’t feel too badly about letting you know about them in advance. Today, I have six great poets for you to explore if you haven’t already, so let’s get right to it.
Poet and publisher Bryan Borland draws his inspiration from a variety of sources, as we all do. This chapbook came out of a book tour, consequently reflecting the geographic as well as social diversity of our country. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the poems are named after cities: “Chicago,” “Washington,” “Santa Clara”–but these poems are less about the locales than Borland’s relationship to them. Sharply observed and brilliantly rendered, the pieces in Tourist work in concert to create a portrait of a country with a number of divides, some dormant and others active. And it can all be summed up by two lines from the title poem: In California you’re entertainment/In Mississippi you’re education. Of course, those are not Borland’s only concerns. “Buying Groceries With Money From Poems” is a beautiful expression of what making a living from art is like, and “A Single Photograph” puts relationships into perspective. Political, social, and personal, Tourist is a great achievement from one of our finest voices.
Divided into two sections, “Everyone’s Father Dies of Something” and “Desert Solitaire,” the intent of this chapbook is clear from the outset. This will be about death, grief, and the aftermath of both. “This Aching Echo” lays out the specifics: you were fifteen when the doctors/cracked your father open like a broken heart,/declared him inoperable,/gave him six months, and stopped caring. The language is plain and all the more meaningful for it. What struck me more, however, were the life lessons learned in the reminiscences, the childhood scenes of “Reading Together,” for example–a beautiful piece that parallels the act of reading with her father as a child and then again at his deathbed–or “Unless You Mean to Fire,” about a shooting lesson. The second section, naturally, is more concerned with her and her father’s relationship to his environment (largely a cabin in the desert), but the relationship between the family members is still very much in the work, as in “An Edge Made for Embracing,” “When You Speak” and the title poem. The Bones of This Land is a remarkable tribute, filled with longing, regret, and elegiacal beauty.
Eric Tran’s experience as a medical student (with an MFA, no less–my doctor should be so well-rounded) are front and center in this wide-ranging chapbook. “Forensics Lecture After the Shooting of Michael Brown,” “My Dearest Resident Brian,” and”The First X-Ray” delight in mixing medicine, or at least education in that field, with current events and personal revelations. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Anatomy & Phys”:
Only after his suicide did we learn/Dr. Garza raped his students. I never knew/much beyond the shirtsleeves stretched/and swollen on his TAs’ arms–imagine/Garza and I were similar that way.
This is powerful stuff, make no mistake, lightened somewhat by pieces like “Regrets, in the Style of Clue” or “10 Responses to a Clickbait Headline,” but even these are more thoughtful than humorous. Revisions, then, is a dark trip, yet its intriguing viewpoint and distinctive voice makes it interesting and emotional reading.
Van De Vendel’s work is as detailed and casually sensual as the covers between which it is presented. From the initial poem, “Morning,” to the joyful “Hallelujah,” Van De Vendel has an affinity for capturing moments and placing you inside them. “This Body Next to Mine,” the title piece, “Clothes,” and “At the Bus Stop” are great examples, but his talent for rendering meaningful sense memories is especially delicious in “Toothbrush”:
You had/to borrow a toothbrush/and I had a spare/And this is it./Every night I raise it to my mouth,/a tiny harmonica I purse/my lips around. I play you/and though it doesn’t make a sound,/I hear just how you taste.
But Van De Vendel is more than playful sensuality. His darker side shows in “The Fire,” “The Worst,” and, most especially in “Black With Ants.” Originally in Dutch and translated by David Colmer, Van De Vendel’s poetry is confident and assured. I always wonder, however, when I read work of any kind that’s translated, how much of the original remains once it’s filtered through the sensibilities of another person and configured in (in some cases) an entirely different linguistic structure. Nevertheless, The Sexy Storm is perfect reading for Spring–by turns sunny and…well…sexy.
If the Van De Vendel above is casually sensual, Luther Hughes’s Touched is obsessively so. Beginning with a quote from Nina Simone, one of the most visceral and daring performers I can think of, this collection pops with fevered imagery (“Bird with Two Backs”) rage, (“Boy”), and even some quiet introspection (“Hominal”). At less than forty pages, its brevity is only natural. This much stimulus couldn’t sustain many more pages without diluting itself. Some pieces are connected by an incident with the poet’s brother which, in turn, is connected with crows. From “Tenderness”:
When the festival was over, I watched the crows/pluck the earth until sour. I wavered, nestled/the scene inside the contour of my eyes. I wasn’t/a violent person. Had I’d been. Had my feet desired the reverb of the fowl’s hollow,/I would have fled. Instead, I write/of my brother’s forced sex.
And, of course, there’s the first line of “Self-Portrait as Crow”: I’ve always been a sucker for being eaten alive. But these poems are to be internalized via small bites. Too much will desensitize you to the rest, and these poems deserve a much different fate than that.
Whatever roundup it appeared in, Wade’s When I Was Straight really grabbed my attention, but I read Same-Sexy Marriage straight through without interruption, marveling at not only the conception but the execution. The concept is the poet’s mother’s absolute unwillingness to accept her daughter’s lesbian relationship and the story mom concocts for not only herself but for everyone else. The first poem, “The Surgeon in New England” sets it up:
In the end, I bet she settled for my brother’s name/the one meant to balance our childhoods so I/wouldn’t have to turn part-boy….If I married him, Reader–this surgeon/this Jeffrey Hamilton–I must have loved him./And my mother says, to anyone who will listen,/that I married him.
Mom selects not only the husband, but his occupation, and where they live (Burlington, VT) and children?:
I’m relieved to learn we don’t have children,/but not to worry. Though my eggs are/approaching their best if used by date,/Jeff has friends in the fertility biz, friends/who promise forty is the new thirty if you have the money to spend.
As audacious and funny as it is shocking and heartbreaking, Wade’s novella in poems both entertains and inspires. I can’t say one “chapter” is better than the other because they’re all moving and powerful, from “Mary Cheney, You Know What They Say About Women Like Us,” to “When My Parents Join a Senior Center in _____, Oregon” to “Shooting Pool with Anne Heche the Day After Ellen and Portia’s Wedding,” these are all terrific. Highly recommended
And there you have the Spring Poetry Roundup. Surely something will strike you and provide you with enough inspiration to get you through the season. Happy reading.
© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler