Book Review: Mother Love, Rita Dove

Book Review: Mother Love, Rita Dove

Poetry: Mother Love, Rita Dove

Rita Dove served as US Poet Laureate in the 1990s. Her collection of sonnets, Mother Love, was written at the end of her tenure in that post. It is a powerful collection inspired by the myth of Persephone. Dove’s speaker sometimes is Persephone, sometimes her mother Demeter, and sometimes a much more modern woman addressing the roles of mother, daughter, wife/girlfriend/other that women often fulfill during their lives.

 

In Greek mythology, Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest and seasons. Hades, god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and captured her to be his wife. Demeter was so stricken by the loss she made the earth barren and cold until the other gods prevailed on Hades to allow Persephone to return to the surface. He allowed her return, but warned that she could not eat or drink anything from the underworld or that would require her to return. Persephone did eat three pomegranate seeds despite herself–or maybe intentionally–and so every year she had to spend three months with Hades underground. Thus, we experience those three months of Demeter’s grief as winter, ending when Persephone returns in the spring, and so on.

 

Sonnets are fourteen lined poems. Dove makes the choice to limit herself to sonnets, because it “chains” her to a format. Since Persephone, and in her own way Demeter, are chained, since women are also often chained to their roles and expectations, Dove felt the format itself would be a poem within the poems, chaining the form as further expression of the content. The poems do not limit themselves to the ancient myth, but rather express the relationships which comprise the myth: mother, daughter, wife, mother-in-law, girlfriend, etc. They express the pain of letting go, of watching a daughter grow up and make her own choices, of not interfering even when those choices diverge from your own. They express the pain of growing up, of making difficult choices, of living with the consequences of those choices, of finding out that love and sex and independence and adulthood are not everything we thought they might be. Women (and men) face these challenges, but it is fair to say that society places burdens on women that men often escape, and Dove’s poems look unflinchingly at those expectations and what it takes to meet them, or what it takes to defy them.

 

Mother Love was written, the author says, “for her mother and to her daughter.” It is a challenging and arresting work, powerfully unified throughout and offering deep insight on the pains and joys of being a mother, a daughter, and everything else we ask women to be.

Book Review: Mother Love, Rita Dove

 

Book Review: A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver

Book Review: A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver

Poetry: A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver was best known for her elegiac, almost spiritual poems about nature and common things. In this collection she focuses on those very things, writing poems about her dog Percy, about thrushes and jays and foxes, mists and mountains. The result is a new appreciation of these things we might see every day, but seen instead through the eyes of an uncommon observer.

 

Oliver’s view of nature is both intimate and impersonal. The first poem in this collection says, “I go down to the shore in the morning…and I say, oh, I am miserable,/what shall–/what should I do? And the sea says/in its lovely voice;/Excuse me, I have work to do.” She feels close enough to talk to the sea personally. “I am miserable.” “What should I do.” And not to say the sea doesn’t listen or doesn’t care. The sea responds. But the response is simply, “I have work to do.” It isn’t rude, it isn’t demeaning. The sea is the sea, and it has its sea things to do.

 

In another poem, “Good-Bye Fox,” the fox tells her very matter-of-factly, “You fuss over life with your clever words, mulling and chewing on its meaning, while we just live it.” Again, intimate, a conversation with a fox. And impersonal, “You fuss over life…we just live it.” To make the point more firmly, the fox later repeats, “You fuss, we live.” Not a diss on the poet, simply an impersonal statement of fact. Nature does its thing, and our fussing does not much matter to it.

 

Mary Oliver’s poems are lovely. They speak to the heart, to the spirit, reminding us of what is around us all the time. Appreciating nature may seem simple conceptually. If we actually did more of it, we might find that it is not simple at all. A Thousand Mornings was published only a few years ago, but it speaks with the timeless elegance of nature itself.

Book Review: A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver

Book Review: this and that, hülya n. yilmaz

Book Review: this and that: a hodge podge of hülya’s…poetry, hülya n. yilmaz

Poetry: this and that: a hodge podge of hülya’s…poetry, hülya n. yilmaz

I had the privilege of attending the launch party for hülya n. yilmaz’s book this and that and listen to her read some of her poems aloud. Poetry should be read aloud, and her smooth and strong voice captured the room full of friends and supporters (and maybe a few strangers who saw there was free food and wine!). This is a lovely book of very personal and intimate poems, poems about family, about her travels, about love and faith and some of the burdens of history.

 

yilmaz is originally from Turkey but has made her home in State College, PA, for many years now. Recently retired from Penn State University, this is her third book of poetry. this and that is mostly in English, but some of the poems are translated on the same page into both German and Turkish.

 

Some of the most painful and personal works talk about family. Some of them deal with a father losing his memory to dementia, with a mother’s early absence from her life, with separation from family and living abroad away from them. Some of these are so raw that they brought tears to my eyes.

