AQ20 Autumn 2017 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte
Rob Jacques, War Poet, Sibling Rivalry Press ISBN 978-1-943977-29-1, 118 pages.
Seth Pennington, Tertulia, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-943977-37-6, 45 pages.
Kenneth Pobo, Loplop in a red city, Circling Rivers Press, ISBN 978-1-939530-03-5, 102 pages.
Nonnie Augustine, To See Who’s There, CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1-545137-94-9, 75 pages.
This quarter I received four extraordinary poetry books in my mailbag that I’d like to recommend without reservation to my readers. Each is striking in its approach to poetry and each adds something new to this genre.
The first book is War Poet by retired seaman Rob Jacques. With its striking cover painting of a naked WWII gunner who stripped to rescue a fellow seaman and then, still naked, returned to man his post, this book will certainly grab readers attention in bookstores—and the poems inside will certainly keep it. This book of 60 poems, some formal and rhymed and others in free verse, explore the various ways gay seamen lived and loved from Vietnam through “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to Guantanamo. Jacques describes the camaraderie he enjoyed with fellow seamen, as a new recruit and at the Naval Academy, uniforms, rank and power relationships, life onboard ship (including seascapes and starry night watches) and getting away on shore leave to have sex.
War Poet contains many important details relevant to both gay and straight seamen over several eras. “Crossing the Line” describes a Vietnam-era, new recruit’s naval rite of passage on his first equatorial crossing: how he is forced to “eat slop,” and later have “kissed the Royal Baby’s belly/smeared with axle grease, swum in muck, and sung smutty songs.” before he can “join/the Solemn mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep.” “Russian Captain of the First Rank” describes the poet’s shipboard meeting with a Russian captain presumably during détente. “Thoughts on a Suicide Bomber’s Cowardice” and “Washing My Enemy’s Feet” describe the medical treatment and compassion shown to enemy bombers who failed or even injured themselves during the Gulf Wars. In the first poem the poet writes: “strange thing sitting here/handcuffed, chained, stripped bare. How easy/ it’d be to send you back…they would surely kill you.” He ends the poem, however, grateful there wasn’t loss of life on either side.
However, it’s poems such as, “Love Call of a US Navy Frigate,” “Unrequited,” “Days of 1968,” “Undertow” and “In Memoriam for James J. Williams” that chronicle the toll of gay seamen’s double lives: marriages of convenience, sex with strangers in strange ports, alcoholism, and a suicide. “In Memoriam” is about a nineteen-year-old sailor’s tragic situation that, as the title continues, “Unable to Choose Between the Person He Loved and the US Naval Academy, Chose Neither.” In “Days of 1968” Jacques describes a seaman “onwatch, when ashore, for more men like me; loyal to a fault/clean, buff always unconsciously on the hunt for another guy” but unfortunately, as in “Undertow,” men “who could never kiss.” “Love Call of a U.S. Navy Frigate” and “Unrequited” describe the tension of being attracted to a married man or one who would not return the poet’s affection.
Fortunately for the reader there are a few happy endings including the book’s first dedication to the poet’s partner and his poem “Meditation While On a Broad Reach” which describes how the poet survived in such a world of shifting political and sexual policies using the metaphor of a boat to tack against them, and at the same time, capture their energy to propel his boat, and thus himself, forward.
In addition to poems about his personal experience in the navy, there are also poems with a general historical resonance. “Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen Reflects” refers to the inquiry into the Pueblo surrender to North Korea in the late ’60s, “Love Call of the Last Great Auk,” the extinction of that large North Atlantic seabird by mariner hunters in the 1840s and of course “Lines for Horace Bristol’s Photo of a Naked WWII PBY Blister Gunner,” the origin of the image of the naked serviceman depicted on the book’s cover.
All in all, War Poet is excellent combination of poetry and gay and naval history. Due to the depth of its expression and the universality of its themes, this is a book that anyone who has ever gone to sea will be interested in. It should certainly be in every LGBTQ library.
Tertulia is the title of a slim, 16-poem, pocket-sized chapbook by Sibling Rivarly Press editor, Seth Pennington. Its title refers to a Spanish term for a salon of writers and artists. It is a poetic exploration of various aspects of his relationship with his partner and their relationship to art. These poems have dense imagery that changes quickly and/or is piled up layer upon layer as if they were a series of Abstract Impressionist paintings.
The book begins autobiographically and conventionally stylistically but with a rather unconventional story. In “Nellie Mae” a woman, the poet’s mother, thought to be barren, adopts two children to keep her husband. Then, miraculously gives birth to a third, the poet, who in kind, brings his mother into his home in her last years. This poem and the next, “Let the Earth Have Him,” reflect the poet’s religious upbringing, and the struggle between the spiritual and the material, “dirt” signifying gay sex. The poet’s occupation as an undertaker keeps him close to this recurring corporeal/non-corporeal tension in the next poem, “Do Not Resuscitate” which is the scene of a vehicular suicide. Keeping his professional distance, the poet describes the suicide as “Bone-faced and bitter/orange skin stretched taut.” He mentions “a near empty Black Label bottle…in the pocket of his Denim jacket” and “a wallet, a letter and three more: //D//N/R//…down a chest whiter than comfort allows.” This very precise description of a fatal automobile collision puts the reader both in the driver’s seat and in the observer’s head.
