Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review of Rembrandt’s Bible

What does a Jewish man, born in Israel and raised in the United Kingdom, have in common with an American woman raised in The South and The Church? Poetry and God, of course, but not necessarily in that order. And, to that list, we also need to add humor and mutual interest in swapping review copies of our new books of Bible-based poems.

Just so you'll know up front, I felt a lift of relief on finding the poems of award-winning poet Atar Hadari an insightful book to read and re-read.

In Rembrandt’s Bible, published in the UK by Indigo Dreams, the poet began with “Lot’s Wife,” a subject I didn’t get to until later in “Lot’s Wife Visits Genesis 19.” You could read both poems, however, (yes, please do!) and get two different but not conflicting views – mine focusing on the fact that the poor woman remained forever nameless and his poem expressing this extraordinary perspective:

And the moment
when she saw it
the elephant
rising in flames

was the moment her hands kept
and grasped
in their yellow,
gleaming reeds

the fire
of her youth.

In subsequent poems, the poet accompanies Isaac “…out to the fields to pray for forgiveness” then slips into the skin of Moses, whose “teeth ached from clenching,” and the skin of Michal, daughter of King Saul and wife of King David, who’s still ticked that “He paid for me – he paid in steam/ and blood – and on my father's stone/ it says ‘The father of Michal’/ and in my heart it says ‘The Queen of a Dead Man’.” Hadari even slips into the mail of Goliath with wit as he faces the young David, asking himself, “Shall I wear the hat? Nah. For this one/ I don't think I really need to bother with the helmet.”

As you’d surely expect, our perspectives on the Messiah differ in my closing poem “For You,” and his provocative “Baal Shem” that says, “We used to say you were Moses, / only with sunflowers in your eyes.”

Thought-provoking, too, is “Silence” where the eight-year-old “I” of the poem came to a school room in England and “sat while they said the Lord’s Prayer/ And did up my shoe-lace” only to be thumped on the back by an ignorant (my word, not his) woman, who chided him, saying, “That prayer was written by King David./ You have no earthly reason not to say it.” Say what?

The poem “Jerusalem” also presents an it-is-what-it-is perspective with no rancor: “Many dead. A few pots/ littered with figures from the centuries./ First layer Moses,/ painted with orbed Gold to a Christ,/then Mohammed with a scimitar/ and black beard –/ so much paint on one pot –/ you'd think the Lord had no shard to shed.” There’s a sense of coping humour in that, although “None of the figures…/ can put life back/ in the hands that dropped the pot.”

Divided into four sections with one part “Honey” (pun intended?), the third part “Father Tongue” begins with a contemporary scene of a near-death experience followed by “Three Hasidim Dancing” with “shiny shoes” that “lift to meet the room” as the “Blessed One/ riots in the tears/ that hang off of the chandeliers.” Those lively lines end with a thought that I and an Internet search found mystifying, but, if I got the gist, that Father Tongue either ate the dancers or swallowed them like a pill.

Most of the poems, however, are very assessable and inviting with their fresh perspective (“I saw my aunt again last night/…sculpturing a Picasso”), exquisite metaphors (“tears that come like petals from the wind”), and empathetic voice for the voiceless (wearing “Old Clothes” that “cried out for them/ just like your open hands.”)

These are poems you can identify with and want to read again. In the fourth section, “Rembrandt’s Bible,” for example, it’s easy to picture “Satan in the Desert,” saying, “Look kid,…it's like this – / I make you an offer, you make a counter offer – / really, we shouldn't even be talking/ you sure you haven't got an agent?" Or, picture the title poem where the Philistines might someday approach the artist and “…come to bear him away/ And he’ll pull their house down on their tongues/ By putting his hand through their paint.”

As I said, I want to read these poems again, and, most likely, you will too. So be it.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poetry book reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press, and a book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books

Rembrandt’s Bible, paperback

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Healing Spirit of Haiku

When I began to read the review copy of The Healing Spirit of Haiku I received from Wipf and Stock Publishers, I noticed the poet-authors, David Rosen and Joel Weishaus, provide clear entry into their topic in the Preface, establishing that they “both write haiku and know about the interconnections of haiku with Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, and Taoism.” In addition, they “have both lived and traveled in Japan, absorbing the healing spirit of haiku” at its very roots.

