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What We’re Reading: Patter

2014 May 15
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What We're Reading

PATTER COVERPatter by Douglas Kearney (Red Hen Press, 2014)

In Michael Ondaatje’s 1970 film The Sons of Captain Poetry, bpNichol, influential concrete and sound poet and the subject of the film, says, “The use of other media [is] an exploration of, ok if you’re gonna actually have a poetry which is visual, that is, is print and is put on a page, then why not actually utilize the page as the unit of composition and utilize visuality as its main feature?” I don’t know whether Douglas Kearney has seen this film and heard this quote, but he’s almost certainly familiar with Nichol’s work.

Kearney’s work flips easily from traditional left-justified lyric poetry to poems whose “performative typography” grows out of a long lineage of concrete and visual poetry, using, as Nichol suggested, the page itself as a main unit of composition. Poems such as “Every Hard Rapper’s Father Ever: Father of the Year” and “Noah/Ham: Fathers of the Year” are hard to imagine without the typographical elements:Noah Ham Fathers

These visual poems are nothing new to Kearney’s readers; his first collection, Fear, Some (Red Hen Press, 2006), contained the same experiments, and 2009’s The Black Automaton (Fence Books) continued them. Luckily, Kearny introduces new elements to prevent the poems from what could, in less sure hands, become a gimmick. “The Miscarriage: A Sunday Funny,” for instance, owes more to comic books than to “Easter Wings:”The Miscarriage A Sunday Funny

These visual elements create layers of meaning that are impossible with just text, and can, as in the poem above, even enact the event the poem seeks to describe. Notice how “blood” comes out of the “woman” who lies on the “bed” until the blood overwhelms both bed and woman.

Of course, reducing such a horrific event to a mere trick of type is an almost obscene over-simplification, but “A Sunday Funny” comes in a series of poems that tackle the same event using multiple forms and angles, including a short film script, a minstrel show, and “a poetic form”:

internal rhyme (perfect)

internal rhyme (perfect)

internal rhyme (perfect)

internal rhyme (perfect)

internal rhyme (perfect)




internal rhyme (slant)

internal rhyme (slant)

internal rhyme (slant)




internal rhyme (broken)

“The Miscarriage: A Poetic Form”

Thanks in part to the seven “Miscarriage” poems, Patter is, if not Kearny’s most personal book, definitely his most intimate. The content delves into the difficulties of conceiving children and the traumas of miscarriage—traumas that are felt psychologically by both members of a couple, but physically by only one. Kearney’s interest in masculinity and the role of men in relationships, especially of black men, are present here as they were in his earlier work, but the damage of miscarriage—a very real event in Kearney’s life—is the fulcrum around which the book turns.

If the miscarriage is the heart of Patter then the refrain “I love your body. I hate it” are thump of the heartbeat:

Sentence Done Red

—from “Sentence Done Red”

Sonnet Done Red

—from “Sonnet Done Red”

Layered and reused throughout the collection, this refrain is a raw distillation of feeling that is surprising no matter how many times it appears. These poems are an intimate look into Kearney’s marriage and hint at the complex and heart-wrenching pain a miscarriage inflicts on a couple. The intimacy could turn some readers off, but ultimately it speaks to Kearney’s ability to tackle difficult subjects with his eyes wide open. Kearney (and his wife) lets us into his marriage, into his marriage bed, to explore what it means to be a father, when, and how one becomes a father.

It’s rare to find a poet who so bluntly and openly explores issues as personal as the ones in Patter. Euphemism and abstraction are generally the theme. What Kearney has done with this collection is assert himself not only as an innovator of visual poetry, but also as an important and far-reaching voice, unafraid to stare directly into tough topics and not blink. One of the sharpest tools in Kearney’s toolbox is the page itself.


What We’re Reading: Interrobang

2014 March 20
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What We're Reading

interrobangInterrobang by Jessica Piazza (Red Hen Press; 2013)

One of my favorite lines of poetry is in Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet 47. It’s the tenth line and, aside from being a perfect line of iambic pentameter, it evokes the struggle of Astrophil to free himself from his love of Stella. The line itself reads: “I may, I must, I can, I will, I do[.]” In the line, the speaker moves from an unsure stance of maybe through to a firm conviction. The joke in the poem comes only two lines later when Stella comes into view and the newfound conviction evaporates in a moment.

In Jessica Piazza’s debut collection of poems composed mainly of sonnets she uses a similar tactic:

[T]onight I’ll disavow these high jinks, hurts, these hells.

(I will? I might.) I must. Such surefire track to lack,

a certain fade to black . . .  Oh fuck it. Holler back.

Piazza revels in the form’s anachronism. Her language is free flowing and contemporary, yet formally precise, employing the same linguistic tricks that mark sonnets written by the masters. Her contemporary flourishes highlight the dated form. Yet, the inverse is also true. Piazza can swing wildly from the contemporary (“Oh fuck it.”) to the archaic: “But love / itself I never deigned to love” she writes in “Panophilia: Love of everything” hearkening to the diction of classic sonnets.

While Piazza is faithful to the forms she has chosen, some of the cleverest moments in the book come at the expense of form. “Asymmetriphobia: Fear of asymmetrical things” reads in full:

Here’s the torment only the warped heart knows:


One side withers.                       The other grows.              And grows.

The look of the poem on the page so beautifully works against the title that you can’t help but applaud Piazza’s cheek. These witty moments are pure sonnet, and as masterfully done as Sidney chucking away his perfect line of iambic pentameter in favor of love in only two short lines. Clearly, Piazza knows her stuff.

Further, she keeps the reader guessing with liberal use of internal rhyme, rather than simply end-rhymed lines:

                        […] submerged in your

tallow. This candle, this window, you

squirm like a minnow, repeat like an

echo, arthritic libido.

Rhymes tumble through Piazza’s lines like marbles in a Plinko set. Her language pulls the reader forward through the poem so that you can read a dozen poems in a matter of a few minutes. Whether this is good or bad is up to each individual reader. I tend to prefer to linger on lines and images in poems, but Piazza’s pace kept me galloping along. I found multiple readings to be the best way to ingest Piazza’s poems. Luckily, they’re just as fun the second and third time through.

The poems have a deep sense of the body, but also a sense of how the body reacts to psychological stimuli. Nearly every poem is titled with a phobia or a philia: “Melophobia: Fear of music,” “Achluophilia: Love of darkness,” “Nephophobia: Fear of clouds,” and so on. “Clithrophilia: Love of being enclosed” opens with the lines,

Like lighter flame in wind, you wind your hand

around the ember of my bending body.

A lover encloses the speaker’s body, and the playful word sounds—lighter/ember; wind/wind—pull the couplet along, hugging the poem to the title. Many of the poems turn on the title, with phobias, naturally, signaling more pensive poems of loss and drama than the sexiness and longing of their philia counterpoints.

Interrobang is Piazza’s debut collection and clearly displays her technical mastery. The poems here are mindful of poetic lineage and don’t go breaking too much new ground, but they do entertain and explore fear and love, those universal themes, well and interestingly. As tied to form as it is, however, the poems are contemporary enough even for readers who prefer their verse libre.

What other writers are working with and against formal constructs in their poetry?


What We’re Reading: A Wild Surmise

2013 October 3
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What We're Readinga wild surmiseA Wild Surmise: New & Selected Poems & Recordings by Eloise Klein Healy (Red Hen Press, 2013)

Eloise Klein Healy’s poems wrapped their fierce tendrils around my brain the moment I picked A Wild Surmise out of a bookstore shelf by chance. A compilation of poems from all of her previous six books, as well as new poems, this is about as in-depth as you can get into a poet’s work (read Timothy’s recent review and musings of another poet’s new and selected works here). But wait, there’s more! You can listen to Healy herself read a handful of these poems. Instead of being accompanied by a clunky CD, the book comes equipped with QR codes that bring you to recordings of Healy reading her own work. (You can also find these recordings here on her website.) With multiple entry points into Healy’s creative mind, I found myself utterly immerse and falling deeply in love with her poetic voice.