 

yilmaz is a fun writer, with poems about her friends the bunnies and birds that visit her backyard. She raises the question whether it is indeed “her” backyard, since the animals have been there long before humans dropped houses into the middle of “their” forest. Her poems dance and sing, traveling from her US home to various cities around the world where she has visited or lived.

 

Although the book has mature themes, individual poems would be excellent choices for middle and high school students. The poems that are written in three languages would be particularly valuable to high school German students (and if there are students taking Turkish), since they could see how translation differs from simply converting words from one language to another, ala Google Translate. The fact that this is done by an expert who is also the author gives this added levels of authority and authenticity.

 

this and that is a poignant and sometimes emotionally raw work, but also fun and beautiful with joy and humor relieving the tension between the more personal poems. I can definitely recommend hülya’s poems to anyone who appreciates honesty and passion, qualities made all the more powerful by the scholarship and intellect of their author.

Book Review: this and that: a hodge podge of hülya’s…poetry, hülya n. yilmaz

Book Review: The Leaf and the Cloud, Mary Oliver

Book Review: The Leaf and the Cloud, Mary Oliver

Image result for the leaf and the cloud

Poetry: The Leaf and the Cloud, Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver passed away January 17, 2019. Winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, her poetry both appealed to a wide audience and sometimes frustrated critics who favor poems that could perhaps be considered less accessible. Oliver’s work uses basic and universal themes: nature, life, death, eternity, God. Her book-length poem The Leaf and the Cloud is an excellent example of how her work is both easy to apprehend and appreciate while at the same time taking the reader deeper into thought and feeling.

 

The title comes from a John Ruskin quote: “Between the earth and man arose the leaf. Between the heaven and man came the cloud.” What follows is seven chapters of a single poem, each chapter itself broken up into smaller pieces, all working around this theme that nature both illuminates and obscures eternity. Whatever your idea of God (if you have one at all), a god that created both nature and humanity is going to be revealed through those creations–and is going to be hidden by those same creations. One can see glimpses, one can discern concepts and ideas, but no one can see the totality of the creator through the creation. I was reminded of various biblical passages as I read this poem: “The heavens declare the glory of God,” “Now, we see through a glass darkly.” Oliver does not quote from the Bible, but her work definitely gives an air of familiarity with many of the Psalms. That may be an actual echo, or it may just be from dealing with similar concepts. Either way, for this lapsed churchman, it was full of nostalgia and longing.

 

Oliver is not preachy, nor does she assume everyone believes as she does. What she does is share her faith in nature, in life, in eternity (unnamed), and in the universe. Whether you choose to walk with her is up to you as the reader. She is going to go outside, to connect with the leaves and the clouds and the beetles and the hills and the rest of nature. You should come with her, though. You will see things in new ways, hear nature speak, experience life in its many expressions, and find a different perspective within yourself.

 

The Leaf and the Cloud is romantic, especially in the sense of poets from previous times, but it does not lose its footing in the modern technological era. Instead, it reminds us that regardless of the march of time, we are creatures, part of nature, evolved to live within the universe with other creatures. We remind ourselves of this to our benefit and we forget it at our peril. Mary Oliver’s voice may be silent in death, but her poetry continues to speak as eloquently as ever.

 

When death

carts me off to the bottomlands

when I begin

the long work of rising —

Death, whoever and whatever you are, tallest king of

tall kinds, grant me these wishes: unstring my bones;

let me not be one thing but all things, and wondrously

scattered; shake me free from my name….

 

 

Image result for the leaf and the cloud

Book Review: The Leaf and the Cloud, Mary Oliver

Definition: Smeuse

smeuse: “A gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.”

 

smeuse
Photo by @angelt on Twitter @RobGMacfarlane

Smeuse

Driving slowly near my home,

I surprised a woodchuck standing in the road.

It was in no danger from me

But I suspect the poor beastie did not

Share my confidence

In its security.

With speed defying its corpulent shape

It dove in a bound to the grass

Then through the smeuse I had never noticed before

But can no longer unsee.

Like the word itself, “smeuse,”

“A gap in the base of a hedge

Made by the regular passage of a

Small animal.”

The woodchuck is gone

Though its trail remains open,

And in my mind

A gap is now filled

By a perfect word.

— David Marvin

 

For the book that inspired the poem above see the link to:

Book Review: Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

Poetry: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

The first line to the titular poem says, “he lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning. It was awful. Unforgivable. But they kept coming / back for more. They loved him, was all they could say.”

 

So opens the brutally personal and painful collection of poems by Natalie Diaz. When My Brother Was an Aztec is brilliant. I have a solid vocabulary, but Diaz’s dancing from English to Spanish to other languages, her use of English (I had to look up “oubliette,” among other words), her references to stories and myths and religions and historical events sometimes left me gasping for air and reaching for Google. It was challenging intellectually, which is always something I welcome.

