Bryan R. Monte
AQ27 Spring 2020 Book Reviews
Claudia Gary. Genetic Revisionism. Loudoun Scribe, 24 pages.
Erin Wilson. At Home with Disquiet. Circling Rivers, ISBN 978-1-939530-10-3, 127 pages.
Margaret DeRitter. Singing Back to the Sirens. Unsolicited Press. ISBN 978-1-950730-28-5, 100 pages.
After my Augean task of compiling, editing, and posting the AQ 2019 Yearbooks to contributors, libraries, and friends, I finally had some time at the beginning of February to do a bit of reading, between selecting pieces for AQ27. Three poetry collections (two books and one chapbook), which really stood out were Claudia Gary’s Genetic Revisionism, Erin Wilson’s At Home with Disquiet and Margaret DeRitter’s Singing Back to the Sirens. Two are by previous AQ contributors and one was so interesting, due to its cover, subject matter, and author’s bio, I felt compelled to explore it.
The first is Claudia Gary’s (AQ7, 11, 15, 26, & 27) chapbook, Genetic Revisionism, subtitled: Poems Inspired by the Sciences and Mathematics. True to its title, this is a brief collection of 24 pages with poems about intellectually engaging subjects such as medicine, maths, physics, acoustics, intrusive new communications technology, and humanity’s nascent ability to design its own future through genetic manipulation. The first seven pages are concerned primarily with medicine. The collections first poem, ‘Antiseptic’ is very engaging because it presents how the speaker first learned about the subject from her Air Force veteran father. ‘“…You will never be without / an antiseptic, if you use your urine.”’ Her mother, who wants her to be ‘pretty’ quickly objects with ‘“Hey! / Don’t tell her things like that!”’ as her father ‘dabbed peroxide on her foot’ to disinfect a wound. This juxtaposition of prettiness with science also makes the prescient, young speaker wonder what’s buried under the ‘bumpy-textured’ paintings by an alcoholic aunt, ‘what’s wedged below the prettiness’ and whether it was ‘buried too deep to tweeze it out and cleanse the wound?’
The poems ‘Kidney Stone’, ‘Aloe Barbadensis Speaks’, ‘Toxoplasmosis’ and ‘Transcribing an ER Report’ continue this medical theme, but unfortunately, not with the same personal attachment. For example, in the last poem, when the transcriptionist hears the doctor say the patient ‘has a real bad cold’, she wonders if he’s being ironic or maybe just suffering from ‘long hours of work’. However, the poem ends with a note of detachment. ‘She never learns the end, which seems a shame. / But he’s the one who has to sign his name.’
The maths section, pages 10-11, includes a long poem ‘In Binary’ about a couple attracted to each other because they can count in binary and a very short two line poem which mentions thinking about imaginary numbers to fall asleep called ‘A Cure for Insomnia?’ Other scientific poems include ‘One Small Step’ and ‘Music of the Missing Sphere’ about the 1969 moon landing and the NASA January 2018 video of the ‘Super Blue Moon Eclipse’. ‘Higgs-Boson Moments’ is about the observable six stages of this particle. Gary’s truncated villanelle, ‘Ripples in the Fabric’ compares waves in space-time to poetry: ‘they spring from meter and inherit rhyme.’ She compares ‘our galactic spiral’ to a ‘growing nautilus’s climb’. In ‘Ex Nihilo’ she uses Frederick Hart’s stone carving in the Washington DC National Cathedral of ‘”half-formed figures of men and women / appearing from the void”’ as an image of how the universe and human consciousness came into being. She uses a similar technique in ‘An Illumination’, where also in the epigraph, she compares Jan Beerstaten’s ‘The Castle of Muiden in Winter’ scene with skaters, a moat and a great castle to the cosmos and mentions ‘the Muiderkring, which was this heaven’s source.’ Her poems address the positive as well as the negative sides of technology: NSA surveillance, video calls, CRISPR (in the chapbook’s title poem), and the upcoming Singularity, when human and machine/computer consciousness shall merge. It is a short chapbook, which addresses a number of subjects in science, mathematics and being human.
Although most of these poems present a somewhat detached, objective, philosophical or scientific perspective, some also relate back directly to the poet’s experience as in ‘Antiseptic’ and ‘Aloe Barbaensis Speaks’. These along with her poem ‘Guidance’ in this issue (AQ27), represent Gary’s work at her best: when theory and scientific observation are united with personal experience. I hope that Gary continues to write more poems in this vein.
All in all, Gary’s Genetic Revisionism is an impressive, short collection of formal poems, (rhyming couplets and quatrains, sonnets, villanelles, etc.), about the sciences and maths, remarkable in its scope and artistry.
