Heart In A Jar by Kathleen McGookey

415JSKnCH9L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It is a world in which Death is part of the equation, children disappear or appear in unique ways, and animals move into doll houses. In Kathleen McGookey’s “Heart In A Jar,” her latest collection of prose poems, it is not a fantasy world, but a way of looking at our own experience in new ways. McGookey excels, both in her earlier work and this outstanding new collection, at peeling back the surface layer of existence and giving us a glimpse of what lies behind it. Although it is not often pretty, she proceeds without fear.

“Dear Death” is the opening letter (or poem) where she asks Death to “pretend you forget all about us.” She is out riding bikes with children, visiting the first graders with “gap-toothed smiles,” and learning about penguins. It is the essence of innocence with Death standing right in the moment. McGookey is not a pessimist, but a realist who understands how fragile life is. Death is not a scary presence in her poetry unless you find the mere concept of Death scary. McGookey’s Death drives to a school Valentine party in his red pick up. “…you’re welcome to braid a friendship bracelet and balance an Oreo on your forehead. Cupcakes go next to the juice boxes.” And she reassures Death, who may feel uncomfortable in the midst of such life. “It’s ok if you don’t exactly fit in. No one wants to believe you are here.”

But Death is here and McGookey explores the impact as she writes about grief. In “The Grief Jacket Project” we find a committee combining different materials to create “a wearable jacket that physically protects and comforts mourners” — sea turtle eggs, small river rocks. In the end, barn swallows provide inspiration and they create a jacket that volunteers would like to pass on to their loved ones. The issue not addressed is why they would need not need such a jacket themselves? In another poem (“At the John Ball Zoo”) she wonders when she’ll be done with grief. And, then, “When will I say, Grief, do you miss me, too?” Like Death, Grief is a presence.

McGookey has explored these ideas before, very clearly in Stay, but she avoids repetition. They are concepts ripe and deep that she may delve into for a long time. In Stay, much of her thinking revolved around her parents, but here Death and childhood are intertwined. Childhood is a magical place of everyday joys and distant fears, where children grow in the flower bed, and where a son escapes the day in a bird suit. And she ends the collection with a “P.S. Death” where her daughter hands her a crumpled page from her first-grade unit on space, not knowing that the elderly neighbor who watched her swim, died that day. She knows her daughter would engage death, but she wants to protect her. Her final line to Death says “I don’t want you to feel at home here.”

If you have not entered McGookey’s world, you are missing a place both familiar and strange. It is a world where we can wander through the possible, the unsaid, and the unacknowledged, and emerge back into our lives with a new perspective.

“Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon

9781555971311Jane Kenyon is the rare poet who shared her Christian faith and was still recognized as a critically important poet. Perhaps it is because her faith avoids any syrupy raptures, instead, providing a different glimpse into everyday life. Still, even an excellent site like the Poetry Foundation can ignore her faith when writing about her life.The literary world is not comfortable with faith, even with “one of their own.”

Anyone reading the collection “Let Evening Come,” will see Kenyon’s faith clearly. It is present in her everyday mentions of her work at church or in one of her daily walks with her dog. In “At the Winter Solstice,” we get a glimpse of a Christmas Eve pageant in a small church:

“At the village church last night
the boys–shepherds and wisemen–
pressed close to the manger in obedience,
wishing only for time to pass;
but the girl dressed as Mary trembled
as she leaned over the pungent hay,
and like the mother of Christ

wondered why she had been chosen.”

But it is a faith of honesty. While she often finds comfort, she also struggles — as do most jane-kenyonpeople. Kenyon suffered from depression, wrestling with it for most of her short life (she died from leukemia at age 47 in 1995). Struggling to reconcile it with her beliefs, she is left short of answers. In “Now Where?” she opens with verses that can reflect depression or grief:

“It wakes when I wake, walks
when I walk, turns back when I

turn back, beating me to the door.

It spoils my food and steals
my sleep, and mocks me, saying,

‘Where is your God now?'”