As you might have suspected by now, my roots entwine a variety of verse forms with Bible verses and Christian poetics, even though most of those poems do not mention Christ or Christianity. In other words, my beliefs color how I see the world – as do yours. So, for me, this might mean rose-colored drinking glasses in my kitchen cabinet or rose petals in a bouquet of ragweed.

At any rate, haiku is typically thought of as the poetry of Eastern religions, but it can be adapted – and has been – to Western thinking and religions, which made this book’s dual subjects of haiku and healing especially interesting to me.

As David Rosen explains in the Preface, “Haiku fits well with Carl Jung’s psychotherapeutic technique of active imagination in which meditation leads to setting ego aside so the unconscious can emerge and be integrated with the conscious in a transcendent function resulting in an artistic product.”

Again, the idea of meditation brings Eastern faiths to mind, whereas my mind wants to “Consider the lily,” as Jesus suggested. So whether we’re talking meditation or the healing power of poetry in general or the healing beauty of haiku in particular, we bring ourselves and our unique views to what we read and write.

In the Preface, Joel Weishaus explains, “When we speak of healing, we are not concerned with overcoming illness but of becoming whole. ‘Heal’ and ‘whole' share the same etymological roots,” which brought to my mind how the Greek word salvos refers to both salve and salvation and how being whole relates to wholeness and holiness, but, I digress.

Another interesting aspect of this book is its consistent format using haibun, which combines prose with haiku and, in essence, narrates the setting from which the haiku evolved. For instance, in “Being Alone,” David writes of “trudging through a harsh early mid-life crisis and a winter of much darkness and despair in the Spring of 1978” when he wrote his first haiku as an adult:

Dawn on a spring sea –
Then a glittering
From a thousand jumping fish

To this, Joel responds by relating his experience of being alone when a relationship ended, leaving him with these words:

In the dark bedroom,
I close my eyes
And wonder why

Alternating between brief prose narratives and their ensuing poems, the poet-authors touch on universal themes of life, death, loss, passion, and creativity. Considering the topic of “Leaving,” for example, Joel says, “David and I once discussed how leaving the home of one’s childhood and adolescence in order to make a new home, one with adult responsibilities, is the first step in the journey toward Maturity. You must leave in order to arrive, give up in order to receive. Although this process is more psychological than somatic, it often means moving physically too” as his poem goes on to illustrate:

Leaf glides down
Through morning fog –
A train’s distant whistle

The travels of both poets echo through these poetic pages of calls and responses, perching, for example, on St. Francis of Assisi and coaxing David to say, “I love Assisi! How appropriate to be in this sacred place as the United States prepared for war with Iraq.” With the “sound of birds and the Spirit of St. Francis… everywhere,” he wrote this haiku of the ultimate healing:

At Assisi
Silent olive branches –
Pray for peace

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poetry book reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press, and a book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books

The Healing Spirit of Haiku, paperback

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Sea Sleeps: New & Selected Poems by Greg Miller

In the preface to The Sea Sleeps, a book of eclectic poetry I received as a review copy from Paraclete Press, poet Greg Miller tells us: "These poems come from an embodied form of the line, of voices moving over and within lines, sounds clashing and cavorting, resolving or remaining obstreperously, contrarily discordant," which pretty much describes the undercurrents of life or the ebb and flow of the now-sleeping sea.

What can be felt or imagined in sleep, in death, or a tranquil sea? In various ways, these poems address this, stirring up our tranquility to think, reconsider, and just notice what's going on around us. For example, the first poem, “Primal,” in the opening section of “New Poems” calls us to “see now our primal people, pushed to the rivers/ And coasts of Africa, bands of some five hundred/ Individuals the evidence of our DNA strands now tells us,// The seeds of us all, winnowed and thinned by hunger….”

Seeing that shared heritage where, together, we’re “capable of anything” increases the pathos in the next poem, “Ruins,” where we see “The city as a shifted ruin.” And yet, “Somewhere in my memories of gloves/ And bow ties there’s the idea of opportunity,/ Perhaps a genteel and vapid accoutrement/ Of vanishing democratic false consciousness,/ Where we might believe in a shared public/ Sphere, where people might take care of one/ Another enough for there to be a general hope/ In the general good, that merit, not birth alone,/ Might shape things, where everyone might have/ A chance at work and dignity….”

In addition to the new poems prefacing this collection, sections of “Translations” and poems from previous books Watch (2009), Rib Cage (2001), and Iron Wheel (1998) have also been included.