At Home with Disquiet is a poetry book by Erin Wilson published by Circling Rivers Press. The collection’s setting is primarily the speaker’s rural Canadian home and it is divided into seven sections, the first six of which are introduced with a explanatory phrase about the activities of a jackdaw, which seem to intersect philosophically with Wilson’s own life. Many of these poems contain Wilson’s close observation of the natural and domestic worlds related to the weather, tending her garden, and her ancestry. Her revelations come not only from her observing the natural world, but also through raising her children. In ‘It’s Late’ her son records his sudden growth by saying: ‘remember when your moccasins were too big // for my feet? Playfully he demonstrates he can’t even / squish the width of his toes inside them.’ In ‘Lines from Movies—II. Spit from the Top of the Stairs,’ her daughter, who hadn’t been good before Christmas even though her mother had threatened to withdraw her presents, is surprised by the abundance of those she still receives repeating the phrase: ‘More than enough’.
In the fifth section, Wilson also includes two poems called the ‘Cancer (Suite)’. The first one ‘Healthcare’ is about the experience of undergoing an MRI, a scan this reviewer has experienced many times over. In order to release herself mentally from the confining, narrow, noisy, hot space, (my words, not hers), ‘I visualize the swamp / I was in front of yesterday…visualize some / stable ice for those / starving polar bears…do what seems impossible, imagine a future for our kids.’ The next poem ‘RADIANCE’ innovatively narrates an internal medical examination in reverse order: first with the results, then the examination and lastly the symptoms that brought the speaker to her GP’s surgery.
However, Wilson’s book is more than the usual combination of genealogy, cultural heritage, the creation of the self and a family, and mid-life retrospection. Reflections on her rural Canadian surroundings include also narrative forays into the art world such as ‘Lines from Movies (A Letter to Van Gogh)’, a shop in which a copy of Georgia O’Keefe’s Black Iris, 1926 in ‘Jacquard’ is being framed, in ‘An Untitled Rothko’ from the ‘Fishing Suite’ in which a river bank is compared to one of Rothko’s paintings, or the book’s penultimate poem, ‘Almost’ in which the speakers ‘reminiscing about the Chicago Art Institute’ as ‘Whistler’s muted Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southhampton Water, / still washes up at our feet),’ at ‘Misery Bay in May,’. Her poetry is also replete with epigraphs and references to well-known, maverick poets such as Constantine P. Cavafy, Bashō, Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Gilbert, William Everson, Charles Wright, or even Galway Kinnel’s little boy Fergus in ‘Statistics, 2012’.
Her poem, ‘Gentrification’ about an old downtown, with its derelict shops boarded up windows next to hip, ‘Vegetarian fare and fair trade coffee shops, / a stripper’s club’ brings her poetry right into the present, now decade-long, economic malaise. The book’s final poem,‘Agrarian Landscape with Fanbrush’ in the eighth, and last untitled section, is set in a windy, March scene, with the poet: ‘Walking along between / the parcelled farm fields, / the windows of heaven / keep passing over me,’. The poem includes images of birches, a crow, and quote from Mahler, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, which close this book masterfully. It proves that Wilson is not just a poet of the Canadian countryside, but one deeply rooted in many poetic and artistic traditions. At Home with Disquiet is an excellent addition to Circling Rivers’ growing collection.
Singing Back to the Sirens is a poetry book by Margaret DeRitter (AQ24), published by Unsolicited Press. The book is divided into three parts: Part I, ‘So Many Sang to Me’; Part II, ‘Singing Back to Her’ and an ‘Epilogue’, one poem entitled ‘Funeral Directive From a Serial Monogamist Who Never Stopped Looking for the One Who Would Last’. The first section begins with an epigraph by Walter Copland Perry about Homer’s Sirens, whose songs ‘though irresistibly sweet / were no less sad than sweet’. The poems in this first section are about family, her mother’s illness, childhood friends, mistaken gender identity based how she dressed and what she did with friends, and her introduction to a gay support group via a college newspaper—a lesbian Bildungsroman. These include the momentous experiences of her first entrance to a gay bar, her first girlfriend, and sexual experiences—one hot and sweaty and another with a woman who keeps saying she ‘likes boys’. The Siren motif is mentioned again in ‘Singing Back to the “Straight Girl”’, about ‘girls who fall for girls who / never look their way when it’s time for love, who keep on chasing them / anyway’, a common, LGBTQI experience of unrequited love.
The form of DeRitter’s poetry varies from short to long lines, and includes prose poems such ‘Susie and Me and the Line in the Road’, and ‘Dream Sequence: The Roof Leaked When You Moved Back In’ and ‘After the Confederate Flag Came Down’ (the latter two poems both in Part II) and also a poem arranged around one colour, ‘Blue’, referring to the colour of ice cubes rolling down her belly, the colour of her girlfriend’s dress, and the azure skies of Arizona.
