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Reviews from Cider Press Review

Diana Woodcock’s Under the Spell of the Persian Nightingale

Under the Spell of the Persian Nightengale
Diana Woodcock
978- 1625491626
(2015, Word Poetry Books)
$22, Paper

Review by Deborah Fleming

Southern China, Tibet, Thailand, and Qatar are some places Diana Woodcock has called home. What we learn in her new collection of lyrics about the Arabian peninsula, Under the Spell of the Persian Nightingale, is to put away preconceptions about the desert and learn to embrace a new way of seeing a landscape we thought barren but which is an ecosystem rich with sensory detail which has much to teach us about beauty as well as economy. This is no utopian hideaway, however; we have to look past oil rigs and pipelines in order to perceive the birds and flowers, and we are reminded that we all have to be vigilant about protecting every ecosystem from the ravages of industrialism.

The speaker, a “guest/ trying not to be invasive” (“Seduced in the Desert”) as she ventures into the dunes, shows how the human spirit open to observation and acceptance can become one with a place. Lush images describe an exotic landscape of birds, flowers, and insects (particularly the white-cheeked bulbul—the nightingale of the title—and the sidra tree, which invites meditation like the Buddhist bodhi) thriving in seemingly inhospitable conditions. These poems engage our senses as we hear shamal winds blowing, owls calling, and larks singing in mangrove and acacia leaves; taste the sweetness of dates; view desert flowers like hyacinth, campion, and rock rose opening.

“Persian Nightingale” evokes love and loss through a journey across water to an exotic place reminiscent of “Sailing to Byzantium,” but instead of Yeats’s old man desiring to withdraw into a world of unchanging art, the speaker of this poem discovers enchantment in the “sad beauty” of the desert and discovers “powers/ and magic” in the “folds of feathers of this// exquisite mystic,” embracing the beauty of the world as it is. In “The Hardy Ones” Woodcock subverts Robert Frost as she voices appreciation of wild flowers like the caper plant and desert truffle, “steadfastly noble in their earnest labors/ convincing anyone who’ll kneel at their roots/ a lifetime’s not long enough to seek out/ the blooming sages of the most desolate places.”

The writings of Basho, Rumi, and Thoreau are literary ancestors. While “Bardo” declares that grace is lacking in the midst of plenty, “Living in the Margins” shows how austerity instructed the prophets, and “Hakeem’s Farm” describes the speaker’s awareness of the creation of memories while enjoying abundance and hospitality on a thriving desert farm where guests are considered to be emissaries of God.

In “Recitation for the Fatiha for the Dead” the woman speaker acknowledges that the desert itself taught her that she must be one with the women of the world (especially China, Africa, and India) who do not enjoy the right of self-determination, yet most of the time she can do little more than blasphemously recite for them the fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an recited as a prayer only for learned or pious men, never for women.

Woodcock employs a rich variety of onomatopoeia and internal rhyme to endow the free verse poems with form. In “Not Born in this Desert” she writes “Not desert-born, yet I refuse to scorn flat terrain,/ sparse vegetation, lack of rain” and “maybe someone/ is listening, missing the sight of sun glistening/ on the backs of a flock of flamingos in mangroves.”

“Desert Dare” makes clear that loving the desert means taking risks as it exhorts the reader imaginatively to “Take a chance—/brave sandstorms,/ mirages, dunes that shift,/ seering silence, Sand vipers,/ a million blazing stars/ keeping you awake at night.” The walker in the desert must “Have faith the nearest oasis/ is just over the next dune,/ there’s still time to join/ the maji’s caravan.” With an image reminiscent of Shelley’s “To a Skylark” the speaker must be grateful “When the Desert lark darkens/ the sun’s stark stare” and sweeps across the dunes “into shade of sidra tree.” Finally, the walker/watcher/listener must, like Shelley’s poet, “ascend like Desert lark/ on the shamal wind just/ at that moment when the sun/comes strolling over the dunes—//a flame of love to set your heart/ and hair on fire.”

“Desert Bound,” the final poem, reveals a capacity for compassion and generosity as it weaves a “karmic tapestry” of gifts, “no weed unwelcome.”

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 4.

Deborah FlemingDeborah Fleming is editor and director of the Ashland Poetry Press. She has published two collections of poetry, two chapbooks, one novel, and four volumes of scholarship. Her most recent poetry collection is Into a New Country.

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A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
by Gregory Mahrer

Winner of the Poets Out Loud Prize, Fordham University Press, 2016
Review by Gwynn O’Gara

A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
Gregory Mahrer
Poets Out Loud Series
978-0823271153
(2016, Fordham University Press)
$17.40, Paper

In Eros, Anne Carson wrote, “The path of true wisdom is always a “leaping” across an erotic space between the known and the unknown.” In this tangy and haunting chronicle, Mahrer maps a consciousness both inside and outside normal time and space. Spanning the Oligocene to the Anthropocene, places and objects evoke old Europe and colonial Central and South America, while “acetate” and “toasters” tether us to the contemporary. Images of the written and spoken word form a motif of the expedition. Lush, musical language provides the compass.