For example, the poems from Watch open with “From the Heights” where long, flowing lines tell us, “My vision is partial, my voice middling, and I do not trust myself to the heights/ through everything here below begins to mingle and seem to me part of one canvas:/ ego, self-delusion, and pride in an infinite hall of mirror with reflection// mirroring all the old self-deceptions masquerading as penitential retractions.”

In poems from Rib Cage, we see an “Intercessor,” who, after praying for weeks begins to wonder, “Whom had prayer healed,/ Protected? Whom could he, unshielded, shield?/ But still he felt compelled: he held to hope/ Though when it slipped, it burned him like a rope.”

And from Iron Wheel comes “Revival,” on a “Good Friday/ and I am singing/ because it is good/ to say I love, I hurt,/ good to be able/ to say that it is not/ fair, and that God knows this.”

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler -- poetry book reviewer and poet-author of the book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books.

The Sea Sleeps: New & Selected Poems, paperback

Friday, July 4, 2014

Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms

As Brad Davis tells us in his preface to Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms, “The intention was not to create a new translation/ adaptation of the Psalms, engage in midrash, or even generate ‘religious’ verse, but to make poems in a conversational idiom that bear witness to an attention to three horizons: the text, my surroundings (natural, cultural, relational, situational), and whatever may have been happening inside my skin at the time of composition.” Most likely, something similar happened to King David, Asaph, and other psalmists whose words were preserved in the Bible rather than an Emerald City book published by Wipf and Stock.

Written over centuries, biblical Psalms express praise, thanksgiving, laments, pleas, and petitions with no thought of book length or the divisions later devised to reflect the five books of Torah. Poet Brad Davis followed that editorial precedent in dividing his 150 poems into five parts or “books” with each poem responding to a verse chosen sequentially from Psalm 1 to 150.

For example, the first poem “Ashre” considers Psalm 1:1-2, “Blessed is he who meditates day and night,” then begins by telling about a collision with a deer whose “giant black eyes blinked slowly, confused,” perhaps describing the dilemma of the poet, who finds it “Difficult this morning to concentrate/ on the psalmic text – Happy is the man” when admittedly feeling “like chaff that the wind blows away.”

In the poem “She Said,” the reference to the “deeds of man” in Psalm 17:4 considers how “the Spirit I know works in us as we/ work on things like love – putting out the trash without having to be reminded – which / I am very far from getting right.” And, in the “Neighbor as Theologian” the poet responds to Psalm 29:3, “The God of glory thunders,” which his neighbor seems to hear with clarity, causing the poet to wonder why “would I begrudge her/ an assurance of contact? More likely,/ I long for what she has, embarrassed, pained/ by my lack of openness to mystery – / which, she has told me, is wholly present/ in, with, and under the hedge between us.”

Generally written in free verse or ten-syllable lines with occasional use of internal rhymes, the poems present an acrostic response to Psalm 34 since its referent was also written in lines that began with each letter of the alphabet. As the poet proceeds in “Reading the Psalter,” Psalm 54 considers how “Vengeance is mine,/ says the Lord….” which ends with the conclusion that “We must – I must do my own dirty work/ or forever hold my difficult peace.”

With laments, praise, cries, insight, a rare use of crudity, and occasional humor, one poem sends a critique in “E-Mails to Asaph,” admitting “If your God’s good with mixed metaphors,/ who am I to argue.” When the poet seeks to escape in “The Good Life,” the realization comes that “The same/ irreverence travels with me, clings to my every/ move like Spanish moss in the live oaks….” Nevertheless, the poem “Pentecost” reveals that “more than tongues/ or hummingbirds or art, we await,/ beyond wasp and swift or even want,/ a word to set ablaze the air, ignite our hearts.”

Continuing to seek “Words That Matter,” the poet sings “an infinite Word who calls forth// in our souls an infinite longing./ Though death may require a dislocation// of the self from all that is not the self,/ this is the Word that will return us to// our right minds, a right regard for all things./ This is the Word that will wake us from death.”

Before that waking though, “A New Song” brings the realization, “For now, I am thankful for how all things// seem to resolve into song – and the high call/ to bend our wills to set a wronged world right.” But how? How does the poet do that? How do we?

