Poetry for Southern California

 

Reviews 6/2012

Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

June 2012

By G. Murray Thomas, Senior Editor and Eric Morago, Associate Reviewer

IF IT WE
Book by Lisa Zaran
Lummox Press (www.lummoxpress.com)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

If It We is a series of poems about Zaran’s son, who is a heroin addict. Although they contain plenty of detail about the addiction itself, they are primarily concerned with a mother’s reaction to it. Today’s literature is full of tales of addiction, but almost all of them view it from the inside—what it is like to be an addict. If It We takes it from the outside—how an addict hurts not just themselves, but everyone around them. It is an important perspective to have, and Zaran provides it in all its horrifying detail.

These are poems of blunt, raw emotion. That is both a strength and a weakness.

Zaran is a sharp and talented writer. She knows how to use imagery to express her pain and anger: “...the small boy I love leaves like a train departing a station. The poem I write reads like a mother, frantic and theatrical, white scarf waving in the open air.” (“Reason”); “I do not know/ who bruised the lawn, who kicked the sky/ into muggy contemplation.” (“If It We”); “Leaves scatter like pleas/ across the yard.” (“Dreams”). If It We is filled with images like these.

But at times her emotion overwhelms her poetry, and she ends up writing flat statements: “What bothers me/ most: the two years/ it took me to realize// something was wrong.” (“Sunk”); “The voyage is too hard to bear.” (“Arctic”); “You’re only nineteen./ I break into tears over you.” (“Milieu”).

Sometimes both happen within the same poem, as in these two final stanzas from the poem “God Bless”:

     Is it rage if I visualize

myself as sitting large while my son wastes
his monumental, God given gifts on a drug
that will eat him from the inside out?

Each morning I wake with a dry throat,
sissy cough. I contemplate the day through
a window full of desert dust. Every morning afraid.

For most of these she is merely telling us what she feels. But then one image—“a window full of desert dust”—raises it up into poetry.

But there are also times when she wrings poetry from the rawness, when blunt and flat becomes the most poetic way to say what she needs to say: “but you can not, you absolutely may not/ harm yourself in front of my eyes. I forbid it.” (“Drapery”); “By each moment, I feel/ the wound I’ve become,/ unable to reconcile or heal./ He pours the salt.” (“Marrow”).

“Valley of Hope,” about leaving her son at a rehab center, brings all these strengths and weaknesses together. The final stanza reads:

Your frail, forlorn figure standing. Your once-silken
hair, torn and tattered. Your palest skin. Your shaking,
tormented body. You’re only eighteen years old.
You should not know the ugliness of addiction.
Leaving you here burdens my breast. Watching
you stay in the grip of such loneliness,

gives me hope.

On the one hand, the bare-bones description best captures the scene, and her feelings about it. Yet the phrases, “You’re only eighteen years old./ You should not know the ugliness of addiction.” are so blunt they actually interrupt the mood of the poem.

If It We is a valuable addition to the literature of addiction. Zaran’s perspective, her honesty, and her poetic style all combine to create a powerful, readable, if certainly not pleasant, account.

— G. Murray Thomas


THE INSTRUMENT OF OTHERS
Book by Leonard J. Cirino
Lummox Press (www.lummoxpress.com)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas

Leonard Cirino uses language to escape language. He uses its flexibility to escape its rigidity. He escapes from its meaning in order to find meaning. His imagery is fresh and startling (even as he recycles an often repetitive set of images). He often uses what seems to be the wrong word, only to reveal it to be exactly the right word.

In “The Flute” he writes: “The light is not ordinary,/ but a pale sorrow/ like her eyes in darkness.” Or, in “One Glint in the Eye”: “The tenderness of snow flaming/ from the glass sky... /frosting the few stars...” and “candles reflecting/ the little light left to this evening.” On the surface, these images are contradictory, yet in the context they work, they are quite expressive.

The Instrument of Others is divided into four sections, each dedicated to/influenced by a different poet or poets (Harry Martinson, various Oriental poets, David Huerta and Deborah Digges, respectively). There is a definite progression to the sections, from confusion to some sort of resolution and awareness.

The opening section, “The Mystical Anarchist,” contains the most confusing imagery. The poems are heavy with wordplay and association. Several poems in the book mention a mental breakdown; these poems could be a reflection of that. They also point to language as a possible way out of this confusion.

Take these excerpts from “The Old Moon”:

my dog bays at the old moon, which hangs
like a symbol, a cymbal over the seas
and the woods which have been stumped.
...

It would like to linger, telling stories,
but those lies would trample the evil
it knows as truth, the devil’s conundrum.

This one poem contains hints of everything to come: the wordplay, the puns, the search for a way out.

The second section, “Lazybones,” concerned primarily with nature and the earth, finds Cirino lingering, resting. Certain images—the moon, the woods, persimmons, his dog—repeat throughout, yet the poems are not repetitive; instead they establish a pleasant rhythm. In fact, most seem to have been composed on (or at least about) nighttime walks with his dog. They are haiku-like, not in their structure—while short, the poems are all well beyond haiku length—but in their method. There is the observation of nature, and then the leap of logic which brings some revelation. “I find myself outdoors again, mesmerized/ by leaves brushing characters in wind.” (“The Shuffle). Through these poems, Cirino becomes centered in the reality of nature, and thereby escapes the confusion of the first section.

In the third section, “October Blood,” Cirino again approaches the larger questions of life. He asserts poetry as a way of sorting through the confusion of his mind, although that mind, and his imagery, is clearly still confused. Here is the poem “Water” in its entirety:

Water is round with italics, always plural
in Hebrew, enters the burrows of rabbits
when the rain tough. It is wound glass
blown by lovers who heap kisses on earth
or a pile of flesh. Sometimes it’s fished out
for salt or food, or just plain watering.
It’s a flame in the moon, a fist of wave-weight,
frothing tongue on a river. It enters,
and invents too much to be true or false.

“Prophecy,” the ending section, finally brings some resolution to his torments. “Still, he’s satisfied with the order of his thoughts.” (“the Order of His Thoughts”). “As midnight approaches I feel the weight/ lift from my heart, and then begin work.” (“The Weight”). And, from “The Hobo”:

His body but a shadow, he rinses
memory out of sleep, the rights
and wrongs of years, decades of moving,
gathering stories lost in the telling,
as if he knew the planet’s future torments.

The Instrument of Others is a powerful and startling collection of poetry. The poems are layered and challenging, yet, in the end, soothing and comforting. In this review, I have only scratched the surface of what they contain. You should discover them for yourself.

— G. Murray Thomas


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