On a good day luck dropped three quality books of poetry in my mail box: MIGHTY GOOD LAND by Dan Powers, SHORTS by John Lehman and PLAYING TENNIS WITH ANTONNIONI by Alan Catlin. As I read these writers I was struck by what opportunity the poetic form offers us; not just for expression, but for experimentation. Powers, Lehman, and Catlin all write with eloquence, yet in styles that are quite dissimilar. They hail from different parts of the United States; one from the Midwest, the other from the South, and the other a true blue Easterner. These geographic distinctions can be heard in their poetry. In addition, each uses line structure very differently, but to good purpose. I liked all three of these books, but for very different reasons.
MIGHTY GOOD LAND
By: Dan Powers
52 Poems / 103 Pages
Black Greyhound Media
P.O. Box 40367
Nashville, TN 37204
I found it hard to believe that this was Dan Powers’ first published book of poetry. These straightforward narrative poems are told with restraint and clarity. Mighty Good Land is all about the people and places in Power’s life; his wife, his father, his children, the farm, the church, the home. They mirror the reflections many of have as we look over the landscape of our life. This is an excerpt from, “Good Earth and Poor”:
The seasons and the planting of seed –
by nature the true work of our father –
who never owned the piece of land he wanted,
but it was near, past the end of our field,
and through the seasons he watched it fall
piece by piece into the hands of the subdividers.
And with the half-smile of given-up desire,
he would say, “That was mighty good land.”
And he would say it softly to no one but himself
while he held his hands dug deep into his pockets.
And another from, “Half-Light Off the Appalachian Trail”:
I drive home as if alone, blind in rain
and headlights, you far away in stillness
on your dark side of the truck,
the wipers slapping rhythm to the cold silences
piling up between us like a mountain
we can’t see over, can’t climb, won’t try
as long as it’s raining.
There is no secret code language or illusive imagery in these poems. The writer is personally revealing with words that are clear-spoken. This is a fine first book with poems reflecting a southern sensibility.
101 Brief Poems of Wonder and Surprise
By: John Lehman
101 Poems / 95 Pages
Zelda Wilde Publishing
315 Water Street
Cambridge, WI 53523
The poetry in this collection is easy to read and assimilate – the themes are anchored in the Midwest, but the conclusions are universal in significance. They have a Haiku feel about them – starting the reader in one place and leaving them suspended in another. Lehman is the master of the understatement, as well as the third and most critical element of poetry – the ending. With great skill he takes a collection of common moments and elevates them.
Many Haiku poets choose to limit the quantity of the offerings in a particular book or collection, wanting to give each poem space to reverberate with afterglow. In Shorts, Lehman made the choice to pack them in – 101 to be exact. I feel the sheer volume may have diluted the overall impact of the book.
In his preface, Lehman notes, “Shorts is the first book comprised entirely of justified poems. This new form – which I originated – capitalizes on the dynamics between the spoken sentence and this intentionally-chosen line break.” I am always a bit suspicious when a writer says they created a new form. I realize poetry more then any other form of writing is subject to the art of formatting (shall we call it an obsession). But in this case Lehman’s form serves its function well and presents his work without the distraction of more ornate formatting strategies.
Here are two examples of Lehman’s justified poem (which I can’t quite do justice to because my right margins are a bit ragged-edged; his are not):
After My Son’s
Clouds above mountains
form precipitous ranges
in the sky. Moss-headed
Salmon struggle upstream
to lay their eggs then die.
We head on motorcycles
toward Turnagain Point.
I wonder how far. And he
Another Sub-Zero Night
“Once there were birds,” I tell my pup,
“a sun to warm your face and amazing
things called flowers, that would grow.”
She shivers and urinates on the snow.
This expansive collection of short narrative poems is nimble and wise. Learned technique and keen observational skill make this an enjoyable read. One can almost visualize Lehman’s notebook crammed with quick descriptions of the life around him, which fall under his expert hand into Shorts.
PLAYING TENNIS WITH ANTONIONI
By: Alan Catlin
27 Poems / 62 Pages
March Street Press
Greensboro, North Carolina 27408
Poets find food for reflection in many things. These creative prompts direct the themes and associations of their work. In, Playing Tennis With Antonioni, Alan Catlin lands upon a charmed idea. He marries the movies. In doing so, his poems become a cinematic off-spring of sorts. This collection is imagery-rich as it sews together, often colliding unions. The titles of Catlin’s poems are telling:
* Kurosawa’s Deliverance
* L. Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties, Muscle Beach Bikini Party
* Alfred Hitchcock’s To Hell and Back
* Scorsese’s Blair Witch Project
* Truffaut’s Mighty Joe Young Revisited
Here is an excerpt from: “Kubrick’s Dawn of the Living Dead”:
existing out of time,
spirits of the dead
for designer footwear,
clothes, invade a
Omega man on
The run, there is
Nowhere to hide:
Full metal jackets,
Body armor piercing
Round are of no
Use, the dead keep
Walking, legions of
Them like the Roman
Armies sent to war.
These are highly developed works. Most I would characterize as word poems. They move down the page with spare uncluttered prose reflecting the associations bubbling out of the writers mind. Catlin is particularly adept at this, and I was glad to see him take this “leap” from his more narrative work. This is a nice study in blending siblings of the same cinematic parent.
About the author:
Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over one hundred and twenty print and electronic publications. He has received three Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing and most recently read his poetry on National Public Radio’s Theme and Variations, a program that is broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry — the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot and on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You may find additional samples of his work by going to: http://www.literarti.net/Ries/ .