Sunday, April 5, 2020

the absurd man

When opening up Major Jackson's The Absurd Man, I randomly landed on a section that ultimately felt like the heart of the book. In part 7 of "The Absurd Man Suite," the speaker gives us a litany of all the things "grandfather would be ashamed of." I love the images here and the dichotomy of two different men: "I am sure he'd smirk at the sight / of fresh cut flowers delivered at my door..." Many of the poems throughout speak of identity through the lens of others or through the eyes of oneself. I am attracted to poems which deal with self and specifically doubling, so the opening piece, "Major and I," felt particularly revelatory.  "The other Major flies in his daydreams / which means he's collecting a paradise / of mirrors where I sit studying the prose / of Toomer, Morrison, and Faulkner. Latinate / though he is, master of the outside, he digs / the gangster lean and is more thankful / than a sunroof top." There are many flowers, bouquets which bloom throughout the book--and serve as distinctive metaphors. The book is about journeys as well, not just the personal, but the physical--from Washington Square to Paris to the Adirondacks and a particularly distilled, lovely Vermont poem. Like the "person" poems ("Double Major"), the locations are fractured in a way through other lenses, perspectives. All of this and more makes this another sparkling and fascinating collection from Jackson.

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, April 4, 2020

negative space

Negative Space begins with the building of a house. Near its end, it progresses into the building of stairs, houses under dusk and finally, the intimacy of a bedroom. The first poem here, "Almost Yesterday" ("They started with the barn. / This is how a new life begins--with an axiom"), begins a journey of relationships with space, objects, people. Luljeta's Lleshanaku's poems are translated from Albania into English by Ani Gjirka. The translation is rich, meaning, that there is a preservation of and engagement with eclectic diction. The book is split in two between two different collections--which meld well together. "Gloves," in what now feels a paean to cleaning workers, nurses, feels especially pertinent right now: "As you leave the plane, the yellow gloves enter from another door. / Sterilization grows even more powerful here: / seats disinfected after long intercontinental nights... / and headphones after movies watched over the ocean." And later: "Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene. / How quickly the world hurries to clean up every trace!" Lleshanaku shows how the synthetic and the natural, including time itself, washes things away.

From the Poetry Society of America site, Lleshanaku describes a memory here: "One of the most resistant images from my childhood, which comes to me from time to time, is the damp school corridor and the cleaning ladies who warn in a threatening tone: "Don't step here!" I don't know why that hallway was always recently-washed, or washed at the wrong time, but it sounded as a punishment to me, as if those two nice ladies, exhausted by their hard work and difficult life, gained a kind of satisfaction when imposing their small power over us, the little ones. And the fact is that I'm still unable to free myself completely from that black-and-white wet tile nightmare and the acid smell of chlorine."

Since the collection emerges out of Lleshanaku's experiences under dictatorship, it makes sense that there is so  much expansiveness in thought in describing the limitations of language (the hard-to-hear conversation with Charles Simic in a Las Vegas bar--a truly great poem). When looking through a used copy of Elizabeth Bishop's Geography III, marked with notes from a previous owner, the speaker says, "And now it's my turn to add my own geography. / There's hardly any space left, not even for the shadows. / The black ring of a coffee cup and the careless ash of a cigarette / are my only traces. My fear of clarity." So let me not try to make the mysterious un-mysterious and simply praise the poems for engaging similes, observations, and introspective sketches.

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, April 3, 2020

electric arches

Eve L. Ewing's Electric Arches is one of the more structurally unique books I've come across in some time. I'm late to it as it came out in 2017, but I'm glad I found it. Loose, lively and observant poems are paired with visuals of scrawled handwriting and artwork (like a dryly amusing chalkboard of a teacher's "agenda" in cursive which leads into a stunning piece: "Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went On Then"). It is a beautiful, fun book, much of it rooted in Chicago childhood, with bruises of pain. "appletree" struck me in particular. It rides through the perspective of the speaker's life on the vibe of Erykah Badu's Baduizm. The apple tree is a Biblical reference too, of course, a where-it-all-began moment; later in another poem, Ewing writes "... there was Eve, my own / namesake. The first black woman who ever / lived. She was the first person on this strange sunlit planet to know anything at all, though she / paid for it with terrible cramps." This feel of knowing and being a black woman and the pain and cost that exists with it is what is most palpable in Electric Kingdom. There is comedy too that sears and cuts. In the amazing "Ode to Luster's Pink Oil," (I love, by the way, how this youtube reader describes why this poem speaks to her so much) she writes "nor are you free of anything: / paraben- sulfate- hassle- free. / no, friend. you cost." In "True Stories about Koko Taylor," a deft tribute, again Ewing invokes both the pain and the comic: "She wished to be born again, under a good sign. / She wished for a better jukebox." Ewing's poems have stirring rhythms and sounds. There's a density to this collection and so many surprising shifts, that it is hard to capture all it captures on a first read on this rainy day. Will be turning back to it. Hope you find it too if you haven't yet!

