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

Book Review: Praise, Robert Hass

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Poetry: PraiseRobert Hass

If you’ll join me in the “wayback” machine, we can travel way back to 1979. Bell bottoms and wide collars. Disco was not yet dead, but was clearly dying. The UN declared it to be the International Year of the Child. Phnom Penh fell and the Pol Pot regime was deposed. So was the Shah of Iran and the President of Nicaragua. The Camp David Accords were signed, and the Iran hostage crisis began. And Robert Hass published a short book of poetry: Praise.

 

I will freely admit my ignorance when it comes to poetry. Robert Hass is hardly an unknown. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995-1997. He has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He remains one of the preeminent voices in American literature, yet I was completely unfamiliar with him until hearing him speak with current Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, in September, 2018.

 

I was absolutely entranced. I went because of Dr. Smith. She was amazing. Her stories, her poetry, her passion…she was everything I had hoped for. I am so glad I got to hear her speak, and I hope I will get to hear her again someday. But on the stage with her was Robert Hass. Tall, white-haired, a smile constantly playing on his lips, his eyes kind. And his poetry. I knew nothing about him, had never read a thing of his, and I was blown away. He was completely unexpected (admittedly because of my own shortcomings). I determined that I needed to read more from both of these wonderful voices. I am glad I did.

 

Praise is earthy and ethereal. Hass sees the real world, warts and snot and sex and dirt and all. He weaves that real world into his poems. He plays with his words, wanting to show the world as it is. Lusty and sweaty and passionate and somehow very California and entirely universal in a magical way that is hard to explain unless you’ve lived both in California and not in California. Then, in the next breath, the next stanza, the next word, he is quoting obscure literary characters or referencing books you know you should have read or dropping in words and phrases from other languages that make me just nod and say, “Obviously,” when I have no idea what he just did to me. Earthy and ethereal. Profane and divine. Hass dances back and forth with grace and delight and brings us along to enjoy the music which he allows us to hear.

 

In 1979, I thought poetry was stuffy and had to rhyme. I later came to love and appreciate Frost and Wordsworth and Dickinson and Donne and many others, but I did not know about Hass back then. Nor did I encounter him in my later academic years. I wonder whether my view of poetry might have been different had I read him 40 years ago. Who can say–maybe I was not ready for poetry to be something that didn’t rhyme and had no predictable metre and was about life and sex and being. I am certainly glad to have it now.

Book Review: PraiseRobert Hass

Book Review: Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

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Poetry: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith is the Poet Laureate of the United States. Her 2018 collection of poems Wade in the Water  is her first collection since earning that distinction. The title poem of Wade in the Water tells a story:

One of the women greeted me.

I love you, she said. She didn’t

Know me, but I believed her

……………………….

I love you in the water

Where they pretended to wade,

Singing that old blood-deep song

That dragged us to those banks

And cast us in.

 

This may be a reference to the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which repeats the chorus,

Wade in the water, wade in the water, children,

Wade in the water.

God’s gonna trouble the water.

 

Like the spiritual, the poems of Wade in the Water speak to the longing and pain of a people familiar with oppression. Smith’s mother was a devoutly Christian woman, very religious in her practice. Smith’s father worked on Hubble space telescope. With one foot in the sciences, one foot in faith, and firmly rooted in the African-American experience, Smith’s poems expose a world of hurt and longing, a world of hope tempered by experience with regret. The woman who greeted her with “I love you” appeared to mean it. The speaker believed it. Yet it goes on to say that this greeting’s result was “a terrible new ache/Rolled over in my chest…she continued/Down the hall past other strangers,/Each feeling pierced suddenly/By pillars of heavy light.” Love, real love, unconditional, freely given love, warmly and openly gifted, yet opening a wound in the recipient who knows that the vulnerability love requires exposes a lifetime of hurt.

