AQ15 Spring 2016 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte
Scott T. Starbuck. Industrial Oz. Ecopoems. Fomite Press. ISBN 978-19425-15166, 111 pages.
Jane Summer. Erebus. Sibling Rivalry Press. ISBN 978-1-937420-1, 185 pages.
Priscilla Atkins. The Café of our Departure. Sibling Rivalry Press. ISBN 978-1-937420-87-1, 77 pages.
Wendy Gist. Moods of the Dream Fog. Finishing Line Press, 29 pages.
Last year was a very productive year for non-traditional publishers addressing contemporary issues such as climate change and global warming and timeless personal ones such as the love and sudden loss of a friend or partner, or depicting their unique corner of the world. The four books I’ve chosen to review for AQ15 are concerned with some of the issues mentioned above and, because of that, I felt they were of sufficient merit to warrant a review in Amsterdam Quarterly.
The first book is Industrial Oz, Ecopoems by Scott T. Starbuck. Industrial Oz is a pro-ecology, anti-war, anti-banks, philosophical, counter-culture poetry book. In his essay, “The Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world….Poets … are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society…”
In Industrial Oz, Starbuck takes this charge very seriously. Industrial Oz depicts Starbuck’s many interests and concerns such as hiking, fishing, pollution, species extinction, rain forest destruction, global warming, the disposal of nuclear waste, the wisdom of indigenous peoples and their “pacification” by Europeans, the “taming” of the wilderness, the disappearing pensions of Generation X, and war’s effect on the “home front” including vets with PTSD and other disastrous, sociological and environmental problems. It asks and answers important questions such as how were the Americas “settled” by Europeans, how were its resources acquired and used and, as a result, what is the future of those continents and the planet?
Starbuck’s poems use various approaches, some more programmatic, others more aesthetic. Structurally and thematically Starbuck’s poems can sometimes be longer, somewhat political Ginsbergian riffs such as “Why All US-Made Nuclear Waste Must Be Stored At The White House” or “What if one Night a Big Solar Storm Went By?” Other times his images and examples or “evidence” are more subtle and his lines shorter, but all his poems are just as compelling. For example in “How It Is” the effect of global warming and its disastrous effect on coastal countries is rendered quite simply and geographically: “Sometimes you forget Greenland exists/…Then it melts and Holland disappears.” In “River Reflections” in just 46 words Starbuck’s discusses his own political stance—how politics considers him unimportant, how he has rejected TV, and the source of his power against the system. “Like the elk/my vote/won’t be heard” but the poem ends with the defiant: “I am a nonessential/ and unproductive/ worker// yet a threat/to the machine /merely by resting// and thinking.”
In his poem, “Thinking About the Association of Writers & Writing Programs 2014 Conference in Seattle,” he challenges the seeming non-awareness or lack of interest in academic programmes for environmental/political issues such as the death of sea stars and polar bear cubs due to climate change and the 100-tonne Fukushima nuclear storage tank spill which happened a week before this writers’ convention. (I remember getting feedback on my AIDS poems from professors and students in a mid-80s graduate writing programme and both parties wondering aloud if perhaps I wasn’t being a bit “hysterical” about an illness that might not turn out to be so serious). As an image of these programmes solipsistic and incorrect focus, Starbuck describes how as a child he carved sand circles: “for onlookers to enjoy//before the next set of waves erased everything.” Some other poems, such “Poem for Ishi” and “Of Whales and the Hinckley Hunt on Christmas Eve, 1818,” could also be used in secondary and tertiary, cross-curriculum writing and history classes related to questions about what happened to Americas’ indigenous peoples and its wildlife after their “discovery” and the “pacification” of the Americas by Europeans.
Throughout all the poems in Industrial Oz, though, no matter what their format, the central thread is Starbuck’s love and concern for the wilderness and the Earth. And in that light, all of the poems in Industrial Oz are worth reading if you share Starbuck’s concern for the future of mankind and the planet.
Next follow two elegiac books published by Sibling Rivalry Press that use two different approaches to chart the writers’ grief as they remember/memorialise a loved one. The first book, Erebus, is about someone killed in a plane crash, the second, The Café of our Departure, about the memory of someone who was slowly slipping away with cancer, who, in the end, decided to take his own life. Both depict the haunting that memory creates due to a desire to try to hold on to some part of these people’s lives and their relationship with the narrator in the past and carry it into the present and future. However, the two employ different, stylistic approaches. The first uses a more objective, factual, and scientific approach in its recapitulation of the relationship and attempted recovery of the person. The second uses a more aesthetic approach using art, museums and food to try to remember an almost life-long friendship.
The first book is Jane Summer’s Erebus. Erebus is the most southern, active volcano in the world, located in the Antarctic continent. In Greek mythology it is also the entrance to the underworld. What Moby Dick is to whaling with its catalogue of sails and harpoons, Erebus is to fatal, exotic sightseeing plane crashes. It is a well-written, obsessive, extended catalogue of grief about the crash—a history of what was taken suddenly—the passengers’ lives—and what was returned much later—some exposed bodies or parts and personal belongings including some, ironically unspoilt, colour photobooks of Antarctica and passengers’ journals.