 

More than that, it was challenging emotionally. Diaz’s brother has a meth addiction. And many of the poems in this collection deal very frankly with the emotions she feels when dealing with him. Her description of him as an Aztec talks about him draining her parents’ blood, about them offering themselves to him day after day. Somehow they are physically restored, then the addiction in her brother’s body requires that her parents sacrifice themselves again and again. She dreams of his death. She tries to take her brother out for dinner, knowing that there is a beginning, middle, and end to dinner and she will not be trapped. He takes all of the lightbulbs in her parents’ house to use as homemade meth bowls, forcing them to live in the dark. She compares her father to Sisyphus, driving to the jail at 2 a.m. knowing that it won’t matter, that he will push his heart to the jail again and again and again and again.

 

This is not to say that she hates her brother. Or rather, that hate is the only emotion. She loves him. She hates him. She is disgusted by him. She pities him. She wants him to get better. She wants him to die. She wants him to live. I cannot imagine the grief and despair and anger and longing that one might feel when faced with a loved one who is in these circumstances. Thanks to the power of Natalie Diaz’s poetry, though, I may have had a glimpse.

 

Mixed in with the poems about her family’s struggles are poems about lust and longing, about being Native American in a hostile world, and about her family at different (if not better) times. Even if those poems are not any easier to read emotionally or intellectually, they are a welcome respite from the despair engendered by her brother’s choices and addictions.

 

I am not trying to condemn or excuse her brother. Addiction is a disease, and for far too many it becomes incurable. But with any disease there are choices that people make. My sister has cancer. She chose to treat it. She will be on chemotherapy the rest of her (hopefully long) life. I have mental illness. Sometimes I get treatment. However, sometimes I convince myself that I am fine and don’t need any medicine (ironically enough, I usually make that decision when I am on the medicine, which is of course why I am “fine”). Those times inevitably result in pain and suffering for my loved ones, let alone the confusion and disorder they create in my own mind and circumstances. Diaz’s poetry helps me see things from the other side, the side where the sick person is loved and desired and wanted–and yet that same person has created through their choices and refusals a climate of pain and hurt for those who love them the most. I may have more in common with her brother than I want to admit.

 

Natalie Diaz grew up on the Mojave Reservation in Needles, CA. She played professional basketball overseas for many years before getting her MFA from Old Dominion in 2007. When My Brother Was an Aztec was her first book, published in 2012. I first heard her speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC in 2018. She is an amazing person and an amazing poet, and someone I hope we hear much more from in the years to come.

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

The Point of Poetry by [Nutt, Joe]

Poetry Resource: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

The subtitle of this book is telling: “How Poetry Can Teach Us about the Things in Life which Really Matter.” Joe Nutt’s book The Point of Poetry is not necessarily meant to be a textbook, but if it were, it is the textbook we all wish we had back when poetry was being taught–or so often assaulted or inflicted–back in high school or college.

 

Joe Nutt has taught poetry, and I hope he makes a second career teaching teachers how to teach poetry. He is not afraid to poke fun at poets and poetry. He says about William Blake’s “The Tyger,” “To a child just about coping with the difference between advice and advise or even have and of, spelling Tyger with a ‘y’ is just confirmation that any poet’s main mission is to sow confusion and doubt.” I wish more of my poetry classes, books, and teachers had expressed that kind of self awareness.

 

Poetry should always be taken seriously–seriously enough that we should be able to laugh at it and with it. Nutt does just that. He can laugh at the thought of “tyger” being spelled with a “y,” and in the same chapter express the wonder captured by the author of the poem. Nutt may not share Blake’s faith or mysticism, but he does share Blake’s awe of the power of the large striped cat and his wonder at the forces–natural or divine–that brought both that creature and its prey into being. No matter how one spells the beastie’s name.

 

Ultimately it is that power behind the poems that Nutt loves, and he shares his love for this power in chapter after chapter of analysis of famous and not-so-famous poems. Nutt never takes himself too seriously. He never takes poets too seriously either. If “the Bard” cannot survive a few well-aimed barbs, he is not who we think he is. But Nutt takes poetry very seriously. The power of the words is in the power of the ideas they express: love, eternity, faith, endurance, the very ordinariness of life. When a poem succeeds in taking these grand themes of life and compressing them into a few words that encapsulate those ideas, it is a magical and sensual thing worth celebrating and sharing.