-Jeffery Berg

Thursday, April 2, 2020

let the circle be unbroken

What I like particularly about Alison Colbert's collection of poems, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, is how of the time it was written it is. Published by Women Writing Press in 1976 and with poems dated between 1970-1974, Colbert addresses topical subjects of the era including protests against Nixon and the Vietnam War. These poems, mostly distinctly-set in the city, are written in a way that feels immediate. They also address concerns of female artists. In "Anne Sexton a Suicide," there's a push-and-pull, repetitive nature in the poem of praise and also hope to move past "women famous for violence of poetry, selling self-hatred." "The circle" becomes a place for women to "sit upon the ground and tell sad tales about the death of queens." 

Perhaps the most potent pieces are towards the end which are elegies for her brother who died in an car accident. That push-and-pull continues here as well in the vacillating between the tragedy itself and the mundane objects that surround it: bills for the plot, clergy gratuities, limos.

I picked up this tiny, teal paperback, with its plain cover and an open-faced, grinning Colbert on the back, second-hand in Provincetown. I like finding books like this, especially when the poems are as skillfully rendered as these--books that belong to another time but still feel alive.

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

coral road

Since Garrett Hongo's Coral Road is a "pilgrimage"--mostly through stories of Hongo's ancestry of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii--it makes sense that it begins in motion, "out of Hilo." The winding shapes of the poems feel fluid, akin to the constant ruminating of the past and the forward push of moving and thinking in the present. There are many long, elegant sentences throughout, rich in detail and sound. In "A Child's Ark," a poem which the speaker remembers a favorite TV show from the 1950s, the idea of movement is expressed in succinct verbiage where "kids would wend their way through the attractive curves of a game path." This is one of the more unassuming and surprising poems here and is, in a way, the crux of the book itself. Elegantly-constructed, Hongo illustrates how haunted the speaker is since youth in re-creating--"mapping out a village of my own" from distinct physical and emotional details that can be pulled. Many of the poems confront art and artists, photographs and pieces of history (including the scraps of census and immigration docs included within the book) with verve and complexity. I am thinking of the second section in particular of letters from the American Japanese detained in the country during WWII which summon Hikmet and Neruda. In the third section, the poet speaks through an artist: there's a plotting of dense vision and detail which ultimately ends up with "limed pigments"--"my symbols spare and cerulean." I was particularly amazed there, how Hongo is able to move through so much and ultimately end on something beautiful, simple. This dissonance between muchness and "the little to tell" runs throughout. As do images of fire in all sorts of ways, from a cane field ablaze, to torches, comets, "alabaster light over the empty Hawaiian sea," and a lit cigarette. Hongo also touches upon the remove of the artist: painted infernos are merely "benign." What more can be done sometimes other than looking--whether at the remnants of an old Shell station (the word "shell" a play upon the literal sea-laden image which this book is soaked in) or in "Holiday in Honolulu"--a photograph of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong--and, out of so much richness and pain, trying to express everything simple, deceptively so, and blue.

-Jeffery Berg

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

familiar strangers

Murat Sayginer, the talented Turkish creator of The Flying Fish, which I reviewed last September, brings a sense of dizziness and calm in his short film, Familiar Strangers. Using "deepfake technology," (a notable effect in The Irishman) Sayginer gives us a rotating two-line assembly of two hundred-fifty four faces, all famous actors. Admittedly, I didn't recognize them as actors for the first few seconds of the near four minute short (you can visit Murat's insta for a closer look of the individuals). A pleasant, hazy blending of all the faces was the immediate effect it had on me, before noticing their specific features. Familiar Strangers is backed with Bach's Air on the G String, which adds to its timeless feel. As he did in The Flying Fish, Sayginer mixes classicism with new tech effectively and evocatively. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

the way back

Ben Affleck has long been an actor of particular blankness. He is a gruff, imposing, masculine presence, without much tics to speak of--akin to a certain kind of Hollywood star that lends well to audience projection. In The Way Back, Affleck, who has battled addiction and the ensuing media storms around it, plays a former high school basketball star who is now an alcoholic construction worker. Relationships with his family and his wife, in current separation, are strained. Suddenly, in what seems to be literal divine intervention, he is asked by the head priest of his old high school to coach the basketball team. Through Jack's (Affleck) brash, unconventional style and long untapped personal talents, he whips the team into shape and guides them to hard-fought victories.

This is the simple framework of Gavin O'Connor's plainspoken film, in a similar vein to his craggy sports drama Warrior. We watch Jack before, and also in the midst of, balancing his life as a coach while hitting his local bar, and also sneaking hard liquor into coffee tumblers, and going back again and again to the fridge for cans of beer. The film gets tripped up a little mid-way by giving us the reason why Jack may have turned to drinking and is so emotionally blocked and removed (this also happened in Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, featuring Affleck's brother Casey in his pent-up Oscar-winning lead--yet, the shape and feel of that film feels both much more organic and elegantly constructed). Both films show the difficulties men can face expressing their emotions and dealing with grief. The Way Back ends up over-explaining in a few treacly stretches. Still, Ben Affleck's effective turn, the sturdy ensemble, Rob Simonsen's bittersweet score, and the grayish, weathered feel (the cinematography is by Eduard Grau) of the movie, helps it stay afloat. It also--thankfully--occasionally eschews some sports drama cliches, which for a mainstream Hollywood movie with a familiar arc, is pretty admirable. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg