Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems speak of a quiet life


This new offering of poetry appealed to me enough to request a review copy (which Paraclete Press kindly sent) because of the unique perspective I expected to find in the Unquiet Vigil of a Trappist monk, Brother Paul Quenon, OCSO, who once studied under Thomas Merton.

Let’s face it. We live in troubled times. And, even in our every-daily-ness, most of us have hurried, often harried, lives, not at all conducive to writing or reading poems. As I’ve found in my own writing life, poetry seldom screams to be heard.

In the “Author’s Note,” Br. Paul gives us a glimpse into his environment of peace and unrest through these words: “To keep vigil is literally to watch. ‘Watch’ is that one-word command given us by Jesus, much like the one word that opens the Holy Rule of St. Benedict: ‘Listen.’ The monastic life is a lifelong practice of both watching and listening.” And so, these poems circle “around silence to see and watch what is heard, a use of words to fix in hearing what is not quite seen.”

Unexpectedly, however, the opening poem shows us that we need to be on watch for the poet’s self-effacing humor. As “Gone Missing” says:

Kindly reader, I am a poem without a poet.
He has gone missing for weeks
and my house is empty. Suffer me awhile,
or go, and if you meet him –
he with a distant look and shambling gait –
tell him the hearth is cooling down.


Most poets can identify with that verse – an amusing yet sad reminder that poetry does not happen when we’re missing from our poems or evading our own lives.

“Lark Ascending” informs our poetry writing too, speaking of and for those poems that call to us from our deeper yet higher selves:

Not how high he goes it is
but from where he ascended,

where he hid, and when
he followed his music when
it escaped, and had to catch up with it
just to stay alive.


Conversely, the lowliness of a “Sad Possum” or “Sleepy Serpent,” keeps us as grounded as the prose poem, “Groundhog Extraordinaire,“ which begins with a confession that might well speak for us too: “In my prime I was a groundhog with attitude.”

Watching, listening to the quietness of nature often connects the poet – and us – to much more than what’s seen or heard. For example, in “1 July,” we’re given this insightful sight and persistent sound:

With its single note, single note
a common sparrow cleanses space
for meditation.


Not only animals cause us to pause as, in a “Cricket’s Reverie,” we see this Autumn scene:

Trees stand like harps,
strings bare just to the top
where golden notes hang caught
as song departs.

The section of the book entitled “Monkswear” might not sound as though we’ll connect to a monastic life so unlike our own, but then, amusingly, we discover a “Monk’s Cassock” has “Pockets deep enough/ to smuggle two wine bottles/ right through the cloister.”

Levity, loneliness, and worries speak – in various times and places – for almost everyone, but ultimately Br. Paul finds “My Silence Is The Lord.”

My silence is the Lord,
I listen, his silence speaks at all times.
When I listen not, my hearing is filled with words
and my tongue takes to rambling.

In the waiting silence, the poet and those who listen will hopefully hear a voiceless voice, saying:

I seek a heart that is simple.
With the peaceful I spread my tent.
I will wash your feet and dry them,
my silence will be their perfume.



© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is also the poet-author of Outside Eden with poems that speak to and for Bible people and Living in the Nature Poem in print and in an e-book on Kindle that speaks to and for nature – from wildlife to human nature to our spiritual nature too.


Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems, paperback




Thursday, September 4, 2014

All Broken Up & other line breaks


One advantage of traditional forms of poetry hinges on the swing of a line. Instead of having to decide where and when to break each line of a poem, the pattern of your chosen form makes that decision for you.

For example, a sonnet written in iambic pentameter will be measured (meter) as five feet with iambs predominating. At the end of those five, the line breaks, and the next line of iambic pentameter begins with the same pattern repeated for 14 rhyming lines.

If you want to know more about the sonnet form, save this page and click the link below to an earlier post on the Poetry Editor blog. If you don't care, skip through the pink stuff!

Sonnets traditionally require poets to use rhythmic rhymes and argue nicely in fourteen lines

If you’re not sure what iambs and other poetic feet consist of but want to know, visit these discussions where I aimed to make the explanations as easy as possible.

Scan A Poem. Get The Picture.

Scan a poem. Catch the beat. Change the rhythm as you revise.

Accentual syllabic or metered verse

Unlike traditional forms of poetry with their consistent patterns, free verse is free of meter and free of other requirements, such as line length.

That sounds airy-light and, yeah, freeing, but this means you have to make a decision with every line. Sometimes that’s a hard call; sometimes not. Either way, line breaks can make or break a free verse poem.

