You are alive and can think

The Clockwork Gift
, Claire Crowther (81pp, Shearsman)
Forest Music
, Susan Connolly (106pp, Shearsman)
, Carey Salerno (64pp, $14.95, Alice James Books)
She Had Some Horses
, Joy Harpo (73pp, $13.95, Norton)

Claire Crowther's poems are of that happy breed that are readable and challenging at the same time. I've banged on about poems so often in the past I'm afraid I'm repeating myself, but I have to say (even if it's for the millionth time) that the poems I find myself giving the thumbs up to are those that somehow manage the trick of having one foot in this world and one in another completely original world of the poet's own making, as well as, and this is the even trickier bit, being well and elegantly and intelligently written. Which latter quality, I think, suggests that the poet expects the reader to be capable of reading without fully understanding, each party fully understanding that there is a quality of reading and of writing that is more than a little special, and this is where the best poetry lives.

Crowther's poems don't always make themselves clear as regards where they come from and where they're going, largely because they see  no need to explain or justify themselves. Take, for example:

     Here in Hob's Moat we know
     a thike is not a species of devil
    but, unhappily, receives attention.

    A mammal, the small-lifed thike,
    flourishes in our dry moat
     among those buried outside graveyards.

    Ranked first of unknown fauna,
    a thike is easily seen from the A road,
     fooling near its wood. The number of thikes

     Casually shot is high.
        (from'The Thike')

I have no idea, and especially not much idea what a thike is supposed to be, and after several attempts at explanation I'm not much nearer than that string of rail besieging the funfair closed for winter or May's tour of air (more words, bricks, chunks of language, I stole from another poem) to knowing more than I knew before. But, before, I knew nothing and what matters is what matters (a somewhat slightly drunk person told me this, and I believed her) and what is poetry, anyway? Answer: I don't know but I do know that  I don't want to be told  what I already know. And actually, 'The Thike' is among my least favourite poems in the book; some of the poems from the 'St. Anne's Apocrypha' sequence are much more beguiling:

     The phone slipping off the end of the desk, its wire dangling
     Into a half-open drawer. Lever Arch files labelled
     Strain Balance.
(from 'Joachim Emeritus')

When someone tells you Claire Crowther's book of poems is 'about' the place of older women in society, or a meditation on age, or something of the sort, shrug your shoulders and make a cup of tea and help yourself to one of your grandmother's angel cakes. This is what matters:

     Let the Cassandra dogs be warned off now. Let
     every sibilant from your moiderer's mouth be
     bleached. Let teeth crowd out your think aloud
     with heavy metal crowns that do not fit. Let
     each word as it breathes burn you an ice-capped
     ulcer. Let syllable-streams wandering miles from
    where they start clam up with choke weed to
     the throat.
         (from 'A Curse On Your Moider')

Something here takes you to somewhere you've not been before or, arguably, to a place you half-recognise and look around you with senses that are engaged. It may well be my task here to tell you more about these poems, to explain them a tad, or to shine a light upon their strategies and show you that I 'got them' and that therefore I'm really quite clever. If that be the case, I'm not earning my (imaginary) fee. Rather, here's a door  and I'm opening it and suggesting that were you to go through it into Claire Crowther's pages with whatever you call your mind 'open' you may not be disappointed. Remember (we forget it so often) poems have a duty to remind you that you are alive and can think.

But now I've said that, I realise that even crappy poems can do that, in a perverse kind of a way. Take, for an example, this from the first poem in Susan Connolly's Forest Music:

     Everything that's brought you
    To this day is like a song
    You want to hear.
            (from 'One Thousand Autumn Oak Leaves')

Reading (oh yes, my God, I read it, more's the pity) this book I have to admit that we didn't get off to a good start. I took issue with this first poem. Not everything that's brought me to this day is a song I want to hear. In fact, much of it's a song I never want to hear again and wish I'd never heard in the first place . But perhaps I'm taking the poem too literally; I do that sometimes, and misunderstand things. However, Ms. Connolly is a poet who, as far as I can figure out, thinks that 'feeling is everything', so we're destined to argue. Feeling is some of it, but not all of it. (Discuss.)

'Feeling is everything' is how she puts it in the poem 'Piano Lessons', which I read as suggesting that feeling is more important than ability, which idea when applied to a poem and a poet suggests that 'feeling' makes for a good poet and a good poem, and I'm sure you're way ahead of me so I'm not going to go there..... We're only into the second poem of the book, and turning the pages here is already difficult.

To give Connolly her due, she admits in the title poem that 'The intricate/ pathways/ of my life/ have led me/ to inhabit/ a deep forest/ sadness.' but I'm not convinced that excuses the poetry. An alternative strategy would have been to keep this sadness to oneself or go to a support group. (Oh, Poetry World is a kind of support group, isn't it? Yes indeed.) Yet another poem begins with 'I have had enough sadness', and one senses a theme developing, sadly.

