New & Noted
Black Crow Dress, by Roxane Beth Johnson, Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine, 2013, 64 pages, $15.95 paperback.
Home Burial, by Michael McGriff, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington, 2012, 96 pages, $15.00 paperback.
Our Andromeda, by Brenda Shaughnessy, Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington, 2012, 146 pages, $16.00 paperback.
Incarnadine, by Mary Szybist, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2013, 80 pages, $15.00 paperback.
The Multiple, by Calvin Bedient, Omnidawn Publishing, Richmond, California, 2012, 88 pages, $15.95 paperback.
Black Crow Dress unfolds a slave narrative in a series of separate poems, after the introductory, lineated "Slave Ancestors Found Unburied in a Dream," virtually all prose poems. Roxane Beth Johnson has found a convincing, beckoning language in which to tell these tales—or more likely it found her, just as the book's speaker tells it in the title above and here in the book's second poem, "How This Book Begins: I Wake to a Roomful of Slaves":
They whir up like a jukebox, sing of time telling all, then fill my lungs with mud. I pray their teeth in my throat will loosen. Soft hands furiously pull up wheat. Bodies bent and they limp; no rest though dead. I give them bread to eat; they rub their bellies and ask for a cup of leaves. Their mouths full of poverty, they drink my sleep. What more do they want?
That language is one of this book's engines, homely yet dreamlike, sharp and surprising. It runs, really, throughout Black Crow Dress, but it's divided among personae that tell a story. Here, early on, is "Tobias Finch Discusses His Obsession from the Grave: His Slave, Caroline"; this is the whole short poem:
I own one hundred slaves. Bought my fair Caroline last. Queen of my bee-stung heart. Something so of the walnut about her. A fortune of meat crowded in her. Some tenderness I want to crack open like a storm. Her shaky lips are wet. I touch them. That strumpet. She is nothing but my absolute. She festoons me like a blister.
The story, itself, and its structure is another engine of the collection. It runs through time, across a generation, and on after death. The characters comment back and forth from their separate viewpoints, and "The Slaves" form a kind of chorus. A story of complex loves and obsessions, of brutal sufferings and some paths to their endurance. And, there are striking lyric episodes:
I am dreaming they sell me, too, and bury my body like seed for grass. You come and lay yourself on the thousands of me greening tall enough to reach summer.
A horse, an absence, a boy behind a plow. The earth unbraided, the sun revolves its wheels.
I see it from the kitchen where the devil comes in, seeking to devour me there.
At last I hear some news from you in sleep. Your ears echoing: going high, going slow. Open wide see teeth. Your silence hides a throat full of coins.
(from "Thirteen Notes from Clea Unsent to Zebedee")
Black Crow Dress has the feel of genuine channeling, of a fine poet acting as medium for what her ancestors give her, harry her to express.
Michael McGriff is celebrating the place of his birth, or—turn that around—it haunts him; it pumps inside of him as all our birthplaces, the places of our growing up do:
The catfish have the night,
but I have patience
and a bucket of chicken guts.
I have canned corn and shad blood.
And I've nothing better to do
than listen to the water's riffled dark
spill into the deep eddy
where a '39 Ford coupe
rests in the muck-bottom.
The dare growing up:
to swim down with pliers
for the license plates,
corpse bones, a little chrome…
That's the beginning of "Catfish." McGriff's place is the rural Northwest, a declining region that festers, teems in its stagnation. It and its people rise back out of him in a rough-hewn, macho surrealism. Here's the end of "Midwinter":
Tonight she sits at the kitchen table.
She could be over the bay,
high enough to see
that it's shaped like a rabbit
from the jaws of the landscape.
She hasn't spoken
in days—she's afraid
what comes alive at night
will break if she talks about it.
The wives of the Legionnaires
bring her food once a week,
and a Bible the size
of a steam iron.
She packs up her china
then unpacks it before bed.
She could be flying
the way it looks
with all this fog gusting by.
Throughout there are gleams of the life of this community and its cast-off, rundown technology:
knee-deep and gleaming
in the flooded pasture.
The smell of fence posts and barn-rot.
Culverts and tow chains.
My mother and her illness.
My father and his patience.
My thoughts for them glow like quarry light.
And through those gleams runs a darkness that also gleams, the characteristic dream tone of this powerful book. Let's come back to "Catfish," with which we opened. Three times he repeats "The catfish have the night." Then here at the end the speaker imagines the moon on the water is a pocket watch floated free of a car accident:
Wind the hands in one direction
and see into the exact moment of your death.