This is a riddling journey, disorienting and contradictory. Juxtaposed epochs and locales force us to make new connections, or fall off the path: “I have left the long cursive of your body to stroll the Miocenian grasslands . . .” By merging geologic and human histories, Mahrer creates a unique chronotope that includes the urgency of now: “Bludgeon the tundra into units of heat” and “Each moment carries extinction in its mouth.”

Although it reads like a dream, the odyssey is rooted in the actual: “Once hands were spoons joining water to water, then knives dividing sand from stone.” The poet also fuses unexpected components: a “curfew of satin and wool” and “the body is a composite of ribboned hair and narrow stairwell, serpent and hasp.” Home, the starting place, seems to be the body of the woman left behind: “Remember how the skin gathered around the milky hollows of her knees?”

Surprises abound: “cuffing our ears like iron kisses,” “small squalls wrapped in papier-mâché,” a cellist’s “wilted pearls.” We, like the campaigners, are constantly off-kilter. Images of words written and spoken remind us of who and where we are, as in these lines from “Franciscan Mélange:”

“The comma’s slow knife.

Don’t speak yet. It is imperative we not speak

the notspeak spoken here.”

In addition to the abundance of phanopoeia, the aural imagination feasts as well. The footsteps of this journey are playful and euphonius, as in “the loose syntax of warm rain bees fuzzy with jazz/nuzzling the river azaleas,” and the following lines from “Glossolalia:”

“Loontongue

muttertongue

idiom savant . . .

Wrist glyph

phoneme of hip

ibble of lash . . .

What is the saying

that in the saying

reveals the underword?

The compass is felt in the throat; the sound-play prompts connections, and ecstasy.

Mahrer has said that he heard these poems over the course of fifteen years. He was rewarded for his patient listening. By the end of the forty-two poems, we realize this is the record of the poet’s apprenticeship. These songs of shifting perspectives, longing, and grief, change the reader, too. More aware that the deepest past is always in us, we, along with the poet, are ready “to love the small quiet of the present tense.”

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 3.

Gwynn O'GaraGwynn O’Gara’s books include Snake Woman Poems, and the chapbooks, Fixer-Upper, Winter at Green Haven, and Sea Cradles. She served as Sonoma County Poet Laureate from 2010 through 2011.

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Illusion of an Overwhelm
by John Amen

Review by Erica Goss

Illusion of an Overwhelm by John Amen
978-1630450489
(2017, NYQ Books)
$16, Paper

John Amen’s latest collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm, takes the reader on a disquieting ride via the psyches of multiple narrators, shape-shifting through intertwined lives observed close up. Amen exposes the forces that simmer under the surface of the banal, but unlike too many contemporary poets, he does not revere the quotidian. Instead, he understands it for what it is: the barest of veneers over the anguish of everyday life.

The book is organized into four sections. “Hallelujah Anima,” the first, contains eighteen poems that deal, each in its own way, with Anima, a female character holding power over the speaker. She is anima in the Jungian sense: the female side of a man, or anima, the part of the psyche that is directed inward. In either case, Anima controls the hapless speaker, taunting him, manipulating him, and then discarding him. In “5,” he describes the cost of this emotional upheaval: “My moods streak & swing, rotating / like stock images on a website.” Later, in the poem “11,” he writes:

The sham I see in the world

is the sham I see in myself…

Some say there’s no such thing as rehearsal,

I say that’s all there is.

Yet he knows he’s lucky to have survived this journey. In “Grace,” Amen writes “My years / have been punctuated by small salvations / I can never explain.”

“The American Myths,” the book’s second section, is a piercing look at race relations, power, and guilt, both collective and individual. A character named “J” “slurps diet soda,” “haggles over refills,” and “dry swallows three Ambien.” The poems that make up this section contain three stanzas with six lines each, which barely contain their fury as they lurch through the rage, moral contamination and shame of America: “A black son…/ needs a white father like a dinosaur needs a meteorite” (“18”).

In “My Gallery Days,” Amen invents a persona whose loopy, engaging voice takes us on a roller coaster ride through the world of an artist: drugs, grants, jobs, lovers and friends, who are as often as not betrayers. The ironically self-destructive tendencies of the creative class, those who toil in “spattered rooms,” are expressed with uncanny accuracy: “You pawned our sketches to Mr. Pharm, who attended / the opening, a final Rx hoopla to hang my gloat on” (“4”).

The poems in “Portrait of Us” are more tender than those in the previous sections, but no less intense. As Louise Glück wrote in her essay about Hugh Seidman, “love in these poems is longing and pursuit of the past.” In “5,” Amen writes, “I cry for the lovers we were,” even though he’s accepted that “it’s possible / to love things / just as they are, / a woman / just as she is.”

Illusion of an Overwhelm explores what lies below the surface of ordinary life, its risks, joys, and disappointments, with language that is fresh, daring, and complex.

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 3.

Erica Goss served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA from 2013-2016. She is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2016 Lyrebird Award, Wild Place and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets. She is co-founder of Media Poetry Studio, a poetry-and-film camp for teen girls: www.mediapoetrystudio.com. www.ericagoss.com.

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