Bryan R. Monte
AQ36 Spring 2023 Book Reviews
Donald Gardner, New and Selected Poems 1966-2020, Grey Suit, ISBN 978-190300625-2, 227 pages.
Amlanjyoti Goswami, Vital Signs, Poetrywala, ISBN 978-0-99-702544-1, 121 pages
Susan E. Lloy, Nothing Comes Back, Now or Never Publishing, ISBN 978-1-989689-48-6, 128 pages.
The old adage, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover,’ is certainly a wise piece of advice. However, an attractive cover can certainly draw a potential reader to pick up a book and start reading it. This is the case with the three books I am reviewing for this thirty-sixth issue of Amsterdam Quarterly. They all have stately or creative covers that reflect the quality of the work within. Unlike the two other writers whose work is listed above, I will spend the most space on Donald Gardner’s New and Selected Poems 1966-2020 as his poetry collection spans his sixty-year career.
New and Selected Poems’s simple grey cover, with a Grey Suit Edition thistle logo below, certainly reflects the dignity, the summing up of a poet’s writing over more than half a century. It contains selections from Gardner’s seven published poetry collections (along with a few unpublished, early poems) which capture the sweep of his life and the spirit of the intervening decades—from the hippie, globetrotting era of the ’60s and early’70s, to the moneymaking ’80s and ’90s, to early 21st century pre-Corona pandemic work. Also, unlike many poetry books, it features an honest, contemporary photo of Gardner, by Amina Marix Evans, opposite the second title page, not one from thirty years ago, as many ‘mature’ poets are want to do. In total, the book has nine sections including one with previously unpublished early poems.
According to the poet at a 31 January reading at Waterstone’s in Amsterdam, on the advice of two friends, Mary O’Donnell and Mary Sawkins, Gardner kept his early poems down to a few. And the nineteen poems included in New and Selected Poems’ first five sections exhibit this care. In the first section, ‘Uncollected Early Poems (1966-1969) are four poems: the first two are about young wanderlust, ‘In Mexico City, In Villahermosa’, the third, ‘Man in Disturbing Mirror’ about art and nudity, the last, ‘The Boys of Kensington School’, about blind, adolescent sexual passion.
The second section contains five poems from Peace Feelers (1969). The first, ‘Passavia’, is a tale about an odd dog, that hangs around in the village with no outward desire to mate or help hunters, but at a distance, fed by tourists, that is eventually stoned by the villagers, one of whom tells the poet its story. Perhaps this wandering, aimless dog is an extended metaphor for the poet, who in many poems later, seems to find himself comfortably on the periphery of society. ‘Night Thoughts’ is a five-part, humorous poem about a couple who dress for sleep appropriate to their dreams: the man with ‘his thickest sweater, climbing boots, and snow goggles’ for his ascent of ‘Mount Everest from the Chinese side’ and the woman in a ‘red polka-dot bikini’ for her ‘Pacific’ beach dream.
‘Climbing the Eiger in Our Sleep’ is another poem about a couple dreaming, only this time their dream is shared. Each only has half of the dream, so they must work to piece it together. The short lines float down the page perhaps to replicate the gentle yet partial knowledge of their dreams about tree or mountain climbing and swimming in a pool or a mirror. These lines remind me of William Carlos Williams’s short, metrically-varied poetry. They include lines about ‘fumbling / late-night love-making, // clinging // to each other // like swimmers // drowning or // treading water’.
‘Indirections’ is a much more humorous poem about falling while trying to get out of a bathtub, trying to answer the telephone to not miss a date. However, the poet philosophises his falling naked on the floor and injuring his hip. He compares his body to ‘that whale the seventeenth-century Hollanders admired so much’ reasons that if he got there in time, he’d probably been electrocuted’ and concludes ‘You learn to take things slowly or fall flat.’ something I know only too well from years of falls due to my multiple sclerosis.
‘Bread and Stones’ is about youthful problems—being poor in the big city—and philosophising with two street people ‘I like the freedom of the individual; my life to live’ The poet tells them his ‘head if full of skyscrapers, projects for the ideal city, an empire if the mind // where Plato is vastly entertained by Bridget Bardot and / St. Francis loosens his girdle.’ These are lines in the spirit and perhaps a little bit of the voice of Frank O’Hara.
His poem, ‘Let’s All Make Love Tonight in London’ is a delight because it composed of a list of disparate things that make London, London. The poet mentions: ‘boys boarding schools, bad plumbing, the accent on virtue,’ ‘The rich of the rich and the poor of the poor,’ and ‘Burnt toast, Indian teas, transport cafes, families’. In just thirty-one lines, Gardner mentions memorable London sights and smells, ending, of course, with the royal family.