Wind them the other way
and see all the tiny ways
you've already died—
I'm going to put this in my breast pocket
just as it is. Metal heart
that will catch the stray bullet
in its teeth.
I chum the water, I thread the barb.
I feel something move in the dark.
Shaughnessy's premise is an alternate world, "our Andromeda," a "nemesis" of the sun, as she says in the poem of that title, "not its opposite but its spirit, / undead angel, // extra life. Another version." This theme of the 'do-over', the wished for other life, functions like a continuo in her book:
When I was young, there was no sun
and I was afraid.
Now, in grownhood, I call the ghost
to my fragile table, my fleshy supper.
my tiny flame.
Not just any old but the ghost,
the last one I will be,
the future me,
finally the sharpest knife
in the drawer.
The pride is proud.
The crowd is loud, like garbage dumping
or how a brown bag ripping
sounds like a shout
that tells the town the house
is burning down.
Drowns out some small folded breath
of otherlife: O that of a lioness licking
her cubs to sleep
in a dream of savage gold.
O that roaring, not yet and yet
and not yet dead.
o many fires start in my head.
(from "Big Game")
That's the style in which most of her book is written, a compressed language, riddling and witty, using rhyme in an irregular, singsong way. The yearning of these poems is deep and honest; they rise to peaks of piercing lyricism. And her yearning centers on her son, Cal, a little boy damaged at birth through an unspecified medical malfeasance for which Shaughnessy blames herself. Cal is mentioned in the body of the book, but he stars in the title poem, a twenty-two pager that ends the collection. And, in my mind, it almost provides a second half for Our Andromeda, not, of course, in number of pages but in poetic weight. Because it's written in another style, open, long breathed, plainspoken. I'm not choosing between these styles; Shaughnessy is fine in both. But the cumulative power of "Our Andromeda," of a mature, impassioned woman wishing on a star, is tremendously affecting. Obviously we can't get much of the feel of such a long poem, but here, at any rate, is a taste of the other Shaughnessy:
Accept the truth from whoever gives it,
the ancients said to your people.
The truth is you are the truth,
a child born to a liar who is learning
to change. A dashing boy who may never
walk who traveled so far
to be here. A joyful boy who may never
talk who ruthlessly teaches
the teacher the truth
about where children really live.
Where you are alive. You are the most
perfect Calvin Makoto Teicher
of the Universe, a tough, funny
beauty of a boy who holds my hand
and blinks his eyes until I'm
excruciated, mad with love.
How hard it was for you to convince
me that I deserved that love.
My glorious son! A mother's boast
is never merely delusion. A mother
knows, if she can forgive herself
for not knowing. I know now, Cal.
Your frail arms are perfect arms.
Your uncertain eyes, perfect eyes.
Your anguish, your illness, your pain.
Your difficulty, your discovery. Your joy
is my joy and it is a perfect, boundless joy.
'Incarnadine' means flesh-colored or blood red and has the same root as 'incarnation', carne, the Latin for 'flesh', so Mary Szybist gets a two-for-one in her title. Because her central theme or metaphor is the Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel apears to Mary to tell her God has chosen her to give birth to Jesus. Nine of the poems in Incarnadine have titles beginning with "Annunciation…" Her book, though, isn't about the divine per se but its intersection with the human—which is, of course, the import of Christ's myth—about transcendence, longing, love here in the flesh. Her first poem, "The Troubadours Etc." centers on love:
The Puritans thought that we are granted the ability to love
only through miracle,
but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through,
how to make themselves shrines to their own longing.
The spectacular was never behind them.
One could argue, as I'm about to do, that poetry, itself, is the Jesus of Szybist's own annunciation—we musn't forget that her name is Mary. In "Conversion Figure," third poem in the book, the speaker, presumably an angel, tells us of its long fall towards a little girl:
Out of God's mouth I fell
like a piece of ripe fruit
toward your deepening shadow.
Girl on the lawn without sleeves, knees bare even of lotion,
time now to strip away everything
you try to think about yourself.
Put down your little dog.
Stop licking the cake from your fingers.
Before today, what darkness
did you let into your flesh? What stillness
did you cast into the soil?
Lift up your head.
Time to enter yourself.
Time to make your own sorrow.
Time to unbrighten and discard
even your slenderness.
Is this little girl Szybist, herself? Is this the inception of her poetry?
