Mike James Reviews Wave If You Can See Me By Susan Ludvigson

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Mike James Reviews

Wave If You Can See Me

By Susan Ludvigson

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In “How It Can Happen,” one of the first poems in this fine new collection, the narrator imagines death as Shakespeare’s “other country.”  She writes, “I go with you, / but not all the way to your destination. / I wait in a dark house while you are taken / to a secret location. / We knew this could happen.”

The last line is instructive because it hints at a foreshadowing which haunts so many of these poems. In poem-after-poem the narrator is never sure of what’s across the river, but she’s certain it’s bad. A bridge will suddenly give way. Flood waters will rise too quickly. The villagers at the next exit won’t be friendly.

The dread is natural since so many of the poems are concerned with the death of the poet’s spouse, novelist Scott Ely. Many are not elegies as much as they are re-imaginings of an old life and dream-like restructurings of the current one. In the wonderfully titled “You Could Be Drinking Faulkner’s Bourbon,” she pictures what her husband might be doing in that other country. The poem moves from image to image, then concludes with a leap of transcendence: “we tell ourselves we’d like to know / but knowing / puts a period on speculation / and we are opposed / even in esoteric theory / to endings.”

From a technical standpoint, the addition of the four words “even in esoteric theory” deepens the poem. If good writing is about surprising the reader, those words surprise by their placement. “Esoteric theory” may not be the most sonically pleasing phrase, but it serves well to play off the narrator’s “speculations” and to strengthen the poem’s conclusion. The narrator is not just opposed to death and all the sorrows death brings. The narrator is opposed to all finality, even of the most far flung variety.

For Ludvigson, mourning is not relentless. Death is to be accepted. If Ludvigson never imagines death as gentlemen caller the way Emily Dickinson did, neither does she shy away from placing a spot at the table for him to sit. The narrator in “Too Late” tries to take in both her dream life and her new life as she travels without fear. “In the new country, / I try to ask directions, tell someone / how far we are from home. / The man behind the counter nods / as if he understands.”

Throughout the collection, over many roads and many nights, an understanding is always sought. Some poems end with an epiphany. Other poems end with an image like a cocked gun.

Though the subjects are often wrenching, there’s a steadiness throughout this collection which is appealing. The poems are tough and sensuous, subtle and clear. And the book is structured so that each poem adds resonance to the one before it.

This is Ludvigson’s first collection in 14 years. That’s a long time for a poet who has published many books, with most appearing in three to four year intervals. What has she done during her long silence? Well, she has continued to appear in magazines like Poetry, Atlantic Monthly, and Georgia Review. She has taught and judged book contests and taken up painting after a lifetime of watching. And she has said goodbye to friends and to her husband all while taking note of, “stars / burning through the debris of history / like love burning through the dark of loss.”

Wave If You Can See Me, by Susan Ludvigson
Red Hen Press, 2020
Poetry, $15.95

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About the Author: Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has published in numerous magazines, large and small, throughout the country. His 18 poetry collections include: Leftover Distances (Luchador), Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), and Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), He has received multiple Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.

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More Reviews by Mike James:

Mike James reviews Mingo Town & Memories by Larry Smith

Mike James reviews “Dead Letter Office: Selected Poems” By Marko Pogacar

Mike James reviews Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader and Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney

Ten Big Things to Know About Roy Bentley: A Review of My Mother’s Red Ford: New & Selected Poems, 1986-2020  By Mike James

Ten Big Things to Know About Roy Bentley:

A Review of

My Mother’s Red Ford: New & Selected Poems, 1986-2020 

By Mike James

 

 

1.

Roy Bentley started out as a poet concerned with his own life and his Appalachian and Ohio upbringing. In those early poems about his fire-lipped mama buying a car and an uncle who joined the navy when his wife sent him out to purchase bread, he wrote like a great and natural conversationalist. Those early poems are handled with subtlety, humor, and clear-eyed toughness.

 

2.

At some point, Bentley decided he could write about anything. As the book progresses from the earliest work, Bentley’s subjects broaden while he deepens his skill. He has poems about Jim Morrison, Robert E. Lee, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He has a poem about losing his virginity in a whorehouse and a poem about listening to a boxing match on the radio. Whenever he is writing about a subject he fully occupies it. He’s not a poet who believes in sprinkling. He is a poet of submersion.

 

3.

