December 27, 2007

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Poets corner
2007 in poetry
Reviewed by Dan Szczesny dszczesny@hippopress.com

The year in poetry had the good fortune of producing some excellent local collections, starting with the latest by Manchester teacher Nate Graziano. What follows are some of the best, and one of the worst.

Best local collection
Teaching Metaphors, by Nate Graziano (Sunnyoutside Press, 72 pages)
Manchester poet Nathan Graziano returns with a sometimes funny but often sobering look at the life of a teacher. In this case, his. Graziano is an English teacher at Pembroke Academy and Teaching Metaphors offers a raw, unblinking spotlight into the soul of a teacher.

It’s a powerful book, as fine a collection of working-class poetry as anything Carl Sandburg’s “Big Shoulders” could have concocted had Sandburg been a high school teacher. Like Sandburg’s ditch diggers, mill workers and union men, Graziano presents the profession as flawed but deeply honorable. A hard day’s work for an honest day’s wage.

In Graziano’s world, there is the Burnout, the Princess, the Teen Mother, the Jarhead, the Child and the Monkey Boy, all stereotypes, but all absurdly recognizable whether you went to high school 50 years ago or last year.

The payoff for Teaching Metaphors is the last poem, an epilogue. In “A Lesson for Land Lovers” Graziano’s teacher sits at a port-side restaurant watching the fishing boats chug past and feels a connection to the fishermen and their lives. Here the metaphor is present at last, and it works without a hint of whimsy or self-reproach. Teaching, like fishing, is a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Best
Peeping Tom’s Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008, by X.J. Kennedy (BOA Editions, 109 pages)
What a charming and refreshing collection. From the very first title joke (Kennedy was born in 1928, and 2008 has not yet arrived) Peeping Tom’s Cabin is consistently amusing. Known primarily as a children’s book author, X.J. Kennedy serves up a huge collection of (sometimes naughty) limericks, nursery rhymes, ballad and light verse for adults.

An uncompromising formalist, Kennedy is best when being silly, and he is pretty much silly the whole way through here. From “Song: Hello Dali,” a poem about the famous painter set to the famous musical number, to a tawdry poem about Moby Dick, Kennedy manages to be irreverent about just about everything you learned in English 101.

Peeping Tom’s Cabin may be the best bathroom book to come around in a long time, and I say that as a compliment. Witty and eye-rollingly silly at times, but always smart and self-consciously referential, this collection will make you love reading.

A Bedroom Occupation: Love Elegies, by Mark Scott (Lumen Books, 62 pages)
When Mark Scott speaks of love in A Bedroom Occupation, it is certainly not the kind of love Browning or Neruda had in mind. At times darkly funny, at other times angry and vengeful, Scott’s love is like a scar you are proud of and show off at parties. It hurt like hell when you got it, but now it’s kind of neat. And if not romantic love, there is a certain playfulness that comes through in these 34 prose-form poems.

A Bedroom Occupation is not poetry to read to a new lover, but rather to a partner you’ve been with for many many years. Scott’s poetry is sometimes ugly, always raw and rarely romantic, but then again so is love.

Imago, by Joseph O. Legaspi (CavanKerry Press, 83 pages)
Joseph O. Legaspi’s startling first book, Imago, is by far the find of the year. The native of Philippines has assembled a stark, riveting collection of verse, at once a throwback to the simple portrait writing of poets like Pablo Neruda while burning new ground with his descriptions of village and immigrant life.

Imago, which can mean either an adult insect or an idealized image of the self or another, usually a parent, is applied over and over in the poetry, both as a metaphor for the narrator’s coming of age prior to coming to America and in the overwhelming presence of Legaspi’s parents, who cast their shadows over nearly every poem.

The first three sections of the book are devoted to the exploration of village life and family structure. Imago is the essence of poetry. Legaspi cares not a whit for performance or verbal acrobatics. His descriptions of the pride he feels sleeping next to his father, the way a bamboo floor groans like a violin or the feeling of warmth of newly baked bread pressed against his stomach are achingly beautiful without the cheap Hallmark sentiment that such poetry can often collapse into.

The Door, by Margaret Atwood (Houghton Mifflin, 117 pages)
Margaret Atwood’s new book, The Door, is a brave and well thought out study of mortality.

Atwood’s new book is also about the natural world, and the thin mortal coil that keeps us tethered to it. Atwood is older now, but still certain and confident. The 51 poems in five parts that make up The Door have Atwood considering her life through the chronological lens of the past and the future. Sometimes ironic, sometimes dark, Atwood’s funny poems about dead cats wrapped in silk in the freezer, the mysteries and frustrations of weather, and crickets are interspersed with far more serious fare.

Time and time again, Atwood considers the inevitability of life’s passing and nature’s ability to overtake both time and man. Strong and confident images coupled with fearless metaphors give The Door a relentlessness of spirit and language that makes it one of the year’s best.

We Aren’t Who We Are (and This World Isn’t Either), by Christine Korfhage (CavanKerry Press, 143 pages)
New Hampshire writer Christine Korfhage’s first book walks a perfect line between traditional style and stripped-down modernism. The poems in We Aren’t Who We Are display the confidence of a poet settled in her own skin and comfortable with her own personal truth. If I hadn’t known in advance, I would certainly have never pegged Korfhage as a first-time author — her prose is that cool and assured.

Written chronologically, We Aren’t Who We Are tracks the narrator’s life, more or less, from birth to late middle age — at times unblinking in her self-exploration, at times laugh-out-loud funny.

In the best poem in the book, and one of the finest I’ve read this year, the narrator sits in a field by a lake, contemplating her grandson who is fishing, and wonders if all her past spiritual searching has been in vain. In this crisis of mortality she wonders if the bone and dust of her own dead body will one day end up as part of a fish which will be in turn eaten by the family of another fishing boy. In the end, she decides that even if this finality is her fate, being fish food for a young family would be enough to consider yourself blessed.

Korfhage is working inside a framework of well-trodden meditations, yet the work never becomes clichéd or trite. Deep without being pretentious, We Aren’t Who We Are asks all the right questions and answers none. And that’s just fine.

Biggest disappointment
Revolution on Canvas, Volume 2: Poetry From the Indie Music Scene, edited by Rich Balling (Warner Books, 224 pages)

In yet another poetry compilation designed to reach those crazy kids who supposedly find traditional poetry too inaccessible, Rich Balling of the band The Sound of Animals Fighting has released a follow-up to the 2004 book of the same name. The double conceit of this series — that poetry needs to be brought to the level of its readers and that indie rock musicians are worthy poets — is short-sighted and more than a little insulting.

First of all, indie rock? Groups like Fall Out Boy, Deftones and Reel Big Fish are hardly musical revolutionaries and the book’s big assumption, that you’d even want to listen to the music of those bands to say nothing of their poetry, is fatally flawed.

Revolution on Canvas succeeds only in the level of insult it thrusts on its targeted readers. If vague platitudes, poor syntax and tired “stick it to the authority” catch phrases are really what the younger generation is interested in reading, then perhaps they deserve a book like this..