Quoting Psalm 150:6, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” the last line of the last poem ends this read-it-again collection with the challenge: “Do you breathe? Praise God” - an everlastingly good idea.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler -- poetry book reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press, the book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books, and the e-book, Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry

Opening King David: Poems in Conversation with the Psalms, paperback


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Poetry Book Review: Inclusions

Before Červená Barva Press published Inclusions, the first book of poems written in English by Polish-American poet Joanna Kurowska, she’d had two books of poems in Polish published in Poland with one published in the U.S.

Language proves no barrier, however, but provides delight in whatever is present or whatever Presence is perceived. In the opening poem “Indian Summer,” for example, the poet pictures various people who come and go where “…happiness was /within reach; a thin screen/ separated them from it” but “they passed by, without/ stretching their arms to pick it.” Beside evoking an image of ripe autumn fruit with the word “pick,” we get the lyrical reminder that, yes, we can choose to seek what pleases us and makes us happy.

In the second poem, “A World Without Honey,” the poet clarifies that choice by presenting the opposite option, not with dark thoughts and a heavy hand but with a matter-of-fact levity that alights on such lines as “The world without honey/ is a desolate place. It is/ the wonderland of just milk” – a place where “The dew in a melon/ is no longer honey dew; / it is just dew.” Besides the humor of “just dew,” I couldn’t help but think of a “honey-do list” with no honey to do anything.

Also inherent in the choices we all must make is the milk-and-honey promised land we choose to accept or not, whether we're aware of that option or not. For example, in “A Sunday Mass at St. Jacob’s,” the poet admits “It’s easy to believe in the cathedral/ Slightly harder to believe in the Virgin’s gilt robe.” In keeping with the title and theme of inclusions, however, the “I” of the poem asks to “…stay in the darkness of opposing beliefs/ Whatever is there, I am your complete other/ Loving you; choking with gratitude.”

This flexibility continues even in “The Mirror,” where a rigid, reflective surface can only present what is there and not how it’s viewed by the viewer until “She turned away from the mirror/ and heard the lark’s morning song.”

The emptying of self in that walk away from the mirror comes back again in the poem, “Nothing,” which begins, “I am thankful for nothing,” then takes an unexpected turn in “I can carry it in my purse,/ in a suitcase, a cart/ or in my backpack.” The poem continues with thoughts of filling that nothing with various somethings before resolving, “Or I can leave it empty;/ be thankful for my nothing. Living in its presence is like/ a stroll on the verge of a precipice.”

Before verging away from this discussion though, I’d like to backtrack to the title poem found a little beyond the half-way point of this lovely book. As the word, “Inclusion,” suggests, the “I” of the poem wants “to make sure/ that nothing is missing….” And so, “between the alpha and omega,” we find the return of honey and a little of everything in “the wave tickling my feet,/ and the toothless woman who, in the train,/ kissed her boyfriend.” But “most importantly/ i want to make sure/ that i, too, am included/ in the world deposited/ on God’s tongue.”

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler - poetry book reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press, the book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books, and the e-book, Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry

Inclusions, paperback

Friday, June 20, 2014

Poetry Review: Mélange Block by Denise Low

Published by Red Mountain Press, the new poetry book Mélange Block introduced me to the work of poet Denise Low, whose 20 books of award-winning poems and essays have already seen print. The review copy I received also let me know she’s been honored as Poet Laureate for the state of Kansas where she began the creative writing program at Haskell Indian Nations University – impressive!

But what about the poems? Would they stand up to the expectations set by the back jacket blurbs? The first poem “Minerals” immediately answered that question in sparse words thick with mystery and images.

Women count winter bones
trapped in forests of fossil ferns,
choose some to breath again.

That poem sets the tone and pace with occasional variations and a hint of story. In “Magma: Springerville Volcanic Field,” for example, we see:

Brother’s walkingstick grinds grit ash
old film Journey to the Center of the Earth
rerun dream halfway along a twilight trek
as cones cross miles a dead museum of lava.
Prophecy of fire says he is halfway home.

The compression of story into cryptic lines gives the light brushstrokes found in haiku but with a sense of movement – even in the making of “Sedimentation: Alligator Junipers” where we find “agate-ring years/ seared drought forged/ creased wrinkled torsos.” So compressed, and yet you can sense the passage of time as story.

That movement of time, however, might be in a flash as shown in “Parallax” where we see:

Eye of the backyard fox
trapped on night film
occipital orb flashes white
void encircled by night.