Most of her poetry celebrates the rural and rustic found around her New Hampshire farm, although she was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, not leaving until she married the poet Donald Hall after finishing her Masters degree at the University of Michigan. Kenyon sees much in the simple actions of the day. In her poem, “Father and Son,” she writes how the neighbor keeps cutting wood with his chainsaw as his son helps. He does it on Sunday afternoons and she comes to “mind the noise.”  But the neighbor is:

“intent on getting wood for winter, the last,

as it happened, of their life together.”

So, she takes from this everyday scene which can even be annoying and gives us pause to think about these moments when either the father or son (she hints it is the father) dies before the next season. The importance of the present moment is never lost on Kenyon. She often sees in others the stories they carry with them, revealed in tiny glimpses. She does the same with seasons as they come and go. She tends to embrace each season. In, “Dark Morning: Snow”:

“It falls on the vole, nosing somewhere
through weeds, and on the open
eye of the pond. It makes the mail

come late.

The nuthatch spirals head first

down the tree.

I’m sleepy and benign in the dark.

There nothing I want…”

Kenyon appeals to me and others because she reveals how many of us feel. As a Christian, I can relate to her moments of comfort and her moments of despair. She does not need to go far to find her inspiration — it is the farm she lives on, the people surrounding her, her faith, her dog, and her friends. We benefit from how her eyes often see more than we do. The present does not slip by her. Instead, she lives in the moment with an eye on eternity.

The collection ends with the title poem, and it is one that is often reprinted. In fact, it has been set to music by several composers  with my favorite being by  M. L. P. Badarak.

It is a beautiful poem, so I’ll let it end this post
.

Let Evening Come

 

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear

and moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

“[Bond, James] alphabet, anatomy, [auto]biography” by Michelle Disler

disler-coverHe is an icon of popular culture with a name often said in three words, as in “Bond, James Bond.” The themes for the movies are part of our cultural soundtrack, we argue over who is the best Bond and then, of course, there are the Bond women. A brand in and of themselves. He comes from a world where the heroes can smoke, drink, kill, love, and save the world. Usually in under two hours.

In Michelle Disler’s hands, this icon is pulled apart not to tear him down, but to understand him better. And, by understanding what attracts us to Bond, we learn about ourselves. In her capable hands, Disler uses her poetic insight to help us reexamine Bond and ourselves in her collection, [Bond, James] alphabet, anatomy, [auto]biography.

The book, broken into the three sections listed in the subtitle, delves into Bond as much through Ian Fleming’s writing as the movies. Much of the poetry falls into the “found poetry” category as Disler nearly assaults us with Fleming’s writing. In “Cigarettes [Bond, James],” Disler gives us 11 pages of verbatim text mixed with her own commentary on Bond’s smoking. It opens with “James Bond lit a cigarette” 25 times. Shortly after that, we get “James Bond lit another cigarette” 35 times. The repetition is like a research paper overloaded with support and driving you into submission. You’ll never look at Bond light up again in the same way.

As seen in the poem mentioned above, Disler is not wedded to any poetical form. The collection includes poetry as a true and false quiz, algebraic formulas, and matching exercises. She writes poems in the format of a book index, fill-in-the-blank,  and an “a-z” listing of bodily actions Bond does in the books (note: he shrugs his shoulders, a lot). The result is a collection that keeps making you readjust your approach to reading and to Bond. Like a Bond movie, if you start to settle in, get ready for a surprise.

MichelleDisler

Michelle Disler

Disler, while clearly knowing her Bond well, is also a fan. Not a fan without reservations or a without a clear understanding of the hero’s failings, but still a fan. She ends the book with a powerful “[auto]biography” in which she explores Bond and first, Sylvia Trench, and then, Honey Rider. “Honey’s not one to mess around She is fearless and afraid the perfect combination of toughness and vulnerability Who does she think she is but sex and death devourer and devoured I am watching James Bond and Honey Rider and at this moment I wonder who I would rather be”. Bond and his adventures become less of a spectator sport and more of a mirror as we reflect on how we could fit in the Bond world.