“Skin” explores the sensuosity of the poet’s relationship to his partner. The poem contains some interesting and implicit poetic comparisons. The “day’s coffee” and “his own musk,” his partner’s “lips against my skin” followed by “whispering to a sleeping moth,” “love” a “new skin, … your lips broke open.”
The poem “Some birthday” describes six birthday photos recording their gay and lesbian friends and partners, quoting gay poets, and at the same time, the artistic denial of the poet’s partner that these are not able to capture him: “I AM NOT IN THE POEMS/AND NOW NOT THE POEM!!!!!!” the poet himself also “always doubting.” “Birch Coffee” continues the corporeal/non-corporeal debate adding temporality. We “have lost control and time/which only exists in watches.” The poet laments: “How can I make you understand/you are more to me than a body,”
The chapbook’s title poem is a remembrance of a romance of two partners, one a Chilean, whose cheeks bloomed like “great roses” while the poet sat with them and his own partner and heard “music in the park grow into a grand piano.” Tragically in the next stanza, “Mauricio’s homeland, his Chile, felt his pulse, took him for soil, sent you away: holding onto Proust:” the partner left behind not being able to find Mauricio’s spirit again at a Frank O’Hara festival on Fire Island. Here Pennington shows the power of his poetry, in these phrases’ rhythm and the reintroduction of the temporality leitmotif.
I’m glad “Tertulia” mentions O’Hara because the size of this book and its content remind me of O’Hara’s reference in “A Step Away from Them” to another small, slim volume. He writes: “My heart is in my/pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy” before which he has happily enjoyed Manhattan’s sights, sounds, smells and music on his lunch break. I feel the same as I enjoy Amsterdam on an atypically sunny Sunday afternoon, after Quaker meeting and a quick visit to the Rijksmuseum’s Honour Gallery whilst waiting for AQ’s monthly tertulia to begin at the Stadsschouwburg cafe on the Leidseplein. Across the square, young Apple Store shoppers tumble down the glass staircase, ecstatic like religious fanatics, that, with their new devices, they’ll be able to send and share their work up in the Cloud, whilst two large neon glasses of beer atop another building magically refill, draw close to toast and empty, blue and white trams clang by, and fire jugglers entertain tourists just outside my window as I feel the weight of Pennington’s Tertulia in my breast pocket. I think you too will enjoy Tertulia and will appreciate life a little bit more, wherever you live, once you’ve read it.
A third, outstanding book is Kenneth Pobo’s Loplop in a red city. This is a collection of 66 poems about familiar (“The Third of May” by Goya and “Van Gogh’s Crows”) and less familiar (“Hubbub” by Emily Bridgwater and “Dog Come Here into the Dark House” by Leonora Carrington) artworks. In Loplop Pobo conveys different media and painting styles in his collection in deft poetic strokes and short lines using just the right words. From Van Gogh to Margritte from Picaso to Max Ernest, Pobo’s short, carefully crafted lines refer imaginatively and clearly to what’s on the canvas and/or the feeling or mood it creates for the viewer.
Loplop is divided into three sections: “Crow at Daybreak,” “Get Far Enough Out” and “Giraffe Mask.” The first section’s poems are dominated by Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. Pobo’s poem “Vincent Van Gogh” contains a six-part poetic mini-biography of Van Gogh’s life. “Van Gogh’s Crows” refers to one of his last paintings “Wheat Field with Crows” (1890) in which the crows “took his body up to heaven—… a small flock got him there…black wings//perfect for mourning.” This first section’s ekphrastic poems contain images or direct references to conflagration, execution, brokenness, unfulfillment, and death, among other weighty topics, inspired by the paintings of Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Munter, Penelope Rosemont, Howard Hodgkin and Girogio de Chirico respectively. This is very interesting and unconventional selection that sent me to an art library to further enjoy what Pobo describes.
“Get Far Enough Out” starts with “Loplop Introduces Loplop,” after a painting by Max Ernst called “Loplop Introduces Himself.” Pobo’s writes: “I have a painting to show you/It’s the real me.//Or it was when I painted it.”, perhaps referring to the artist’s transformation as (s)he creates. He continues probing the issue of the authorship of a work of art: “Does it matter/who signs what? Maybe while//painting.” Then in the second half he reintroduces the themes of disintegration and death: “in death my feathers will travel/will enter the world in ways/I never could—.” The musings of this “Half bird/half man,” continue in the next poem, “Loplop” which describes the falling apart of the body and a “surrender … (like) a hot balloon” to some sort of “not bird, not human,” … “free.” In “Loplop introduces a Young Girl” Pobo describes, based Max Ernest painting, an imaginary, thousand year old young girl with a “scepter/ made of sleeping hurricanes,” who makes tomato soup for Death.