Or time might freeze in the sound of a “Volcanic Core” where the “Throat of a volcano stands/ frozen in a final bass note.”

Revealing a highly observant eye and sensitive ear, this mélange (mixture of styles, shapes, colors, or rock matrix) deals honestly with a landscape of subjects – from growing old to a family freezing one bitter winter to Dega “rasping/ charcoal against grained paper.” Their clarity and compression encompass us all.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poetry book reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books.

Mélange Block, paperback

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Aimless Love by Billy Collins

When asked to list my favorite poets, Billy Collins inevitably makes the cut. So when I received a review copy of his new book, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, from the publisher Random House, I was delighted to see the selections covered most of the gaps in my Collins’ collection. Any poetic repeats were fun to read again anyway, especially with the jacket-flap assurance of over 50 new poems to enjoy.

“Enjoy” is the very verb needed to describe what you might expect to do upon reading Collins for the first or the fiftieth time. It’s amazing actually because we’re most likely talking about a highly cerebral man who consistently finds a down-to-earth connection with almost all of us. Sometimes this occurs as he puts a new twist on familiar sayings or as he speaks to us directly, obviously giving us thought.

Take, for instance, the opening poem “Reader,” whom Collins envisions as he's "standing by a map of the world/ wondering where you are – / alone on a bench in a train station/ or falling asleep, the book sliding to the floor.” Shortly thereafter, the title poem, “Aimless Love,” gives thoughtful attention to almost everything, including “the dead mouse,/ still dressed in its light brown suit.”

Mostly, though, Collins shows his love for poetry – a tumultuous affair. As “The Trouble with Poetry” tells us, “Poetry fills me with joy/ and I rise like a feather in the wind./ Poetry fills me with sorrow/ and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge. / But mostly poetry fills me/ with the urge to write poetry,/ to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame/ to appear at the tip of my pencil.”

A true lover of poetry, Billy Collins nods his acquaintance with other poets such as Dante in “Scenes of Hell” where “We did not have the benefit of a guide,” as Dante did, “But what truly caught our attention/ was the scene in the long mirror of ice:// you lighting the wick on your head,/ me blowing on the final spark, / and our children trying to crawl away from their eggshells.” Or in “Lost,” we catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Bishop’s appearance in the opening line “There was no art in losing that coin” and later in “paint-speckled” lines going “past storefronts, gas stations….”

Known for his wit and wry humor, Collins also gives us such poems as “Hippos on Holiday” which, he says, “is not really the title of a movie/ but if it were I would be sure to see it.” Eating popcorn, drinking his “enormous Coke,” he'd “be both in my seat/ and in the water playing with the hippos,/ which is the way it is/ with a truly great movie./ Only a mean-spirited reviewer/ would ask on holiday from what?”

So, while I think of Billy Collins as a highly observant, highly intelligent, highly skilled poet of clear insight and good humor, I’m wondering if he thinks of himself as the “mean-spirited reviewer” with questions few of us think to ask? I hope not! In an era of shams, shame, and deception, I appreciate his honest voice and fresh perspective.

I also appreciate his clear voice over the mumbling of the crowd. For example, if you’ve ever wondered what a person meant by saying or writing this or that and just wished for clarity in thought and speech, you’re probably in Billy’s shoes as he addresses “Baby Listening.” Upon learning of that “service offered by this seaside hotel,” the poet assures us that “Baby-listening – not a baby who happens to be listening,/ as I thought when I first checked in…./ But the phrase did suggest a baby who is listening,/ lying there in the room next to mine/ listening to my pen scratching against the page,/ or a more advanced baby who has crawled/ down the hallway of the hotel/ and is pressing its tiny, curious ear against my door.” And then comes the unexpected insight of this ever-vigilant poet: “Lucky for some of us,/ poetry is a place where both are true at once,/ where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.”

With levity of line and depth of meaning, Billy Collins keeps us reading and en-joying the joy he finds by paying attention to life and everything around, including death. In the closing poem “The Names” written “for the victims of September 11th and their survivors,” he pays attention and tribute to the “Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers, The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son./ Alphabet of names in green rows in a field./ Names in the small tracks of birds./ Names lifted from a hat/ Or balanced on the tip of the tongue./ Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory./ So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart” – especially such an empathetic heart that might break often without the love of poetry.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books.

Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, hardcover