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

 

 

Book Review: Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Short Story Collection: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

I’m not sure I have ever used the word “luscious” to describe a book before. I probably would not use it often. I will use it here. Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City is luscious. Beautifully illustrated, rich, poetic and surreal, it is a visual and lyrical journey into a series of imaginary realms exploring imagined relationships between humans and animals, relationships that don’t actually exist. Some of them we can be grateful are entirely imaginary. Others, it might be nice if they were real. Either way, the paintings Tan pairs with each story or poem are gorgeous and give a visual dimension to the words that makes them even more vivid.

 

It will be impossible in this review to do justice to the Tales from the Inner City. It is worth buying just for the pictures. Tan is known for his graphic novels and children’s books, and won an Oscar for his short film The Lost Thing. Clearly he is comfortable with visual communication, but don’t think for a moment that the visuals detract from the words. If this were just a collection of short stories and poems it would be worth getting. The fact that Tales from the Inner City has both gorgeous and (again) luscious paintings illustrating creative, poetic, and surreal stories is almost unfair to other books.

 

Tales from the Inner City starts with a story about crocodiles living in a skyscraper. On the eighty-seventh floor. Most people do not know they are there, and the crocodiles themselves do not seem to know (or care) that they are in a skyscraper as opposed to a more traditional crocodilian location. Many of the stories follow this kind of strange, absurd premise. One of my favorite stories is of a family that goes fishing in the sky…and catches a moon fish. The painting illustrating this story is also on the dust jacket of the hardcover, a silhouette of a man holding a large silvery, glistening, light-filled fish with orange fins. Horses, unseen by adults but obvious to children, gallop across the skyline of a city. Pigeons live and raise their young in nests built in a flying bank. Owls wait with patients in hospital, assuring them of their constant care. These stories, some whimsical, some poignant, some eerie, some all of those together, tell of a world with magic and wilder than we usually imagine.

 

Most of the stories have just one painting illustrating them. An exception is his metaphor of wolves becoming dogs. More of a poem than a story, Tan writes,

One day I threw my stick at you.

You brought it back.

My hand touched your ear.

Your nose touched the back of my knee.

Then we were walking side by side

as if it had always been this way.

The poem follows the two, human and wolf/dog, together until they are separated by death. Death, though, is imagined as a road or path or river to cross…and the wolf/dog waits on the other side for their human to join them so they can walk together into the next adventure. Illustrating this is a series of paintings of different people and different dogs/wolves separated by different paths. The poses are the same, but everything else is different from one painting to the next. Then, finally, paintings reflect the reunion of the two as they walk together away from that place of separation. I know a lot of dog-lovers who would cry at this story.

 

Tales from the Inner City is a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book. Some will love the pictures, some will love the stories, but most will love the way the words give depth to the pictures and the way the pictures give life to the words. Shaun Tan has created something absolutely luscious.

Tales from the Inner City, Shaun Tan

Book Review: Tales from the Inner CityShaun Tan

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances, Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Fiction: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has won many literary awards, including the Newberry, Carnegie, Hugo, and Nebula. He is known for his comics, his novels, his screenplays, and his short fiction. When it comes to putting pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keyboard), he does it all well. Trigger Warning is a collection of short stories, with a few poems thrown in as well, that demonstrates the breadth and power of a master at work.

 

Gaiman warns in the introduction that “There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.” His work is often strange and disturbing, and these short stories contain several that are both. Like the author himself says, “I wondered…whether, one day, people would put a trigger warning on my fiction. I wondered whether or not they would be justified in doing it. And then I decided to do it first.”

 

Fans of other works by Gaiman will find familiar characters and settings in some of the stories. Black Dog features Baldur “Shadow” Moon, a character from his novel American Gods. Gaiman won a Hugo for his Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife;” in Nothing O’Clock, Gaiman returns to the Doctor, the TARDIS, and Amy Pond. Although not traditionally associated with Gaiman, The Case of Death and Honey tells of an elderly Sherlock Holmes nearing the end of his life…or is he?

 

Gaiman’s stories travel the lines between fantasy and horror, science fiction and possibly some other genre uniquely his own. They are dark and sometimes macabre, not in an overtly bloody or gruesome way but in the psychological way where the road to your own fears is marked and your imagination takes you down the paths that make you shudder. Gaiman warns us in the title that he is going for triggers. Believe him.

