Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Booknotes for December 2007

This month (and yes, I know it is the middle of January as I am writing this), I am focusing on three chapbooks published by Maverick Duck Press. I decided to write here about them in the order of my preference. I can't say one book is necessarily "better" than another, so I'll review them here in order of preference.

Corey Mesler's The Chloe Poems is held together by poems about the author's daughter. I suppose as a father, I should "relate" to these pieces, and I guess I do. Certainly a reader who is interested in the way a father feels about his young child as he watches her grow up will get something from Mesler's book. Readers watch the child go from birth to young, lively child. Even for those who do not share the author's personal experiences, there is much to empathize with.

Unfortunately, many of the poems are not that strong. I very much like the idea of this book; few books explore the relationship between a man and his daughter. But some of the poems seem to rely a bit too much on the content and not powerful lines to carry the emotional weight. For example, in the poem "Chloe at Four, Running," we have the lines, "The rain she brings/is tender like love." I don't quarrel with the sentiment, but material like this needs revision.

On the other hand, the book does contain some fine, thoughtful pieces. One of my favorite poems is "Fathers of Daughters." Here Mesler does a fine job not only of detailing the moments of play with a child, but using the Barbie doll as a metaphor, demonstrating the emotional strain of watching one's daughter grow. "Sleeping in a Box" gives voice to tension one must feel worrying about things that a child cannot see.

This is Corey Mesler's first chapbook, and despite some problems, I do think it holds some promise.

14 Ways To Die is Kendall A. Bell's eleventh chapbook. It focuses, as the title indicates, on the subject of death. The collection contains interesting quotes from sources ranging from Jim Morrison to Benjamin Franklin to place the material into a larger context. I don't really like being told the poems "are meant to be unsettling." Let's let the poems do the talking, I say. And the poems themselves do say much. Their strength is in the matter of fact tone and honest description that isn't devoid of emotion, but provides the reader real images and ideas to get emotional about.

"1987" Garage Suicides is fine example. Here Bell writes about four teens who have taken their lives and the fervor of activity that act brings about in a small town, including the false grief of other kids. In "Our Mutual Acquaintances," we are provided a list of people who die, all horribly, all in some way related to us as readers, people we knew or think we knew from a distance. And after this litany of death, Bell ends with the lines, "We don't give a second thought/about waking the next morning." "Shotgun" is similar, and even more powerful. Bell repeats the phrase "A shotgun blast ended it" through the poem, each stanza remarking on what is left after the suicide. The poem ends with the telling lines: "I was never familiar with his work/only the despair." One need not be familiar with the life and work of Liam Rector to be moved by this poem. I find these lines richer each time I read them.

The poems in 14 Ways To Die are not as lyrical as I tend to prefer, but they'd probably have less impact if they did. What the poems may lack in musicality, they more than make up for in thoughtful imagery and the kind of emotional restraint reminiscent of William Carlos Williams (without the "no ideas but in things" philosophy). "Fanny Remembered" is humorous and honest. "A Serial Killer's Cliff's Notes" is absolutely chilling, the narrator giving more insight than a dozen profilers.

In avoiding discussion of death, we often hinder any healthy approach to the subject, and thus grief and our opportunities to find peace about our own mortality are warped. We need honesty, not wild or sentimental refrains to get us where we need to be concerning our ends. These poems are unsettling. But this might be the kind of shaking up we need.

Probably my favorite of the three books I read was Wire To The Heart by Bruce W. Niedt. It starts off slow, with poems don't really do that much for me, but after a little while, the collection picks up quite nicely.
Some of the more powerful poems in the book use a voice well outside the author, as in "The Conjoined Twin," "The Fishing Boat Widow, December," and the chilling "The Battering." In the latter poem, an abusive father describes his beating of a boy whose "sin" was "sneaking a snack from the cupboard." The father knows he should make amends, but also knows "that would rip the skin right off the scars."

"Your Missing Piece" might, at first read, seem callous. This sonnet about the lost of a loved one's breast, however, seems an honest attempt -- and good poetry is really more about attempts than manifestos-- to find solace in a difficult, painful time. In "The Spinner," the narrator marvels at the ability of a a performer to spin plates on poles. I think it interesting that the performer is from a memory of the Ed Sullivan show, not someone we might have seen recently except in archival footage. This point seem most salient in that when we reach the last lines, "I wish I knew his secret,/so my life wouldn't be so littered/with shattered tableware," we see a man reaching into his past in order to make sense of present calamity.

If Wire To The Heart has a theme, it is the frailty of life, a subject many readers can understand even if not thinking so much about how quickly life might change or end. The collection finishes with the poem "Last Frame," which uses bowling as metaphor for one's final day. The speaker wants, as many of us do, to go out on top: "X in the box, a perfect frame." This might be a little much for some, but the poem is a fine coda to the thoughtful book.

1 comment:

Bruce Niedt said...

Thanks for the very first real review of my chapbook, Wire to the Heart. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks also for reading and supporting Maverick Duck Press. - Bruce Niedt