Reading some recent Vermont verse
At last week’s Burlington Book Festival, I heard someone wonder aloud why there’s no iPhone app that delivers a new poem every day.
Actually, there is one — the Poem Flow app from Poets.org. But I would bet that few busy users have opted to squeeze poetry into their days. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to think of verse as transcendent, esoteric, above it all. We might feel weird treating poems as casually as the music with which we load our portable devices so we can let an artist’s mood and aesthetic wash over us when we’re at the laundromat or strolling through the woods.
But why not? Just for fun, I’ve perused some recent local poetry collections with an eye to the moods they might match in our daily lives, the desires and needs they might satisfy.
This roster isn’t comprehensive: I’ve left out books I reviewed earlier this year, and others still await a read. The poets featured range from the celebrated to the self-published — because, when you hear a sound you like, you don’t care if it comes from a Grammy winner or a local garage band.
When You Want to Learn 80 Ways to Love (or Leave) Your Lover
Let me first acknowledge that this is an extremely flip way to describe University of Vermont professor Major Jackson’s third book, Holding Company. Jackson, also poetry editor of the Harvard Review, writes adventurous verse. He packs each of the tight, 10-line lyrics that compose this collection with kaleidoscopically shifting imagery, hairpin syntactical turns and allusions to cultural figures ranging from Lucretius to Jane’s Addiction.
But, as I read and reread Holding Company, I found myself reminded of a big, ambitious concept album. Try to parse each lyric, and you feel stupid. Let it wash over you, and suddenly things make sense.
To get this effect, you have to listen to — er, read — the whole thing as a unit. Jackson’s book is full of echoes, lines and phrases that migrate from one poem to another, taking moods and implications with them.
Most of the poems do, indeed, dwell on those subjects of loving or leaving (or both at once), but they place the anarchy of passion in a broader, colder, tidier context. For lack of a better word, let’s call it America in wartime. “For I was born, too, in the stunted winter of History,” runs the first line of the first poem. By its end, the speaker has declared his opposition to the chill: “I now seek gardens where bodies have their will, / where the self is a compass point given to the lost.”
Bodies do have their will — sometimes in garden-like, dreamlike landscapes, sometimes in grimmer ones — in the lyrics that follow. History periodically intervenes to kill the mood, as in “My Awe Is a Weakness,” where two lovers watch the invasion of Iraq on TV: “All was night-goggle green, even later her eyes, / which made us aliens unto each other...”
Jackson plays slyly on the long tradition of “carpe diem” poems that try to thwart the specter of death with a call to love. “Love by a graveyard is / redundant,” he writes in “Designer Kisses,” “but the skin is an obstacle course like Miami where we are / inescapably consigned: tourists keeping the views new.”
Jackson’s poems keep the views of love and sex new, too — no small feat, considering those are pretty much the enduring subjects of poets and songwriters alike. In one poem self-mockingly titled “Overwrought Power Ballad,” desire is a hurricane (“Over a bed’s edge, we were blown away”).
But toward the end, in “Leave It All Up to Me,” Jackson proves there’s still juice left in an old-fashioned love song. Most of his poems are rich in layers of dissonance. But here’s one that approaches what the Talking Heads called a “naïve melody.” Like the song of that name, it’s naïve in the best way, that of grownups well aquainted with despair:
When You’re Gearing Up for a Protest March The acclaimed Irish-born, Burlington-resident poet Greg Delanty has produced several volumes of verse on all kinds of subjects, but war and other looming catastrophes — such as climate change — are constant threads in his recent work. A pacifist classicist, the poet begs Athena — goddess of both war and wisdom — to show her “wise side.”
So it’s fitting that Delanty’s new book, The New Citizen Army, was produced in collaboration with the Burlington-based Combat Paper Project. The poems — some new, some reprinted from Delanty’s previous collections — reside between rough, mottled-gray covers made from military uniforms, stitched together by hand. The title is letter-pressed on this surface; the interior pages are regular printed paper.
Their contents are fiery and uncompromising. A few of the poems, like the title one, cross the line from activist poetry into agitprop. (The “New Citizen Army” is us: “all regulars must be / mindless in the execution of duty.”) More often, though, Delanty gives elegance and dry wit even to his harshest indictments, as in a poem about the weed loosestrife’s invasive march across the countryside, which turns out (surprise!) really to be about something else: “You’ll overtake the earth and destroy even yourself. / Ah, our loosestrife, purple plague, beautiful us.”
Those who know Delanty’s work may have read — or heard him recite — a number of these poems already. But if you want a playlist of his most political verse, this is it. And if you think poetry about present injustices and coming cataclysms is dreary, consider for a second the Clash’s London Calling. Delanty shares that talent for winning readers over with strong beats and ragged specificity, even in a poem as potentially dour as this one, called “Patient”:
The snow has melted completely off the mountain.
It’s winter still. Yet another indication that Gaia
is in trouble, that things aren’t sound.
The rocky mountain top shines
like the bald head of a woman after chemo
who wills herself out of her hospital bed
to take in the trees, the squirrels, the commotion
in the town below, to sip a beer in a dive,
ignore the child staring at her bald head,
wishing it didn’t take all this dying to love life.