What stuck out more to me than the differences between her various collections is what was the same, and reoccurring. Obviously, there is growth and evolution to be seen in the progression of her works: her voice starts startlingly straight forward, and then falls into a more assuredly sage poetic voice, and later finds great freedom in vulnerability and reflection. But the similarities kept resurfacing, and tied this whole new and selected works collection together in a completely comprehensive way.

Greek influences are inherent in her entire body of work, with a whole book of poems dedicated to the Greek poet Sappho, whose lyric poems were about love and infatuation with both women and men, and from whom the word lesbian derived (more specifically, from her home island, Lesbos). A lesbian poet herself, Healy finds many points of connection with Sappho, bringing this ancient poet into today’s cultural environment. Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt, also has a collection named for her by Healy, and the act of hunting and being hunted weaves a tremor throughout Healy’s work. Feminism comes at you like a wave, especially in the poems included from 1998’s powerful Women’s Studies Chronicles. And always, love. Love poems of all sorts, but be careful before you assume, as these are love poems that don’t fit into any cliched, trite category. These are sexy love poems, but not in a smooth, overly sophisticated way. No, these are physical and hearty, with a genuine outright love of cars, women, and cities. Find an listen to “Los Angeles” here, and savor the last stanza, like I do: “Nobody expected it / and you never told about / the lover who met you / loose and large / in the late afternoon / and loved you all night, / completely out of proportion.” The following excerpt from “My Love Wants to Park” (originally published in 1981’s A Packet Beating Like a Heart) demonstrates a more playful, loving side:

My love wants to park
in front of your house.

Thank God.
It’s been driving me crazy
going around and around the block.

It’s started breaking laws,
obsessively rolls through boulevard stops,
changes lanes without looking back.

It’s taken over the transmission,
drops into second when I try to drive by
and rolls down its own windows.
I had to pull the horn wires
after it learned to “a-uugah”
at the sight of your address.

Her love of Los Angeles is evident throughout each collection as well. One of my favorite poems about L.A. is  “I Live Where I Live” from 1991’s Artemis in Echo Park, which begins:

I live where I live because
it has nothing to do with me.
I could go on about the choices I’ve made
and all the other elements of my landscape,
emotionally carved or artfully decorated,
but the real truth is, here you can see
the ribs showing through.
The land’s way eventually surfaces.
it’s all softening like old chenille,
faint voices on patios in the summer nights.
So I say this has nothing to do with me
but it comes to my door
and I have let it in. […]

and later, that glorious ending:

[…] This has nothing to do with me,
this wildness that softens everything.
Then again, it has nothing to do but me.

She turns over these love poems with honest, seeing hands, holding their true heft and weight for us all to experience. Regardless of the subject, all of her poems drip with wisdom and assurance, and it’s obvious that her poetic voice is unabashedly confident in it’s own wildness.

While largely joyful or contemplative, she is equally skilled at pinpointing moments of tender loss, pain, and vulnerability. She takes us up close to the emotion, almost reaching discomfort at witnessing such rawness: cancer, a father dying, and rape. She also handles everyday sadness or the simple act of missing someone with the same clean arrow to the heart of the content, as seen in “Love Poem From Afar:”

This morning I’m more lonely than the sky,
That flattened tray of tin and rain

before the robin’s quick array of ruddy breasts
displayed the air a way that’s new

as when in their noisy gang
they flew against the blue

like stiches in a quilt
that’s being aired out with a shake.

I take some solace watching starlings
with their yellow bills root among the leaves.

They’re plump with some success, those clerks.

Healy is an active and accomplished poet, to say the least. She is founder of Arktoi Books (an imprint of Red Hen Press), is the first Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, and has widely taught college-level creative writing and women’s studies.

Whatever you can do to encounter Healy’s poems, please do. This is a book that I found myself wanting to read out loud to everyone I came across, to say, “Hey, please, listen to this one,” and never stop. There are too many favorites for me to ever excerpt in a review, and I think you’d enjoy it more to experience Healy’s life’s work yourself.

What other poets make you want to read everything out loud to the people in your life? Can you think of another poet who uses Greek mythology in interesting ways?