Poetry Review: “From Every Moment a Second” by Robert Okaji

From Every Moment a SecondFrom Every Moment a Second by Robert Okaji
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the poet/author of the stunningly sublime If Your Matter Could Reform comes this new chapbook in pre-order until October 2017.

This collection of 20 poems is a study in the ephemeral and the elusive, in the little things like mayflies and beetles, but also in the delicate flicker of shadows. Mostly it aims to express the intangible and barely accessible, such as Grief which permeates the collection:

[from “Every Wind”]

Grief ages one thread at a time,

lurking like an odor
among the lost
things,

or your breath,
still out there,

drifting.

The speaker finds the world around him reflecting his grief, longing, and desperation. From quick observations like the lines “The house finch sings as if / all air will expire at the song’s end” [from “If Ahead I See”] to the extended association of “Firewood”:

For two years the oak
loomed, leafless.
We had aged
together, but somehow
I survived the drought
and ice storms, the
regret and wilt,
the explosions within,
and it did not.
I do not know
the rituals of trees,
how they mourn
a passing, or if
the sighs I hear
betray only my own
frailties, but even
as I fuel the saw and
tighten the chain,
I look carefully
for new growth.

A couple strong poems find inspiration in art. One from Hokusai’s wood print “Two Cranes on a Snowy Pine”
and the other from the jazz riffs of Miles Davis and Johnny Coltrane. The latter reflects both the improvisational jazz licks and the cadences of previously likewise-inspired poets such as Allen Ginsberg.

[from “The Resonance of No”]
. . . while standing with hands in soapy water, thoughts
skipping from Miles Davis’s languid notes to the spider
ascending to safe shelter under the sill (after I blow
on her to amuse myself), washing my favorite knife . . .

. . . And if I linger at the plates, even the chipped one,
admiring their gleam after hot water rinses away
the soap residue, who could question the gulp
of ale or the shuffle of an almost but not quite
dance step or stumble while arranging them on the
ribbed rack, back-to-back, in time to Coltrane’s
solo. Then the forgotten food processor’s blade
bites my palm . . .

I received my copy of this collection directly from the poet.
 
 
 
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Poetry Review: Eyes Like Lighthouses When the Boats Come Home by Dane Cobain

Eyes Like Lighthouses When the Boats Come HomeEyes Like Lighthouses When the Boats Come Home by Dane Cobain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Rough around the edges, this poetry collection reflects its raw slam poetry roots without the benefit of editing or reworking to confirm that there’s sense and context to the sounds and beats laid down. Like an REM song, the sounds maybe be pleasant, but that doesn’t always translate to coherence. It’s more akin to a Facebook rant that one agrees with, but which doesn’t enlighten us.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some lines, verses and poems rising above the non-specific and idiomatic. There are–such as in “Donald Trump’s Huge New Erection” which shows the poet’s appreciation and understanding of Ginsberg’s Howl:

. . . Money is the mean little shit
who burned the wings off butterflies
aged eleven holding mirrors
up towards the sun,
who called his father a bastard
for simply standing up to him . . .

. . .Money is metal,
the acidic taste of hangovers
your mother never mentioned,
the tears of seventeen-year-olds
volunteered for war
now showered with brains
as bullets hit the skulls
of their commanding officers . . .

Unfortunately, what works at the mike doesn’t always translate to the page. Then, a rare gem will shine with the promise of energy-infused poems hiding out deeper into the collection. The opening lines of “The Fusion of Music and Movement” are breath-takingly simple and beautiful: “She’s always an illusion / a confusing fusion / of music and movement,” but then seem compromised if not undermined by the over-reliance of wordplay and rhyme in the lines that immediately follow: “where every chord / should be explored, / and I can’t afford / to lose her . . .”

One strong poem is “The Boy in the Picture” that takes the time to narrow its scope and hone its message about a vintage WWII photograph:

He could’ve been anyone,
so he was everyone,
every murdered son
on the Western Front,
and every bullet
from every gun;

. . . there’s something sinister and brooding
and when you’re steeped in sepia
it’s easier to believe in meaning . . .

The best poem in the collection, “Beneath the War Memorial,” is exquisite. The humble voice contrasts with the bulk of the collection as it zeroes in on the universal theme of trying to find meaning in the inexplicable. It’s closing lines are contemplative and , perhaps, perfect: “Search for truth and wisdom; / search for subtlety / beneath the linden tree; / place your hand / on my thigh– / the birds will melt / in snowy silence.”

I received my copy of this poetry collection directly from the author through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com.
 
 
 
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Anthology Review: Echoes of the Soul by Daniela Alibrandi

ECHOES OF THE SOUL: Short Novels, Poems and ThoughtsECHOES OF THE SOUL: Short Novels, Poems and Thoughts by Daniela Alibrandi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of poems, thoughts, modern fables and vignettes is translated to English from the original Italian. It felt translated in its stilted prose verging on romanticized abstract cliche. The fables, too, felt un-nuanced and heavy-handed with a goal in mind but stunted development. One could wonder what has been lost in the translation process.

