Monday, April 14, 2014

A Modern Herbal, Poems by Amy Glynn

In A Modern Herbal by Amy Glynn, poems divide into two sections of old world and new world plants, launching in a love affair with coffee, which begins “Wake up, you, and appreciate the great/ Olfactory aubade the beans dictate…” then ends with “What was I, in the ocean of before?/ Come, drink this while it’s hot. We’re at the shore/ Of something vast – I know that much. I know/ However much you give me, I’ll want more.”

Throughout the book, poems often address “you,” which might mean a significant other, you the reader, or the plant itself. For example, in “Peach,” the opening line is “For you, sweet thing, only the orchard’s great/ voluptuary, sugar as heat/ mirage….” which obviously means the peach, but other endearments in the poem such as “love,” “darling,” “sweetheart,” “dear,” might refer to the peach or a person, marring the momentum that could be used to build a relationship with either and most likely keep the sweet talk from occasionally coming across as inconsistent or insincere.

Nevertheless, the subject and artistry of these poems continued to draw me as anything natural almost always does. Indeed, slender volumes on herbs pop up like wildflowers on my bookshelves, and this little hardback with its well-chosen cover not only fits well, it highlights mythical stories, medicinal properties, and beauty that make herbs perennially enticing.

In addition to this ongoing interest, I requested the review copy, which Measure Press kindly sent, because of the promise of traditional forms in which these poems excel. Some poems such as “Narcissus” skillfully use enjambment to soften rhyme and iambic pentameter as sentences wrap around the lines, recreating myth by saying, for example, “the narcissistic tragedy is never/ too much love of self – it’s not enough/ self to love, self-image as a clever/ forgery, compounded of the stuff/ (praise, blame, desire) we absorb. What mattered/ was not Narcissus falling for his own/ image, but failing to discern a known/ entity in the vision that had scattered/ to breeze-blown ripples….”

In “Figs,” lines start with an a/b/a/c/b/a rhyme scheme before playing with meter and the sound echoes of alliteration, for instance, in the opening line “A day or so, from decadence to decay….” In “Rue,” the use of a villanelle seems effortless and admirably conversational. And, in “Pomegranate,” the quatrains steadily call forth their true and slant rhymes in an a/b/b/a pattern varied a couple of times with a/b/a/b. But it’s the opening verse that engages us with words and thoughts we can identify with, “Remember: it was always going to be/ like this between us. You were always leaving/ and I was always left. The self-deceiving/ perception at the heart of tragedy….”

“Dandelion,” the herb and the poem, is one of my favorites as “the heavy things grow very light/ and fade, like light, part particle,/ part wave, all fractional, to white./” Although I might have ended the poem with “The wind can bear it,” exquisite lines in the body of the poem remind us, “Flight/ requires us to be more air/ than body. Even voices weigh/ too much to carry.”

The last poem, aptly entitled “Bittersweet,” captures the tone of the book, the herbs, and poetry in general, where, “for some conditions there are simply no/ remedies. Try it: tear the heart-/ shaped leaves, pull all the cloying fruits apart./ When you least expect it, they will come back, new/ stems from old roots.” Although this might seem like “sorry recompense/ for all your effort,” highly gifted poets like Amy Glynn who continue in this root and vein will find poetry writing and poetry reading to be both remedy and release for that “Heightened sense” – that common ground and uncommon malady often experienced by sensitive poets and serious lovers of poetry.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem, published by Hiraeth Press. Look for Outside Eden soon to be published by Kelsay Books.

A Modern Herbal, Poems by Amy Glynn, hardcover

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Poetry Book Review: New Collected Poems of Wendell Berry

Meeting Wendell Berry several years ago, I found his warm handshake and pleasant voice as down-to-earth as his poems and lifestyle, deeply rooted in his Kentucky farm. Since then, I’ve continued to be an admirer of his poetry and essays, often found in Christian journals or religious publications from most church denominations. I've enjoyed, too, reviews of his many books, for instance, as Glynn Young discussed recently in his article, “Wendell Berry and the Land.”

