Book Reviews

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Vernon Frazer

By Barry Wallenstein
NYQ Books, P. O. Box 2015, Old Chelsea Sta.,
New York, NY 10113,2012, 22Ipp., $18.95.

Barry Wallenstein stands as a singular figure: a first-rate poet and one of the foremost practitioners of the jazz-poetry fusion. Unlike most poets who attempt to fuse the idioms, Wallenstein's work resonates with the parallel syncopations of jazz and the American vernacular. His poetry on the page reads of a piece with his recordings: tasteful, inquisitive, and straddling the terrain between the mainstream and the avant-garde with comfort and assurance. The poems combine a conversational tone with musical economy: not a sound, word or rhythm wasted. Wallenstein reads like the hip, intelligent guy talking to you in the jazz club, voicing personal and social concerns with thoughtfulness, humor and a long philosophical view that allows even the most urgent matters to fall into place. Throughout his career, Wallenstein has assembled his books and recordings the way a bandleader prepares a set diverse enough to entertain his audience.

           Although he writes very few autobiographical pieces, the stories he tells within his lyrics chart a spiritual autobiography. Wallenstein's DRASTIC DISLOCATIONS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, not only serves up a smorgasbord of his finest work, but highlights the hallmarks of his personal evolution, and adds virtually a volume of new poems that address an age in which dislocation has almost become the norm. A child when the first atom bomb ravaged Hiroshima, Wallenstein has lived through the aftershocks that spread like Strontium 90 through American culture: the JFK assassination, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and 9/11, among others, and has to cope with the dread and the uncertainty that the A-bomb's half life-havoc continues to radiate. Not every drastic dislocation requires historical consequence. In "Withdrawal Symptoms," from his first book, Beast is a Wolf with Brown Fire (1977), Wallenstein discovers himself and the dislocation inherent in the self-referential aesthetic after turning out the world to write:

In this place
the story begins
with a man looking at television
a grown man standing still
in the center of his poem.

           Other poems, such as "Skimmer," create a metaphor in which the poet, likening himself to a flat stone skimming across water, makes the mocking discovery: "In the end, I'm neither gay nor light, but deep." The theme of self-discovery continues through Love and Crush (1992), which opens a set of maturing eyes on the world outside oneself. "Lucky Man" sets a cautionary note on the fast track of "a gentle terror getting ahead":

if you don't cheat that luck
it will kiss you back
and you'll spend all of your
last ten years
as some other person's
sad memory.

           A number of poems in the collection suggest that everybody is a "five-minute dancer" facing their own limits, medical, economic or personal. But "Anger" places life's daily frustrations and long-term indignities into a broader perspective in which the abstraction "anger" becomes concretized through the metaphor anger=food.

Listen, I tell myself
spit that juice
into waters widening
where the elements in waves
will wash harmless.
that wrath,
the truest feeling.

           Wallenstein's paradoxical view of life recognizes that, given time and patience, the more difficult limitations will diminish to manageable proportions. A Measure of Conduct (1999) assesses how one conducts and extends oneself when coping with the limitations life imposes. The title poem's narrator finds "a measure of conduct" to admire in an earwig caught in a load of firewood: "all instinct and woody purpose." When he considers saving the earwig from falling into the fire, he questions the philosophical implications of his own conduct. He ends with speculation and a sense of falling short instead of acting:

perhaps, in an absent state, I confused
action with inaction, smallness with
next to nothing.

           The final section of DRASTIC DISLOCATIONS, the new poems, assesses the cold truths and respites of the present. Its subsections chart a sequence approaching a retrospective summation. "Euphoria Ripens" reveals the author's worldly awareness in a more reflective mode: the introspection of rural life. Contemplation brings increased thoughts of mortality. "Grains of Sand" addresses "counting" the days remaining in a life, but places them into larger perspective:

Every morning on every leaf
the dews gather;
they bubble and shine in the rising sun;
slowly, then quickly they dry.

            "Jazz," the last section, assembles poems that Wallenstein has performed and sometimes composed for performance with jazz ensembles. The narrative bluster of "A Bunch of Could Haves" attempts to give truth to illusions, but "a house good cards" is still a house of cards. "Jazz" closes the book because the music's inherent affirmation of life offers at the very least a short-lived triumph over the adversity of drastic dislocations. In the larger world, though, disorder and dislocations continue. Wallenstein's closing villanelle, "Rabbits on Castle Grounds," suggests an inherently inalterable structure of drastic dislocations: "The place is mad with rabbits.! The man is tied to his habits."

           While DRASTIC DISLOCATIONS closes with a passage of unchangeable madness, the collection itself places the madness into a perspective that only a writer with Wallenstein's knowledge, insight and craft can express. Taken as a whole, Barry Wallenstein's DRASTIC DISLOCATIONS: NEW AND SELECTED POEM.S charts a progression through a challenging but well-lived life reflected through the prism of brilliantly-conceived and crafted poetry best described as "jazz made with language."

Cindy Hochman

By Laura Boss
Guernica-Essential Poets Series, 2250 Military Rd.,
Tonawanda, NY 14150-6000, 2010, 29 pp., $13.