No particular poem or tale stood out as better or worse than the rest. One did heavily push into speculative fiction territory with its bleak image of a future society completely divorced from its past and elderly citizens. Another, veered toward folktale centering on an Italian equivalent of Santa Claus, the Befana. This diversity of genres adds flavor to the mix.

My favorite moments were mere couple-line descriptions that had something new to offer:

[from “The Kiss of Old People”]
Those two were still seeking something from each other, worth waiting for. Perhaps there is always something that lovers can receive, even if it is the tacit and intimate promise of dying together.

[from “The Reunion”]
. . . memories were bursting from the fog in which they seemed to have dissolved.

[from “Those Four Minutes”]
He opened the bathroom, as bare as the rest of the house, with only a razor and a toothbrush left on the edge of the sink. It was an environment without a story.

I received my copy of this novel directly from the author through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com.
 
 
 
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Poem Review: “Odin on the Tree” by Jo Walton

2 of 5 stars.

“Heroic poetry is largely of a bygone era. Attempts to resurrect the genre as recently as the 1800’s in England largely failed. So, other than in fantasy books that draw upon medieval imagery (and songs and poem forms) in the construction of their worlds, one rarely sees a new heroic poem. But then there is this, an anachronism if there ever was one. . .” I wrote this about Paul Park’s “Ragnarok”, but here Norse epic poetry rears its head yet again, albeit less successfully.

The exploration of the style is noble however. Most of the lines employ the heavy mid-line pause known as the caesura, but the line lengths are not consistent, with the shorter lines being particularly unhelpful in telling the story. A couple lines consist of merely four elemental nouns and pronouns. Perhaps they serve as a sort of chorus as a variant to standard epic verse with 2 strong beats both before and after the break. The longer lines reflect this tradition:

. . . Light fails, blood price
Death, war, fire, ice.

Here is memory’s price, that I killed and I lied
And I pondered death’s price as I lived, I denied
The dominion of death for the races I shaped
And gave my breath to draw them through the dark.

Throne, price, hang tree,
Fire, ice, you, me . . .

This poem appears in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology, edited by Juliana Rew. However, the page formatting is dreadful and compromises the poem. All lines are indented–unnecessarily–which forces nine lines to spill their final word onto the line. This was never as the poet intended as seen with a quick online search for a different format. The broken lines disrupt the poem’s goal of exploring the Old Norse heroic poetic verse with a heavy caesura. The editors of this anthology owe Walton an apology in this regard. One can see the poem as it’s meant to be seen: “Odin on the Tree”. I’ve previously reviewed this author’s wonderful speculative fiction short story, “Sleeper”.
 
 
 
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Poetry Review: Animal Husbandry Today by Jamie Sharpe

Animal Husbandry TodayAnimal Husbandry Today by Jamie Sharpe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This poet’s debut collection works in many ways and shows the foundation for which his outstanding 2nd collection, Cut-up Apologetic, later built a strong voice of social commentary and anti-corporate critique. It’s this sophomore collection to which I gave top poetry recognition in my blog’s Best Reads of 2015.

Sharpe uses dry irony with self-deprecation to probe truth without overstaying his welcome in any particular scene. In “Two Trains,” this self-commentary takes the form of a mangled mathematical story problem: “Two trains depart from stations in opposite / Cities. If train “A” is going 155 km/h, / What’s the fuel economy of my ’86 Chevy / As I drive to the corner store for cigarettes?”

“Cirrhosis”

I drank my grandmother’s wedding ring
and sold the pawn tickets for peanuts
(salted).

Wandering into the broker’s at 10 a.m.,
I looked at the kid like he was my conscience.
He looked at me like I was 10 a.m.

The collection later turns toward more corporate and civic matters. “Central Intelligence” cuts into the logic of agricultural behemoths like Mansanto. “Poetry Today” pokes at the poetry scene and e-commerce simultaneously. While “Home Inspection” veers toward absurdism in its logic.

“Home Inspection”

Before I even step
into this house
let me point out
something about the foliage.

Those leaves on
that there bush
were new in spring;
given it’s late July
I’d say they have
two months tops.

I doubt they’re
under warranty.

A couple poems stood out for their narrative edge. The first, “Coup D’etat,” hones in on a certain mother / son relationship to which I could relate despite hyperbole: ” . . . she was a frail woman / weighing ninety pounds / both soaking wet and holding a / pot roast / as she was apt to do // one day / whilst Mother reclined in the bath / with a chuck steak defrosting / beside her in the warm waters / my ennui sent the tub into a boil / which Mother / ever careless / failed to recognize . . .”

In “The Two Grandfathers,” one watches a myth in the making: “Darryl and Dean Walker were identical twins / everyone could tell apart. / Dean’s appendectomy scar was a dead / giveaway, though both brothers’ tendency to remain / clothed in public, at least while sober / rendered this moot. // Less obvious was the half-grin Darryl wore, / as if choking down a joke. There was also / Dean’s missing arm . . .” Two poems later in the collection, one cannot help but notice the reference to “The Two Grandfathers,” but this time edged with a truism.