When You Need a Reminder of What You’re Protesting
Jon Turner is an Iraq veteran who’s worked with the Combat Paper Project at Burlington’s Green Door Studio. His self-published collection Eat the Apple may not be stylistically sophisticated, but it is searing in its detail and frankness. Some of these poems are tough to forget.
Take the one where the poet and former Marine recalls following orders to shoot a bicyclist who ventured into the wrong place at the wrong time, becoming “a threat to our extraction just after the firefight.” He imagines turning back time to beg the civilian not to venture outside: “Hey man / It’s pretty dangerous out today. You should just go / back to your wife and kids.”
Or take the poem where Turner talks about being “sick of being / thanked for my service. I’d rather / have society thank the people that / don’t believe in war...”
Or these anthemic stanzas from “Can’t Walk Away”:
We are the ticking time bombs on the corners of the streets
waiting for a helping hand, but all we see are the
corporate drones on the way to the bar to get fucked up because
they know that they fucked up.
Ain’t no pennies getting pitched here.
We are the end result of an eight year catastrophe, turned into the
laser guided missiles waiting to be launched on society, but
ain’t no blood is gonna be shed with this weapon.
Just the ink flowing from our pens, or
the paint from our brushes, or
the poetic justice passing through our vocal cords.
When You’re Waiting for a Diagnosis
I’m not suggesting you have to be ill to enjoy Burlington poet David Cavanagh’s Falling Body. But aren’t we all waiting for a diagnosis, carrying the seeds of death within us from the day we’re born? That’s the other side of being “inescapably consigned” to a body, as Major Jackson puts it: The body is always already “falling” toward decline.
Cavanagh confronts that favorite subject of middle-aged poets — intimations of mortality — with exemplary wit. Like Delanty, he’s fond of both wordplay and ordinary people’s language, and he knits them into poems that often read like dark, smart comedy routines. Cavanagh may indulge in flights of apparent free-association — riffing on everything from his Montréal boyhood to the war in Iraq to Genesis — but, again like a good comic, he pulls it together in the end.
And he turns unpretty subjects — medical lingo, doctors’ refusal to provide comforting explanations — into art. Maybe you think a poem about coronary artery disease can’t or shouldn’t be playful. Try this, from “CAD”:
Genes did it, says the doc. In another time, he might have said
or destiny, or fate, your earlier life as a hawk. All we know is
what builds up
builds up and can kill. The lore of the massive coronary,
the big kahuna,
tsunami that slams the seawall to shards, washes you back to the deep.
how long the stent will work, or if. You live now
Artery Disease. You have the CAD within you.
When You’re Contemplating Buying the Farm
Someone in Vermont’s gotta write poems about cows. Craftsbury poet Julia Shipley does it with economy and sometimes poignancy. It’s more accurate to say her chapbook Herd is about the farming life. Shipley, a Pennsylvania native, took a trajectory that’s less surprising these days than it once would have been: She got her MFA at Bennington College while working in barns, which she still does today. Herd combines lyrics with prose-poem accounts of daily chores. All are rich in the details no tourist sees, whether Shipley describes Black Angus cattle eating “cracked batches of flawed communion wafers” or how it feels rising before dawn to watch “the woodshaving, goosefeather moon rising out of a break in the black trees.”
In the last poem included here, “After Snyder’s Axe Handles,” Shipley claims her place in the lineage of local poets:
And I see: Frost set a post
And Carruth set a post
And I will pound mine in
To continue the current of words through this diminishing country
By lifting a rock, a hammer, a pen
When You Want to Send an Old-Fashioned Valentine
I count three, possibly four Valentine’s Day love lyrics in this short collection by Andy Leader of North Middlesex, a former journalist, current teacher and — with his wife, Janet — traditional-music performer. His poems are old-fashioned — some rhyme — but usually in a good, plainspoken way. Leader, who studied poetry at Amherst College, is steeped in the tradition of Frost. One of his best poems here, “Stay-Mat,” imagines the great poet’s spirit imbuing the flood that washes out his driveway:
I could think it’s you, Robert Frost,
Washing out my driveway again,
Now that you’re one with Nature,
(A union you’d detest)...
These are poems of daily life in rural Vermont, with subjects such as Hunger Mountain, old hippies (viewed unsentimentally) and cords of “late wood” described so well you can almost feel the grain under your fingertips. But I was most moved by Leader’s Valentines. If you seek a sweet antidote to greeting-card verse, try this, from “Sonnet for February 14”:
Last month when Canada came blasting down
From Quebec tundra and the arctic bays,
Bringing gifts of ice to our stone cold town,
You and I would sigh, stack wood, and count days;
But in February it’s not so hard
To think of roses and dark, nut-filled earth,
Turned like beds of chocolate by the yard,
And all of nature singing love’s rebirth;
Then, love, this gray day let’s again entwine
Arms, hearts, and sense our spring in Valentine.m
All we want is to succumb to a single kiss
that will contain us like a marathon
with no finish line, and if so, that we land
like newspapers before sunrise, halcyon
mornings like blue martinis. I am learning
the steps to a foreign song: her mind
was torpedo, and her body was storm,
a kind of Wow. All we want is a metropolis
of Sundays, an empire of hand-holding
and park benches. She says, “Leave it all up to me.”