Although it is not politically correct (or nice) to argue with our literary forebears, it can be said that Laura Boss' latest collection flies in the face' of Emily Dickinson's edict to "tell all the truth but , tell it slant." While poetry, by its nature, involves dabbling in a bit of nuanced storytelling, Boss' I poems seem to thrive on their lack of embellishment-and there's a lot to be said for unvarnished candor!

           Reading Laura Boss is akin to spending quality time with a dutiful daughter, benevolent neighbor, protective mother, and proud but heartbroken grandmother. But no one should confuse accessibility with banality-beyond these familial incarnations lies the voice of an important conemporary female poet who, with all due respect to Emily, is not afraid to empty a whole purseful of unslanted truths.

           Despite their surface placidity, these poems are hardly devoid of turbulence, so it is fitting that FLASHLIGHT begins with a perilous flight in a single-engine plane, piloted by the poet's teenaged son:

I did not want to be in this plane,
but it was just after I had separated
from his father, and my guilt was
making me try to please this son
I had so displeased by leaving his father

Having landed safely on terra firma, the poet opines that: "good intentions, guilt, and yes, even love, cannot always keep one airborne." Wisdom such as this, sprinkled liberally and lovingly throughout the book, seems less didactic than hard-won. Coming from Laura Boss' lips, the truth soars, and comes back heroic.

           There is much depth to these plainspoken narratives, in which relevant issues are tackled and resolved. Just like the bridge that connects New York to Boss' hometown in New Jersey, the poet bridges the gap between her rather traditional coming-of-age and the ushering in of modernity, effectively capturing the sociological zeitgeists of then and now, and focusing particularly on the perplexities of evolving gender roles. This sets up a host of compelling dichotomies: good girl vs. bad girl, sensible vs. flighty, rich vs. poor-Boss' life experiences seem to be an amalgam of these polar opposites. In such poems as "I Wanted To Go To Princeton." the titles themselves evidence a resigned lament, and one can readily detect the dilemma of societal expectations and limitations.

And so my brother did what he was supposed to do-
earned his full scholarship to Rutgers, became a
Henry Rutgers Scholar along with his classmate
Robert Pinsky who was "good in English"
according to my brother—

And I married the son of one of the wealthiest
                 Jewish men in
Passaic County—something I was supposed to do—

           In this case, the "something I was supposed to do" is. the operative phrase-Laura Boss does not buck the system, she simply waits for it to shift to a more desirable norm-and when the times do change, she is ready to embrace them. It is a delightful paradox that, despite a decided befuddlement over the sexual revolution, the staid proclamation that "of course I was a virgin when I got married" morphs into the liberated passion of the AARP set:

Yes, what would it be like to make love
as we used to—Would he suddenly
gasp for breath thrusting in lust
and climax with a heart attack—

And how would I greet the EMS workers—
this senior citizen in thigh high stockings
holding a slipping sheet around her for modesty—
the peek-a-boo red satin bra partly showing

Under Boss' skilled band, this brand of sexual playfulness moves effortlessly from the boudoir to the kitchen, and it is no accident that the poet employs a large, iconic symbol of domestic trappings (to wit, her refrigerator) to highlight the universal conundrum of loneliness:

Look at me
Put your hands on my door handle

Open me up—
Fill me with cantaloupes, avocados, half and half,
Meatloaf, and peach pie

Visit me often
Put your hands inside me again

           At the heart of this book is a rich, three_ dimensional portraiture of the nuclear family. This is where the poet is at her most urgent and altruistic, and where the poems take unexpected detours-amidst an atmosphere of equal parts chaos and calm, everyday events take a turn for the absurd. For instance, in the poem "It's the First Night of Passover":

It's the first night of Passover
and I don't have much in my freezer
except a dead dog ...

And my son believes in Cryptogenics and has
had his dog
solidified in the necessary chemicals to do this

Somehow his presence in my freezer takes away my
not only for Passover dinner but also for any food—
especially something cold.

           One gets the sense that the poet, no matter how ardently she strives for a home life free from drama, is destined instead for normalcy gone awry. Hence, this book contains an underbelly of quirk and neurosis, giving some of the poems a somewhat sinister, or at the least, disquieting, bent. But the poems are not bitter, or maudlin, nor do they rely on shock value. Even in the wake of some discomfiting scenarios, the poet maintains a good-natured, upbeat, roll-with-the-punches comportment, stoically believing that, in the end, all will be "good and safe and shining."

           Notwithstanding the hearth-and-home themes which characterize this collection, Laura Boss, by her own admission, "can't knit or sew or even fry eggs"— that is to say, she has a higher calling: she is a dedicated practitioner of the art of poetry. In FLASHLIGHT, a powerful combination of honesty and compassion trump domesticity, and for this, Laura Boss' readers can be grateful.



William Seaton

By Eric Greinke
Presa Press, P.O. Box 792, Rockford, MI 49341,
2011,83 pp., $11.95.