Perhaps we best see Disler’s relationship with Bond explored in “Objections [Bond, James].” Here we find Disler asking Bond question after question. “How many times do you think you’ve nearly bought it on account of a girl? What would your mother say, if she were alive, about the number of notches in your bedpost…” which is a fascinating question since most of us never think of Bond as having a mother. He just is. And she continues to challenge him. “Who asks the villain’s girl to spy on her illustrious boyfriend, knowing all too well certain death upon her discovery is her cruel reward?…How are you not dead like the girls who wind up loving you, their resolve weak, glittering like the dresses you peel from their bodies like skin from a ripe tropical fruit? How am I doing? Do you think I’m finished? Do you think you deserve a break after all that saving the world, one hard-won villain’s death, one tragically oversexed girl at a time?”

So, yes, Bond fans will have love this book. Disler has taught about Bond at the college-level, clearly, knows the books and films, and still is a fan. But you don’t have to be a Bond fan to enjoy this dissection of a cultural icon. And, if like me, you only know Bond from the films, you may find Disler pushing you to the books. As for me, I just started reading “Goldfinger.” I’m waiting for Bond to light a cigarette.

“Stay” by Kathleen McGookey

Stay_cover_smDeath and life have long been tied together in literature, a reflection of our shared experience. One of the strongest connections between the two is grief when life transfers into death and love takes on the lens of loss. All these elements emerge strongly in Kathleen McGookey’s stunning book of poems, Stay. From the loss of children not yet born, to the loss of parents long lived, McGookey struggles to retain what is lost and to accept what is left.
McGookey writes prose poems, allowing her the freedom to develop her thoughts while using the fragmentation of poetry to create lines of depth. In “Shallow” she describes a living moon. “She is pinned to the sky, unapproachable: to be aloof, to be cold and disinterested and not afraid if anyone knows is a decent strategy.” McGookey clearly does not emulate these traits, and so her poems reach out to the reader.
We listen as McGookey interprets life through the decision of becoming a mother, and then the mother who does not conceive.  In “Again” she opens with: “Never conceived, never arrived into the light and the clatter and the chill. Never rapt, like a statue. Never arrived for the slap…” She is grieving the loss of the life never created with the same intensity we grieve the loss of those who die. In both situations, we are left with an absence. One carries memories and the other possibilities, but neither are tangible no matter how much they are experienced.

She is continually struck by the grief and horror an individual can experience that does

mcgookey

Kathleen McGookey

not impact the world. How life seems to go on all around you as your own life falls apart. In “Like Stars” she describes an awe-inspiring evening setting full of the life of insects and birds, and ends with the line: “Right now my friend is having a baby boy who is expected to die.”  In “Sometimes the Ache Sleeps” we see her facing her parent’s declining health, “But each day the purple morning glories bloomed after the sun rose, and each day promised to be just like the one before.” At times, the poet seems to be torn between the thankfulness for ongoing life and being stunned that all the world does not understand your grief. But grief, while universally experienced, is a private affair.

The title poem expresses a theme found throughout these poems. The longing to hang on to what we had while having what is changing. She wants to stay with her ailing mom, who sends her up to her husband. But they only trade places so the husband cares for her mother while she nurses her child. We have a desire to keep what we have, yet we want what we do not have. You cannot care for your dying mother and your young son at the same time. We desire change and we desire to stay in our place.
Clearly, this collection is full of much pain. But she does not lose herself in the pain. She acknowledges it, struggles with it, but still recognizes the beauty around her. She seems in awe of life, wanting to experience it from a distance but finding herself an active part of it. When no hope seems left, she finds it in a note from her mother, the unconditional love of her child, or in the vision of a teenage boy with one leg water skiing and looking for girls in bikinis.

