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Poetry Roundup

Anne Waldman, Red Noir: And Other Pieces for Performance

(Farfalla, McMillen & Parrish, 2008)

Incantatory incandescence lights these pages of quasi-play-performance litany rants. Live, Anne Waldman’s near breathless word piles spill out like demons being exorcised. These pieces for voices are in the tradition of the modern poet as playwright and echo Gertrude Stein and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (specifically “Routines.”)

From the first word “Ventriloquist” Waldman is channeling our attention with her rapid-fire reading of the “world as a book.”

Living in the East and the West, Waldman incorporates multiplicity into a skittering, careening discourse in heightened pitch. “[This could be a chorus]” She builds up a sheen of mirrored ricochets that gleams like “icicles in the rain.”

She consults goddesses. In “And is It?” Shiva wails with a killer list of sick chemicals: “chlordane… dieldrin… fenoxaprop ethyl… paraquat….” She brings down the wrath of language, “like the end of the world.”

The poet in a “voix celeste of all the populace” asks Cassandra “= what says the contours of your mufti =.” The speech is studded with bubbles: “zymosis…simulacra… polyvalent.” Like pearls sewn onto a tapestry, Waldman weaves the past into the future but never ignores the present. She writes letters to Senators to “stop the war in Iraq.”

Redemption comes in your own lifestyle as Waldman, like a true troubadour, claims, “I live chez the young poets of the past…”

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler

(Coffee House, 2008)

Patricia Smith, originally renowned as an award-winning performance poet, has arrived as a talented print poet. Her latest collection, Blood Dazzler, is a moving look at Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it visited upon New Orleans in 2005. Gone from Smith’s poetry are the loose, undisciplined lines that marked her early work. Today, she’s a master of concision.

Extending the practice of giving women’s (and now men’s) names to hurricanes, Smith personifies Katrina, tracking her growth from amorphous mass to “officially a bitch.” She gutsily uses personification—an outré device in postmodern poetry—throughout the book, depicting Katrina’s consciousness as she pitilessly devours the city, a dog’s anxiety while waiting to be untied from a tree, and the Superdome’s disregard toward the people ushered inside to ride out the storm: “I was never their church, although I disguised myself as a shelter / and relentlessly tested their faith.”

Denial is a major theme in the book, as it was during the storm and its aftermath. Of the denier-in-chief, who at a photo op played guitar like Nero bowed his violin, Smith writes, “The cowboy grins through the terrible din.” In “What to Tweak,” she speculates about what horrors entered the local FEMA official’s head as he typed an email in flat bureaucratese to “Brownie,” who responded, “Anything specific I need to do / or tweak?”

Smith’s book becomes truly heart-wrenching when describing the plight of the storm’s many African-American victims, capturing in dialect their faith in a doubtful deliverance. She imagines the last moments of Ethel Freeman, the elderly woman who died in her wheelchair awaiting rescue: “I see my savior’s face ‘longside that sun. / Nobody sees me running toward the sun. / Lawd, they think I done gone and fell asleep.”

Blood Dazzler is an astonishing poetic narrative of a treasured city and a people subjected to brutal circumstances. Its story is a tragic one, but powerful too, affirming that human will and the language expressing it are equal to the worst havoc that Nature can wreak. Smith defiantly, bravely, imagines the unimaginable.

Tim W. Brown

Carter Ratcliff, Arrivederci, Modernismo

(Libellum, 2008)

Classy, tough, and smoothly elusive—what we have here is a dramatic monologue. That’s how author and noted art critic Carter Ratcliff describes it in his decisive afterword. In a perceptive foreword, Vincent Katz notes that Ratcliff “posits a level of normality” or “cohesion” across a swelling surface.

Brilliantly construed as a farewell address to the most significant art movement of all time, Modernism, Ratcliff has his way with his “lover.” He pins her “cruelly” but with “tenderness,” describing the object of his affection in myriad guises. He sees her as a vision that doesn’t see but is visible. He peppers clockwork conceits with tony vernacular: “that was in your Daimler period.” He loves her despair that she never feels. She becomes a self-perpetuating “swan of ice.”

Ratcliff zeroes in on several key pivots. Personifying an ideal, he calls out Modernism’s characteristics like “circularity,” “reductionism,” “purity,” “and “principles.”

Written in 1974, this long prose poem holds up inscrutably. There is no fat on this one. Every line is cut with a rapier—dashing and deadly—“reduced so as to be more itself.”

In “Foamborn,” Ratcliff oscillates between metropolis and “willows rippling.” He seems to “offhandedly” dally with “elegant certitudes.” “Nature’s natural gift for symbol” has found nourishment in this gem of rare bluest flame. Every tone is enveloped in echoes.

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Valentina Saracini, Dreaming Escape

(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008)

A princess in a fairy tale… a victim of war… a sleepwalker navigating the fog… these are the faces Albanian poet Valentina Saracini puts forth. A pilgrim, she leads us through loneliness, fear, and sudden illumination. She paints each page black with her words, inviting lightning. “Bring me my love to the shore/ Get me a crystal boat.”

In a poetry where “Nobody is watching over the clock hands,” time becomes measureless. We jump from a café in Prishtina, Kosovo, to a land called Dardania, “my homeland.” Saracini’s primal metaphors are simple but symbolic. Horsemen tie their mounts. Leaves freeze in the wind. Waves provide a romantic stage for the poet’s deep melancholia represented lyrically by "anchors of lost ships,” “deserted truth,” and “abandoned dreams.”

The author purposely recycles many conceits. The first three poems begin with the theme: “You are not….” The next three poems are based on a tree trunk. Saracini can get away with repetition because her images scintillate. The poems exude relentless pain that Saracini seems to conjure and then expel by writing. By cataloging despair, she finds a flash of ecstasy. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion.” Saracini is not one to succumb to emotion. In the poem “The Unconquered,” her eyes are ever “turned to the arena.”

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright


Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Tim W. Brown

Tim W. Brown is an author of fiction, poetry and nonfiction.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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