Not the evening news: Asheville Poetry Review’s latest offering
by Rob Neufeld
It’s got its authors of the region, and its national and international contributors; it’s got lyrical, narrative, philosophical, and experimental works. Vets and still-wets. Interviews, reviews, and news that stays news (as Ezra Pound liked to call poetry).
Let me give you a few examples from Vol. 20, no. 1.
That’s a sonnet?
Robert West’s poem, “Sonnet,” contains 14 lines—and only 12 words. It abandons the traditional meter, but sticks to a rhyme scheme, ending with “on-/ ly/ Thou,/ own/ me/ now.”
Yes, West likes to play, and also pray, as is evident, too, in his first poem in the volume, “Nadir,” which goes:
“Each morning you’d recite, Let there be light,/ and face the day repeating that refrain. / Whatever terrors chased you through the night, / each morning you’d recite, Let there be light.”
The poem continues using rhyme and repetition to create a circular feeling.
Turn the book over, flip pages from the back, and you come to Philip Belcher’s “Gentle Slaughter,” a very different twist.
Belcher, Vice President of Programs at the Community Foundation of WNC, takes us to a local scene and engages in purposeful anti-lyricism.
“The women and liberated men thumping melons/ at Whole Foods this year,” he begins, “require chickens labeled gently slaughtered…”
He continues his specific report with a visit to Syglenda (Syglenda Smith Saziru, farmer at John Smith’s Hill Harm), whom he observes closely as she goes to a shed “where the birds are gassed before uncrating,/ before exsanguination.” The scientific word works very well in its drawn out anti-poetry.
And it supports Belcher’s point. You may love gentleness, but survival and industry are raw. Belcher gives us three images: Tyson’s painful mechanized process; Syglenda’s mother’s lullaby-singing prelude to the instant kill; and her father, picking up a wing-shot dove and “slapping its head/ against his heel to be sure that it was dead.”
That may not be Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “bird thou never wert”; but it is imagery.
So, what’s happening with American poetry—involved as it is in a Golden Age of productivity, seriousness, and variety; but in a slump in terms of general popularity?
“Asheville Poetry Review” is one of the best places to find out.
The new issue contains a pertinent interview (conducted by Vermont poet Chard deNiord) with one of contemporary America’s greatest poets, Jack Gilbert, who died in Nov. 2012.
“If a poem is abstract it’s not human and therefore can’t have an emotional impact,” Gilbert said.
deNiord asked Gilbert about what has happened with contemporary poets, many of whom, Gilbert explained, had to get experimental to break away from their predecessors, those of the great Eliot, Williams, Stevens, and Pound generation.
“Much of postmodern poetry has no significance at all,” Gilbert elaborated. “Unless you like puzzles…It’s nice, but it’s not going to change your life.”
The gauntlet has been thrown down to poets. Dig deep. Change our lives.
Backwaters of the future
Let’s apply the challenge to “New Songs,” a poem that APR received from Thomas P. Feeny, an N.C. State Foreign Languages professor, who translates the immortal Federico Garcia Lorca, whose poem begins: “The afternoon says: I am thirsty for shade!”
The thirst then extends to a wish for “new songs…A morning song that startles the air/ at the tranquil backwaters/ of the future. And fills with hope/ their ripples and their silty depths.”
The poet restates his theme in various and exciting ways, putting Gilbert’s prosaic entreaty into—as the title indicates—song.
Is it a weakness that the poem is abstract—not only in that it has no historical context, but also that it uses such words as “hope,” “sadness,” and “soul”?
No. It just goes to show that abstractions such as “Don’t be abstract,” have problems. Gilbert meant scientific abstractions, not emotional ones.
Ticket to ride
Universal versus specific—we see the same division in pop songs: Beatles versus Springsteen (though the Beatles did produce “A Day in the Life” and “Eleanor Rigby”).
It some ways, it’s a false distinction. The main trick is to give a reader or an audience member something on which to hitch a ride, whether it’s an archetype or a Friday night.
I say, “Friday night,” because that’s the turning point in “Meanwhile,” a poem by Melissa Crowe of Asheville.
“In the gypsy language, the word for tomorrow/ is the same as the word for today,” she begins; and then, like Garcia Lorca, repeats her theme in interesting new ways. “I long and am lit up,” she writes.
She also writes, “Once the phrase a Friday night/ wracked me with cries—there are only so many/ and we don’t know when we’re having the last…”
I love this. The poet gets our attention because she’s crying over a phrase. “Friday night,” a specific experience shared by contemporary Americans becomes a universal thing.
Gaylord Brewer, a poet and professor from Middle Tennessee, contributes “More Honored in the Breach: The Long Departure”—a pumped-up title for an elegantly subversive poem.
His touchpoint is a man—that one, there, out of sight of the singing crone—who believes he’s the archangel of “The Great Deity of Faithlessness.”
Is he a street person? We are asked to “follow as he approaches/ a last time the dark men congregated/ in the door of the village bar.”
Gilbert said in his interview that we don’t want puzzles, but we do want riddles, especially ones that are puzzling enough to spark interpretation, but not discourage it.
Brewer’s “holy man” is about to have his “last morning,” his passage—to homeless death?—marked by the raging sun he’d prophesized. “And thus/ the cold clouds of heaven descended./ I tell you, such is his terrible power.”
The irony and pathos in that last line is a killer. A wretch does have the power to mythologize his or her fate.
There are a lot of other discoveries to be made in this latest APR—William Wright’s memoir-like, “Boyhood Trapped Behind the Eyelids,” a feast of sounds and images; Katherine Soniat’s “Flash Karmas,” visions, prompted by 11 key words, of the kinds of things that end up being memorable; Douglas Rutledge’s review of Steven Haven’s book of poems, “The Last Sacred Place in North America.”
Haven leads off, Rutledge immediately notes, with the line, “They failed to show it on the evening news,” which Rutledge connects to “a failure of a method of thinking.”
Here, the two writers share a faith common among poets, going back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “Things are in the saddle and they ride mankind.” We need a revolution of consciousness; but whom do we trust?