Along with her imagination and skill, there's a lovely warmth, gentle and probing, that radiates through this collection, that incarnadines her work. Here's the conclusion of her epistolary prose poem "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary." The "innertube" incident in the first paragraph refers to a drunken father mentioned earlier in the poem who tied it to the back of his truck and persuaded his little girl to sit in it while he drove in wild circles:
I am looking at the postcard of Anunciación, the one you sent from Cordoba in the spring, I taped it to the refrigerator next to the grocery list because I wanted to think of you, and because I liked its promise: a world where a girl has only to say yes and heaven opens. But now all I see is a bright innertube pillowing behind her head. All I see is a girl being crushed inside a halo that doesn't save her.
This is what it's like to be alive without you here: some fall out of the world. I fall back into what I was. Days go by when I do nothing but underline the damp edge of myself.
What I want is what I've always wanted. What I want is to be changed.
Sometimes I half think I'm still a girl beside you—stretched out in the ravine or slouched in the church pews, looking up at the angel and girl in the colored glass, the ruby and sapphire bits lit up inside them. Our scene. All we did was slip from their halos—
Which is to say, mi corazón, drink up the sunlight you can and stop feeding the good fruit to the goat. Tell me you believe the world is made of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals, that anything, everything is still possible. I wait for word here where the snow is falling, the solitaires are calling, and I am, as always, your M.
The Roses of Your Dementia
shout at the Notional Tree. Why should only they hang by the neck, red
From the twenty folds of childhood broke into a musky sweat. You sniff
yourself: this unhappy god this disguise of poison.
The sacred quality of the multiple, is it still crawling in the mind,
palpating things like the soft black hands of the boss bees on the
Does it smell like green fire when you open the book of the trees?
(from "The Roses of Your Dementia")
Calvin Bedient's book has two epigraphs; here is the one from Gilles Deleuze: "Multiplicities are reality itself. They do not presuppose unity of any kind, do not add up to a totality, and do not refer to a subject." Let's bracket that as philosophy, which does not concern us. What matters is what Deleuze means for Bedient's poetry. Here's the second epigraph, from Alain Badiou: "If the universe is not-one, the rhapsodic is the avenue to truth." And that seems to be our answer. Thinking in multiplicities allows Bedient's energy to rip; it allows him access to and expression of each psychic instant and impulse:
O doctors of the falls, there was a cleaning establishment here, it tried on my father's gray suit, my mother's blue dress, forgive its presumption, it wanted to know their animal reserve, reverse diorama of their silences, of which I was the uproar, fleeing
O doctors of the spits, the "I" was a plunge pool where, now here, now there, a dead distempered puppy leapt as if to catch a ball, and a woman with rainbow trout locks pounded the keys of a rocking upright and sang, "Cuddle up and huddle up with all your might. Oh, Oh" while a man on the slippery bank cranked the cold engine of the snow
(from "Deception Falls")
The man is a gangsta of now. He climbs the ladder from roses to sex murder ("The Gordon Stewart Northcott Murders of Boys in Wineville, California, 1928"), synapse to philosophy, from scuzz to high lyricism. In a mode no more than semi-discursive—this varies; the Gordon Stewart Northcott poem cited above makes perfectly grammatical if psychotic sense—he's riveting. Even when he gut-bucketly refuses to mean (not true, each poem is rife with meaning), his combination of verbal and intellectual power and fine, subtle ear makes him one of the most exciting innovative poets on the set:
Then I tortured out an analogy
such as never before had maddened the earth,
"lovelier, obscurer, extremer than anything."
Next I became a Conceptualist.
Good humored though we was
we was evicted summarily from the down
town Manhattan Holiday Inn
for our installation of jabbering plaster
(stood for what it mean what it mean
the Renaissance studio idea)
(pack it up you self-important gods
was our motif).
West, then, to the Peacock Bar
in Spokane's Davenport Hotel,
having elected to be
But when a peacock hopped up and lazy
Susaned on our table,
we laughed to have such venereal plumes
sweeping our faces, tickled
at not being able to see
in the very behind of beauty.
(from "Turning Aside from the Vulgar to Think")
Richard Silberg is associate editor of Poetry Flash. His most recent poetry collections are The Horses: New and Selected and Deconstruction of the Blues. He received the Northern California Book Award in Translation for his co-translation of Korean poet Ko Un's The Three Way Tavern; his most recent co-translation is Ko Un's This Side of Time. He teaches "The Dialogue of Poetry" workshop at Poetry Flash.