Winter 2011

Table of Contents - Vol. VII, No. 4

 

Poetry    Fiction    Translations    Reviews   

Christopher T. George

 

Michael Salcman, The Enemy of Good Is Better. ISBN: 1-932535-24-2. Orchises Press, 2011, 96 pages, paperback, $14.95.


Michael Salcman writes erudite poetry, as mentioned in a back cover blurb to this collection by his friend and mentor, noted poet Thomas Lux, who adds though that Salcman’s poems “wear their erudition lightly.” Indeed, Salcman’s poems are full of life and passion. They never fail to entertain and inform.
The erudition is not surprising in a man who has worked as a brain surgeon and who in addition to being a poet is also a noted expert on art. He regularly gives talks on art at Towson University and elsewhere. In fact, as we go to press, he is in the middle of a series of four lectures on “Post-Modernism in Contemporary Art” at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
I have known Michael Salcman since the 1970’s when we were both members of a small writing workshop that met in each other’s homes. Therefore, I have had over four decades of being exposed to his poetry. I feel, as I indicated in reviewing his first collection, The Clock Made of Confetti (Orchises Press, 2007), that his work has nicely matured and mellowed over the years. He has a greater reach and more power than he had when I first read his poetry.
The Enemy of Good Is Better offers us sixty-five poems that well demonstrate the poet’s flexibility and wide range of interests. All of the pieces are fine examples of his craft. Try this one for size—

The Butterfly Garden

I didn’t know there was a place like this—
where you could grow insects like plants,
make nature heel like a dog.

Imagine each swallowtail, fur-footed or not
hanging on a stem like a flower,
Nabokov’s Satyr out west or an orange

Baltimore dressed in black and white checks
posing on a purple Verbena. It makes you dizzy
to watch a Celestrina nigra dip into phlox

or a Monarch nectar on milkweed nearby,
posed as an orchid spreading its tiger’s wings
to my dimming eye.

In a butterfly garden
marigolds dance with Holly Azure
and one grows awfully keen

of a principle easily applied to husbands
or any wild thing parked in a driveway,
or asleep in a swing, we will change you.

Now, didn’t that go down smooth as honey? It’s interesting to see how the poet examines the idea of a garden devoted to butterflies having never considered that there could exist such a thing. Fascinating too the way he turns the notion around and examines the flowers and butterflies one by one, as if he were Edgar Allan Poe examining the Gold Bug of that great writer’s famous tale as it flashes in the South Carolina sun. Consider too how the poet transitions at the end of the poem to talk about things apparently completely different, “husbands / or any wild thing parked in a driveway, / or asleep on a swing, we will change you.” How the poet moves from one thought to the next with ease while taking us along for the journey. Marvellous.
I will note, however, that I am less fond of the writer’s choice to utilize the noun “nectar” and wield it like a verb in these lines (emphasis added): “It makes you dizzy / to watch a Celestrina nigra dip into phlox / or a Monarch nectar on milkweed nearby, . . .” Frankly that makes me cringe as does the present-day journalistic practice of informing us that our athletes have medaled in the Olympics (it is the year of summer Olympics in London in case you had forgotten).
Here is another example of the poet’s work. On the surface, a fairly simple poem—

When the Boy Comes Back

I’m not too aware of him—he’s shy
and it’s easy for me to miss the sounds
and smells of his past:
the click of beads on an abacus
counting bushels of corn,
the cool swell of a glass doorknob
on a classroom door.

Or his hand warm from working the projector,
his ears come alive to the tick of the film strip
rising notch by notch, his alertness torn
between dust motes dancing above the fan
and the emulsion embossing the walls
with pictures of Mexico and Japan.

On such a night,
I hear him cranking the mimeograph drum,
mixing its violet smell
with the odor of oil in the rails of a slide rule—
an aroma as metallic as a brake in a machine shop,
where the boys bent els and smoothed their edges.

As in the butterfly garden poem, this engaging piece is both simple and complex at the time. It is brimming full of life. Note how we meet the boy who is the subject of the poem just as the poet does and how we get to experience the boy and his world. I especially love the poet’s use of splendid and striking phrase, “violet smell”! No quibbles there: the words succeed admirably.
The next poem might on one level be seen as a bit writerish due to its subject matter. However, at the same time, consider how Salcman pulls off the feat of not allowing the allusions and the potential literary burden to weigh the work down—

Elegy: Saul Bellow

A tummler, a peddler, a pool shark, a prince,
a spinner of sentences;
explicator of the truth in lies
and the lies in truth,
a philosopher in a fancy suit
and tie, a rabbi in a fedora,
a wandering Jew.
Just think of the deep pronouncement
his name makes—bellow—
he could shout about Chicago genes
but was really a polyglot of nations
and cities like Kiev and Montreal.
He could crow on The Loop or cry in Boston,
laugh about his presumption
that a shrimp like him
was catnip to the girls.
Elegant but unfashionable, smart
but not clever, a runt but not a mutt,
a son of The Book, and its two types of flame,
burning black letters and sizzling white page.

The sonorous description “a runt but not a mutt” is delightful and the ending couplet exceptional: “a son of The Book, and its two types of flame,/ burning black letters and sizzling white page.”
I could imagine that the Eastern European Jewish background that Salcman and Bellow share in common drew Michael Salcman to the older writer’s work. Look though how the poet both celebrates and describes Saul Bellow while not allowing the references to the great writer’s work and life make the piece inaccessible to anyone who has not read Bellow. This is a poem that has interest in and of itself, an entertaining and vibrant piece, and I believe it might well make readers who have not read Mr. Bellow’s work wish to sample it. Bravo!

 

M. A. Griffiths, Grasshopper: The Poetry of M A Griffiths. Arrowhead Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-904852-28-5, Arrowhead Press/Able Muse Press. 284 pages, paperback, $24.95/£12.00 post free in the UK from Arrowhead Press.


Margaret A. Griffiths (1947–2009) was a talented British poet and editor of the e-zine, the poetry(WORM), who resided in Poole, Dorset, England. For a number of years, she was well known in Internet poetry forums in the first decade of this century. During her lifetime, she largely did not seek to publish in print magazines. Indeed, prior to the appearance of this collection, Maz Griffiths’ poetry featured almost exclusively on the Web. The name of the book comes from a pseudonym or screen name she used: “Grasshopper”. Ms. Griffiths, who was something of a recluse who never married, passed away suddenly in July 2009. After her early demise, her friends throughout the world got together to collect her works to create this collection. The body of poetry published here represents a solid achievement—a collection packed with solid and entertaining fare. It represents a bargain for the price, filled as it is with over 300 poems. Wow.
Although I knew Maz Griffiths through the Internet and I was privileged to see a number of my own poems published in her e-zine, I was not aware that she was such a fine sonneteer. Here’s an example of her work in that form that was recognized with the Sonnet Bake-Off Award at the Eratosphere poetry workshop in 2008, the year before her untimely passing—

Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud

The smell of mud and brine. I’m six, awash
with grey and beached by winter scenery,
pinched by the Peckham girl who calls me posh,
and boys who pull live crabs apart to see
me cry. And I am lost in that grim place
once more, coat buttoned up as tight as grief.
Sea scours my nostrils, strict winds sand my face,
the clouds pile steel on steel with no relief.

Sent there to convalesce—my turnkeys, Sisters
of Rome, stone-faced as Colosseum arches—
I served a month in Stalag Kent, nursed blisters
in beetle shoes on two-by-two mute marches.
I close the jar, but nose and throat retain
an after-tang, the salt of swallowed pain.

“Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud” displays Ms. Griffiths’ trademark self-deprecation and sense of humor. She was also unstintingly witty about her own health problems, namely a long history of abdominal complaints that probably hastened her end. Here is another example of her poetry which says as much about the times in which we live as about the mortality we all must face.

Holes in the News

They put me in a hole and left me
there. You know the hole I mean.
You scour it out each day until
your armpits leak and blood smears
plum across your nose. When I try
to sleep, they megaphone me, pelt
me with pellets of news. You know
the news I mean.

And I know the other holes
where bodies lie, wrapped or bare,
over-wept or dry. They rot away,
but are replaced. Their faces merge
to one, its mouth becomes black sun.
You know the face I mean. Once

forests filled the holes with roots,
grave leaves rained down. Now
trees are felled for news.
On your knees, you worry at it,
dunk your arms to the elbow in suds,
scrub. You know the brush I mean.

There’s a new hole scraped for you.
Wipe your forehead with your wrist.
Rest. What was whole is lost.
You know the rest. I mean once
the forests filled. Faces felled
like trees. Like rain.

A number of short pieces are also included in this volume, similarly employing her trademark wit and ascerbic view on life, as in these two short and snappy examples:

To Tim

Some authors don’t rebel,
and meekly meet the night.
There’s more ink in your well
so write, you bastard, write.