When my review copy of the New Collected Poems arrived a few weeks ago from Counterpoint Press, I began reading right away, thinking I’d quickly post a review, but I was wrong. These poems do not want a quick read but the slow savor one saves for the scrumptious, mouthwatering main meal of the day.

As the contents show, the collection consists of a banquet of books beginning with The Broken Ground in 1964 and continuing through the 2010 book, Leavings. Reading the poems along this timeline can be especially instructive if you’re a poet in search of a mentor, which the poetry itself can be.

Wendell Berry, however, won’t be likely to read the poems with you. As the opening poem, “The Country of Déjà vu,” explains: “My old poems – I like them all/ well enough when they were new,” but now “I have no need to go back to” them. This doesn’t seem to express dissatisfaction but rather declares no particular need for living in or revisiting the past.

Although written as a tribute to a fellow poet and Kentuckian, “A Man Walking and Singing” shows “His singing becomes conglomerate/ of all he sees,/ leaving the street behind him/ runged as a ladder/ or the staff of a song.” And then in “The Design of the House,” we see “the flower/ forgets its growing,” which the very timeline in a collection of memorable poems might be less inclined to let a poet do.

That same poem looks not to the past but the future where “the house is a shambles/ unless the vision of its perfection/ upholds it like stone.” And later in this “Design,” we see the blueprint followed as “Love has conceived a house,/ and out of its labor/ brought forth its likeness.”

As part of that pattern of love, “The Handing Down” reminds us “It is the effort of design/ to triumph over the imperfections/ of the parts.” These wise words go on to warn, “The mind falsifies its objects/ by inattention,” and it seems to me that this is an important advisory to poets, artists, and people in general: Pay attention! Otherwise, we’re apt to sketch a skewed version of what’s there.

Really looking, really seeing, and clearly observing the real might not always be pleasant though, as this same poem of legacy and love continues: “He has lived a long time./ He has seen the changes of times/ and grown used to the world/ again.”

We all experience change. That fact and the warm tones pull us toward the poem, “The Thought of Something Else,” where “the mind turns, seeks a new/ nativity – another place,/ simpler, less weighted/ by what has already been.” And, with the poet, we want to seek “– a place where thought/ can take its shape/ as quietly in the mind/ as water in a pitcher.”

For Wendell Berry that place has been his family farm, where life and death employ seasons of growing. In “Song In A Year Of Catastrophe,” for instance, a prophetic voice says “Die/ into what the earth requires of you.” And the “I” of the poem responds: “I let go all holds then, and sank/ like a hopeless swimmer into the earth,/ and at last came fully into the ease/ and the joy of that place,/ all my lost ones returning.”

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem, published by Hiraeth Press.

New Collected Poems, Wendell Berry, paperback

New Collected Poems, Wendell Berry, Kindle Edition, e-book

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012 by Geoffrey Hill

In Broken Hierarchies, Oxford University Press collected the impressive poems of master poet and poetry professor Geoffrey Hill from his 21 books of poems, written between 1952-2012. The size of this collection could very well intimidate readers still trying to decide if they want to write poetry or even read 973 poetic pages, but frankly, many of the poems might be lost on them anyway as many may be on me.

So, when this lovely review copy arrived, I approached it with caution, keenly aware that the hundreds of books of poetry I’ve read and many books of poetry essays I’ve enjoyed did not totally prepare me for the poetic work of THE Professor of Poetry elected by the University of Oxford. In addition to that distinctive honor, Geoffrey Hill taught poetry for many years at highly prestigious universities, whereas I, aside from English Lit in college and a lifelong love of poetry, am self-taught.

Nevertheless, I gladly recognized the play of traditional forms with meter, true rhyme, and such slant rhymes as well/heal, hurt/heart, live/grieve. Sound echoes, word plays, repetition, and refrain bring musicality to these poems, too, including the free verse, prose poems, and other forms the poet devised for use in various sections throughout the book – all of which are worth studying and employing by poets serious about the literary quality of their own work.

I also liked having the opportunity to follow the progress of a renowned poet, which Editor Kenneth Haynes made possible by presenting the poems along the timeline they were written. What surprised me, however, is that the poems in the first half of the book seemed more accessible than those in later sections.