 

The book does what it seeks to do very well. It is fair to point out what it does not do. It is not intended to introduce a lot of modern or new poets. Most (not all) of the writers are fairly described as dead white English guys. There are a few dead white English gals as well. Rita Dove is a notable exception, and there are others, but it is predominately English poets, and a lot of the familiar names from the canon. No book can do everything, but I would love to see a follow-up book that addresses newer poetry from poets who are more representative of other races and cultures. If you are looking for a  book that addresses the subject of poetry and provides insight into the poems featured, though, this book does that extraordinarily well.

 

April in America is National Poetry Month, and I cannot think of a better way to introduce that month than with this book. If you don’t “get” the point of poetry, read this book. If you do get the point of poetry, you will also thoroughly enjoy this book.

 

The format of the book lends itself to taking it a chapter at a time. If you wanted to skip around to see what he says about a favorite (or least favorite) poem, this is a good book for that. Reading the entire book will likely introduce you to poems and poets you’ve never known before, but even if they are all familiar Nutt’s insights will help you read them with fresh eyes. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves poetry–and to anyone who hates poetry! Read a couple of chapters at random, and I dare anyone who has not seen the beauty of poetry before to tell me they still hate it. I am sure some still would, but anyone with a brain and a heart will see the power and beauty and humor that Nutt finds in The Point of Poetry.

Joe Nutt, Author
Joe Nutt, Author

I do want to thank Joe Nutt, his publisher, and Anne Cater for an advanced copy of The Point of Poetry. I am privileged to be part of the blog tour for the launch of the book, and the only request I was given for receiving the ARC was an honest review. Since I honestly loved the book, this was a treat and a pleasure for me.

2019 Blog Tour Poetry Poster
Check out our fellow bloggers on this tour.

 

The Point of Poetry by [Nutt, Joe]

Book Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

Book Review: Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Book Review: WhereasLayli Long Soldier

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Poetry Collection: WhereasLayli Long Soldier

 

Whereas some words typically only appear in official government proclamations.

Whereas the US Government issued an official apology to the Native American peoples.

Whereas this happened quietly in 2010, without fanfare or participation by any tribal leaders.

Whereas this apology carries no weight of law or expectation for corrective action, and

Whereas Layli Long Soldier is a poet from the Oglala Lakota Nation,

Whereas she is exquisitely positioned and capable to reflect on language and its effects,

Whereas is an extraordinary work by a gifted artist.

 

Finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, Whereas is the debut collection of poems by Layli Long Soldier. The poems cover a range of themes: motherhood, language and meaning, relationships, nature, and especially Native Americans’ relationship to the United States. Those seemingly disparate themes have more connective tissue than is immediately apparent. Just as European descendants forced out the original inhabitants through means that included genocide, their language, English, forced its way into the lives of the survivors, killing native languages and corrupting meanings. For example, “apology” is a word with no direct translation into most tribal languages. Expressions of regret without making something right or undoing a wrong are simply not part of many cultures. Long Soldier compares it to the removal of a tooth–a procedure necessitated in the narrator’s life (presumably the author) by the failure of the US government to uphold funding for tribal health services. Regardless of how much one may regret the loss, the tooth will never be restored.

 

Long Soldier includes elements of American history that don’t always appear in historical biopics or even traditional history classes. Her poem “38” remembers the 38 Dakota men executed by order of Abraham Lincoln for the Sioux uprising. This was the largest “legal” execution in US history. Their execution came during the same week Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Their execution was on the day after Christmas, December 26, 1862.

 

Starvation motivated the Sioux uprising. After confiscating Sioux land in what is now called Minnesota, the government assigned them a miniscule stretch of land to support their population. They were not allowed to hunt this land, or beyond, and they were not given any other financial means for support. Rather than starve, the they fought. They lost. Another 1000 Sioux were jailed, and their remaining strip of land taken. The survivors were exiled to reservations in what is now South Dakota and Nebraska. One of the white men killed by the Sioux during the uprising had mocked the starving people by suggesting they eat grass. His body was found with his mouth stuffed full of grass, an act Long Soldier describes as a poem.

 

Long Soldier dances with words. She questions the definition of “opaque,” suggesting that the word itself should mean the opposite of what it actually means. She physically divides her poems, one comprising a single line with the words rearranged as you follow the outline of a square. Others are divided by straight lines, or are two poems interwoven so reading the left column gives one poem, reading the right column gives a second, and reading the lines sequentially adds another layer. Some poems are taken from other passages that have words ellided. Others have words divided between lines, one letter followed by part of the word, concluding on a third line by the remainder of the word. The visual supports and upholds the lyrical, adding a different dimension to the art of the word.

 

Whereas is not a book for the faint of heart. It challenges and confronts, using history and heritage to forcefully speak out. Wrongs cannot be undone, but they deserve to be acknowledged and understood. Layli Long Soldier speaks for those who no longer can, and she does so with passion, eloquence, beauty, and fire.

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Book Review: WhereasLayli Long Soldier