He also mentions globetrotting with a political awareness. ‘A Guide to Greece, 1970’ is a sort of ‘Tourists in Dictatorland’ during the junta years. Gardner begins the poem with ‘The Greek people have vanished behind their faces’ then mentions ‘olive groves’ that are ‘cancelled’, Mount Hymettos … ‘invisible’ and the Parthenon … ‘a stone life-size copy’. Even the wine tastes of water, the water of air, and the air tastes of nothing. The only thing real in this country are a man’s shouts as he is being beaten by a policeman, or Yannis Ritsos, 61. In prison. / On Samos. Coughing up blood.’ and ‘tourists taking photos of each other.’ seemingly unaware of the political situation.
Another poem, which I think reflects Gardner’s social and political awareness, is ‘The Unwelcome Dinner’ in ‘The Wolf Inside’ (2014), which book I will only mention briefly because I reviewed it in AQ9 and my review can still be read at www.amsterdamquarterly.org/review/. This poem gives insight into Gardner’s disinterest in status and networking. In it the poet decides not to go to a posh university alumni dinner in The Hague: ‘five courses, two glasses of wine, seventy euros’… ‘to meet some people he would never normally see.’ In the end, the poet decides that even though he’d ‘Paid for dinner.’… (he’d) ‘Paid for not going. // It was worth the price.’
The next section, from Gardner’s book, ‘Early Morning’ (2017), contains many poems about Amsterdam, writing challenges, and love and death. In ‘Windows on the World’ the poet loses and miraculously finds his glasses in the gutter outside the Posthoornkerk, their lenses ‘reflecting Cuypers spires’. ‘Blind Side’ is about a cyclist colliding disastrously with a truck, her bicycle ‘its front wheel ripped off, the rest— / you could still see it was a woman’s bike— / flung across the road’ ‘Amsterdam Aubade’ is about an morning delight. All three poems clearly take place in Mokkum.
The poems ‘Room Where I Write My Poetry’, ‘Pushing the Envelope’, ‘Sweet Muse of Poetry,’ ‘Out of Sorts’, and ‘April in August’ all reflect the poet’s difficulty in writing poetry. ‘Toilette De Femme’, ‘Steep Yearning Curve’ (clever title) and the above-mentioned ‘Amsterdam Aubade’ are all about attraction and/or love. They are an interesting combination with three other poems about death such as ‘Little scuffling sounds late at night’ in ‘Crawl Space’, ‘occupied by a few people gone underground in the last war.’ ‘Shorter Than I Thought’ where death ‘has a tailor’s shop in Hackney’, where he measures up Gardner for a suit and ‘Arnold Talking’ about a seriously ill relative on a morphine drip. They, along with a few other poems in this section, create such as interesting combination—Amsterdam, history, sex, death, and writer’s block.
The last section in this collection, entitled ‘New Poems (2017-2020)’ is about negotiating with death, the poet’s own and others, while still yielding to the desire to explore and write. In addition, two of these poems reflect the poet’s awareness of climate change. In ‘Snowdrops and Daffodils’, for example, Gardner writes: Spring comes in a tight package now. / One perfect day / followed by weeks of / hurrying clouds, high winds / and downpour then, / just as suddenly, / the dustbowl of summer.’ Also, in ‘Little Weight’ he writes: ‘An afternoon in late September / unseasonably warm / but what’s seasonable now?’ One of his favourite metaphors in this section is a stormy or unsettled sea. It’s mentioned in three poems ‘Suddenly It Is Evening’, ‘A Revenant’, and ‘Daymare’. In ‘Suddenly It Is Evening’, the poet imagines ‘suddenly a cyclone / … whips up out of nowhere / .. the vestiges of yourself / wreckage dispersed / over a sleeping ocean’. In ‘A Revenant’ he describes: ‘pushing my own boat / … into darkening waters / Waves rolling toward me / … White foam bearding the midnight sky.’ However, in ‘Overspill’, love brings him ashore, ‘stroke after stroke /from a far place / amidst the tossing waves.’
In all, Gardner’s New and Selected Poems is quite an impressive book filled with memorable poems and images, many of them rooted in Amsterdam. It is a well-edited collection.
Amlanjyoti Goswami’s book, Vital Signs is part family history, part biography, part tribute to Hindu cultural figures, gods, and festivals, and to food, the body, and jazz. The book’s cover is very a simple photograph of three brown fingers curled around a light blue door on a dark blue background. The book itself is formally divided into three parts entitled ‘Life’, ‘Belief’, and ‘Fellowship’, all containing epigraphs from a poem in each of the respective sections.