 

An example. Click-Clack the Rattlebag starts so gently. A man visiting his girlfriend meets her younger brother. The younger brother wants him to tuck him in and tell him a story. I read this over Thanksgiving, spending time with my wonderful granddaughters. They like grandpa to read them stories. I like to read them stories. I did not read this one to them–I know that Neil Gaiman is not the go-to source for bedtime stories for toddlers. This story started so gently, so sweetly. A young man, bonding with his girlfriend’s family. Except, that is not what the story is about. The hints are there, near the beginning. Even if I did not know about Neil Gaiman’s work, even if it were not in the middle of a collection called Trigger Warning, the indicators could almost have been in all-caps: THIS STORY IS GOING TO GO SIDEWAYS AND CREEP YOU OUT! I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say that later in the evening when my older granddaughter wanted me to read a story to her, I thought twice about it!

 

(Of course, then I went ahead and read the story–Gaiman will not stand between me and my granddaughters!)

 

This may not be the right book for every reader. For those who love fantasy, horror, and great writing, it is an excellent choice. One thing I love about short story collections is they can be read in small pieces. One story now, another tonight, pick it up later in the week. Skip around, come back to it later. It’s worth the time, and the goosebumps.

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

Poetry: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

If you are on Twitter and not following Lin-Manuel Miranda, you are missing out. He regularly tweets short poems/phrases/words of encouragement to start the day (Gmorning) and then follows them up by echoing the sentiments later in the day (Gnight). He has collected many of those tweets into a book, GMorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, and frankly, you should buy a copy for yourself, your loved ones, your neighbors, random strangers you meet in the park, and anyone who has to keep working at this thing we call “life.”

 

Miranda is probably still best known for his musical Hamilton, but he is also starring in Mary Poppins Returns, wrote music and lyrics (and sang) for Disney’s Moana, and wrote and starred in the Tony winning musical In the Heights. He has won multiple Tonys, a Pulitzer Prize, Grammys, an Emmy, and has been nominated for an Oscar, among the many other prizes he has been nominated for or won. He also received a MacArthur “Genius” Award. This work probably will not get him his second Pulitzer, but it is pithy, heartfelt, and poignant.

 

Miranda encourages. His introduction (in rhyming couplets!) tells us:

Most often the greetings I wish you

Are the greetings I wish for myself.

 

So if I write “relax,” then I’m nervous,

Or if I write, “cheer up,” then I’m blue.

I’m writing what I wish somebody would say,

Then switching the pronoun to you.

 

This book is not meant to be a deep exploration of the human condition. It is meant to connect. And this is a good thing. We cannot always understand. We don’t always need to understand. Sometimes what we need to do is remember that we are not alone, that we are surrounded by people who have the same needs and feelings and desires and dreams and fears and disappointments that we do. Sometimes we just need to know that we are loved, that we are wanted, and that the world is survivable together. That’s why I say buy this book for everyone you love–even for everyone you just know. We all need this, and although Miranda wrote the words and Sun drew the pictures, if the book comes from you then the connection comes from you and that may be exactly what someone needs!

 

Good morning, stunner.

You’re just getting started.

Your age doesn’t matter.

The sun is up, the day is new.

You’re just getting started.

 

Good night, stunner.

You’re just getting started.

Your age doesn’t matter.

The stars are out, the night is warm.

You’re just getting started.

 

Jonny Sun’s illustrations are simple but profound. The basic line drawings put the words into images, sometimes whimsical, sometimes moving. In a powerful combination of word and drawing (written the day of the late Anthony Bourdain’s suicide), Miranda writes in all caps: “YOU ARE LOVED AND WE LIKE HAVING YOU AROUND.” Those words are rendered into a picture of multiple hands holding onto ropes, with the knots in the ropes forming the words.

 

It’s not Hamilton. But Hamilton is not for everyone. Gmorning, Gnight is a book for everyone (though parents be warned that sometimes Manuel has a “potty mouth”). Seriously, buy one for yourself. You could use the encouragement!

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

Book Review: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Poetry: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

A few years ago I found a courage I did not know I had. I began questioning things I had always assumed were true. I began exploring my assumptions, opening my mind to new approaches and no longer accepting things at face value. It was frightening, even terrifying, and I came out the other side of it a very different person in some ways.

 

In other ways, though, I remained unchanged. I decided that I had been right about some things and wrong about others. More committed to my wife, more in love with my children, and more true to myself, I found that asking the questions gave me greater confidence in the answers. I did not find all of the answers. Some I never will. But I found that I respected the person asking the questions much more than the person who refused to face the possibility that he had been wrong.

 

Poetry asks these brutal, core, fundamental questions in ways that other literature seldom does. That is not to say it never does: a great novel or even a short story can also ask questions. But usually stories try to give answers. Poetry asks questions. Who or what is God? Is there a God/god? What is death? What comes next? Sometimes poems will suggest answers. More often, though, they allow the reader to experience the quest of the questions. Come with me. Look with me. Ask with me. Be exposed with me. Let’s dare to examine what matters together.

