Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 12/09

Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

December 2009

By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor


This month, instead of our regular reviews, I am going to recommend some poetry for holiday gift-giving (or purchasing for your own enjoyment). Needless to say, these are four of my favorite SoCal (or former SoCal) poets. Further, I believe all four are ready to be discovered by the world at large. May these three books and one CD do the trick.

Book by Brendan Constantine
Red Hen Press (www.redhen.org)

Brendan Constantine is my favorite poet on the scene right now. His poetry is both solid and stunning. He always surprises, veers in unexpected directions, yet his language and ideas are always firmly under control.

He is also one of the funniest poets I know. But he is not funny for the sake of being funny, his humor always serves a deeper purpose in his poems, whether it be exposing the absurdities of language, or the absurdities of human nature. Nor is his poetry purely humorous; it is often quite serious, poignant and thought-provoking.

Constantine is fully capable of a joke, but also of a deeper humor. In the poem “Last Night I Went to the Map of the World and I Have Messages for You”, he writes “If you’re planning to go, Greece wants/ to know it it can get a lift. Awkwardly/ so does Turkey.” But then he concludes with a profound but still funny line: “...the oceans./ They asked what they always ask/ and I promised I’d repeat it,/ Why do you never call? When are you coming home?”

Constantine is a surrealist. He takes the real and familiar and turns it wonderfully surreal, while still remaining tied to the truths of the world. Take the central conceit of the book, in which various inanimate objects write letters to guns which have played a role in their “lives.” Constantine uses this idea to explore the ever present violence in human nature, and its effects upon us. Most important, he uses these inanimate objects to plumb the depths of human emotion.

Likewise for the other poems in this collection—the surreal brings the real into focus. The result is a very rewarding collection of poetry. You will laugh all the way through, but end up pondering life’s mysteries.

—G. Murray Thomas

Book by Robert Wynne
Tebot Bach (www.tebotbach.org)

Robert Wynne is a consummate craftsman. He can write in any form (and has been known to make some up), or on any theme, and produce beautiful, clear, entertaining poetry.

Museum of Parallel Art is no exception. In this collection of poems about ekphrastic art, Wynne describes, one by one, pieces of art which do not exist, but, Wynne makes clear, should. Wynne imagines a world in which Currier and Ives painted “The Scream,” Anne Geddes created “Guernica,” and Dr. Seuss gave his interpretation of “Madonna and Child” (to list just the first three pieces).

Wynne doesn’t just conceive of this artistic marvels, he describes them so completely we’re convinced he has seen them in some museum somewhere. Take his description of “Matt Groening’s Creation of Adam”:

He reaches for the First Beer in God’s hand, taking no notice of the fact that God is nothing but a hand: blue foam rubber covered in red words, and pointing at the first man. The original slogan, “We’re #1”, has been crossed out and replaced with “I created stupid.” God’s a joker.

Through these poems, Wynne reveals much about the relationship between artist and art, and between both and the viewer. He also demonstrates the unlimited spread of the human imagination. Read it and be amazed.

Book by Neil Aitken
Anhinga Press (www.anhinga.org)

Landscape, family and language come together beautifully in The Lost Country of Sight. Aitken uses his father’s death as an occasion to explore issues of heritage and memory, all in beautiful, precise language. In the process, he explores the places tied to his heritage—the lushness of Taiwan, and the barren Canadian Plains—bringing them vividly to life.

My father says nothing for miles,
watching an invisible speck in the sky,
a single hawk circling far above our car’s silent passage
through fields of dust and grain.
Beyond our view, geese call from a cage of willows
set at the water’s edge, and the old river moves unseen
through the tall heads of grain. We lose the hawk
in the darkness -- hear only wings overhead,
their wordless lullaby ascending into night.
(“Losing the Hawk”)

The result is a moving and memorable book of subtle yet stunning poems.

—G. Murray Thomas

CD by Ellyn Maybe
Self-Released (www.ellynmaybe.com)

Those of us familiar with Ellyn Maybe know she is best appreciated in person. This is not because her poems don’t work on the page (the lyric sheets with this CD prove they do), but because her poetry is so tied to her personality. This CD is the next best thing to capturing her live.

Rodeo for the Sheepish captures her voice perfectly. Maybe’s poetry works because it is at once innocent and cynical. Her voice, with its giggly surface and undertone of suppressed anger, expresses that contradiction. She is at once amazed at the world, and disgusted by some of its details -- primarily human behavior.

Cuts such as “There Were Two Girls Who Looked a Lot the Same” and “Picasso” express her outrage at how men treat/ look at women, yet do so with a warmth and humor which softens her anger without dulling her critiques.

My one complaint about this CD is that many of the backing tracks are the same mellow hip-hop beats found on numerous spoken word CDs. However, they are offset by some soulful saxophone playing by Danny Moynahan.

Still, this is Ellyn Maybe as she should be heard.

—G. Murray Thomas

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