Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review of Joshua Kryah's Glean

My faith lies elsewhere. When I finished reading Joshua Kryah’s Glean (Nightboat Books, 2007) and started thinking about what I would write in my review of the book, that is sentence that came to me, almost as if it had been waiting—who knows how long?—somewhere in the back or just below the surface of my consciousness for me to read the final lines of “Come Hither,” the last poem in the book. (I apologize for the problems with lineation. I could not get Blogger to reproduce the correct layout of the poems I have quoted):

Who will draw you out, now
that you’ve given yourself over?

Who dissolve
your body like a host on their tongue?

What stopping place will be provided, what

Where am I in this emergence—
who comes?

The “you” here is God, or, rather, the god that faith places on the other side of the absence that is all, according to the monotheism I was taught growing up, human beings can ever really know of the one divine being. Yet the first two questions here are not about this god per se, but rather about those whose task it is to draw this god out into the world and take him into themselves. In the face of the absence that is also the divine—and that is, therefore, in itself perhaps the deepest and most fundamental test of faith—who will those people be? At the same time, the speaker of the poem is clear that something is emerging—something which, based on the first two questions, we can assume the speaker believes to be God. Then, out of that clarity another question emerges. What is the speaker’s position in the emergence, not in relation to it, as if he were standing outside of it, watching what was happening, waiting to see the end result, but in it, as part of it, and once the speaker places himself within this emergence, who is emerging is no longer clear. The possibility exists in the language that it is the speaker who is emerging, that he is watching himself become, that he has discovered his god within himself, that he has come to accept that he is himself, somehow, within his god.

Questions of faith have been important to me since I was a teenager and I believed my future lay in the rabbinate. When I set aside the faith that being a rabbi would have demanded of me, however, I did not set aside the struggle to come to terms with the final, indifferent and absolute absence that will fill the space where I used to be in the moment after my death. It is a measure of Kryah’s success that, despite the fact my faith lies somewhere very other than his—and since this is a review of his book, I am not going to turn it into an essay about my own spirituality—the poems in Glean nonetheless confronted me with the question of just where, precisely, my spirituality does lie. In large measure, the poems accomplish this through metaphors that ground the issues they raise firmly in the body. Here, for example, are the first few lines of “My Easter:”

Breathbloom, the resurrection lily
spent on its stem,

the pale throat thrown back

Behold, all at once,
the flesh-like knot
undone, each petal released, their beauty un-
mistakably and

already gone.

And here is “O Hieroglyph (forgotten word, spread your lips around me)” in its entirety:

As if the wet vowel might speak.

As if, plundered,
it might give up its blank stare, and
suddenly, shudder in my mouth.

We exchange a language
dumb as flesh, pressed into and bruised
beyond recognition, its only response the black eye’s dull circle of speech.

Blue, blue-brown,
each color offset by the surrounding skin,
the calcite thought of your returning again.

I cannot muster
what I should have lost, and in the wish gained
more steadfast: your curio, what swings from a locket upon my chest,

a message that now only speaks
with its fist.

The note I wrote to myself on the page below this poem says, simply, “Donne?” The fist in the final line recalled for me Holy Sonnet #14, “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” and, indeed, I found myself thinking of Donne’s Holy Sonnets often while reading Glean, so much so that I read through the sampling of them in the edition of the Norton Anthology that I have on my shelf before I sat down to write this review. Donne’s poems, too, are rooted in the body, though very differently than Kryah’s. For while Kryah metaphorizes—if I can coin a term—the body, and the physical world in general, to give presence to the absence in the face of which he questions, asserts and maintains his faith, Donne positions the body in his poems as Other to his god, whose presence in the world the poems themselves—at least the ones I read—do not doubt for a minute. I also thought of Donne’s Holy Sonnets while reading Glean because, despite the fact that Kryah’s poems are written in a very free verse—the sentence fragment and the unconventional spacing of the poems seemed to me just about the only two formal devices used consistently throughout the book—his poem’s share with Donne’s a sense of language as something physical, something to be felt, held in the mouth, savored and then released.