Is this something to fret about as you write? No! Worry is more confining than any poetry pattern, so let poems flow. Then go back later to revise, breaking lines here or there or wherever your eyes and ears desire.

As you read each poem and revision aloud, keep your ear attuned to its musicality.

As you read each poem by sight, see if you find any evidence of a unique pattern to emphasize and make the poem pop.

In the following poem, for example, I played with line breaks on the word “break.” Then, during the revision process, I experimented with variations of “break” and “broke” and, mainly, had fun.

Play with words. Play around with line breaks. Try something new, and have a good time with your poems and your readers.


All Broken Up!
by Mary Harwell Sayler

Hey! What’s going on tonight?
My fingernail broke.
A bird broke into flight,
and, oh! The mirror broke!
Will it be all right?
Then someone breaks
the silence.

I went to bed closing
my eyes to these sights –
hoping and praying the breaks
might not last,
then morning broke
daybreak
into dawn-light,
and I happily hopped down to break-
fast.


©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler. All rights reserved. The poem “All Broken Up!” originally appeared in Mary’s Kindle e-book for kids, the Poetry Dictionary For Children & For Fun and has been included, too, in her book of children’s poems, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, to be published mid-September by Kelsay Books, who also published Outside Eden. In addition, Mary released the Kindle e-book the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry as a revision of the poetry home study course she wrote and used for many years with other poets and poetry students. She continues to help poets, one-on-one, through her website.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry


When I requested a review copy of The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry, which Seashell Press kindly sent to me, I thought the company had published a collection of poems by well-known and not-so-known poets. Come to find out though, this 2011 anthology, which originally saw publication in 1996, has now gone into its fourth printing. Oh, for my books of poems to do the same!

Since my bookshelves at home contain many fine poetry anthologies, the success of this edition intrigued me. Let’s face it: No matter how famous a memorable poem has become, publishers can put them together only so many times before poetry book-buyers like me start to catch on to little more than repackaging. Not so with this book!

As the editor, Christopher Burns, says in the introduction, “Great poetry is personal.” Ironically, this does not mean self-centered expressionism but, more likely, the opposite, for “It is in poetry, not on the Senate floor, that we debate the issues of honor, loyalty, love and respect for nature that are the foundations of our society. Poetry is a truth toward which our reason turns and we measure its strength by the way we feel.”

Although most poets and writers identify with “the contours of life, the loneliness of the artist, the uses of war, the role of nature, the constancy of love and the coming on of death” as individuals, we also recognize universal themes that say, “This is the singing of our tribe, called out across the noisy business of daily life.” Nevertheless, we’re to “Take it personally” as we feel, care, reach out, and swap stories.

The interweaving of poetry from centuries ago and the present day add to the call-and-response effect this anthology often gives as the poems interact with one another and with us as readers.

For example, that wonderful poem “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson (1919) which opens the book, calls out where “Darkness covered everything,/ Blacker than a hundred midnights/ Down in a cypress swamp” until, eventually, “This Great God,/ Like a mammy bending over her baby,/ Kneeled down in the dust/ Toiling over a lump of clay/ Till He shaped it in His own image;/ Then into it He blew the breath of life,/ And man became a living soul.”

These lines help us to recall the beginnings we have in common to the core, and then Anne Sexton gives her 1975 version of “The Earth,” where God “does not envy the soul so much./ He is all soul/ but He would like to house it in a body/ and come down/ and give it a bath/ now and then.” In “Yet Do I Marvel,” Countee Cullen (1923) wanted to know why God would “make a poet black, and bid him sing.”

In the section entitled “For My People,” Walt Whitman (1855) sings his “Song of Myself” while Emma Lazarus (1886) focuses on “The New Colossus” in the Statue of Liberty who cries “With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”

And then, a poet unknown-to-me, Charles Reznikoff (1936) insists, “I will write songs against you,/ enemies of my people,” before admitting, ”I will pelt you/ with the winged seeds of the dandelion./ I will marshal against you/ the fireflies of the dusk.”

Focused on the natural and the unnatural, love and war, life and death, the anthology gathers poems from the 16th century to the present day with an enormous range of voices from the melodious to the discordant, but each with something to say and a unique perspective or intriguing story from which to speak.