Roy Bentley knows how to end a poem. Here are a few random last lines. “The only rising we do is out of the body.” “That awful need to believe in God or nothing at all.” “The hardest part is living without hope.” “Something a boy says to no one in the night.” “Even shadows want to leave here.” (It’s good to be able to quote lines which speak for themselves and need neither footnotes nor back stories.)

 

4.

His last lines can wallop or kiss, but he never takes short cuts to get there. Bentley might be a good guy to play cards with because he doesn’t seem to know how to cheat.

 

5.

He is an Ohio poet. There must be something good in the Ohio water. Other Ohio poets include Kenneth Patchen, Rita Dove, Larry Smith, James Wright, Sherwood Anderson, Jeff Gundy, Hart Crane, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mary Oliver, Paul Zimmer, and George Starbuck. That’s a partial list. There must be something in the Ohio water.

 

6.

This is poetry without pose. His beer poems and pharmaceutical poems are matter-of-fact. He follows the poem wherever it takes him. He never sounds like anyone other than himself. His voice is distinct and only muddied when he is gargling with river water.

 

7.

Filmmaker genius/artist/raconteur Jack Smith once wrote, “The title is 50% of the work.”

Based on that, Bentley’s poems are half-way successful at the start since he never provides boring or lazy titles. Some invoke curiosity about happenings, such as “Why William Earl “Bill” Hagerman Carried the Casket” or “Coal Town Saturday Night.”  Some place the reader in a landscape, such as “Body of a Deer by a Creek in Summer.” Others are more musical like, “Eggs and Butter and Milk and Cheese.” (Do you notice how that title starts and ends on the “e” sound? Do you notice how a grocery list becomes a short litany a child might chant to her mother as she helps put groceries away?)

 

8.

Most of these poems either relate or create an anecdote for the reader. To call them narratives might indicate they are longer than they are. (His average length is one or two pages.) Some don’t so much tell a story as create a scene where a story might take place. Think of an Appalachian David Lynch driving through small towns, past closed drive-ins.

 

9.

Bentley’s references are wide ranging and fun. He loves Jerry Lee Lewis as much as he loves Salvador Dali. He likes Walt Whitman and Arthur Rimbaud. He loves Elvis (who doesn’t?) and Batman and zombies. Did I mention strippers? He loves those too.

 

10.

Bentley has not only grown more skillful with age, but also more productive. Six years passed between his first and second books. Then fourteen between his second and third. Then seven more to the next. Then only five passed to the next two! And now this robust selected appears two years after the last two collections. Bentley is bending time in his direction these days with his well-told reckonings and his joyful, verbal leaps.

 

My Mother’s Red Ford: New & Selected Poems, 1986-2020
Lost Horse Press, 2020
Poetry, $24

 

 

 

About the Author: Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has published in numerous magazines throughout the country in such places as Plainsongs, Gargoyle, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Chiron Review. His fifteen poetry collections include: Journeyman’s Suitcase (Luchador), Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), First-Hand Accounts from Made-Up Places (Stubborn Mule), Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle), and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He served as an associate editor of The Kentucky Review and currently serves as an associate editor of Unbroken.

 

 

More Reviews by Mike James:

Mike James reviews Mingo Town & Memories by Larry Smith

Mike James reviews “Dead Letter Office: Selected Poems” By Marko Pogacar

Mike James reviews Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader and Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney

Mike James Reviews “Dead Letter Office: Selected Poems” By Marko Pogacar

 

Mike James Reviews

Dead Letter Office: Selected Poems

By Marko Pogacar

 

Translated poetry is notoriously difficult to critique. Are we judging the work of the poet or the translator or the right combination of both? Even the best translation is a bit like listening to music playing in the apartment next door: we notice some of the beauty, but miss much of the subtlety. 

Ezra Pound famously said he wanted to know, “what could not be lost in translation.” One of the items more difficult to lose is imagery. The power of rhetoric may increase or decrease depending on the translator, but a clear, unusual image is harder to erase. 

Marko Pogacar is a poet well known in his native Croatia; however, this is his first volume translated into American English. Thankfully, for him and the reader, his translator is the supremely gifted Andrea Jurjevic, whose own poetry ranges across a similar landscape of stunning imagery and heart wrenching epiphany. 

Before diving into the poems, there’s a preface which calls out both Pogacar’s age (he’s in his mid-30’s) and the wars which shaped his early years. A good translator’s preface should address the work of the author being translated, as well as provide context on his life, while also addressing the nature of translation. Jurjevic does all of that. 