 

Wade in the Water is separated into four sections. The first set (which include the titular poem) have a strong spiritual and cosmological bent to them. Poems titled “Garden of Eden,” “The Angels,” “Realm of Shades” hint at the deeper perspective. These poems talk about God, about “the holy,” about angels, not in a sense necessarily recognized (or likely approved) by any specific denomination, but more about the acknowledgment of a world beyond the visible. These are not church-lady poems, intended to celebrate faith or reinforce commitment. These poems acknowledge ugliness in this world and see God more as a curious but ultimately disinterested observer of the earth and the human condition, mildly appalled and disgusted sometimes but not involved or willing to participate in the squalor he sees.

 

The second set are historically based “erasure poems.” These poems take historical American documents, including the Declaration of Independence and several letters from black Civil War soldiers and veterans, and “erase” parts of them to put them into poetic form. In some ways, these poems seemed to be the most personal. Highlighting phrases from Jefferson’s declaration gives them new visibility and power, and in this context reminds us that although those words speak eloquently to the plight of all oppressed peoples, they were written by a man who owned slaves and sold his own children borne by the slave he repeatedly raped.

 

The third set is more contemporary and overtly political, giving voice to ongoing pain experienced by people today. “Unrest in Baton Rouge” opens with the powerful lines, “Our bodies run with ink dark blood./ Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.” “Watershed” looks like it may be a hybrid poem including erasures from DuPont Chemical memos and legal briefs, telling the effects of corporate indifference to the poisoning of people and animals by their products. I suspect the lawyers and corporate officials who wrote those messages did not realize how poetic or how prophetic their words would become.

 

The final set seems more personal, including a beautiful tribute called “4 ½” to a child who reminds me of many other 4 ½ year olds I’ve met. Delightful, exasperating, whimsical and serious, this child clearly brings delight and mirth simply by being. These poems do not avoid broader themes, but they bring those themes home to the experience of the individual.

 

Smith’s poems are beautiful. They reflect a world that is not always beautiful, that is often ugly and cruel and capricious and evil. The reflect a failure of institutions, of governments, of corporations, and of the supernatural to protect the defenseless. Indeed, far too often they oppress the very people they claim to serve. But in revealing these scars on our history and on our society, Smith gives voice and meaning to those who’ve endured them. Her topics may not be beautiful, but her poetry is. Wade in the Water troubles the waters, revealing depths in both the subject matter and the poet.

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Book Review: Wade in the WaterTracy K. Smith

Book Review: Violent Outbursts, Thaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Violent OutburstsThaddeus Rutkowski

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Nonfiction Essay Collection: Violent OutburstsThaddeus Rutkowski

I love reading authors who live and write in the margins. Don’t get me wrong. I’m down for a Patterson or Baldacci or Grisham any day of the week. But the authors and books that excite me are those that open a new door, that reveal a new truth, that show me worlds I would not have seen on my own.

 

Thaddeus Rutkowski is one of those authors. He grew up in the margins. A mixed-race kid in Central Pennsylvania, he grew up before Asian faces were common here. Despite its proximity to State College and Penn State University, Rutkowski’s hometown of Hublersburg (near Bellefonte) is to this day a town with mostly white residents. I do not intend to presume. I love Bellefonte, and my own (Asian-American) wife has always been very warmly received by everyone there that we’ve met. But I can imagine that as a child who looked different, there might have been a sense of “otherness” growing up.

 

His 2015 book Violent Outbursts is a collection of short writings. Violent Outbursts is hard to characterize, mostly because it is a book written in the margins of categories. Rutkowski has a flair for language. He plays with words, morphing them and putting them together in new ways. One example is an entire essay in homage to McDonalds, stringing words together that start with the letter “M.” He may be the first to describe a fast food cook as a McMaestro. Although the writings are probably considered “prose,” the craft certainly is on the margins between poetry and prose. It is also in the margins of fiction and non-fiction. Some of the poetic essays seem to be autobiographical: one tells of he and his siblings running up and down staircases in a new family home. Another tells of his first experience smoking. Perhaps the most painful was one talking about cousins who boast of being 100%, compared to his 50% and his daughter’s 25%. As part of a biracial family, that one hit very close to home.

