Poetry for Southern California
By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor
Book by Marie Lecrivain
Antebellum Messiah is a substantial collection of work, especially for a poet at a relatively early stage of her career. 200+ pages might be expected for the Collected Works of a poet with decades of publishing behind them, but at this point it is a surprise. As such it presents obvious challenges: namely, can she sustain her talents through that much verse?
Marie Lecrivain is up to the challenge. That is not to say that every poem is this book is a work of genius. But there are enough strong poems, and few enough weak ones, to maintain the reader’s interest, and produce a rewarding volume.
It helps that Lecrivain writes well in a variety of styles and forms. There are narrative poems and symbolic poems, observational poems and confessional poems, political poems and erotic poems, realistic poems and abstract poems. There are poems which analyze and react to artworks, and poems that tell mini short stories. The attitude of the poems ranges from disinterested observation to passionate emotional involvement.
She also tackles a wide variety of poetic forms, including sonnets, pantoums, haiku and haibun, handling each with a sure hand. Still, most of the poems are free and blank verse, some even in prose.
This does not mean that the book feels haphazard or disjointed. Lecrivain does have a consistent voice. The result is like spending time with an intelligent friend with a multi-faceted personality. She may discuss a number of different topics, but you always recognize that it is the same person behind the various stories.
There are recurrent themes in the book, and they produce some of her strongest poems. Her love of art produces “On Rodin’s Christ and Mary Magdalen, 1894” and “This is Not a Mylar Bunny”:
Why is there a balloon of a bunny here?
To which I reply:
Because it’s art.
& then he declares:
No! It’s NOT!
Amidst shocked stares
& disapproving frowns of art lovers
I realize that at six
my nephew understands Magritte (& Koons)
much better than I do,
& the truth
he spoke is as solid
as the sky-clad carpet
our feet rest upon.
Other themes include commenting on people she observes, especially riding the bus, producing the strong poems “Echo Park Pieta,” “15 Minutes of Fare” and “Bus Sighting #11.” At the opposite extreme, she enjoys close analysis of sexual relationships, especially the ritual of seduction, as in “Subtitled” and “Antidote.”
But these topics are still just a fraction of what Lecrivain covers, or touches on, here. She writes about family, politics, and, of course, poetry—other poets, the forms poetry takes, and the process of creating a poem. “Parthenogenesis” compares the creative process to pregnancy:
within the cerebellum
The uterus slumbers
while her mind finally contracts
with the effort to
expel the inspiration.
Lecrivain’s style ranges from brutally direct to almost willfully obscure. At times she writes poems which are little puzzles, challenging the reader to figure out what she is talking about. Sometimes this works quite well, as in “Inheritance,” where she describes an object sitting before her in such a way that, without telling us, we can figure out what it is:
Were you a truth seeker?
In my grandfather’s hands, and in the piles
of silvered prints I immersed myself in after his death,
you both chronicled the evolution
of sandy dunes into genteel green hills.
(The answer is a camera.)
In other poems, such as “What Happened on June 18, 2001,” about two Iranian women who burned themselves to death in protest, and “Wistful” about the South Asian tsunami, her writing is so powerful the poems hit you with great impact even if you don’t know what they are about.
But at other times, her meaning gets lost in the “poeticness” of her language. Her wording becomes almost legalese, where she attempts to describe something so specifically, true comprehension becomes lost. There are poems where, even after repeated readings, I was left scratching my head, wondering just what was she talking about. And Lecrivain does love her vocabulary. She seems to recognize this herself; in “CyraNo” she writes, “I like the simple words of a poem,/ that speaks truth in three syllables or less.” Yet at times she can’t seem to help herself. This is the main weakness of the book, poems with an overripe vocabulary and somewhat stilted style. Still, these are only a small fraction of all the poems in the book.
But meaning is not all there is to poetry. There is, of course, sound, and that obviously influences Lecrivain’s word choice as well. Take the title of the book, “Antebellum Messiah,” a phrase which appears in at least two of the poems within. It is an evocative phrase, one which no doubt conjures various images in the readers’ minds (as well as the poet’s), which may or may not relate to its exact meaning.
