New Poets | Short Books
Edited by Marvin Bell
Featuring Boyd Benson, Gwendolyn Cash & Lisa Galloway
Lost Horse Press 2007
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
Lost Horse Press has a new annual series, each edition a book featuring three emerging northwestern poets chosen by the unflappable Marvin Bell. This review promises fun for all, because you get three reviews for the price of one.
Lost Horse’s no-frills packaging is welcome, particularly the lack of blurbs on the back. The short prose statements by the writers themselves do a good job of introducing their work. The implication is that these poets are writing for themselves, not for the trade, promising a freshness of outlook—as Bell puts it in his introduction, “the poetry in poetry.”
So if you remove the usual trappings and come-ons, what do you have left as a hook? Since all three poets are from the northwest, there is a tendency to downplay the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The regional poet label can all too easily limit the reception of a writer’s work; but at the same time geography, however personal, is a tremendous hook, especially if the poet is not well known. Yet even without editorial cartography, readers still have their own inscrutable quirks and expectations, and the more I think about it, the usual blurbage might serve the function of flattering the reader into putting aside their most peevish peeves, at least until they purchase the book.
Gwendolyn Cash’s long poem “Acts of Contrition” brought up a few of my own. One: made up words or variations of real ones that are too close to the actual word. We know what the word transcripted means, but what’s wrong with the actual word transcribed? If you are going to “ring your little prophecy by the neck,” I can’t help but suspect a typo, even if the word “jingle” is winking in the vicinity. That aside, the poem is a bitchy fairy tale about her mother; it’s filled with poisoned blood and devils, dreams of dead fathers and loaded guns, and it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be serious or not, while holding down several wonderful lines like, “conjure me a crypt, witch, and I will call it Forgiveness.”
Another one: the speaker confesses a habit of “breaking everything into pieces” and “carrying them in a velvet bag.” We can guess the intention, but the word “everything” creates unintended distractions, as it allows me to think of another poem in which a speaker going through a messy divorce says, “so you want half of everything: fine,” then takes a chain saw to the piano. That’s gotta be a really big velvet bag.
With all this nitpicking, I haven’t emphasized Cash’s “Bluegrass”, one of my favorites in the book. It evokes a landscape that is pastoral, casually ugly, and memorably real, like the economically depressed zones that often lie just outside the borders of showcase national parks—zones with junked cars and gas stations, with welfare offices right by the river, where one can easily find a thicket of blueberries and wildflowers. It’s the usual river of life metaphor, but nicely done. Gwendolyn Cash’s introduction mentions Carolyn Forché, and she uses an epigraph from Richard Siken. There’s a cool authorial blurb right there! It tells me that for this author, this is the company she’d like to keep.
Boyd Benson’s introduction mentions Emily “Dickenson” (unfortunately misspelled) as the company that “the little old lady” in his heart would like to keep. The tenor of the note suggests that he appreciates her poems as surreal miniatures, parables of the contained wildness of (human) nature. Benson’s poems are miniatures. They want to have a very light touch, and repay a word-by-word reading, with their short lines and juxtaposition of childlike and adult details. Here’s the end of “The schoolyard”:
You carried a map
of yourself and pointed
shyly to each county line
coal mining country,
the backbone of industry,
and to the flashlight on your hat.
A mouse began to spin
from door to door
across the schoolyard
as we estimated how many
Toodaloos it might take
to get us somewhere.
That mouse could be doing so much more work here! I am left wondering about the effect of the word “toodaloos” in any poem. Could work, but doesn’t here. The balance of silly and magical would work better if the language took itself more seriously by being more closely pared. In another poem, an interesting image is stranded by unnecessary vagueness:
There were many tall trees
and likewise crow obscenities
beneath them. I did not
stop. They did not see me.
“Many” and “likewise” do nothing here. The “crow obscenities” need a stronger verb like “scrawled beneath them,” even at the risk of corniness; and did the trees not see the speaker or the crows? I’m not harping on grammar as much as asking which one would be more interesting. It’s not a matter of naturalistic fidelity, but of giving the metaphors the best chance to work.
Lisa Galloway admits in her introduction that she writes “ovaries out,” in quest of psychological shock. Her work has the riskiest subject matter of the three. Her freewheeling rhythms can be exhilarating, partly because she’s likely to lead you to a dead end, something poets should not be afraid to do. A standout rhythmically is “Jam on the Exit Ramp”, which describes the speaker “driving away from but closer to” a lover. The poem is filled with starts and stops that risk being dead ends, and places where the comparisons are pushed too hard in context:
Right now, a flashing four way socks me
like the metaphor in your words:
The winter cap hanging on the coat-rack
at our diner looks like an unwrapped condom.
In the context, the strategy works, but warning signs abound. Later in the selection we get a sense that the speaker, while enjoying the ride, is struggling to find larger significances in her escapades. The poem about the dildo doesn’t go much farther than slapstick humor. Certain tendencies give Galloway away. Describing the metallic taste of blood is an absolutely great and vivid detail, but when it is used multiple times in a short collection, it suggests that the writer is pressing this detail for more than it’s worth. I can’t give it the status of Proust’s madeleine or Richard Siken’s obsessions yet. Her craft needs more honing.
“Acquisition vs. Creation,” a poem about coming home for Christmas to her adoptive family is quieter but stronger than most. Galloway evokes the sense of outsideness felt by many adoptees: “I come home at Christmas to observe your religion.” The speaker is “paraded through the house” like she is her own third person until “ I confront an altar to myself./ Twenty… pictures perched on a chest of drawers/… a rite of passage… announcing/ only those who accept your daughter/ can pass”. The distance from her feelings is absolutely relevant, and more effective than if the emotional struggle were played up in her usual go-for-broke fashion.
Overall the collection plays well to the anti-New York buzz crowd, but has a ways to go to make anybody forget the passing of Poetry Northwest.