Poetry for Southern California


Reviews 8/07


Poetry CD Reviews & Other Things!

Our Senior Editor G. Murray Thomas has put together the latest CD's in our craft for your ultimate listening pleasure (once you get the CD that is). We will provide listening selections when available.  And from time to time Murray may review books, or broadsides or god knows what...

Novel by Mike Daily
CDs by O’Grady
Stovepiper Books

Alarm is a novel presented both in book and recorded form. The book contains the complete text of Alarm. The two CDs contain excerpts recited over musical backing and/or soundscapes. One CD is recorded live, the other in a studio. Overall, it certainly makes an interesting and original way to package a novel.

Mike Daily (and his band O’Grady) should be complimented for expanding the concept of how a novel can be presented. As poets, we have pretty much adapted to the idea of performance poetry, recognizing how we read our poems can be as important as how we write them. But performance fiction? Daily and O’Grady show it can be done.

On the CDs, Daily reads chapters from the novel against a free jazz backing. Each chapter becomes a separate, self-contained performance piece. Some of them, such as “Drum Machines” and “Brautigan” (which, incidentally, name-checks SoCal’s Rick Lupert) work quite well in this way.

Further, by giving us both a live and a studio CD, Daily shows that he understands the difference between recording and performing a work of art. Although a live CD is not the same thing as actually seeing the show, Daily shows us that there are three ways to experience his novel: read it, listen to it, see it performed live.

However, the fact that the recordings work so well actually points up the major weakness of the novel. Which is, it doesn’t have much of a plot. Alarm is an episodic novel, a series of vignettes in the life of a slacker poet. (By slacker, I don’t mean lazy, but rather unambitious as far as the standard concerns of middle-class life: career and family and such. The main character (Mick O’Grady) definitely has ambitions as far as writing is concerned—creating it, reading it and collecting it.) There is a bit of a story about the slowly dissolving relationship between Mick and his live-in girlfriend Jocelyn, and about Mick’s plans to move to Portland, but they it never really feels vital. The individual episodes are more important than the overall story.

The recordings emphasize this. Not only are they made to be taken in as individual tracks, what storyline there is tends to get lost in the performances. Neither recording, live or studio, even attempts to present the entire novel read straight through.

So in a strange way, with Alarm the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but some of the parts are greater than the whole. By this I mean the entire package—book and CDs—makes a far more interesting package than just a book alone would have. But the real strength lies in the performance of individual episodes, rather than the whole story.

—G. Murray Thomas

More of Me Disappears
Book by John Amen
Cross-Cultural Communication

All I’ll Never Need
CD by John Amen

John Amen takes the opposite approach from Mike Daily, drawing a clear line between what’s music and what’s poetry. This book and CD are different enough you almost might think they were produced by two different people. The songs on the CD are straightforward and direct; the poems in the book are surreal and “poetic” (at times overly so).

Most of Amen’s poetry works through a surreal juxtaposition of thoughts and images. They challenge the reader to make sense of them, to find the connections. Even the poems which are not purely surreal—a few poems are more or less straightforward memories—deal with the surreal aspects of human existence (it is interesting that the poems which deal with drug experiences are usually told in the most direct manner).

Sometimes Amen creates his images through disconnected similes and modifiers, as in these lines from “Vacillations” (p. 52): “... a memory begins/ to surface, like mutant worms after a bombing.” and “the sun is fading like a child abducted by a stranger.” In other poems, he strings together lines which may or may not relate to each other:

Flies are circling the dead bird. I forgot to pick up milk.

The war is just beginning. I need to buy new shoes.

The dog in the next yard is missing an ear.
Effigies are being burned in the ball field.

I was blowing up a doll when I heard the news.
                        (“Walking Unsure of Myself” p.65)

To my ear, some of these lines work, others sound overwrought. For example, the poem “Ambivalence” (p. 46) contains the following lines:

Summer faded like a tattoo.
Reluctance exploded like ballet.

Everywhere I looked I saw torn bibles,
hymnals scattered in a gutter. The sun
sank into the ocean like a burning anchor.