But it also sounds nice. Take “L.A. Moment: Infinity +1,” the first poem in the book, where she writes “an antebellum messiah/ and an exiguous acolyte/ trudge the concrete path/ of la cienega blvd.” By strict definition, that means “a prewar savior/ and a small attendant,” which is virtually meaningless in context. But for now, just roll it around in your mouth. Doesn’t it just sound good?
This use of vocabulary also speaks to the deeper purposes of these poems, the search for meaning. The attempt to nail down a description is an attempt to nail down meaning. Throughout Antebellum Messiah, Lecrivain is striving to understand, whether it is the patron sitting beside her on the bus, or the relationship which just didn’t work out. Whether it is the artwork on the museum wall, or the mysteries of our minds and bodies. Throughout the book she comes to better understand the world around her, and so does the reader.
She also proves herself to be a brave poet, unafraid to tackle any topic, any style, any challenge.
Could Antebellum Messiah have been edited down to a shorter, more powerful book? No doubt. But I’m not at all sure I wouldn’t have wanted that. Like certain famous double (and triple) albums in rock music, part of its charm is its sprawl. And also like those albums, there is no need to try to take it all in one sitting. Antebellum Messiah is a book one can return to over and over and discover something new.
—G. Murray Thomas
Book by Richard Leach
Point Fermin Press
It is possible to make a living as a musician in America today without being a rock star. Richard Leach has done it for more than forty years. In Vibrato he describes, with humor and, at times, resignation, just what it takes, and what it is like. It takes playing a lot of gigs. A LOT of gigs. Gigs in “local bars, clubs... teenage dances,/ Parties, Keggers,” gigs “at car shows/ Boat shows, custom trailer shows,/ As well as horse shows/ And race speedways.” Gigs in “biker bars/ Lesbian bars/ Topless bars/ Even performed at a few prisons.” Gigs playing “Blues, jazz, soul, funk, Latin.” Gigs playing “Big Band style with R and B/ Classic Rock, Motown/ Always jazz influence.” Gigs playing “delta blues/ Also Chicago style blues/ Mixing of the big band style of tunes/ With the blues.” You get the idea.
The meat of Vibrato is a series of “Tales” (36 in all) from the life of a professional musician. There are tales about all those gigs listed above, and many more. Tales about his fellow musicians, their talents and their weaknesses. Tales about promoters, audiences, the money, the lack of money, and all the various instruments he played. Tales about big names he encountered along the way, including jamming with Elvis Presley. Lessons to be learned, about who to trust and who not to trust, and the big one: If you play a corporate party, make sure you get to eat what everyone else is eating.
The Tales are presented in poem form. They are also presented in a random, haphazard manner, as if Leach is sitting before us reminiscing, rather than trying to organize a coherent story out of his memories. Often, within a single tale, he will jump from one topic to another. Many of them end abruptly, as if he simply ran out of space. This structure also leads to a certain amount of repetition, as he goes over similar material from various angles. While there is a certain charm, and a definite immediacy, to this style, the book would be improved by a tighter organization.
Interspersed between the tales are little poems all constructed out of well known lines from popular songs.
Just in time
I heard it through the grapevine
I was going through
When we stopped at
Margaritaville and had
A good old time rock and roll party
You get the idea. While these poems are definitely clever, I found them mildly amusing at best. And with nearly twenty of them in the book, I was rapidly tempted to just skim them, if not skip them entirely.
Vibrato opens with a section of straightforward poems about music. These poems are much tighter than the Tales; each covers a single topic, and each reaches a solid conclusion. Although these poems are not great, many are merely pedestrian, they do communicate Leach’s love of music quite successfully.
The book concludes with a third section of straightforward poems, some about music, some about other topics. This section contains the most focused music tales, like “Fishbowl” and “Harpers House Party," and the best poems in the book, such as “Techniques” in which a young trumpet player explains to “the ladies: ... It’s all in the tonguing techniques/... Single tongue - double tongue - triple tongue...”
If you want to know what the life of a professional musician, far from the glamour of stardom, is really like, pick up a copy of Vibrato.
—G. Murray Thomas
For the latest news about G. Murray Thomas, visit www.myspace.com/gmurraythomas. Now available: Paper Shredders, an anthology of surf writing. Order it from your favorite bookseller.