Mulberries, Names and Common Words

Mulberry, Dan Beachy-Quick [Tupelo Press, ISBN 1932195246, 62pp]
Name Withheld, Lisa Sewell [Four Way Books, ISBN 1884800688, 74pp]
For Love of Common Words Steve Scafidi
[Louisiana State University Press, ISBN0807131377, 72pp]

Three new American editions here, each definitely worth reading for very different reasons.

Dan Beachy-Quick's Mulberry
is a beautifully produced volume of poems, firmly in a lyric tradition, yet very much in the 'linguistically innovative' field. This is finely wrought, meditative stuff, continually surprising, beautifully constructed. With its repetitive central metaphors of 'coils of clay in a pot / threads of silk in a silkworm cocoon / fingerprints / whorls', the language is aptly chosen, progresses around itself, developing, revisiting, with a charming spiral syntax and spatial arrangement on the page

     White the birch trees by the lantern bared,
     Black gloves pulled off at night
     Become the night .... Do you hear?
     That pulse? The deer wander
     Between her hands, glean fallen
     Seed at hand, bed down in fallen
     Needles and grass. Those green discs
     Afloat in their night are their eyes
     Caught in lantern light.
          (from 'Record no oiled tongue...')

This is poetry abounding in musical and rhetorical devices, repetition with variation, and insistent rhythms, images and ideas. Whilst natural ecology, relationships and a certain spirituality are firmly part of the subject matter, so are bigger concerns: universal/cosmic themes, history, and that old 'language' chestnut (I start to lose it with Beachy-Quick a little there, but... there you go, I'm just too much in the world
for the continual referring back to language). Better for me are the excellent poems where the concerns of words are embedded in the realia of the world, such as 'We'll walk toward the thought':

     We'll walk toward the thought
               of the lime-tree
     Down the lane, the morning sun

     In present tense, logic my lament
               in the nerve. A day
     Drops down its nigh-edged skirt

     Around the box-spring of our bed,
               morning past-tense.
     When making love the larch needle

     Green at window when wind blows
               etches - Do you
     Hear? - and echo of pen on page

     Writes a moan our murmur in ice
               on glass, light wakes -
     This world that through desire is seen.

Lots of echoes and themes from other poems within the book here. And a singular music, unusual syntax, and great freshness of spirit. Thoroughly recommended.

Also thoroughly recommended, but utterly different in style and intent, are Steve Scafidi's poems in For Love of Common Words. Another beautifully produced volume, with lots of pleasures, great humour, and a lightly-worn philosophic depth that had me wanting for more of the author's humanity and wisdom. This work is spiritual in intent, but funny with it, and mostly working through another form of spiralling syntax (tho different from Beachy-Quick's) - the single, breathless sentence. The tone is conversational for the most part, but peppered with lovely rhythms, strong images, and inventively constructed ideas about 'the big stuff' of Life-Death-and-Everything. 'The Boast' exemplifies many of these qualities:

     I am so good-looking even the angel of death
                  follows me around step-stepping quiet
     wherever I go
     and I know it is only a matter of time until
                  gravity takes over the business of being
     and a worm wakes

     in the bruised humus of my brain and the earth
                  turns the same as the moment before
     and breath's extravagant

     finale ends and the spirit - if that word
                   properly describes what will lift out of
     my grotesque new husk -

     will lift and lift up as now the drifting
                   buzzards of my region lift on invisible
     heavings of air

     that come by everyday at about tree level
                    and sway through the twiggy impossible
     reaches constantly

     as if some sublime proof of forever is going on
                    and my labyrinthine sad grammar reflects
     this event poorly

     as I try to describe the things of the world
                     accurately with a language that overpours
     my sense of order,
              (from 'The Boast')

Touche. Brilliant stuff this. And in many of the other poems too: 'After Homer's Catalog of Ships', a fantastic list poem; the surreal 'The Egg Suckers' and 'The Boy Inside the Pumpkin'; the quiet lyricism of 'Pieta', counterpointed by the baroque audaciousness of 'if I am lucky enough to sweep the bright threshold of hell'. This is a spiritual and spirited imagination going full-tilt at the rhythmic, musical, image-laden business of poetry; life, death, sex and 'the raw luminousness of the naked body' fully fore-grounded.

Scafidi also challenges his reader with a complex 'anti death-penalty' poem in 'On the Death of Karla Faye Tucker', a form of inverted eulogy that subverts the common words of 'that common murderous bitch' and supplants them onto state violence. It's a moving and expertly conducted manoeuvre. If death features strongly in many of the poems, not least the ironic 'conversation with 'My Friend Todd Hardy Who Says We Die and That's It', then praise of birth also features here. 'Witness to the Work' is a beautiful elegy to the poet's wife in childbirth, that begins in knockabout humour:

     If I could knock a house down with my crotch or pull a train
             cross country with a little string tied to my cock well then
     that would be something. Not much, but at least something.    

develops through beautiful elegy:

     And she pushes that baby out of her and the baby finally
              says OK and galumph, just like that, this lump of breath
     falls into the world and is lifted to her mother's breast.

     And she is crying and people are snipping and cutting, saying
               Oh isn't she, isn't she and the room is spinning hard
     and this spinning spins the earth and the earth spins faster.

and which ends with a spiritual form of knowledge that only being can produce (you see, Kant, ontology does come before epistemology):

     And I always thought that life was like a blue donkey
               named Disaster that we ride to death and whisper to.
     Now I know. It is this bloody holy work that mothers do.

This is one of the most fantastic poems I've read in a long while, and is complemented by others in the collection that wear their wisdom and humanity unashamedly on their sleeve, but treat of them in a new, individual manner. There are lots of poems of direct address here: elegies, praise poems, odes, poems dedicated to friends, family members, passing characters, invented people. 'To A Girl on A Broken Porch' - in which a father talks to a teenage daughter in depression, which ends:

     So let this thing sweep through you slowly.
               It affirms and persists.
                          It hurts like a motherfucker.
     I don't know how else to do this. Who does?
               We are all making it up as we go.
      Whatever it is let it sweep through you. Slow.

and 'To My Infant Child on a Winter Night', being exemplary of their kind. I realise I'm eulogising a book of eulogies - but this one really is superb.

Lisa Sewell's Name Wihheld
is also fascinating work. Again deeply humane, and feminist; challenging and imaginatively inventive. Sewell has invented all kinds of form for herself here, with many of the poems collaging lines from other writers; or genealogical facts. There are scientific registers and languages, mixed with journalistic events that are re-cast through the poetic lens. 'Ghazal for the First Day of Spring' is based upon the reports and diary entries of peace workers living in Iraq during the Spring of 2003. Here lies the overt political poem, with an inventive slant. We also find a feminist slant in a poem that collages lines from Anne Boleyn before her husband whipped off her head. 'Masters of Fate' is composed entirely of statements made by witnesses, news commentators and local and national government officials on the day of Timothe McVeigh's execution. 'Cento: Last Words' compiles the final statements of many different people who have been executed. You can see in these few examples the recurring themes of the book, and the fascination with the processes of writing. I very much enjoyed this book for its energy, its commitment and its individual take on the imaginative responsibilities of the writer. For that I can thoroughly recommend it again. Perhaps the only thing that bothered me about it was that so many of the poems rely on 'tricks' like these to form themselves in the reader's mind. To make a political point powerful, playful and poetic is no mean feat.

         © Andy Brown 2006