In ‘Paddling the Wilderness’, she uses geographic and meteorological metaphors to describe her strained relationships. At the end of a summer holiday after enjoying a canoeing trip together, their close relationship falls apart. One ‘locked… (the other) ‘out of a hotel room’ and the other ‘threw a telephone at the floor’…‘like Michigan’s winters, your moods / turned gray and I drew stormy.’ In ‘Gone’ DeRitter describes her feeling of being deserted by a partner she’d kissed that morning before leaving for work and then coming home to find her partner’s belongings gone. The poem is most effective because instead of describing the speaker’s emotions at being abandoned, it is a catalogue of the missing possessions and the signs of their removal, such as the poem’s last lines: ‘The scratches on the wooden floor/ the only sign of your tall oak dresser.’ In fact powerful closing lines are one of the best aspects of DeRitter’s poetry. In ‘Shooting Angels: Mendon, Michigan’, the poet writes about her frustration at not finding someone with whom she can settle down.
Nesting was her specialty, her safety net,
her terror. She flew back from California once.
We sat in a car outside my house.
Other geographic and outdoor images include Lake Michigan, its dunes, winter snow, rivers, and hiking. Like many later-in-life poetry collections, this first section is a list of regrets, a list of loss about those who died, and those who disappeared, but also the maturity that comes with surviving these losses.
The second section begins with an ode to a former partner in ‘The Alchemists Had Nothing On You’. It’s one of only a few outtakes from the speaker’s primarily North American and specifically Michigan settings. ‘Novices at Sacré-Coeur’ describes a happy visit to a prominent Parisian landmark and ‘We Left our Love in Lourmarin’ is about being haunted by her ex- and her memories of their holidays. In ‘Wedding Cathedral’ the speaker describes her outdoor wedding under arching trees, with a flower in her partner’s hair, just like ‘that San Francisco song’. ‘Avalanche’ is about personal tragedies coming in threes: the deaths of her mother and her dog, and the loss of her job, all in quick succession. ‘Dateline: Kalamazoo’, (I assume about the job she lost), was first published in AQ21 in its Media issue. It’s about the struggle to keep a local newspaper alive, an issue common to most towns in the early 21st century, as younger readers turn more to digital instead of print media. In ‘Thanksgiving Explosion’ the speaker describes her emotional outburst after she asks her partner to call her family, who had not attended their wedding. The speaker becomes angry and vents in front of her partner’s family, all present for the Thanksgiving dinner. The speaker imagines ‘every grievance splattered on the kitchen’s walls / the stove, the floor, the cupboards’.
In the next poems, the speaker relates her feelings of loss due to their breakup. In ‘That Day In January’ she describes the feeling of waves crashing against her chest, when her partner told her, ‘I have to leave’. In ‘Uncoupling’ the strangeness of her partner ‘coming in through the front door,’ when they’re no longer together, and in ‘I Had a Granddaughter for Seven Months’ the loss of a briefly shared feeling of progeny through caring for her partner’s granddaughter—the physical contact, photobook, and FaceTime, which ended when her partner broke up with her. And finally, the tears in ‘Closing Our Account’, when she and her ex- went to the bank to close their joint account—‘the paper all wet / and see-through’. It is this attention to detail, the use of just the right metaphor to translate her feelings, which makes DeRitter’s poetry so striking and arresting.
Stylistically, DeRitter’s poetry takes a turn when her poems talk about digital media. In the Whitmanesque long lines of ‘If Friend Had as Many Variations as Arctic Snow,’ she takes exception to Facebook’s ‘Friend’ designation. The poet writes: ‘I’d have a word for the friend who shows up on my Facebook list / but never on party invitations…(who) tells me Happy Birthday online, but never in person.’ A few poems later, in ‘Awaiting Word at Mission Control’, her thoughts are separated structurally by days and smartphone ‘dings’. On the first day, there’s a text to her ex- about a movie she’s just seen, the next day, another saying she ‘heard you were having surgery / at Mayo’. On day three there’s a report on millions of ‘women marching / all over the world’ and a photo of the ‘ex-granddaughter’ she hasn’t seen in four years’. On day 5, a message from an old friend, who watched the moon landing with her in her living room 48-years ago, and then disappeared, and on day 6, the poet wondering when her ex- will stop resenting her and get in touch again.
The epilogue poem, the book’s summation, ‘Funeral Directive from a Serial Monogamist Who Never Stopped Looking For the One Who Would Last’ reminds me of the ninth of W.H. Auden’s ‘Twelve Songs’, at least in its refreshing combination of details. Mourners are instructed to bring their ‘boxed-up / photos, useless house keys, sad CDs’ and lay them at her feet, to place their ‘grievances on pure white / paper, fold them into mourning doves / or cut them into snowflakes and let / a blizzard fly’ and to pile a column of rocks to express their sorrow. The speaker also asks for ‘a preacher who’s heard of Meg Christian / or at least the Dixie Chicks’. Lastly, she asks the mourners to ‘take off my glasses and lay them on the casket’ as they sing her to sleep. Such a moving poem, such a moving collection from birth to death, such an ending.
There is much to praise and recommend here. Singing Back to the Sirens is an excellent poetic compendium of the joys, sorrows, and wisdom gained through this lesbian poet’s experience in the post-Stonewall/pre-Marriage Equality Act generation. AQ