In all honesty, I don’t know that I will pick this book of poems up again. It has said to me what it has to say, and it’s not something I need to hear again. Still, I admire, deeply, the craft and commitment, the honesty and courage that went into writing it. It is the kind of book I think everyone should have to read once, the kind of book that those to whom it truly speaks will treasure for the rest of their lives.

Cross-posted on It's All Connected.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Jeff Knorr’s poems in his collection The Third Body occupy many quiet domestic settings that typically resolve themselves in the imagery of the natural world. Beetles, weather patterns, fallen stars serve as metaphors for the emotions and dilemmas of the characters in his poems. The first section (“Any Way Home”), in particular, is concerned with the theme of loss and redemption. The losses are experienced by different individuals in the poems. Sometimes it is the speaker who is measuring the frustration of temporarily losing a child to a bureaucratic system. Sometimes it is the loss of a previous world as experienced by a small child. Sometimes it is the more conventional loss of human and animal life.

In ”Winter Turkeys” the winter turkeys add up over the years to signal the passage of time, and we see the speaker’s father (as there is very little artifice in the poems one can assume the speaker is Knorr) beginning to recognize his life is on the wane. The father is being forced to acknowledge death’s omnipresence, and he is begrudgingly allowing himself to become vulnerable to it. The word “funeral” is stuck in his mouth. He is a man content with his reminiscing, but a little troubled by it.

Much of Knorr’s work in The Third Body explores memory, the memories of kin, who is included and excluded (by omission) from those memories. It is a testimonial to Knorr’s generosity that he tries to include as many as possible into his kinship system. While it might seem trite to equate the life of a dog or goats to that of a child or a mother within that system, Knorr’s obvious concern for an intact nature renders these choices as understandable. Given that 57% of American households own either a dog or cat (up from 44% in 1956), concern for a pet as “part of the family” is not unwarranted. The US is the nation with the highest percentage of household dogs or cats. Knorr takes us along on his remembrances of who is inside the pack and who is outside, troubled only by how far he can will his generous memory before someone comes along and tries to steal his identity.

If a thief could appropriate another’s memory, we’d all be in trouble.

The second section (“Measuring Our Days”) is populated by 10- and 12-line poems written in couplets. Most of these poems are again contemplative about nature, and they focus on the beloved to the extent that the “love” becomes the present force in the poems, the eye around which the storm swirls. Knorr’s earnestness in addressing his love is countered by his admissions of grief and remorse for past wrongs. This group of poems is reminiscent of William Stafford and James Wright (epigraph for this book by Wright from his “Beautiful Ohio”) in that they make their impact through line compression. Here is one example:

Daydreaming, Driving Midway Road

When I get old, I don’t want the sun on my hands;
rather, I’d like the wind to touch them.

Once she told me she’d drag my body in if I died outside.
The only clear reason is to keep from being eaten by yellow jackets.

Standing on a stone wall built by Chinese
I saw the red fox, but only once.

I’m beginning to think there are no foxes.
He must have been the soul of the last worker.

There is nothing more consistent than a bird’s morning song in July.
Dying, we burn into some star just beyond her arms’ reach.

I like this poem for its daring leaps though I am troubled that Knorr’s version of daydreaming is a little bit like my own ordinary waking experience. Perhaps I might be put on notice for all my saltatory gestalting. Nevertheless, Knorr makes these stray but pithy thoughts coalesce around the beloved. At the end the speaker is treading on oblivion as he imagines an immortal connection to the one he loves. Here the lines pile up as end-stops and then are delivered into the imagination. The whimsicality of the previous events is retrieved by the graveness of the threat at the end.

But these poems are not written so much to be marveled at for their angular momentum and other tour de force techniques. This is a book whose poems aim to be lived with, and if one doesn’t have the time to live with the poems for a while, then, like Wright and Stafford, one might miss the merits of the work. I took it upon myself to take the book with me to family camp. I found myself reading these poems late at night after a long day full of hyper-stimulation and hurt incurred after a loss in the ferocious staff/camper volleyball game. Because I had left my seven-year-old’s reading material at home, I was forced to read these poems aloud to him as he tried to drift off into sleep. Between bouts of reading “Urashima Taro” (from the camp’s meager library), my son reflected on this from “Long Distance and the Black Sky”:

The way the moon danced at night in the snow of Mt. Lemmon made him
so lonely that one day hunting desert quail he buried his gun in the sand.