Besides the pleasure of seeing these universal themes approached from many directions, I appreciated “discovering” poets whose work I have not previously read mingled with old favorites, some of whom have fallen out of favor in recent years and anthologies. Realizing this, however, helped me to see that many anthologies aim to preserve the popular poetic works of a particular time, whereas this anthology concentrates on well-written poems, yes, but on poems that speak clearly and passionately to and for the people.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer is the poet-author of Outside Eden that speaks to and for Bible people and Living in the Nature Poem in print and in an e-book on Kindle with poems that speak to and for nature – from wildlife to human nature to our spiritual nature too.


The Seashell Anthology of Great Poetry, paperback



Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Praying with poetry


Regardless of your religious background, you’ve most likely heard of the famous trio: Poets, Prophets, and Saints, but after Wipf & Stock (Resource Publications) sent me a review copy of Digging for God: Praying with Poetry by Anne M. Higgins, I’d like to revise that big 3 to Poets, Prophets, and Pray-ers – the latter of whom can be almost anyone, saintly or not.

Line drawings by Maureen Beitman illustrate the four sections: Eden, Solomon, Gethsemane, and Revelation – each of which has the format of a poem followed by suggestions for prayer or meditation. For example, the opening “Tribute Poem” begins with “Praise for late sleeping day,/ waking up without alarm.” Then, as you turn the page, you’re asked to “Name five events, situations, or experiences that you appreciate” with special emphasis on “the ordinary and undramatic ones” and “write a poem of praise to God for them.” Since the rest of the page is blank, you immediately have a place to respond.

Most likely, though, you came here for some kind of discussion about poetry, so let’s talk about the poems in this book. A quick glimpse might supply such adjectives as “light and lovely” or “nice!” – especially since the lines actually look light and the layout nice. But consider the first few lines in the “Second Antiphon in the Style of Hildegard.”

O You who squeeze the wind
until she howls,
who wring the rain until
she gushes


Marvelous metaphors! Yes? So, what do you think comes next? Since this is a Daughter of Charity writing, would you expect this?

O You who squeeze the wind
until she howls,
who wring the rain until
she gushes,
send electric waves
rushing through the cord
to jolt the vacuum cleaner
to roaring life.
I pray your power
moving in the homeliest of things.


The poem goes on to list a few, and then the next page invites you to “List five objects in your everyday life that you would call ‘the homeliest things.’/ What gift does each of them have for you?”

Although I had no intentions of interacting right then as I’m busy trying to give you an objective review, I suddenly got subjective with my list:

• Footstool to up-put and rest my achy feet
• Cheese slicer to keep from having too much of a good thing
• Child’s step-stool to stretch and reach beyond the moment
• Fresh sheets that smell only of fresh air
• A lamp to read this and spotlight the stack of poetry books and Bibles close beside me, waiting for reading and review

Many of the poems by Anne Higgins deftly catalog what she sees. For instance, in “Wintering on St. Mary’s Mountain,” we join the poet in viewing a winter-browned mountain where “Owls and woodpeckers/ skim the gravestones –/ buttons on her broad brown coat.”

The poems do not rely on sightedness only, though, but call us to “Go Out to the Woods and Feel the Tree Bark,” joining the poet in experiencing a “Tree whose name I do not know,/ wearing your cable knit sweater,/ gnarled, snarling.”

In the section, “Solomon,” we experience sounds, too, or lack thereof, in “The Roofless Church, New Harmony, Indiana,” with “Silence, brown as earth,/ we describe/ by making walls around it/ and describing / the walls” as an artist might draw negative space, rather than the object. And, in “Gethsemane,” we become “The Rich Young Man,” who walks away from Jesus, saying “…to the disciple at the doorway,/ ‘Excuse me -/ I really must go’.”

The next section, “Golgotha,” opens with the title poem where the “I” of the poem wonders “How come the weeds are still green/ when the grass is brown with drought?” Conversely, the last poem in the last section, “Revelation,” gives us a “Gardner’s Magnificat” where “My heart shudders in God’s loamy breath,/ and I stand silent before my flourishing garden,/ for God has called his love for me/ through the sound of the Wood Thrush,/ through sunlight and shadow on Iris and Peony./ God shines in the leathery purple Ajuga leaves,/ startles me with feathery Astilbe/ I thought long lost to me.”

Whether the invasive Ajuga covers the ground or the Astilbe plant flowers like bright-colored feathers, nothing in this little book seems lost or wasted on readers apt to wonder, ponder, and dig.


© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poetry book reviewer and poet-author of a book of Bible-based poems Outside Eden published by Kelsay Books and Living in the Nature Poem published in print by Hiraeth Press and released this month as an e-book on Kindle


Digging for God: Praying with Poetry, paperback




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