The epigraph for ‘Life’ is ‘Every breath is a birthday’ which is the terminal line of ‘seeing it new’. This poem’s first two lines are: ‘The old year is leaving through the window / The new year waits outside the door.’ This theme of time is repeated in other poems such as, ‘How to peel the perfect potato’, which seems at first to be about cooking but, which like many of the culinary poems in this volume, actually seems to be also about meditation. It addresses the concept of time as follows:
The trick is, make time wait at the passing door.
The trick is: there is no trick, no perfect chef
The poem, ‘Shapeshifting’, also begins with the concept of time:
The old ones have left
And the young ones hide behind shadow.
But the most extraordinary poem in this section is Goswami’s poem about his mother, entitled ‘At the end of the day’. The poem portrays a tough, confident, self-sufficient woman, who checks herself out of hospital to walk home:
My mother will shrug off
The oxygen cylinder, tubes on her nose
Take out those pin pricks from wrists and arms …
Dodge the guards who ask where she is going…
And downstairs even pay the bills,
The ones insurance won’t allow.
After all that, once she arrives home, all she wants to do is ‘enter her own room’ and ask ‘Where was I so long?’ to return to herself.
The themes of time, transition, and the mixing of the old and the new are repeated throughout this collection, especially in the second and third sections, entitled ‘Belief’ and ‘Fellowship’. They include poems about ancient Hindu gods and modern Indian writers, doctors and bookstore owners, and ceremonies, such as a wedding, (‘A Wedding in Kushinagar’) held at a historic site.
The second section, ‘Belief’, begins with the quote: ‘One must also make it float’, from the poem ‘Art Lessons’, which is about concentrating on what the artist sees. ‘Even if the canvas remained empty. / You will learn something About flowers he said.’ This philosophy is also reiterated in the short poem ‘Zen’ in which Goswami says he only found something once he ‘Forgot what it was / I was looking for // And found it / Looking for me at the door.’ This section also includes the title poem Vital Signs. In it, Goswami reaffirms ‘I haven’t lost my faith / In the body.’ He enumerates this through his diet which things are good for his body: ‘Make(s) brain from walnut, kidney from bean’ and states his philosophical belief ‘It is to the body we return / After many a cartesian turn.’ Included also in this section are poems about augury. ‘At the butcher’s’ (first published in AQ28), and ‘Healing’ where a list of opposites added together seem to balance each other out.
The last section features some ekphrastic poems such as ‘Woman of the High Plains’ about Dorothea Lange’s photo of the same title. In it Goswami describes ‘a woman /Scorched by the sun.’ whose smile / Turns her into an emblem, / Fortitude against the elements.’ In ‘Dr. Bordoloi decides to stay back’, an anti-war poem, Goswami writes about a physician who released imprisoned mental patients. In ‘The Bookshop’, he writes about KD Singh, owner of the above, whose near extinction he predicts ‘early 21st’ (century) like ‘A bird in the Pacific. Last seen 19th circa.’ Other poetic tributes include ones to Manglesh Dabral in ‘For Manglesh Dabral’, Dr. M.K. Bhan in “Midnight’s Child’, Nipjyoti Barua in ‘What Nip Da taught me’, and there’s one to beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in ‘Our First Ferlinghetti’.
Vital Signs provides an interesting and revealing look at Goswami’s religious, historical, musical, and culinary roots—a literary feast for the senses.
Frequent AQ contributor Susan E. Lloy’s short story collection, Nothing Comes Back, provides a dark, sometimes humorous, look at the Sid-Vicious-and-Nancy, baby bust generation as they struggle with insufficient funds to cross the retirement finish line. Lloy’s stories have a unique mix of characters and conflicts sometimes including alternative sexual arrangements. These include polygamous Mormon soft-porn out West, the perils of a poorly-chosen Nova Scotian real estate nest egg, marital jealousy/infidelity, café and bar pickups, and mayhem on the high seas. Lloy’s stories are surprising and entertaining, many with unexpected twists and endings.
The cover of Nothing Comes Back features a clockface unwinding into a downward spiral, similar to some representations of Einstein’s concept of space-time. The first and title story of this collection is about Sybil, who ‘doesn’t have money socked away’ as some of her contemporaries do, for extensive travels, but enough socked away for one special trip.’ She travels out to the American West’s colourful canyons and river valleys. Then she wins and shortly thereafter loses big at a Nevada casino. Almost broke, she meets and falls in love with a man who turns out to be a Mormon polygamist, who persuades her to join his ‘big’ family. However, later she discovers that he has attempted to drain her remaining savings account without her permission. For the time, she decides to let it ride, plotting her next move, in typically Lloy narrative fashion, beyond the actual story.
