Chap Nook 10: Cutter, Peeterse, Biederman
All Black Everything, Weston Cutter (New Michigan Press, 2012)
Hip hop fans will no doubt notice that Weston Cutter’s chapbook All Black Everything shares its title with Lupe Fiasco’s “All Black Everything” and with a line from Jay Z’s “Run This Town.” Coincidence, it would seem: Cutter’s poems are not racially charged like these songs. Rather, they focus their attention on persistence in spite of existential darkness.
The chapbook features a speaker that, although not without ire, shows no sign of self-righteousness in his discontent. Take, for example, Cutter’s poem “The Horse of Saint Recall,” in which an aging speaker grumbles about the “neighbor / -hood kids” that frolic on the sidewalk in front of his house. He seems bothered by the fact that the children don’t seem aware of his presence. The speaker continually addresses a “Lord,” as he bemoans his current state: “Lord these late stages would be easier / to suffer prune / and Metamucilly through.” Despite his discontent, the speaker does not let himself become indignant. In fact, he finds resolution, understanding:
Lord were I still streaky + soaked I too
would ignore empty men on empty
but Lord I’m not
There is a hint of acceptance in these lines.
The chapbook’s opening poem “No Parable” begins with a farewell: “Goodbye to the celery stalk days of our winter.” The line is too abstract to tell what exactly is being left behind, though we can gather the barren and cold feelings of winter. The speaker is making a concerted effort not to wallow. Subsequent lines demonstrate a yearning: “I want to believe again” and “February teaches patience.” Cutter utilizes many similes throughout the poem, and the overarching metaphor (seasons for a life) proves useful, though some minor metaphors are ineffective: “one last time before spring’s taken / its seat at the table.” What table is this?
Just as the speaker is concerned with acceptance, he also seeks preparedness. See “How to Be Ready for Everything,” in which the speaker finds that preparedness means acceptance of the unknown, as the final lines illustrate: “there’s a season / whose secrets haven’t been disclosed / but look at the sky, look what’s on its way.” It’s a comforting poem, but at several points succumbs to predictability. Take, for example, these lines: “How to be ready / for everything is to know / leaves turn.” No surprises here. Also the lines are reminiscent of The Byrds’s version of Pete Seeger’s version of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “To everything (turn, turn, turn) / There is a season (turn, turn, turn).” Perhaps Seeger said it better as well as before?
Nevertheless, Cutter’s poems resonate. They speak to the difficulties of “letting go,” and accepting, difficulties most have faced. The chapbook would be stronger, however, if it were consistent in tone and theme. Several poems in the second section seem out of place, off topic. For this reader, the chapbook closes on page 32 with the succinct and lovely little poem, “Reveal.” Here it is:
This is the letting go: how the light
slips from the room, arms from
a sweater. Cast wide enough, you’ll
find your real wound: the street, alive
with memory, springstrewn: last
year’s leaves, debris li ke fragments
of once-great machinery. I left this
and this along that street; I keep
leaving. Dark and two cars pass,
one red overtaking another. This
is the only view, all that’ll ever
Black Birds : Blue Horse, Natalie Peeterse (Gold Line Press, 2012)
The elegy is a poem of lament or of grave meditation. Natalie Peeterse’s chapbook Black Birds : Blue Horse works on both levels. It is both a meditation on the nature of grief and a lament for Nicole Dial, who was killed in Afghanistan while working for the International Rescue Committee.
In Peeterse’s work, grief means a loss of equilibrium, a theme the speaker exemplifies and studies. She moves toward balance in the latter portion of the chapbook. She remarks that “the sky holds over its kin / and it’s forgotten no matter how far we wander.”
Grief, too, is a matter of address. The speaker struggles with address by speaking with “you.” The “you” is omnipresent at first, but begins to be lost toward the middle of the work: “And the waiting for you, and then / things to cut the pain of waiting.” Despite the pain, the speaker moves toward an uneasy acceptance of that waiting; in the final vignette, she finds the road to Kabul opening up to her, a road initially associated with “your ending.”
To read Peeterse’s poems is to be introduced to grief in all its forms. They depict the loss of balance found when one realizes that life moves forward even as one is grieving and the wondering of whom to address and with whom to share one’s sorrow.
The Hardest Part Is Done, Lucy Biederman (Grey Book Press, 2013)
Lucy Biederman’s second chapbook, The Hardest Part Is Done, draws lines between calamity and self and provides instructions that indicate those lines as tools for leaving and for learning to let love leave. Endings become mythic and result in volatile prying, which can be read as either selfishness or self-nurturing in the framework of finish: “He asks / what I’m doing / today when he / wants me to leave. / I’m always / doing nothing.” The lines Biederman draws resemble a how-to of the saddest tune.
These instructions aren’t necessarily enough to survive Biederman’s world, however. The hollowness of being left constantly re-sews and tears itself apart by means of prose, a sometimes haunting, controlling way for us to travel from poem to poem. The poem “Nobody in the whole country loves you.” mirrors the villanelle “Given.” These poems, in their isolation, place us as agents who “take a journey” and let “strangers come” to fill the empty spaces.
Feral introspection lets the text serve less as a how-to or “Example,” as the first poem indicates, but more of an enchantress’s war song. The attention to the left behind is left alone, and when the alignment opens up, so does the self: “Can someone pop the van / I’ve got to give up.” This is a diptych of disaster and survival whose panels are doomed to forever face one another, and I prescribe it to any lover, not as a warning, but as a lullaby.
— RJ Ingram