To His Boy Mistress

Had we but World enough, and Time,
your dress-sense, Laddie, were no crime.
But since Tim’s tongue is always curt,
I wish you’d drop that micro-skirt.

The last of the two poems, besides being a witty epitaph, is a parody of “To His Coy Mistress” by English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (1621–1678). A somewhat memorable, if slight, take on the well-known poem by Marvell, which has often been parodied over the centuries.
Of course, the downside of a collection of work assembled after a writer’s passing is that all that is included might not have been what the late scribe might themselves have wished to have seen appear in print. I think though that Margaret Griffiths should be proud of what her admirers have put together in tribute to her and her poetry. As amply evidenced in Grasshopper, Maz Griffiths was a superb craftswoman who passed away much too early. Highly recommended.

 

The Best British Poetry 2011, Series Editor Roddy Lumsden. Salt Publishing, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1907773044, 176 pages, paperback, $16.95/£9.99.


When I ordered this anthology edited by Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden from Amazon, I expected to receive a sumptuous, packed collection of the best poetry published last year in Britain. It is, however, a comparatively slim book, and the actual number of pages that contain any poems total 112 pages, comprising a mere 70 poems, all of them published in British magazines from spring 2010 to spring 2011, the rest of the book mostly taken up with biographical notes and explanations of the poems written by the poets themselves.
I have been told that the format of the book follows closely that of The Best American Poetry series, with which, possibly to my loss, I am not familiar. I was informed about this emulation by the British series of its American counterpart after I had questioned on a poetry forum why, under each poem, is printed the name of the “mag” where the poem appeared (the poet’s name is at top of the poem). The style at first had me foxed because it looked as if the poem might be part of a larger work, particularly since many of the magazines—as is the custom these days—bear off-beat names, like QUID, ninerrors Freak Lung, Rising, Magma, and Wasafiri. I guess I am not fluent in the names of British literary magazines either! More conventionally, though, a large proportion of the poems Lumsden has chosen to publish appeared in more traditionally titled, established venues such as Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, and Poetry Wales. A helpful list of contact information for the magazines which originally showcased the works is published at the back of the collection, one of the pluses to the book.
Years ago, in the early 1970’s, when I made the decision to begin to write seriously, being a British-born resident of the United States (and a U.S. citizen of 1994 mintage), I set out to make a particular study of modern British poetry. I spent hours in the stacks of the Humanities Department of the Central Branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Eisenhower Library of Johns Hopkins University studying and checking out collections by British-born poets of the likes of Beer, Enright, Ewart, Graves, Gunn, Hughes, Larkin, Levertov, Redgrove, and Ridler. At the time, British poetry was rather in the shadows of American poetry, which to some extent it remains so today as well. In the English lit classes I took at Loyola College the only “modern” English poets to which I was exposed were Auden, Hughes, Larkin, and Eliot. Of course, Eliot was an American who became a British subject and so arguably not a Brit at all, and Gunn and Auden became American. Aren’t an individual’s life changes and identification transformations delightful? As you might guess, personal biographies also constitute something that have long fascinated me.
To bring us back to the collection under discussion, I find myself disappointed in this anthology, and believe it contains a number of weak works that belie the cover title “Best of. . .” The book collects a decidedly uneven body of work and not the bonanza of poetic gems that I was expecting. Take the following poem, by young, up-and-coming poet Chrissy Williams, which, although interesting, I would hardly rate as world-beating poetry.
See what you think.

Sheep

for @dogsdoingthings

Sheep wearing short pink diner uniforms, serving coffee, startling easily.

Sheep being followed through evening streets, sensing danger, flocking helplessly.

Sheep afraid in the nightclub chaos, hooves on the table, staring blankly.

Sheep in the jaws of persistent death, hearing come with me if you want to live.

Sheep on the run being told of the lamb that’s yet to be born, the essential future.

Sheep hysterical, laughing, incredulous. Domestic sheep who can’t balance a chequebook.

Sheep being taught to make household bombs, to fire guns, weave steel wool.

Sheep growing up on a motel bed. Sheep counting sheep, making love before dawn.

Sheep being blown from a tank’s explosion, fighting metal with flesh, nearing exhaustion.

Sheep left nosing their lover’s limp body. Sheep pulling themselves up. Sheep finishing it.

Sheep driving with a shotgun on the empty seat, their own dogs for protection, as the new life kicks.

from Rising

Mmmmm, do you see what I mean about the somewhat confusing practice of publishing the magazine name following the poem?
In the end, I suppose “Sheep” does say something about the human condition and the modern world, by comparing sheep to humans and giving the sheep human attributes. It is an extended conceit which the poet succeeds in carrying through to the end of the piece. Ingenious and clever. But consider, is it really fodder for a “Best of” anthology representing the finest work published (or written) in a nation? I can see some legacy in the way the poem operates in that it is similar to performance-type poems written by some of my other favorite modern British poets: the Merseyside poets Roger McGough and my friend the late Adrian Henri, and that other Adrian—Adrian Mitchell, also now deceased, but whom I had the pleasure of meeting after an avant-garde poetry bonanza held at the Royal Albert Hall in 1984 that included the triumvirate of well-known Liverpool poets Henri, McGough, and Brian Patten as well as poets as diverse as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Basil Bunting. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti was supposed to be there but was, as I recall, ill and could not make the trip to London.)
I guess the point I am making is that Chrissy Williams’ “Sheep” is powered and motivated by the poet’s need to convey a political or social message similar to some of the pieces by some of the poets just mentioned.
Ms. Williams explains her poem in the biographical/explanatory passage devoted to her at the back of the anthology, saying in part,

Sheep don’t have a reputation for being high octane as a species. I wanted to give them something to write home about. The final word is meant to contrast the previously passive and largely present continuous sheep. The use of the plural noun was inspired by the twitter account @dogsdoingthings which recounts scenes from films, replacing the protagonists with dogs. It was originally written for an ‘Alternative Nativity’ poetry event.... The invocation of The Terminator mythology serves to subvert the traditional nativity by placing salvation in the hands of men, or in this case, sheep....

By contrast, if you will, I feel that the opening poem in the book, “in her kitchen” by Gillian Allnut, is more representative of the better and stronger poetry in the volume. Although considerably briefer and less verbous than “Sheep,” it covers more ground, is more evocative, and does not rely on a “hip” take on a Hollywood movie—

in her kitchen

delphinium

the heart, fleet, in its large domain

a grand meaulnes

summer, recalled, a light blue lent sea

of dust and shadow, now, the house

of doubtfulness

who, in the hospital, implored them—

deep in daylight, implicate, a crowd

hours pass, unrecalled

the heart, a striped tent in a field

from Poetry Review

Allnut’s “in her kitchen” demands more of the reader than “Sheep”, and, for my money, appears more worthy of inclusion in a “Best of” anthology. I believe the poem can be read without explanation but let me share what the poet wrote about it.
Ms. Allnut says the poem arose first in the disquiet she felt when she accompanied a friend as the person underwent chemotherapy treatment at a Newcastle hospital. Afterward, the two companions went for a walk by the sea at Seaton Sluice. They came upon a field, she says, with a striped tent “waiting on its own for the evening show.” Ms. Allnut explains, “There was something cheerful and forlorn about it.” The idea for the poem germinated the following morning when Ms. Allnut sat at the kitchen table and waited for her friend to wake. The table bore a vase of delphiniums. “It gave me up to blue,” she says.
Although not stated by the poet, the odd word “meaulnes” denotes, according to the Free Dictionary, “a dreamer with a lifelong fondness for wandering into romantic adventures.” It appears to derive from “Le Grand Meaulnes . . . the only novel by French author Alain-Fournier. Fifteen-year-old François Seurel narrates the story of his relationship with seventeen-year-old Augustin Meaulnes as Meaulnes searches for his lost love. Impulsive, reckless and heroic, Meaulnes embodies the romantic ideal, the search for the unobtainable, and the mysterious world between childhood and adulthood.” (Wikipedia.)
Finally, allow me to share excerpts of one of the longer poems in the collection, a work that I view as one of the quality pieces in the anthology. It is by Aberdeen-born poet Andrew Philip and is a ten-part poem of like formatted 10-line two-stanza segments that the wordsmith titles “10 × 10.”
Mr. Philip explains that he wrote the work for his wife on the couple’s tenth anniversary and that each part or “mini-poem” is meant to represent the traditional anniversary gift given for each successive year of the marriage, i.e., “paper, cotton, leather, linen, wood, iron, copper, bronze, linen, pottery and tin.” Philip made it harder, indeed challenged himself, in each of the numbered parts of the work by not mentioning the designated gift for that year or, as he puts it, that in the 10-line poem it is “the one word banned from appearing in the poem.” You can already appreciate, I think, that the concept of the poem is more complex and intriguing than the first poem that we discussed. Let’s look at segments 3 and 10 from Mr. Philip’s poem, comprising the gifts “leather” and “tin”:

3. Shagreen

Imagine us old: wrunkled cowhide faces,
me in linen trousers at some summer festival,
one of us walking with a stick, both chatting
with the bittersweet, gentle irony of the aged,
all trace of copper faded from your hair.

Our younger heads, cast in bronze by a friend,
may occupy a prominent spot beside your Dutch vase,
prevailing over the tinpot fears of ageing
as we recall the days of cheap paper,
inexpensive cotton and less heat.

. . . . .

10. Not Being the Woodsman of Oz

I once played the cowardly lion; a coward
not only in the script, whispered some who’s not
cottoned on—notice how feart I was
of a playground leathering, of muddying my
clothes on the pitch; of the opposite sex—that courage

to weep could compensate. Bit of a cross to bear.
You had your crosses too, hard as nails and heavier.
They may mean you feel no Venus, but to me
you’re a bronze shield cast by Vulcan or a new
earthenware goblet brimming with wine.

from Gutter

I love the poet’s choice in part 3 to deploy the evocative Scottish dialect word “wrunkled” that says so much, when the word “wrinkled” would have been the easier but lazier choice. (An article by John Singh that I located on the Internet defines “shagreen” leather: “Shagreen is known as stingray skin and is susceptible to water and stains.”)
In part 10, get a load of the rather nifty passage, “notice how feart I was” when instead of the obscure “feart” the poet could have used the lax “afraid” or “fearful.” As you might suspect, “feart” is also a Scottish dialect term. In fact, I see that Mr. Philip used the same word in his poem, “Scots translation of Dic Jones’s ‘Lamentation’” where a line reads, “We growna less feart o negatin daith.” This intriguing dialect poem, reminiscent of Robert Burns’s Scottish dialect pieces is on Mr. Philips’ Facebook site at http://www.facebook.com/AndrewPhilipPoetry. I love also the sensational phrase “a playground leathering” which in a mere three words forces the reader to recall childhood fears and the nasty sensations of a schoolyard brawl. Then see how the poet pivots quickly, in the very next line, from the world of childhood to the steamier environment of sex and sensuality and also references faith, the stations of the cross, and classical mythology. Astounding!
We should also take notice of how both of the quoted segments reference the nature of the gifts that went before and that will follow, there being no bar to mentioning the prior or later years’ gifts but not the cadeau given to the lover this particular year, and also how the poet anticipates the couple’s much later years. A testament to their love, and a fitting gift for a spouse, I think, even if the poet is unflinching at looking at the anticipated wrinkles and infirmities!
Ach, maybe I am a bit harsh on this anthology which does perhaps represent a good reflection of what was published in the British magazines over the past year or so. It offers fare much like one would expect to find in such a literary magazine, the outstanding alongside the solid but not quite so brilliant and the so-so. I would though question the selection process used by Lumsden and the publishers which in some ways might be criticized for not giving us what the title of the anthology promises, namely, of course, The Best British Poetry 2011. By choosing only those poems that appeared in the leading literary magazines, the selection process leaves out other works written by leading British poets such as Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Dannie Abse, Elaine Feinstein, Brian Patten, Roger McGough, Ruth Fainlight (American born but resident in the UK since age 15), or even veteran formalist Geoffrey Hill. The anthology seems to lean heavily toward poets born since 1960, in other words of the same generation as or younger than editor Roddy Lumsden. No room here for old farts. Also the book, it occurs to me, could have included poems published in books or in newspapers or maybe works by British poets that appeared in non-UK publications. What about those poems? One more thing. As previously stated, the books collects together poems published in British magazines from spring 2010 to spring 2011, not for the calendar year 2011 as the title implies. Of course, that is partly a publisher decision to get the collection on the market before the end of 2011 so the title will look “fresh” on bookstore shelves and in Internet bookseller listings. Still, it is a bit deceptive.
If you want to sample more of the wares in The Best British Poetry 2011, you can download a pdf file at http://www.saltpublishing.com/assets/samples/9781907773044samp.pdf. Check it out and don’t listen to this old fogey. We would be interested in your thoughts on the anthology. E-mail the editors or else yours truly at editors@lochravenreview.net.

 

© Christopher T. George

 

            

Poetry    Fiction    Translations    Reviews   

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