In “Triumphal Entry,” Pobo depicts James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels,” where He arrives unnoticed by a crowd of people more concerned about “another star’s trial” and “fire sales, credit debit,/ and investments.” Discouraged he goes to “a nearby gay bar,/and visits friends who/buy him a drink/and invite him to judge/the Mr. Leatherman competition.” He also has a “Kurt Schwitters” poem where the artist remarks: “When critics say my art stinks/I add them to my trash piles and make a collage.” Schwitters also hails “the trash man, his truck/transporting glorious muck.” Another humorous sexual reference can be found in “Parade Amoureuse,” after a painting by Francis Picaba. Here the poet writes: “Love, so outdated, I find it/only in resale shops” and at the end of the poem “remembering sex/in a Butte motel, barn owls/barking in the pines.”
The third section, “Giraffe Mask,” includes poems whose vantage point is mostly surrealistic and whose descriptions, I feel, sometimes even exceed the inspiration of the original paintings they seek to describe. Most noteworthy in this section are “Giraffe on Fire,” “The Red City,” and “Marcel Duchamp” about paintings by Salvador Dali, Paul Delvaux and Marchel Duchamp respectively. Here his poetic imagery changes quickly. In “Giraffe on Fire’” the poet relates a dream in which he finds himself in grade school, but as a “grown up” trying “to fit myself/behind the desk.” He then describes the teacher: “a man made of step ladders/and spoons,” who “made me/shallow mud. I work up, poured coffee.” In “The Red City” the poet moves swiftly and deftly from images of “ruin,” “bones that have shed gender” to “an androgyne,” to the “Sky” and “death” in just the first two stanzas. The next and last two stanzas include “the meaning of life… which hasn’t yet been/put in a zoo.” and ends with a reference to the wisdom of evolution: “the skeleton who shops/at only the best Ideas.” Pobo’s poem “Marcel DuChamp” even though it doesn’t refer to “Nude Descending a Staircase,” but DuChamp’s larger oevre, nonetheless, replicates the many planes of the cubist painting as his characteristically short lines helically descend down the page. This is a special delight since most of Pobo’s previously poems have been concerned with imagery and philosophy and not radical typographic presentation.
In lieu of my above analysis, I feel LopLop in a red city is an ideal book for an ekphrastic poetry-writing workshop. Pobo and Circling Rivers should be very pleased with this fine book and promote it actively for use in college writing programmes.
Nonnie Augustine’s To See Who’s There, is a book of poetry and prose that spans many styles, subjects and historical periods. The book is organized into four sections, each with a quote from an Emily Dickenson poem. The first section, “The Moon slides down the stair—to see who’s there,” includes a poem about the poet’s current domestic life, “December 14, 2016”; her early love for dance that was deeper than her parents’ love for each other, “The Most Beautiful Lady”; a failed relationship, “My Early Thirties”; an Abecederian about her family history, the book’s title poem; a great-aunt’s belief in later generations of women, “Otillie Augustine Speaks To Me”; and many meditations on who and where she is due to her ancestors’ fortitude, stubbornness, constitution, and their wise and foolish decisions.
The second section, “A Deed Knocks First At Thought,” is a set of family history poems prefaced by a Charlie Hebdoe massacre elegy, “Wednesday late, Friday early.” This poem uses repetitive sounds, personal observations, news reports, and Internet information about arms, especially the Kalisnikov rifle, to make its point: “Shoot. Cartoon. Oooo sounds./Bad moon rising.” Later in the poem Augustine writes: “I am not a political poet./We are all political poets./Take a breath. Take several./Take away the K-guns from their grips.” Graywolf Press executive editor, Jeffrey Shotts, praised this poem after its first public reading in 2015. This political elegy and the personal genealogical poems that follow, reflect Augustine’s poetic dexterity and reach. In thirteen pages she goes from contemporary Paris to medieval Northumbria, 19th century Ireland and Liverpool, and 20th century Austria and America. Her poems’ characters experience murder, hunger, betrayal, rejection, insanity, suicide, war-related disability, and the occasional turn of good fortune such as election to public office. Katherine Eulallie, in a poem of the same title says: “I’ve gotten through the Depression, two goddamn wars, the death of a child and Harry’s stomach cancer… I can damn sure get the hang of being old.”
The trans-continental, trans-centurial poems continue in the book’s third section, “A Charm invests a face” with poems from 17th century France and New France (Quebec), 15th century Spain, 19th century Vienna, and 20th century New York City which follow each other seamlessly and address the subjects of love and fortunes won or lost, alcoholism, families relations both distant and present which are shining examples for anyone wanting to capture their family history.
The last section, “‘Faith’ is a Fine Invention,” describes different expressions of belief and disbelief such as a Druid solstice ceremony, a deathbed confession, a closeted, gay, Catholic great uncle, and a relative who never lets the priest come to administer the last rights. The collection ends with a Joycean prose coda “The Piano Players Dead Rejoice (or so I Hear)” reminiscent of “The Dead.” To See Who’s There is a book of poetry that masterfully bridges the centuries of Augustine’s family history on two continents and seven countries seamlessly. It is certainly a model for what collections of genealogical poems can be. AQ