 

Others are clearly fictional. At least, I am assuming he was never personally a dung beetle, despite the first person narrative of the essay. But the beauty of poetry, even poetic essays, is that truth is greater than the facts. People living in the margins often have to make the best of what they have, and they often create beauty from those discarded remnants. A dung beetle may have every right to celebrate what he is able to do, to revel in that which others find disgusting, and to make it his own.

 

Rutkowski’s Violent Outbursts is at once defiant and celebratory, poignant and triumphant. The writings express a desire to belong–learning to smoke “the right way,” wanting to fit in, wishing for the right clothes and haircut and car. They recognize that otherness will never change, that the writer will never be 100%, the dung beetle will never be accepted by the other animals. They sometimes revel in their otherness, wanting to be the hick with the shotgun going after the rat in the apartment, enjoying and hating being the rural kid with the outhouse while being surrounded by rich city kids. And they acknowledge that fitting in will always come unnaturally, requiring a surrender of some desires and the recognition that there will always be a separateness.

 

Violent Outbursts is short, and none of the essays are more than two pages long. It can easily be read in one sitting, but it is worth taking longer and reading one or two, then coming back to it later. When you’re probing the margins of society, sometimes it’s best to push at them a little, then come back at them again later. Rutkowski’s Violent Outbursts does this very well, and that might be a good way for the reader to do it, too.

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Book Review: Violent OutburstsThaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Border Crossings, Thaddeus Rutkowski

Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

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Poetry Collection: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

Border crossings are fraught with tension. Some, like India and Pakistan, or the Koreas, have standing armies. One stray move could start a war. Others are peaceful, but full of reminders that you are going from one country to another. Signs in multiple languages, customs inspectors checking your bags, sounds and smells of the exotic (to you) new stuff waiting once you get there. But the crossing itself has its own heartbeat, its own rhythm, its own combination of appeal and trepidation.

 

Thaddeus Rutkowski was raised in central, largely rural, Pennsylvania (Hublersburg, near Bellefonte). He now lives in Manhattan. His parents were Chinese and Polish Americans. His life has been filled with crossing borders: between rural and urban, between brown Americans and white Americans. And his poetry speaks beautifully to that tension between nations that expresses itself on the border, whether those nations are visible on a map or whether they are resident in the heart.

 

Rutkowski toys with language, playing with it, using metaphors and molding words masterfully. He has a fun, though sometimes dark, sense of humor. He invites the reader to play with him. Imagine skipping work and running amok through a restaurant, playing the bongos, and drawing a crowd together. Imagine going to the beach before a hurricane and riding the undertow. Look, as we paddle our canoe, it’s a pig…No, it’s a bear! He takes us on a trip to Hong Kong, choosing a bus, contemplating eating fried scorpions, surprising a vendor with his English. “‘English! I wondered what language,’ / and I wonder, what language was he guessing? / Korean, Japanese, Tagalog, French?” And suddenly, like that, we remember that he, the poet, is always crossing borders, with a face that is both Chinese and Polish and is neither one fully, an accent that is American, and a heritage that brings countries together into one person and yet still seems to feel a bit separated from them all.

 

Border Crossings is a delight. You always cross a border at your own risk, but this is a risk worth taking. Travel broadens you, and traveling with these poems is carrying a passport to a wide new world–or perhaps a passport to see home in a fresh way.

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Book Review: Border CrossingsThaddeus Rutkowski

Booklist: Books with Poems & Rhymes for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books with Poems & Rhymes for Shared Reading with Children

 

Use poetry and song lyrics to introduce your child to the interesting sounds in language. Explore poetry pieces and nursery rhymes with alliteration, rhyming couplets, and onomatopoeia.

For older children who enjoy structure, patterns, and math try sonnets with iambic pentameter and haikus.

Some children find poems where the printed text falls into artistic shapes that reflect the content of the poem interesting. Children who enjoy graphic novels where the text is part of the artwork find this type of poem appealing.