Lloy’s stories’ characters, and their almost umbearable or impossible situations, are her narrative hallmark. Plot and nicely wrapped up endings in general are unreal in her fictional world. People striking out late in life on their own, with what little they’ve saved, finally pursuing their dreams, is commonplace.
Unconventional living situations, including polyandry, are common in Lloy’s stories due the protagonists a lack of money. In ‘The Wayward Collective’, a woman named Wanda finds herself taking in housemates to pay for her house’s renovations. Perry, ‘an artist who used to work with marble, but has recently changed to fiberglass resin, is taken in first for this money. Then Dot, when the plumbing goes bad and Japamala, ‘who has ‘spirited blue eyes’ and ‘travels the world visiting yoga retreats’. Lastly comes Ethan or ‘Taffy as he is often called, always tanned a creamy bronze the colour of the chewy candy.’ He ‘a former roofer, who uses a cane subsequent to a fall and who was on disability until his pension kicked in’. Everything starts out well: the house’s residents eat one communal meal together per week. However, with this batch of steamy characters, it’s hard not to predict the intramural action, rearrangements and falling outs that soon happen.
In this collection, the short stories are sometimes interspersed with much shorter, sometimes barely page-long vignettes, such as ‘Lingerie’, ‘Skin’, ‘Proost’, and ‘What’s What’. In ‘Lingerie’ a man in a laundromat notices an older woman who reminds him of ‘an aging actress’ with ‘a certain elegance’. ‘Skin’ is about an older woman, who’s skin she thinks looks like ‘tired lace’, who watches young people walk by. ‘Proost’ is about an older woman practising her Kegels and eyeing an attractive, older man who returns her interest and ‘invites her to his place.’ ‘What’s What’ features unnamed narrator who complains about the tourists who frequent his/her town, and about ‘That bully is still in office, tweeting and ranting, spewing maniacal commentaries like some just released sociopath.’, placing this excerpt firmly in the Trump era. All four are suggestive, short sketches, with the rest of the story left up to the reader’s imagination.
Another story about Lloy’s retirement-poor characters taking their fate into her own hands is ‘Finders Keepers’. Here, the daughter of artist whose father was killed in a car crash, takes revenge on the people who bought her father’s studio, but will not share her father’s ‘two hundred paintings’ they later discover concealed ‘beneath floorboards’. This character describes her situation as:
‘Rape. That’s what it feels like. Sadness and are anger are the initial responses. Vengeance follows soon after. ‘I procured a good lawyer only to be told … “Finders, keepers.” … The only thing I managed to salvage was copyright control. The collector can’t reproduce any images of his sleazily acquired collections in the form of books of anything that will make a profit.’
And the plot thickens from there.
Lloy stories are also about down-and-out characters, who don’t always win even pyrrhic victories. ‘La Chambre’ and ‘Final Sentence’ feature people who once were well-off or at least well taken care of, who have lost everything either by hook or by crook. Both of these stories involve inheritances. In ‘La Chambre’ a woman foolishly liquidates her inherited estate (including a very large home) for her new husband. He invests this in his shady holding company and ends up losing it all. After legally clearing her name in the matter, the woman ends up in a halfway house, then on assistance in a one room flat and ultimately working as a maid in the upscale neighbourhood where she formerly lived. In ‘Final Sentence’ a male writer and gambler, whose mother had saved him many times from debt, finds that she has left the bulk of her estate to ‘Friends of Save the Forest’ and left only her Lexus to him. He cashes this in, and soon loses this money gambling. These are real stories populated with real people with real foibles, with no artificial, happy endings.
There are a few stories, such as ‘Flipside’ or ‘A Weed in the Canyon’, in which things end well even after the characters have been betrayed, whose protagonists accept their lot and hopefully with make the best of it. However, these stories are rare in Nothing Comes Back. Most are filled with dark secrets and/or betrayal. In ‘And then’, another story about an inheritance, a cryptic message is left by Hugo before he commits suicide. After his funeral and wake, three long-time friends, Augusta (his wife), Lola, and Frankie, confess to serious criminal mistakes. Frankie, an attorney, reveals that after a night of drinking, he drove into and seriously injured a woman, then left the scene of the accident. Lola reveals she slept with Hugo, got pregnant, but kept her son’s patrimony a secret. Lastly, Augusta admits to ‘milking one of their’(her late husband’s joint) ‘savings accounts’ to help a needy family who turned out to be ‘grifters’. Lola suggests that that might have been the reason why Hugo killed himself.
‘Synthesis of a Dream’ and the collection’s last story, ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’, are about couples who go out in sailboats, the former a yacht on the Mediterranean and the latter, a smaller training craft on the Canadian Atlantic Coast. Let it be said two people go out, and only one (perhaps) makes it back. You’ll want to read these stories yourself to find out who survives—and why. AQ