[from “The Present”]

. . . But the past inevitably descends into myth.
Stories of grandparents become fables.
Tumble back far enough (England? Jakarta? Jerusalem?)
and history becomes a blank wall to graffiti what you will.

I was gifted my copy directly from the poet.
 
 
 
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Poetry Review: Straight James / Gay James by James Franco

Straight James/Gay JamesStraight James/Gay James by James Franco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collective work falls in line with poetic performance art pieces more than it does a poetry chapbook as James Franco explores many aspects of persona. The poetics by itself is passable but never sublime. However, the teasing and toying of personal versus public persona and the concept of a person as a series of situational masks work together to elevate this collection into something greater than the sum of its parts.

James Franco is famous. He knows it, as does his reader. So rather than shirk the mantle, he embraces it through caricatures of himself, not unlike his self-portrayal in This is the End. His open awareness of putting a collection out there as a celebrity is enough to assign the entire speaker voice to character-public persona. Meanwhile, one must assume that the closest he gets to being away from the celebrity persona is with his own family which makes many appearances throughout the collection.

The second poem in the collection, “Mask,” shows his stance when he describes himself as “White, young, lusty, Sym- / Metrical, dark browed; / This mask is the face / Of Gucci, officially.” This is not the voice of someone convinced of his own importance. And yet it is a role he gladly fills “back to wherever the cameras need me,” he notes in “Custom Hotel.” Aside from the masks of actor, poet and celebrity, James hints at his masks as brother and son. Also present are masks that he ascribes to devils and serial killers. There is a darkness waiting to be understood. In “Black Death”, James considers the persona of LA serial killer Richard Ramirez, preying on James’ chosen town. He also draws connections to his process of exploring masks, with the process employed by poet mentor, Frank Bidart, and other artists he admires, Lana Del Rey and James Dean.

While many poems cite specific moments or jobs in Franco’s life, a cluster of 3 in the middle speak of and to his brothers. Throughout them, one gets the sense that James both sees himself more clearly and loses himself in them. From “Brother One:”

Sometimes two brothers split.
Their looks are so similar

They could be twins,
But inside, one takes the dark

Road, and one takes the light.
Tom followed my father

Yet more confusion and potentially jealousy surface in “Brother Two” about James’ youngest brother, Dave, who followed him into Hollywood. “There are probably myriad little things we both do, handed down through DNA, and from proximity to the love of the same parents. / I try not to look for these things, because I’ll think that they’re mine, and that he has stolen them.”

Inescapable is the blatantly queer title to the collection shared with a fictional interview at the end of the collection in which two personae discuss James’ sexuality. Sexuality is yet another mask for James, but gender is not. An earlier poem, “Hello Woman,” laments:

If I ever got high, it would be to be
The woman. If I ever did porn,
I’d want to be the woman.
I don’t want to be the man in woman

I just want to be woman.
But I will never be woman.
I am man, trapped in man.
I have no escape from this body.

In the interview “Straight James / Gay James” which originally appeared in a magazine, the two characters discuss what it means to knowingly have fame and a public persona. Ironically, Straight James plays more coy, while Gay James plays it more, er, straight:


GJ: But my question is, who is the real James, and who is the mask?

SJ: . . . I like my queer persona. I like that it’s so hard to define me and that people always have to guess about me. . . Not that I do what I do to confuse people, but as long as they are confused, I get to play.

SJ: . . . It’s not like I call the paparazzi on myself or anything like that; I’m just having a conversation with the public. If you don’t want to be part of the convo, check out.

GJ: Is this interview a nonfictional statement about who you are?
SJ: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I am as James Franco, but no in the sense that it is a public statement in an entertainment magazine, which means that it is part of my public persona and not my private veridical self.

This collection is no place to look for real personal insight about Franco, but it does master the craft of persona in many little ways. It’s also honest in its dishonesty. And not without humor:


GJ: Okay, let’s kiss in the mirror again.
SJ: You got it, baby.
(They kiss.)

I received my copy of this collection through NetGalley.

 
 
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Review: Cat Lady by Mary M. Schmidt

Cat LadyCat Lady by Mary M. Schmidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A modern day folktale comes to life in this narrative poem of 125 tightly metered rhyming couplets ending with a message.

A Cat Lady, Maria, in Rome goes out of her way to feed the feral cats. At least one passerby call the cat lady a witch [Strega], and they are likely right for she talks to cats and they talk back. In particular, she has befriended Bast, a mother cat, and her three curious kittens.

She tells Bast and the kits that kindly Cardinal Mezzaluna, who makes sure the cats get fed, had a mission for the Cat Lady, which also shows that he accepts her abilities. He confesses that he loved a woman, Anne Marie, but due to his vows, they swore to part and never see each other again in this life. In his dying state, he longs to know if she remembers him.

Maria uses a spell to detect the Cardinal’s love and it pulls across the sea to America where Anne-Marie reveals that she respected his vows and his love–she never forgot and never took another love. The Cat Lady is able to let him know before he dies, after which the feral cats of Rome lead Mezzaluna to his afterlife.

The kits are distraught that the obits mention his wondrous deeds, but not his love. . .

I received my copy of this narrative poem directly from the author through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com.
 
 
 
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