Theory and ideology are often derided as abstruse, artificial, and altogether too French, but in fact very writer, on the conscious level or beneath, works on the basis of a set of more or less coherent presuppositions, an aesthetic theory. Few artists issue manifestoes any longer, and most pay scant attention to their conceptual foundations, so, While theoretical speculation has flourished in universities in recent decades, it receives virtually no attention in "non-professional' literary circles. Eric Greinke is a rare example of a small press poet who has followed in the tradition of Sydney, Shelley, and Pound by addressing the question of what poetry is all about.

           Greinke will be known to those familiar with the small press scene, including readers of HPN. He is the author of something like sixteen books, most recently Wild Strawberries and Traveling Music, including a Selected Poems volume in 2005. What is unusual is his work as a man of letters, publishing reviews, translations (of Rimbaud) and speculation about literature itself. The provocative pieces reprinted in THE POTENTIAL OF POETRY first appeared in little magazines (including this one), and they well deserve this second life in a collection.

           Greinke discloses his general orientation clearly. As a Midwestern small press poet who pursued an MSW instead of literary studies in graduate school, he identifies with the avantgarde, with the outsiders, and outlaws. Thus, in "The Small Press Movement," he calls for mutual support rather than competition, an inclusivity he calls in another essay "The New Eclecticism." The division appears as a class hierarchy in several essays, including his piece on the poet laureate in which he suggests that Donald Hall's values, traditional and even conservative, were perhaps "beaten into his head at Harvard" while Greinke, the rebel, "went to a state college."

           However that may be, for my money, Greinke gets a good deal right. His discussion of the competing claims in recent poetry of an "inner-directed" group--Bly/Dickinson/Yeats and a more "outer-oriented" "Berrigan/Whitman/ Pound group is useful. I agree with his statement that the poetic text is distinguished by "compressed multi-levels of meaning."

           The title essay "THE POTENTIAL OF POETRY" is ambitious enough to address the purpose of poetry, which for Greinke is to ""expand consciousness," through the discovery of "new ideas" in new arrangements of words. Though he does allow, almost parenthetically, for the value of art in simply transmitting received ideas, for him the Romantic goal of novelty is more significant. According to Greinke, the "primary purpose" of poetry is "exposing the unknown, forming alternate ways of perceiving our reality, and advancing human awareness." He provides a varied list of possible techniques to "make it new," many of which have been favorite gambits of the avant-garde for the last hundred years: rule-breaking in general, collaborations, multiple personae, and the like.

           In search of such new insights, he pursues what he, in another passage, calls "the 'Aha' of revelation or confirmation."

His attitude is unapologetic: "Poetry is subversive to rigid, stagnant ways of being." "Why should poetry tell us what we already know? Prose already does that." This and his surrealist assumptions lead him to praise "intuitive" "sub-conscious" and "unconscious" thinking which to him is divergent. (One might object that archetypes by definition cannot be individual, but rather are universally shared. Are the dreams of which Breton made so much in the first surrealist manifesto likely to admit the individual to a realm of idiosyncratic improvisatory genius or to a timeless collective of wise Jungian ancestors? Or is the difference only in the decoding?)

           Greinke accepts literary value as inexplicable: "Taste is personal ... One loves it and the other hates it. Is it the person or the song?" The question can, however, be productively investigated by using his own insight that literary value is constructed in the consumption of the work. According to his formulation, "A poem doesn't happen on a page. The reader is the poet." Thus the interaction can be analyzed in terms of the level of the reader's competence and the richness of the writer's exposition.

           His test case (which he warns the readers is protected by a level or two of irony), using his own poem "Life," seeks to establish clear bases for the work's value through traditional explication, but retreats eventually into a less convincing claim that the reader's evaluation of his poems is dependent on agreement with his theme. "The poem is great, if you also believe that life is great." He insists on this point: he is entitled, he says, to call the poem great "if I also have the right to see life as great." So would any poems asserting the "greatness" of life be also "great"? Would a poem claiming life is not great necessarily fail? And he concludes by backing into mystery at the end: "[The poem is great] Or not. It depends on the reader, as all poems ultimately do."

           At risk of being identified with the reactionary camp (though I, too, went to state schools, which I regarded then and now as among the nation's best), I found some of Greinke's statements careless. For instance, early poetry being oral, there can be no evidence for his assertion that it is the oldest art. It is absurd to say that prose "came as a product of printing." (What of Herodotus, the Norse sagas, and Chuang Tzu?) He says that "upper crust poets rarely stand the test of time," (Chaucer? Milton? Will Eliot fade?). It seems to me the idea of the artist as counter cultural is hardly over two hundred years old. And the man tosses the accusation of fascism far too freely: a poetry Nazi is one who likes accessible verse or a teacher who doesn't know about prose poetry. And if that weren't sufficient, he calls these opponents "chicken" as well!

           But I bother to quibble only because he has so much that is substantial to say. Every page set me to thinking and reacting. His ideas are clearly bound to his own practice, and yet he is capable of sufficient generalization to aim right at the heart of literature. What are we doing and why? He has come up with his own answers based on a lifetime in the trenches of art, and his testimony is valuable, if not the last word. <>

Created on ... September 27, 2007