Wednesday, December 24, 2008

More Secular Psalms in Poetry

(Reflections on December 2008 POETRY).

As an aspiring playwright - actor, I used to read poems as soliloquies, and would lose interest if I couldn't find a dramatic build to the verses. Now I find poems please me more when they point out new ways to see familiar things. In an earlier posting about poetry, I called some of these "secular psalms," because they draw attention to goodness in creation. (It's another step, of course, to call it God's goodness in creation, and it's safe to assume that these poets don't expect anyone to take that step.)

Such is "Therapy from the Garden," psychotherapist Glenn Morazzani's first poem to be published in POETRY. For all the emotional ills catalogued here, such as anhedonia and anorexia, the poet uses his imagination to see curative images among the vegetables of a garden. For panic attacks, "Imagine the layers of onion, Sufi-circling / and circling until there is no tear-making body." To calm "too much affect," he says, "meditate on potatoes, taciturn / as overturned stones." It's a joyful procession that includes "corn's parade, ticker tape leaves and Rasta tassels."

Another first-timer, Fred D'Aguiar, brings us a train as some kind of awesome beast, and it sounds musical:
Long before you see train
The tracks sing and tremble,
Long before you know direction
Train come from, a hum
Announces it soon arrive...
Though he teaches now at Virginia Tech, D'Aguiar's profile tells us that he was raised in Ghuyana, and the dropped articles here and there suggest that this is a memory from his childhood. It's a child speaking who sees the machine as a mythical monster: "It flattens our nails into knives," he tells us, and "whistles a battle cry." There's a great image of the two
Rails without beginning or end,
Twinned hopes always at tyour back,
Always up front signaling you on.
Fine, energetic, fun.

Here's a complaint, though: D'Aguiar's poem ends with a list of what I presume to be plants: "greenheart, mora, baromalli, / purple heart, crabwood, / kabakalli, womara." Why do poets do that? Even if I knew what these were, how they looked, how they might feel or smell, the listing of them hardly suggests their emotional significance to someone who grew up among them. Elizabeth Bishop exasperates me sometimes when she throws similar lists of plants in her travelogues. Other poets whom I enjoy do the same thing with annoying regularity - Don Hall, Jane Kenyon, John Updike.

More psalms: Todd Boss's "This Morning in a Morning Voice," a doting father's preservation of a moment at home with his young son - the boy's froggy voice repeating a nonsense song on his way down the hall to tinkle - "I lie still in bed, alive / like I've never been, in / love again with life..." Another poem finds a "miraculous stream of silver" when a mother somehow wrings more water out of a cloth already well-wrung.

Roddy Lumsden's suite of poems that opens the issue starts with a bit of envy mixed with wonder regarding "The Young," for whom "Now is not a pinpoint but a sprawling realm." Internal rhymes seem to be at work suggesting one image or idea after another, as "chances dance," "sprites" and "spite," and the pockets that "brim with scimitar things." The sound of regret at the end is familiar, yet apt as the poet seems to be regarding kids at a beach throughout the poem, which is rife with images of beachfront sights -- sherbet, lighthouse, sea and galleon:
One cartwheel over the quicksand curve
of Tuesday to Tuesday and you're gone,
summering, a ship on the farthest wave.
"God's Secretary" by R. S. Gwynn plays "What if?" God's inbox is full, but he doesn't come in to answer His messages, and so on. After the jokes, the poem winds up to a more wistful conclusion, that she
...still can wish there were some call, some proof
That He requires a greater service of her.
Fingers of rain now drum upon the roof,
Coming from somewhere, somewhere far above her.
Set apart, there's a section of poems by "Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellows," and I'll consider those another time.

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