Keeping the title in mind helped me to gain entrance to the poems, which address hierarchies that interest and often disappoint the poet: theology, religion, politics, British history, fine arts, and literature. In the second verse of “God’s Little Mountain,” for example:

I thought the thunder had unsettled heaven,
All was so still. And yet the sky was cloven
By flame that left the air cold and engraven.
I waited for the word that was not given.

This disappointment in hearing nothing but thunder resurfaces visually in “The Pentecost Castle” #3 of Tenebrae, which says, “You watchers on the wall/ grown old with care/ I too looked from the wall/ I shall look no more.” And so, “1 Lachrimae Verae” calls upon the “Crucified Lord” with this indictment: “I cannot turn aside from what I do;/ you cannot turn away from what I am./ You do not dwell in me nor I in you/ however much I pander to your name….” And yet in “4 Lachrimae Coactae” the “Crucified Lord” is still called “Lord” in this seeking where “I fall between harsh grace and hurtful scorn./ You are the crucified who crucifies….”

According to “Parentalia,” the poet or poetic personae finds “the things of earth snagging the things of grace.” Yet hope flickers in verse XVII in “The Triumph of Love,” where “If the gospel is heard, all else follows./ We shall rise again, clutching our wounds.” Then, in XXIII, we find “What remains? You may well ask. Construction/ or deconstruction? There is some poor/ mimicry of choice, whether you build or destroy./ But the Psalms – they remain….”

Faith remains, too, in CXXI which asks “So what is faith if it is not/ inescapable endurance?” And then, “Light is this instant, far-seeing/ into itself, its own/ signature on things that recognize/ salvation….”

In verse 1 of “The Orchards of Syon” we suspect a magic show of wordplays beginning “Now there is no due season. Do not/ mourn unduly…./ Watch my hands/ confabulate their shadowed rhetoric,/ gestures of benediction; maledictions/ by arrangement….”

Is this what literature is – a magical trick of calling into being what we wish or fear that may or may not be there? Or, as “The Argument of the Masque” expresses in verse 6, “That, in these latter days, language/ is the energy of decaying sense….” and “If power’s fuelled by decay,/ so be it – decay being a natural force.”

“Ludo” demonstrates this decline of meaning in language by following a stream of consciousness – not of thought, but of sounds. As verse 1 says, “We who are lovers through a grace of days/ in diverse ways; who to variant clays/ are self-adherent; and heirs apparent/ to parent fears and fears recurrent….” You get the idea or, rather, the sound effects. Apparently, this wordplay wasn’t played out but beautifully played down in “Oraclau,” which begins “The rain passes, briefly the flags are lit/ Blue-grey wimpling in the stolid puddles;/ And one’s mind meddles and muddles/ Briefly also for joy of it.”

Yes! And isn’t that what poetry brings! …the joy of writing, the joy of freely associating this with that, the glee of musicality, and even the bliss of ranting eloquently when life and its hierarchies disappoint us for a while -- at least until we regain our balance, perhaps, by writing poems or reading fine poetry such as this.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of the poetry book, Living in the Nature Poem, published by Hiraeth Press. Look for her new book Outside Eden soon from Kelsay Books.

Broken Hierarchies by Geoffrey Hill, hardback

Thursday, March 27, 2014

How to improve your poems

Poetry writing often happens naturally and spontaneously. However, improvements can be made when a poem gets to sit awhile before you come back to read the lines aloud and notice what needs improvement.

The more you read poetry by other poets, the more you’ll recognize what works well and what does not. Meanwhile, you can improve your poems by asking these questions of each poem as you revise:

• Does the poem have a fresh view or insight into the theme or topic?

• Will the subject interest most people?

• Is the poem truthful and honest about its facts and feelings?

• Does the poem make refreshing use of language?

• Do the word choices have interesting connotations or echoing sounds?

• Does the poem emphasize only important words with the use of sound echoes or rhyme for special effect?

• Can any musicality be heard as you read the poem aloud?

• Does the poem use humor rather than wit and cleverness?

• Do the form, tone, and style fit the idea?

• Do the line-breaks in free verse work well, or would the poem improve if the lines were broken differently?

