Monday, April 1, 2013

Lit Tripping Through the Birmingham Poetry Review

Here begins a journey through a journal the Steiny Road Poet values for many reasons. In the Spring 2013 (number 40), the Birmingham Poetry Review (BPR) published poems by 59 poets and several remarkable book reviews that are so well written and reasoned that the essayists deserve special attention. (Full disclosure, the Steiny Poet has read two of the books reviewed, helped publish one of the books, and wrote one of the collections of poetry.) Let the short quotations from these reviews speak for themselves.

Double Agent by Michelle Chan Brown as reviewed by Laura Eve Engel

“Brown’s speaker—a single speaker, it seems to me, who is unified in tone but nearly boundless in every other regard—often appears to be observing the party from above even as she is present... The omnipresence of the consciousness in these poems lends it self well to their content—she can move from Berlin to a Russian museum to the moon with ease and, perhaps more importantly, without explanation. She can also move with grace into quiet, more internal spaces, and it is in these spaces where it’s clearest that despite the delightful flamboyance of her un-truth telling, Brown is often working something that resembles a confessional mode.”

For the Mountain Laurel by John Casteen as reviewed by Jennifer Horne

“Perhaps my ear is overly attuned to the confessional mode, expecting resurrection through revelation or the appearance thereof. These poems frustrate that expectation, maybe intentionally so, forcing us back to the poem itself and not the author’s biography. To borrow a phrase from Sharon Olds, these poems are ‘apparently personal,’ drawn from the author’s life but not intended as literal diary entries. The poems evoke the feeling of someone passing through a crisis and, of necessity, focusing on the present rather than looking backwards or forwards, as though a sustain examination of what is will be more freeing than any other kind of analysis.”

How to Make a Bird with Two Hands by Mike White as reviewed by Alyse Knorr

“The most striking aspect of White’s work, to me, is how intelligently and playfully intertextual it is—bouncing between various schools, movements, and canonized poets to highlight his own aesthetic lineage. The effect is that of being at a party with a room full of your favorite poets—and White is an excellent host. He nods directly to Basho, Berryman, Li Po, Whitman, and Wright in titles and epigraphs, while injecting Frank O’Hara as a character into two poems.”

On a Bed of Gardenias:Jane & Paul Bowles by Karren LaLonde Alenier as reviewed by Brandel France de Bravo

“…I am impressed with Alenier’s ability to transform biography into finely wrought lyric poems of varying styles and textures. On a Bed of Gardenias contains highly condensed, whip-smart free verse (Riff on ‘A Quarreling Pair’); poems with longer, more conversational lines in the form of a letter (Agonizer); and poems that have chapters and gesture toward the novel (Hidden Messages: Paul Bowles introduces Jane Auer to his Family); or towards plays with acts (Drawing Room Comedy); a poem in tow columns (Yanked); a pantoum (Gift), and poetic forms of Alenier’s own creation.

The lit trip, if all goes well, will be a series of posts looking at as many poems as the Steiny Road Poet feels moved to examine without regard to their resting place in the BPR Table of Contents.

Jane Satterfield’s “Resurrection Spell” with the following epigraph from Muriel Rukeyser—“Too much life to kill” caught the Steiny Poet’s attention for the opening leg of this odyssey. The epigraph comes from Rukeyser’s poem “Suicide Blues” but the Steiny Poet does not see that Satterfield is talking about that kind of death. And by the way, as you, Dear Reader, might surmise from the Rukeyser epigraph,  “Suicide Blues” does not end in suicide. Satterfield’s emphasis in her poem is on the living, “the good friends who wish for resurrection” with such intense grieving that the expectation is that the dead one will “breeze back into the studio kitchen.”

In “Resurrection Spell,” the grieving which manifests by ritual, particularly a type of wailing known as keening, takes on a theatrical presence that mirrors “Suicide Blues.” Rukeyser’s focus is on woman vocalizing first with speech and then with singing. Satterfield begins with elegy, which can be either a poem or a song (and yes, this poem is an elegy), and rapidly moves to the musical landscape of song and choral practice, which she annotates as “these stagey ways to garb our grief.”

What is unusual about Satterfield’s elegy is the way it teaches the language of grief, defining such words as elegy and the verb to keen, and then tosses it back almost comically like a needed stiff drink after a good show. The narrator, despite philosophic aphorisms as “The universe at odds with our will” and “How the hardest thing in this world is to live in it,” begs off on how to achieve a spell that will “call the lost one to cross over” and thereby rise again as a living entity of “breath, blood, bone.” Except there is the keening that “lives on, a choral practice that came/ to accommodate all manner/ of praise and social critique.” What follows is a call for spirits to salute life and its after state: “Spell me with something/ auspicious, a glass of said ale, Abbey style, with its five types of barley malt, and the/ dormant hops the brewmaster brought back.”  So the only certain resurrection is the beer that has been brought back from inactive hops.

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