Portrait and Dream
(Coffee House Press, 2009)
After a while, you notice the conductor has wings on his sandals. He speaks a kind of Mandarin English peppered with pithy grit. You don’t understand it all, but how could you? He is a master. Describing the scenery, he astounds you with his depth of grace.
A poet and art critic, Bill Berkson occupies a unique spot in the New York School pantheon. A contemporary of Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, he also collaborated with Frank O’Hara and was close to Kenneth Koch. His own tack is typically ablaze with panache.
From the get-go, Berkson balances discovery and invention. In an authoritative, yet teasing tone, he opens with “October.” A nod to William Carlos Williams morphs into campy stage directions. An interior monologue frames Berkson’s ongoing concern with “the various drifts of a day’s work…to search out the differences / the window and grate.”
The narrator turns October into a lover—into “the real October with your transparence.” Berkson is set on pinning (penning) that transparence. By the end of the book, “intermittences contain us, to the last blink.”
The atmosphere tirelessly models: “Morning clouds burning off before noon.” Plush surfaces lurch and lilt under a “denim moon.” The light starts talking in “Election Day Fog.”
We are duly grateful for the dazzling phrases and achingly lyric conceits as Berkson prepares us to “plumb the sky.”
Afzal Ahmed Syed
trans. Musharraf Ali Farooqui
Rococo and Other Worlds
(Wesleyan University Press, 2010)
Okay, Afzal Ahmed Syed is a lion in sheep’s clothing. His roar whispers with the attar of lilies and his sighs sting with gunpowder’s reek. “A parade of wounded horses” follows him across minefields of love and mortality as he traverses the hotels and scaffolds, the cages and gates, of poetry and identity.
Writing in his native Urdu, in a fantastic, fabled, and fatalistic voice, Syed is well served by translator Musharraf Ali Farooqui. A tone of lament is buoyed by beauty in lines that are simultaneously taut and supple.
Syed witnessed the violence of Bangladesh’s birth and the civil strife in Lebanon. Yet he never becomes virulent. Tanks clash with ice cream. Repression and desire circle each other, wary partners in life’s dance. Subject matter drawn from the darkest shadows is silhouetted, wringing light from an “hourglass filled with black sand.”
The poet is on intimate terms with death. His world of stark contrasts shuttles between the parlor and the jail. Love offers an alternative muse to exile and ignominy. Syed longs to be counted in the ranks of her “caravanserai.” Even this antidote though, this lover, bears in her heart a dagger.
Such internecine warfare of opposing forces marks Syed’s vision. Appropriately, uniting bridges are a recurring metaphor. “If poetry could save love” his poetry would have “joined the two ends of the sea.” No doubt.
Michele Madigan Somerville
(Plain View Press, 2010)
Half the time looking for trouble and half looking for atonement, Michele Madigan Somerville spins her accounts into Yeatsian verballistics. “For all those transgressions, I swing / this bird round my graying head.”
In a long list of mea culpas, from the trivial to the traumatic, the poet confesses her unholy thoughts like ogling firemen at communion or wearing a “black bra with a white blouse.” That transgression gives rise to a fear of “failing to be brave.”
Through anecdotes, recollection, feverous incantation, a mongrel breed of church lingo and street-isms. With a naughty penchant for bad boys, our heroine turns aggressive in “Boob.”
What begins with a boob representing a Giuliani-type “lughead” (and fascination for the really wrong guy) evolves into worship of a DJ. Cousin Brucie gives sustenance across the airwaves, delivering the excitement it takes to survive. Eventually the poet muses on her own 34Ds as she nurses twins. Just as boobs are a source of sustenance, so does writing about them transfer power.
Equating flesh with yearning, Somerville reconstructs a coming of age ceremony in “Quinceañara.” Symbols are explained in rippling triplets as the lines lead to a longing for symbiosis, for the “luscious mingling of virtue and depravity.”
Driven by guilt and courage, Somerville’s narrative express, tricked out with Catholic culture and boardwalk trash talk, hurtles ahead, summoning the “Laughter of God.”
ContributorJeffrey Cyphers Wright