Another theme of the poems, if one can call it a theme rather than something Ms. Connolly writes about when she's not saying that life is sad, is place and landmarks and history.  This takes the form of poems about monuments and towers and gravestones and the idea that the names and words are poetic in themselves, especially if we can't say them: Bru na Boinne, Tobar an tSolais, Poll na bPeist and all the rest. I say 'about' these things, but I meant to imply (but couldn't muster the enthusiasm) that I'm not sure exactly what they are truly 'about', and what I really want to say is how poems of this sort, and here I quote a brief example:

    friends -
    I am Dovetos
    son of Cattinos
     Strokes and notches
     climb tall stone.
     Lines in sets of five
     or less
     thud across the edge.
     Finger alphabet.
     Frozen invocation
         (from 'Ogham')

- poems of this sort seem to me always to sound like they've been written by a kind of generic poet with little personality, and I can never quite fathom why someone feels a poem about this thing or place is necessary. Guide books seem often to serve as good a purpose, and often a better, and don't come with such smug literary overtones or unnecessary line-breaks. Often they're written better, too.

I've said more about this book than I intended. (It's so much easier to be critical than to praise. I t comes much more naturally.....) This book depresses me. But I should mention a bunch of poems at the end which, to quote the cover blurb, are 'more experimental in form. These poems involve a typography in which the visual pattern corresponds in some way to the sense of the word or phrase represented...... A poem about an early Christian high cross adopts the shape of the cross. Another imitates a pair of wings.' And so on. And I think I would be insulting your intelligence were I to continue this paragraph, never mind finish it.

Move on. Life's too short.

And speaking of life, here's a book - Carey Salerno's Shelter - based on the poet's experiences working in an animal shelter where most of the time (at least, the time that she wrote poems about) it seems was spent killing (or, as we say, putting down) unwanted pets. Well,  you can guess, I'm sure, the dominant tone:

    I lay my forefinger along his vein like a splint,
    needling a fixed line from the tissue.
    In my other hand, twist a syringe, bevel up.
    Press it down into the Weimaranar's

    silvery skin. A tiny string of blood
    leaks into the loaded cylinder.
        (from 'A Business of Killing')

It's not a job where the laughs come with much frequency, I suppose.

I have to admit I rushed through this one, which is not at all the way to read poems but sometimes needs must, especially when after a slow and resolute and conscientious start it's becoming quite clear that you kind of know where you are, what you're going to feel, and there's a couple of cold beers in the fridge that need your attention.

'Any person with a pet will want to read these honest poems,' says one critic quoted on the back of the book. I'm not so sure. Another says something even more contentious: 'Abu Ghraib haunts these lines as the shelter takes on harrowing, allusive dimensions, and as the narrator weighs her burden of complicity.'  I almost admire this leap of association, but only almost. I think it's a book about killing animals, but as I said earlier, sometimes I'm way too literal.

And finally, finally, to Joy Harpo's She Had Some Horses
, a volume that almost resists review from the outset, as the back cover informs me that this is a re-issue, the book having been first published in 1983 and that it is 'now considered a classic'.

What the fuck is a classic? And who says so? What I've gleaned is that Joy Harpo is of Native American descent, is regarded as a leading Native American poet, is a musician as well as a poet, and has won lots of awards and is a busy person, for sure. But I'm afraid I've tried really hard to find much beyond the banal and the obvious in this so-called classic, and I can't come up with anything worth mentioning.

It's perhaps not a good idea to start in on a book of poems with certain expectations, but I was, I admit, expecting a smattering of unimpeachable Native American traditional good sense, oneness with Mother Earth, a belief that there is a tradition of life to be upheld here, and perhaps some good strong womanhood for good measure. I don't want to appear cynical, my cynicism is a matter of record after all; I'm simply and honestly explaining what I was expecting and, as it happens, describing what I got.

It's like

    And we go on, keep giving birth and watch
    ourselves die, over and over.
    And the ground spinning beneath us
    goes on talking.
     (from 'For Alva Benson, And For Those Who have Learned To Speak')

-- I mean, doesn't this say it all? And hasn't it been said before, and isn't it still being said? Not that it shouldn't be said, but I'm kind of bored, you know....

Elsewhere, what I take to be more personal poems are so dull I'm lost for words:

    I am next to you
    in skin and blood
    and then I am not.
    I tremble and grasp
    at the edges of
    myself; I let go
    into you.
         (from 'Motion')

This may not sound dull to you but it sure as hell is dull for me. Sometimes I think I'm hard to please, but while I'm writing this my attention is taken by a poem I have stuck on my wall next to my desk. It's a poem I found at The New Yorker
, by Dean Young, and thank God for it, because it reminds me why how wonderful and inspiring and inspiriting poetry can be. You are alive and can think, no matter what the evidence to the contrary.

              Martin Stannard,2009