Her preface does a fine job of setting expectations for the reader. She writes, “There’s no idling in these poems. They’re noisy, mercurial, authentic. Their movement resembles a beehive; it is unpredictable and usually turned inward. The sound offers both a sword and a shield.” 

The last line is telling because much of the imagery throughout the collection is tied equally to violence and protection. Pogacar writes that “death fits into the three dots / at the end of an incomplete sentence,” but, despite that, “beautiful obstacles are everywhere.”  

Pogacar’s world is logic free and completely relatable. His poems exist within a dreamscape of surrealism and black humor. This is illustrated with the collection’s very first poem, the wonderfully titled, “Man Dines In His Father’s Slippers.” The poem begins as a type of love poem with the line, “What used to be borders, is now you.” The narrator then moves to a description of the environment and then back to observations on his internal life. The poem is structured as a jagged, uneven see-saw. Ultimately, it all evens out as the narrator tells us, “not love, stupidity, stupidity is the heart of the world– / and now in those slippers I eat and cry, / only eat and cry in the house.”

If a collection of poems is to be judged not just by the number of successful poems within it, but also by the number of exotically memorable lines, then Dead Letter Office succeeds on every level. Pogacar can take a reader into “a cage for the dreamless owl of the heart” and allow her to live there among “an archive of errors.”

 

Dead Letter Office: Selected Poems by Marko Pogacar
Translated by Andrea Jurjevic
The Word Works, 2020
Poetry/Translation, $21

 

About the Author: Mike James makes his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. He has published in numerous magazines throughout the country in such places as Plainsongs, Gargoyle, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Chiron Review. His fifteen poetry collections include: Journeyman’s Suitcase (Luchador), Parades (Alien Buddha), Jumping Drawbridges in Technicolor (Blue Horse), First-Hand Accounts from Made-Up Places (Stubborn Mule), Crows in the Jukebox (Bottom Dog), My Favorite Houseguest (FutureCycle)and Peddler’s Blues (Main Street Rag.) He served as an associate editor of The Kentucky Review and currently serves as an associate editor of Unbroken.

 

More By Mike James:

Grace

Paul Lynde

Oh Daddy, Give Me A Quarter For The Time Machine

 

Image Credit: “Chief Post Office Mail Room, Wellington 1920” Archives New Zealand Creative Commons 2.0

Chase Dimock: A Review of Sugar Fix By Kory Wells

 

A Review of Kory Wells’ Sugar Fix

By Chase Dimock

 

       When Kory Wells sent a submission of poetry to As It Ought To Be Magazine last Spring, I was first struck by her sense of history. In “The Assistant Marshal Makes an Error in Judgement”, Wells writes about a census taker in the 19th century whose guesses at the races of citizens become their legal racial identity inscribed in his government ledger. Today in 2020, it took a court battle to resolve the citizenship question on this year’s census. This poem is more than just a historical footnote; its reminder of how the politics of identity and who has the right to recognize it have continually defined American society. In this way, Wells follows the words of fellow southern writer William Faulkner, who famously wrote (and was even more famously quoted by President Obama) “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

       With Sugar Fix, Wells explores the never dead past of today through the personal and cultural memories of sugar. Recipes handed down from generations are clues to her family mythologies, the proustian taste of chocolate ice cream on her tongue is a confessional, the trade in sugar and sweets in the south is a material history of the racial and class tensions of reconstruction to today. It would be easy for a book of poetry centered on the metaphor of sugar to lapse into saccharine sentimentality and syrupy cutesiness, but Wells is a poet who understands the cost of pleasure and the sweat demanded of our brow before we taste the sweet. She knows the personal price of indulgence and the social cost of supplying society with its sugar fix.

       In “Still Won’t Marry” Wells takes on the persona from the traditional Appalachian song “Angeline the Baker,” envisioning her as weary of the constant propositions of trading sugar for skin:

He says a little taste of sugar will cure
my weary back, my aching shoulders, my
singed arms. Like I don’t know what that man wants.

Angeline’s side of the story is wise to the after effects of the sugar fix “The bed a pleasure too short. Babies Chores./ His wants ahead of mine.” Wells connects this folklore of indulgence in sugar and flesh to her own past in a poem whose title conveniently saves me from having to summarize its premise: “He drove a four-door Chevy, nothing sexy, but I’d been thinking of his mouth for weeks.” During a date at a Dairy Queen Drive in, Wells is fixated: Continue reading “Chase Dimock: A Review of Sugar Fix By Kory Wells”