Erebus has three, formal chronological divisions or parts entitled: 2013, 1993, and 1973 in which the writer works backwards to her relationship with the plane crash victim, Kay Barnick in New York City in the early ’70s. In the preface, Summer warns that “this story is based in fact…but it is above all a work of art, and thus a certain amount of leeway must be allowed.” Throughout the three sections, Erebus’ two-line lyric stanzas bind and build on the effect of information from news stories, photos, aircraft, airports, Antarctic geography, maps, wildlife pictures, notes left behind by her dead friend, a quotation from Aristotle’s The Neomachian Ethics about friendship, items of New Zealand history and culture (including James Cook’s “discovery” of the island), Summer’s implication of a possible airline cover up related to the crash, white flight and increased crime in Manhattan in the late ’70s, an equation of the deadly g-forces exerted on bodies of those in the unsurvivable crash and lastly, a list of all passengers and crew to tell a chilling and unrelenting tale of an airline catastrophe and the loss of a loved one. Using this method, Erebus, as an artistic creation, is certainly worth more than the sum of its parts.
The second book, Priscilla Atkins’ elegiac book, The Café of our Departure choses a different strategy. The Café of our Departure is also divided into three unnamed sections with an epigram from James Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem.” This poetry remembers a loved one from a much more epicurean perspective based on art, good friendship and food and poetry. The book describes Atkin’s gay, high school boyfriend and later, former husband, Mike, including his slow death from cancer and his choice to end his own life. The poems include references to their favourite cafes and restaurants “Unguided tour of Grief with Green Wallpaper,” museums “Resolve,” art “La Nature Morte” and “Sky in a Jar,” and photographs “First Trip to Chicago After” interspersed with teenage adventures of buying greasy fast food and fishing trips in “Mike,” a reconstruction of Mike’s suicide in “Resolves” and many references to the poetry of James Schuyler, which I imagine both the writer and the subject greatly admired.
Another aspect about this book that is exceptional is Atkins’ honesty as she courageously describes her ex-husband’s impending fatal illness/suicide and his changing role in her later life as they became more aware of his sexual orientation. Her acceptance and depiction of Mike’s gay “friend” Mark, is also exceptional as shown in the poem, “Anything You Want.” “Before heading downstairs/Mark said: “Take anything you want.” Atkins writes that amidst the stacks of Fiestaware, the “Shirts, slacks hanging in the closet;/rows of empty shoes” all she wants to do is to: “lie in your bed/and keep watch/.”
Throughout the book, Atkins uses different poetic forms—from two-line stanzas and traditional four-line quatrains to longer free-form stanzas. All include Atkins attention to detail to and objects such as in her poem entitled “Mike” in which she references death in the beginning but also the fun and companionship they experienced as teenagers: “Only you and I would be giddily/in overalls digging out/petrified worms (from the last trip)…For an entire year, we snorted/like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine. (Pity the poor teachers/who had us in class together)./Summer days we’d drive your parents’/ car all over hell and back/…—but mostly to laugh and talk, to get the/feeling you get after doing that for hours.” Due to this wide span of time and poetic forms, The Café of our Departure is a fitting and moving memorial to her former friend and husband.
Wendy Gist’s Moods of a Dream Fog chapbook contains poems that describe the people and landscapes of the American Southwest some of which were previously published in more than 14 different literary journals, including Amsterdam Quarterly. Gist is not only adept in her selection of images but also in her use of different types of typography and lines. Sometimes she keeps her lines short and lets them float down the page as in “Drip Wish”
The woman peers
on her backbone,
at bloat between
slot of volcanic
Other times she writes moving block prose poems, such as “Visitor at Tsaile Lake” and “Morning Beat.” My other favourites in this collection include “Canyon de Chelly Echoes” which uses repetition to recreate the indigenous American ritual very effectively, and “Midsummer Night at Isotopes Park,” which includes this fine stanza, is a very poetic and sociological, contemporary description of Southwestern culture:
“Fine men I so love, husband and son, grub nachos, imbibe
pricey beer. Fun-loving women fork strawberries and kiwis
from fruit cups, sip Blue Moon draft, turn tipsy to us, laugh,”
For me, however, the short erotic poems including “Blush” and the title poem “Passion Fog” are the most arresting. “Passion Fog” explores both the light and dark sides of attraction and why one should be careful: “She can’t tell/up till now/if he strives to bite/or kiss tender.” Unfortunately these poems are not at the very beginning of the chapbook where I would have placed them, but come after “To My Dream,” “Intimate Waters,” “Electrolysis of Love” and “Winter Walk through Twilight” which don’t seem to resonate with me as much as the other 23 poems, but then a score of 19 out of 23 isn’t bad either. Gist’s Moods of a Dream Fog poetry chapbook is a good, strong entry in the world of first chapbooks. I recommend it especially for readers interested in poems about love, passion, relationships and the landscapes and cultures of the Southwestern US.