My son wanted to know why the man would bury his gun in the sand (probably because this was something he had been doing himself along the banks of the American River and he was curious why would someone would bury something that valuable . . . would he be able to find it the following day). I think it is a compliment to Knorr’s intent of being straightforward and unadorned that he could have a seven-year-old wondering about his lines. Though the poem’s larger theme is about loss and redemption, I suspect Knorr would accept a seven-year-old missing the forest for the trees if that same seven-year-old began to puzzle out the wondrous breadth of human behavior. Is this not one of the primary aims of a poem?

My son also twittered during “At the Sullivan Ranch, Returning Home” when Knorr writes about a dog:

Working his nose, he breathes anxiously,
and he is occasionally shitting.

My son stood up in bed, working his nose like the dog and mimicking the dog’s habits. Now that’s turning poetry into theater! Again, though Knorr would not have intended such a dramatic display (fueled by fatigue and sleep deprivation), any action his lines might inspire would be a mark on the side of the good.

Oh, and my oh my, look how talking about Knorr’s book has forced me to conjure up a few family memories of my own.

The third and final section of The Third Body is “A Lesson in Love & Evolution.” It begins to touch on the book title. In the poems of the third section one sees the third body as all the items that attend to a marriage: the child, the family, the pets, the weight of the natural world, the force of history. In short, the world intrudes, but it intrudes in a way that enhances devotion. It doesn’t degrade it.

Tracing the Banks of Rivers

In the dark we lie against each other, still. This moment
of morning holds deep quiet when rivers calm against their banks.
I trace the outlines of your body the way it grows, its directions,
the way it has bent through years of uncertain sunlight.
Running a finger over shoulder blades, back, hips,
the slow tight curve of your chin,
the tender inside of elbows and knees, scars,
there is not a lonely spot of you I do not love.
I track us into a third body
we know the way a hawk knows wind.
I have given you a part of my heart for good.
There is no finding it again except in your eyes,
the way grass beneath an orchard tastes of apples.
We have so much at our backs: a son, a dog, three countries,
card games, some reasonable and unreasonable death.
But ahead of us is the kind of clarity deer wish for,
a gentle day grazing without being spooked.
The days spread before us under unbroken sky.
We have come this far tracing the banks of rivers
and in this kind of love the river might simply be the river.

The third body, that which is foreign but instinctively known (“the way a hawk knows wind”) maps a country of intertwined fate that binds the speaker together with his life’s love. This bond provides the speaker with clarity that makes the world come alive as nothing other than itself. It strips away all pretense and worry. It keeps one’s mentality rooted in the here and now, a hopelessly difficult assignment for a brooder like me.

It takes a lot of courage to mention one’s “love” again and again throughout a collection such as “The Third Body,” but it is this kind of speech that lands Knorr firmly within the cadre of emotional poets who face their sentiments and try to name them plainly without any embellishment, perhaps even temper them with the bitter root of life’s disappointments and mistakes. The life that a poet like James Wright “wasted” is spent on that high performance vehicle known as familial love.

Knorr’s decency resonates throughout the collection as well. One gets the sense of his menschlichkeit early on in the collection during his speculation on the state of his father and son. One senses his trustworthiness in the careful attention to his subjects. The lines are trimmed of any kind of excess which might indicate he is given to flights of fancy.

“Morning Swim” is one of the pieces that finds Knorr projecting himself as a speaker navigating through elation and despair, in the way that beauty needs ugliness in order to make itself be perceived fully. The poem begins in an “abundance of blue” and with a war in the background, but it ends with the lover swimming out from the speaker as he tries to imagine his life without the beloved [“What would have happened / had we all married someone else”]. The speaker’s final refuge is silence, and the speaker finds such a silence to be a redemptive force. The silence draws the world back from encroaching on us all.

A similar quiet appears in ”Worship”. The quiet is counterpoint to a convulsing dog, and it is within that quiet that a quasi-religious experience ensues which allows for the speaker and the beloved “you” to recognize the dog as part of the familial “third body.”

