Sentimental Spectacular, Nate Pritts (Mondo Bummer, 2010)
Nate Pritts’ chapbook Sentimental Spectacular contains five poems, a short collection, even for a chapbook. Though slight, Sentimental Spectacular mines the sentimental for careful, specific image and sound, crafting a work that’s, yes, deeply sentimental, but one willing both to celebrate its sentimentality and to search for a major key of resonance in its reader. “Darling, darling, darling,” reads the title poem, “there’s something sensational in the way / my heart takes on different forms.” (It is probably worth noting that the poet has also published a book called Sensational Spectacular.) We encounter the speaker’s heart—large, lush, loudly beating—in each of these image-rich poems.
Pritts engages with other poets in Sentimental Spectacular, including Frost in his poem “Frost at Midmorning”: “…me, a proud honorary / astronaut sent out as a lover of uncontained / & immortal beauty but, O, just a chump in love / with the ground…Frost in autumn, frost at midnight, / Frost on a hotel bed, telescoping from mountains to buzzsaws…” Here, we find a wisp of a reference to Frost’s “Out, Out–”, an arguably unsentimental tale of a young boy’s lost hand, as well as ever-sentimental Whitman, with his exultant and emotional O’s and preoccupations with lovelorn “chumps.”
In the final poem “Inarticulate Bird in Befuddled Blooming Bafflement,” Pritts upends his moment-driven sentimental explorations, challenging memory and nostalgia as stable vehicles of sentimentality. “You can’t bring [this poem],” states the speaker, “to the waterfall you made up, // you can’t show it to the rainbow you see when you / close your eyes.” Where imagination and desire intersect with memory, Pritts shows, sentiment becomes longing, and Sentimental Spectacular veers in an unexpected direction, as startling as it is beautiful. “Some handy flower to dip into,” the speaker calls this shadowy memory, this longing for a past self that did or didn’t exist, “a struggle to remember the sweetness.”
selvage: for country, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa (Belladonna, 2011)
The title of this chapbook from the Belladonna Chaplet series sets a complex backdrop for the poems within. The word selvage refers to the edge of a woven fabric that keeps the fabric from unraveling. The word selvage also calls to mind the word salvage. A selvage salvages the unity or wholeness of the fabric; it preserves the individuality of something, keeps it from blending in with the rest of the world and becoming invisible in the chaos.
In these poems, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s speaker seems to be struggling to preserve identity, control and hope. For instance, in the first poem, the speaker proposes that “Perhaps it is no longer necessary to hope” and asks, “Does it matter how I feel?” The first poem establishes a general sense of giving oneself over to the powers that be. And all that is left is hope as can be seen at the end of the second poem: “And if I think with all my heart / and if I listen with rituals and codes in place, / maybe it will come to pass.” There exists, within these lines, the possibility for sarcasm, though. The phrase “with all my heart” is clichéd and obvious, suggesting a speaker that is, in fact, no longer hopeful. A sarcastic moment here would indicate that hope does not have the power to revise.
Hope plays a substantial part in these fifteen pages of poetry. A poem on page 13 ends, “everything balances on hope.” Although hope becomes central to these poems, there are multiple forces working against it. The concept of free will also shows up often in Dhompa’s collection, but almost always, it is rejected: “As though / the plants on my kitchen window have free will” and “No point bringing up free will.” Dhompa’s poems expound the internal human struggle to understand and control one’s life.
Some of the poems, however, become too abstracted and limit the reader’s ability to connect with the speaker. Take the following lines for example, “Not error but irony / of displacement gives tyranny / degrees of exception.” The piggybacked prepositional phrases and abstract nouns—“of displacement” and “of exception”—push the reader farther from the poem’s core. But nonetheless, readers are left with a beautifully confusing and hopeful moment: “I leave / today and will / see you yesterday.” Yes, see you then.
–Melinda Kaye Wilson
i wanted to be a pirate, Christine Herzer (H_NGM_N, 2010)
By design, Christine Herzer’s chapbook i wanted to be a pirate is an uneven and unpolished read. A visual artist, Herzer has scattered text, handwriting, scribbles, and blacked-out lines highlighting text in white. The poems are more successful in their telling rather showing, but Herzer mitigates that success by trying to maintain a distance from her poems and characters. She has several recurring characters, (‘surfer boy,’ Pan Tau, family members, and more), but none of them move beyond stereotype. There is very little personal connection here either between the reader and the poems or the speaker and the poems. Herzer writes, “I remember sister getting lost.” There is no article or possessive pronoun affixed to ‘sister,’ creating a colloquial, dramatic dissociation, which is soon contradicted. Other character-relation instances in the book feel similarly detached, emotional but partially insincere.
Though many whole poems don’t quite connect, there are many stand-out lines within them. The most simple and direct lines are the strongest: “the party, us arriving together / & leaving together, I liked it,” “where would i go if i had to be there / who would you call before the plane crashes.” Strong lines frame the poems but the attempted stories/emotions put to those lines are too expected. For example, the eponymous line, “we have so much love to do” is obscured in the poem, relying too heavily on butterfly sentiment (“it is a delicate process / branding wings, numbering wings”). While it’s unfair/unreasonable to expect narrative from poetry, “i wanted to be a pirate” is more notable for stand-out lines than its overall direction or impression.