• Does each traditional poem fit a particular form?

• Will the length and style suit poetry journals or e-zines?

• Does the poem invite readers into an experience?

• Does the poem cause readers to think on their own, rather than telling them what and how to think?

• Does the poem offer more than readers will get in one reading, so they'll want to read it again?

• Would you like the poem a lot if someone else had written it?

If you want to write poems other people will enjoy reading, you’ll do well to study poetry forms and time-tested techniques as shown in this home study course, now available as an inexpensive, reader-friendly e-book, the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry. And, if you have been writing poems a while or just want feedback to help you take your poems to the next level, a poetry critique will help.

© 2014, Mary Sayler, poetry editor and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem by Hiraeth Press and Outside Eden, to be published in late Spring of 2014 by Kelsay Books

Living in the Nature Poem, paperback

Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry, Kindle e-book

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: A House Rejoicing, Poems by Pavel Chichikov

The work of Pavel Chichikov first came to my attention when, as a poetry editor for a Christian e-zine, he kindly accepted some of my poems for publication. Although he no longer does that particular job, he continues to be a proponent of poetry through his books, poetry website, and poetry readings on Catholic Radio International.

As a prolific writer for Christian and secular readers, Pavel covers a wide range of subjects – from war, power, aging, death, and his homeland of Russia to loving, forgiving, and letting go. You can expect to find an eclectic mix of topics in A House Rejoicing, too, with such unexpected subjects as “The Dinosaur Encyclopedia” and “The Fisherman’s Wife,” whose poetic lines plunge us into a sea of parable, myth, and fish tale.

In its quiet opening, however, the title poem invites us to “Enter here” where “any way you take/ Will lead to love, no one can miss” – a place where “Servants padding silently/ To serve the ones who enter thus/ Have larger eyes with which to see.” Besides trusting that these servants “will not wake the sleeping guests,” I see the poet himself as this attentive servant, who serves God, poetry, and traditional forms of rhyme and meter.

We see humor and heartbreak in the poems too. For example, in “Bless The Child,” mulberries have fermented, so “Birds commanding energy/ To feed and satisfy their brood/ Peck the berries happily,/ A little high, a little stewed.” Then on the adjacent page, “My Heart” feels for a sick foal whose “eyes/ Are great moist wounds without surprise,” leaving the poet to wonder, “If I can touch it will it heal? What cure the pity that I feel?”

And, in these diverse poems, death can also be healing. In the poem, “In Which The Dead Are Met,” for example, “I saw the man last night/ Perspective new, resentment gone/ We decided to be friends/ He died ten years ago/ But quarrels end.”

Whether addressing private relationships or political ones, the poems in A House Rejoicing come from many corridors but, ultimately, lead toward redemption where “Only the crucified God alone/ Can bear up the weight of the suffering world/ And carry it bleeding, cross and man.”

© 2014, Mary Sayler, reviewer

A House Rejoicing: Poems, paperback

A House Rejoicing: Poems, Kindle e-book

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tips on sending your poems to a poetry journal or e-zine

• Read, study, and support poetry journals, anthologies, and literary e-zines whose work you like.

• Notice who publishes the poems you enjoy reading as they’ll be more likely to enjoy your poetry too.

• If these potential publishers have a website, read and study the poems archived online.

• Review your poetry to find poems with a style, length, theme, subject, or “feel” similar to the published poems you like.

• Read your work aloud. Notice any glitches. Revise accordingly, and read aloud each revision.

• Select 3 to 5 poems per batch per publisher.

• Carefully follow the guidelines on the publisher’s website.

• If poems are accepted only by mail, type each poem on its own page with your name and contact information across the top like a letterhead. Use plain white paper and a plain font in 11 or 12-point with no flourishes. Except for “business words,” such as “a, the, and,” capitalize the first letter of each word in the title. Use boldface type only for the title. Space down two spaces. Type your name as you want it to appear on the poem. Space down two more space, and type the poem, single-spaced.

• If you use an online submission manager, type the poems as described above, save as one file, and send as an attachment. Do this for email attachments too.

• If the editor wants the poetry submission sent as an email text, type each poem flush left.