Knorr provides very recognizable emotional landscapes in The Third Body. His work relies on the reader’s recognition of well-established feelings. His is the kind of the work that “feels” rather than “thinks” in the common parlance. He is readily emotionally accessible, but this kind of discernment between thought and feeling is overly wrought. It might do well to describe the basic difference between a Spielberg film and a Fellini film, but as a useful critical tool, it usually fails to make any lasting mark. Knorr makes us feel his situation, his love for his family, yet without the reader’s perception that Knorr is fully aware of his predicament, the reader begins to lose sympathy. The man/woman who is fully aware of his own demise is more pathetic than the man/woman who is oblivious to it. Similarly, a poem that thinks its way to its conclusion can be emotionally charged as well; however, many might not acknowledge such a charge because often times a poem of this variety is pushing into new emotional terrain where the reader can’t firmly say “Hey, I’m feeling this right now.” The poet who thinks his/her way to a conclusion often is conducting forays into more experimental emotional space. He/she isn’t sure what he/she is feeling. Hesitancy and doubt persist. Perhaps fragmentation. For many readers, this produces an anxious feeling that makes such readers fail to trust the “thinking” poet. The entire experience smacks of a vaguely unsettling feeling.

Knorr guards against that unsettling feeling. His dread (of loss or bungling the job) in the face of the beloved does not quaver. It is a self-assured dread. We know it as such the moment we encounter it. There is no guesswork in coming to terms with what Knorr wants us to feel. He is reassuring. The reader wades into the depths of each poem, preparing for the steady embrace. No subterfuge. No distraction. No sleight of hand. Sometimes a river is just a river—just as honest as it can be.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I’ve been thinking about imagery for the past several days. Ever since getting together over coffee, pastries and poems with friends in Sausalito. The day was equal parts appreciation and trouble-shooting, and Stanley Kuntiz’s advice to “end on an image” was a frequent suggestion.

When I got home, I reread the entry for “Image, Imagery” in John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary. There, Pound is quoted as saying an image “presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Drury goes on to write, “A poetic image transfers itself to our minds with a flash, as if projected upon a movie screen.”

One of my favorite poems provides a good example—a poem by Philip Larkin. In the final stanza, he writes, “Rather than words comes the thought of high windows.”


When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Peter Everwine's from the meadow

Each time I read a poem by Peter Everwine, my appreciation for his work deepens. They possess a quiet intensity that is both plain-spoken and mysterious. His phrasing is simple, straight-forward. His diction and thinking are complex. Edward Hirsch described his poems as containing “a luminous stillness.”

“The Marsh, New Year’s Day” is a good example of his work. In this poem, Mr. Everwine’s first three lines capture my complete attention. Written in the present tense, they radiate the energy of a visual artist’s gesture drawing. I am there. And I follow willingly into the memory of other mornings in the marsh, to a door that “slams and slams,” and old men “dying like rainbows.”

The Marsh, New Year’s Day

for Zach, among others

The slow, cold breathing.
Black surf of birds lifting away.
The light rising in the water’s skin.
How many times now, on a day like this,
I’ve entered the celebrations of the reeds,
waking by the wren’s broken house,
the frosty, burst phallus of the cattail.
In the marsh a door slams and slams.
Wherever I look
I see the old men
of my boyhood, wifeless and half-wild,
in stained canvas coats, dying like rainbows
from the feet up.
I am becoming one of them.

I highly recommend From the Meadow, Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). About this collection, Philip Levine, Mr. Everwine’s long-time colleague at California State University, Fresno, wrote, “This collection presents all of Everwine’s poems that he still regards with affection in a career that spans forty years or more, many of the poems never collected before. It includes a few of his remarkable translations from the Hebrew as well as some of his interpretation of Nahuatl poems.”

At a recent workshop, I spoke with Fresno State alumnus David St. John about my admiration of Peter Everwine’s work. We talked specifically about the effect translating has on one’s own poetry. Mr. Everwine, David said, had been in long period of poetic silence when he began reading and interpreting poems from Nahuatl, the language of Mexico’s Aztecs. He emerged renewed.

Mr. Everwine is retired from teaching, but continues writing. His collaborations with poet and woodcut artist Gary Young are especially interesting. You can find their broadsides at www.suttonhoopress.com.