When I came to, I was holding a shotgun.

To me, both “exploded like ballet” and “sank into the ocean like a burning anchor” sound like Amen is trying too hard, struggling for an original metaphor. Yet the overall effect does work, creates a sense of horror and dread.

Now, you may feel differently. Maybe you love those similes, maybe the whole leaves you blank. That is both the strength and the risk of Amen’s poetry. It demands an individual reaction. Whether his juxtapositions work, whether they mean anything at all, depends as much on what you bring to the poem as what he says. It’s not a question about whether his images work in an absolute sense, as whether they connect to your experience.

Wait a minute, I hear you say, I’m copping out of my duties as a reviewer. Isn’t it my job to tell you whether they work, whether these poems are any good? But no, I have a much more open notion of artistic appreciation: That different art works for different people, and my job is to help you find the art you will appreciate. Sure, there are some poems we may agree are great, and others that are unquestionably lousy, but much poetry falls into a middle ground. And then the question becomes: Does it work for you?

Much of Amen’s poetry worked for me, but not all of it. But I definitely give him credit for taking risks with his work, for gambling that his images and contrasts will evoke meaning in his readers.

By contrast, his music is much less challenging. The songs on All I’ll Never Need are mostly straight ahead folk songs. He writes songs in traditional form, and the lyrics are direct and easily understood. Only one song, “Wild Dogs and Ostriches,” even approaches the surrealism of his poetry. The main link I found between his music and the poetry is an exploration of the darker side of life, drugs, dysfunction, and a longing for connections.

Amen’s songs are beautiful, in a southern folk/blues tradition. They remind me of some of the quieter songs by The Black Crowes. Although the production is mostly spare, there are lovely instrumental touches throughout, mandolin and violin popping up to accent the music.

Together, the book and CD present an artist of multiple talents. I would be curious, though, to hear the result if he pushed his music in as surreal a direction as his poetry.

—G. Murray Thomas

Dog Watch
Book by Valerie Lawson
Ragged Sky Press

When I first started reading Dog Watch, I was having a bit of a problem. I could sense the strength of the poems, but they weren’t grabbing me. Or maybe they weren’t giving me anything to grab. Lawson has a nice control of language, but I didn’t feel any import to the poems. Lawson’s language is so direct, so “unpoetic”, that it is easy to read these poems as mere descriptions, to miss the underlying meaning which makes for great poetry.

Then, in one line, Lawson explained what I was missing. That line, from the poem “Loggan Stone,” was “Why, when what will do.”

These are poems of things. Not of ideas or events or even emotions, but things. For the most part, Lawson uses relatively straightforward descriptions of objects to convey ideas, events and emotions.

For example, “Hardware Store” (p. 46) uses descriptions of the objects in a hardware store to make a statement about human potential:

There is a precision to socket sets,
satisfaction in vice grips, metaphors
lurk in weather stripping and spare keys.
Life can be messy. But there’s always
a hardware store in town—
The building blocks of a marvelous universe
are here, a universe of copper joints
and chalk lines, apple peelers and salt blocks.
You never know what’s going to give out,
break up or need a tow. You never know
what’s going to last, but with the right tools—
you can fix anything.

Likewise, “Origami Secrets” (p. 69) starts with a description of folding a paper crane, and ends up with a revelation about life and secrets. “Children’s Crusade” (p. 21) makes its anti-war statement through observing the sights on a parade ground.

Lawson’s technique reaches its epitome in “This Wants to Be Political” (p. 41). The poem is mostly a description of a pond in late fall:

Light mist dances above the pond.
Trees that blazed yellow and red
last autumn settle for orange this year.

But the end of the poem shifts perspective, gives us a hint what is really going on:

We cannot see thought, even through open eyes,
a closed mind looks the same on the surface.
Metaphor closes the distance,
makes this political.

Once I understood how to read these poems, the meanings came through. In fact, I was soon startled by how much meaning Lawson managed to convey through physical description, how much there was to grab onto in the end.

—G. Murray Thomas