• Submit one batch of 3-5 poems to one editor at a time. When sending by mail, enclose an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) with enough postage for the return of your work.

• Keep track of where and when you sent each poem. Each publication will have a different response time, but in general, an e-zine will get back to you quicker than a print journal. If you haven’t heard in several months, follow up with a brief note, asking for an update on each title.

• While you wait to hear about one batch of poems, send off another batch to another editor.

• If an editor returns your work, read each poem aloud. Listen carefully for rough spots. Revise as needed, then submit the batch of poems to the next journal or e-zine on your list.

• If your poems keep coming back, a professional poetry critique can help you to improve those poems with just-for-you tips that will also help as you write and revise future poems.

• To discover more options for your poetry in general and learn about the forms and techniques that will elevate your work to a higher literary level, order the Kindle e-book, the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry.


© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet, poetry instructor, writing consultant, and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press. Look for her poetry book, Outside Eden, to be published in the Spring of 2014 by Kelsay Books.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: Songs from a Wild Place by Jason Kirkey

In Songs from a Wild Place, poet Jason Kirkey dedicates the book “To anyone who ever thought they could change the world with their art” then proceeds to the first poem “Silence” where “this life is not yet spoken;/ it cannot hear itself/ or the melody around it/ which sings of all the/ unbidden lyrics/ raging in its heart.”

Not rage, however, but wonder asks “Who is the Poet? Who is the Pen?” in a poem by that title where “Anything can happen in the bare lines/ stretched before us” as we keep on “listening and faithfully writing what we hear.”

Seeking and finding inspiration “Near the center of a land that/ I have known,” the poem “Self Portrait” proclaims our acceptance in a vastness where “I could still claim,/ if nothing else,/ this breathing as my own.”

And so as we, like the poet, give ourselves over to poetry and that “Wonder at the Edge of Morning,” we begin to “emerge from the dark,/ the invisible world slipping from our shoulders” to find “waking is an art of wonder;/ the mastery in taking the first/ pure note of the day, and stretching/ it across the measure of all the hours” as each day we awaken to new life, new resources of time and energy, new opportunities, new hopes and visions and songs.

“When Lightning Strikes the Heart,” however, “there is no telling what/ dark storm will take…” us, “turning us toward the/ life we have avoided.” But then, isn’t that the risk we take as poets and artists in search of honesty and truths in need of telling?

As a poet and editor-publisher of Hiraeth Press, Jason Kirkey understands the cost of creativity as revealed in “Canto III: Descent to Hades,” which begins with the haunting line, “There will be no sky tonight.” Later the poem cautions, “if you are afraid then turn your eyes/ not away, but towards –/ compassion is the heart of tension.” And, in “Canto IV: Contradiction, Beauty,” the poem exhorts us with these words, “If you have healed yourself/ then you must heal the world.”

Nevertheless, the “Song of the Broken” cautions us about our “need/ to keep plunging in desperate/ prayer into the dark waters” of our wounds where “the scars will not heal – / shouldn’t,/ they’re your voice and honor,/ the ground from which you rose.”

This openness to the poem, this vulnerability to our art continues in “The Mountain of No-Self,” asking, “What faith can we find in the always changing world?/ What safety? What presence? None without risk!/ Abandon safety. Come dance on the mountains.”

Despite the risks and chancy moments when, as poets or artists, we occasionally veer too near the edge of despair, “July Leaves” leaves us with the initial need for silence – that quiet space in which to process our lives and art, saying, “If you would speak, then meditate/…following the breath to its center/ and there to find the waiting pearl of some/ invisible and luminous strand that/ doesn’t want your name.”

In a literary terrain where poets and writers are constantly told to market themselves and establish a brand, Songs from a Wild Place has none of that. Instead, this highly recommend book ends with a call to see a large view of ourselves and the work we’ve been given, leaving us with this word: “If you would meditate, then speak;/ if you would speak then know that the sound/ of your breathing passed through the pure/ silence of your body, and all the music that follows/ is the freedom that we were born for./ The air is already rushing in to fill you./ What is the beauty that you will sing?”

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem, published by Hiraeth Press

Songs from a Wild Place, paperback