 

There are not many who ask these questions more beautifully than Tracy K. Smith. Her collection of poems Life on Mars asks many of these questions. Some of the poems were written after the death of her father–one is specifically dedicated to him. They ask cosmic questions. Sometimes the topics are literally about the cosmos: dark matter, space, life on other planets. Sometimes the topics are inspired by a curiosity for both science and song–David Bowie makes an appearance in the poems. Sometimes they are about more spiritual matters: God, the afterlife, the spirit. Often, these disparate topics are woven together beautifully and skillfully, bringing both smiles and tears, gasps of recognition and gasps of shock.

 

Smith compares the connections between people to dark matter: invisible, immeasurable, yet a force that cannot be denied. No one really understands either. They are observable only in the sense that we see their effects. She compares God to the weather in space–is God the force we experience or the power behind that force? Smith concludes that poem with “we go chasing/After all we’re certain to lose, so alive–/Faces radiant with panic.” That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard: “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” Somehow, I think that Smith and Dillard are traveling along similar paths, asking questions of the divine that we should all be asking–questions that we should all be afraid both of asking and of having answered.

 

Smith’s poem dedicated to her father is wrenching in its poignancy. Wrenching in a very different way, another painful poem is written as a series of letters from murder victims to their murderers. She also writes in reference to Abu Ghraib. Smith is willing to look deeply at the pain that we carry as individuals, as a culture, as a people, and cut into that pain in hopes of excising some of the rotting flesh that causes it. Whether that pain is simply the pain of loss of a loved one, the pain of a culture that accepts murder as a series of acceptable losses, or a culture that excuses torture when it’s done by “us,” Smith writes about it unflinchingly. Although loss will always be part of the human condition, I can only hope she has fewer opportunities to write about the darker aspects of America in the future. Sadly, I don’t think she will.

 

Life on Mars is beautiful, moving, and compelling. A master work that won the Pulitzer Prize when it was published, Smith has captured the pulse of what makes us human, and captured the longing we have for something greater.

Book Review: Life on MarsTracy K. Smith

Book Review: Sun Under Wood, Robert Hass

Book Review: Sun Under WoodRobert Hass

Poetry: Sun Under WoodRobert Hass

“You think you’ve grown up in various ways

and then the elevator door opens and you’re standing inside

reaming out your nose”

 

I do not know whether any other US Poet Laureate has ever written a poem about being caught in an elevator with a booger on his finger. One may actually be enough, especially when the poem is as good as “Shame: An Aria,” the poet is as good as Robert Hass, and the collection is as good as Sun Under Wood.

 

Sun Under Wood is a deeply personal and intimate look into the poet’s life. Many of the poems examine what we must assume to be aspects of the writer’s own family and life. Several refer to his alcoholic mother, hospitalized against her will in hopes that treatment could help her overcome her addiction. Later poems seem to indicate that the treatment was never fully successful. Another poem refers to his brother in rehab for a drug addiction. Family secrets are bared, both boldly and timidly. His parents’ marriage in autumn, just before his brother’s birth in the same winter, discovered by the poet getting a copy of their marriage certificate and realizing his parents had lied about the year they were married. His own divorce and the pain of separation. Finding new love. Each of these personal journeys and tragedies finds their way into his poetry.

 

Reading Robert Hass is like getting to know a new friend. His poems open doors into his own thoughts and fears and discoveries and heartaches and joys. We walk together on the beach or in the mountains or sit in a hospital and he quietly shares his life. Sometimes we cry, seeing his mother taken away. Sometimes we shudder, hearing his lover (wife? ex-wife?) threaten to stab him if he leaves her for a younger woman. Sometimes we laugh, while he wipes the snot from his finger in his pocket, using the pocket lint to hide his embarrassing unhygienic faux pas. Sometimes we blush, listening to him tell of nights with his new love.

 

Through his words we see a life unveiled, no longer wrapped in the shrouds of dignity and mystery which we normally wear to cloak ourselves. He stands before us, naked and unashamed, and invites us to spend time looking through his eyes and listening through his ears and walking in his steps. And when we accept that invitation, we realize that our shared humanity allows us to share burdens and joys alike. Most of us, though, are not that brave.

 

Sun Under Wood was published in 1996, while Hass was Poet Laureate. It is his fourth collection of poems. Twenty years may have passed, but these poems remain fresh and dynamic and do not seem to have aged a day. I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Book Review: Sun Under Wood, Robert Hass