With so many variations and styles across so many topics, there is a form of poetry that will interest your child. Poetry is the sound bite of language. Snippets of poetry can convey intense emotions and is a fantastic platform for exploring feelings, words, and how to express one’s self.

Before Shared Reading

Children understand more words that they hear than they express or speak. Sharing poems with your child will help them develop their listening-comprehension skills as well as their vocabulary.

Try and read the poem out loud to yourself, in order to find the words you want to emphasize and to adjust to the flow of the words. Before reading, talk to your child about any special words. Point out that word(s) and clarify the meaning in a way that your child can understand if it is a new word. For older children, spend a few moments looking up the new word(s) in a children’s dictionary.

 

During Shared Reading

During the reading, ask your child to let you know when they hear the word or have them touch the word on the page if they recognize it. Provide positive feedback, when your child recognizes the new word(s) and remind them of the definition of the new word within the context of the poem.

 

After Shared Reading

Celebrate a Poem in Your Pocket day by creating a no -sew fabric poem book: Using fabric markers and light colored bandannas or handkerchiefs or pre-cut quilting squares (hemmed with iron-on interfacing), decorate the cloth with the words of your child’s favorite nursery rhymes, song lyrics or poems. Do one cloth a day for a week, letting your child keep the poem “page”in their pocket to “read” throughout the day. At the end of the week turn the poem cloth squares into a book with a simple binding of safety pins hot glued shut to prevent any accidents.

 

Write a poem together using poem pebbles. Brainstorm a list of favorite words – nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Using a permanent marker write a single word on a pebble. Pile all of the pebbles together, then create a poem using your word pebbles to build starter phrases. You can do a variation of this activity using sticky notes or index cards for even more words. For older children, use a rhyming dictionary to create a list of interesting words, for example, see Merriam-Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary.

 

Booklist: Books with Poems & Rhymes for Shared Reading with Children

Goodnight Songs

Lullabies by Margaret Wise Brown

Illustrated by 12 Award Winning Picture Book Artists

Picture Book, Ages 3 – 6

A treasure literally uncovered in a barn, these lullabies by the author of Good Night Moon and other classic children’s books are presented with the artwork unique to each piece by different illustrators. Read one lullaby before bedtime as a part of your night time routine.

The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

Selected by Jack Prelutsky

Pictures by Arnold Lobel

Illustrated Book, All Ages

With 575 poems to choose from there will be a poem, that appeals to your child’s taste in this selection. In addition, there are plenty of poems to experiment with in terms of style and topics.

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Little Poems for Tiny Ears

Poems by Lin Oliver

Pictures by Tomie dePaola

Board Book, Babies and Toddlers

Specifically for babies and toddlers, these poems are simple explorations into the sounds of language on topics familiar to tiny people.

 

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Poetry for Kids: Robert Frost

Poems by Robert Frost

Edited by Jay Parini

Pictures by Michael Paraskevas

Illustrated Book, Ages 9 – 12

Each poem is featured on its own colored spread. Also see in the Poetry for Kids series, Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare

 

 

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Where the Sidewalk Ends

Poems and Pictures by Shel Silverstein

Illustrated Book, All Ages

One of the classics of modern childhood, this book was the first exploration in to poetry in elementary schools for several generations. This anniversary edition, includes an update with 12 extra poems. Also see by the same author,  A Light in the Attic

 

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Science Verse

Poems by Jon Scieszka

Pictures by Lane Smith

Picture Book, Ages 7 – 11

Science and poetry find a happy mix in this delightful collection of science themed works. Also see Math Curse and Grapes of Math

 

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I’m Just No Good at Rhyming and Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-ups

Words by Chris Harris

Pictures by Lane Smith

Illustrated Book, Ages 7 – 11

Laugh out loud poems filled with exuberance and zany wit. This collection is on numerous award and best of lists. You are sure to find something to tickle the funny bone. These are great to read out loud if you can keep from laughing while reading at the same time.