At the Edge of Forget by Reka Jellema, Brendan Bonsack, Kathryn Ross, and Jennifer Savage

at the edge of forgetThis unique volume of poetry tears down the stereotype of the solitary poet locked in a room, as the entire volume is the collaboration of four poets. It is not an anthology of their individual work, but a collection of collaborative poetry created across continents. Two of the writers, Reka Jellema and Jennifer Savage, live in different areas of the United States. Brendan Bonsack and Kathryn Ross are both from Australia. Together, they break the collection into three areas, “Resonance,” “Weaving,” and “Remberance.” And although it does not impact the contents, it is worth noting that the book cover photo and design are outstanding (and the work of two of the writers).

If you are skeptical about the concept, you will not be after reading the collection. This collaborative collection creates a strong, deep voice where the writers clearly listened to one another’s writing and enhanced their individual voices. To use their own titles, the ideas of resonance and weaving are what make these poems work, whie the poems of rememberance remind us of the connection with others of our mortality.

They seem to touch on their connection with one another in their opening poem, “We Met Before.”

“I have met you before
I can tell by the flurry of words

Spoken, not spoken
Assembled like confetti
Blown from my lips, flecked in my hair
A swarm of tiny letters
The sayable puzzles, and the unsayable

Were we meant to fit together,
And this blinking, squinting, mutter-mutter know?

When I met you before
Our time was runing low”

Throughout the collection, we see a range of themes and find both serious and winsome words. In the midst of a poem entitled “Canine,” we get an accurate look at dogs, but with a seriousness which can only make us smile:

“…
We licked
our spots, divined
A crotch
From miles off

Unleashing
With each nudge of snout
Scents by the millions
Stars exploding
Pungent edge of lawns, uprooted
Trees, and variegated clumps
Of weeds

Our nostrils quivered
And our tails shot up
…”

Whether exploring marriage (“A Love’s Little Scratching”), objects (“Ceiling”), or grief (“Ways to Say Goodbye”), the writers combine to create a unique voice, a new way of looking at life. A poem like “Wednesdays” could be written by one person, but the different voices in creating these snapshots add a depth to the voice. We see this again in “Men of Bicycle” as different views take us past the visual into a realm of wondering.

This collection offers us a new way to approach writing. While many have talked about collaborative writing in our digital age, this volume shows it not only working but presenting a new voice. It is exciting to think how the addition of a new person, or the replacement of one writer, could affect how these writers work together. Perhaps the four voices behind it make you feel like there is a conversation happening and you are invited to join in. Pull up a chair. You will be better for it.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

citizen coverI’ve read this fifth volume of Rankine’s poetry three times, and each time I learn more about what I do not know. Rankine exposes the everyday incidents of personal racism, the public racism of how Serena Williams is treated throughout her career, and the violent racism revealed in the deaths of unarmed black men. But the adjectives of “personal,” “public,” and “violent,” are mere artifacts. What Rankine is showing is that all racism is personal, public, and violent. As she, and the rest of the world, watch Williams be the object of blatantly erroneous calls, it is personal for her. And it is violent in how it attacks her very humanity. The deaths of unarmed black men, the “unintentional” racist comments of her white, liberal, and educated friends, and the public shaming of someone responding honestly to being harassed live beyond the moment.

The book itself is a scrapbook of poetry, creative prose, quotes, verbal collages, and visual art. She almost seems to be scrambling, desperately, for a way to get her message across. At times, she hits it over and over, as she experiences it over and over.

“Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted,

Author_Photo_of_Claudia_Rankine

Claudia Rankine

would call you by the name of her black housekeeper?  You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” These are the daily reminders of the racism inherent in our society but only experienced by those who are not white.

 

Ranking divides her book into several sections, including ones focusing on her daily encounters with racism, one on the treatment of Williams, and one focusing on headline events such as the killings of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson. In addressing so many forms of racism, Rankine requires a response (and, of course, not to respond is to respond). If you want to feel good about the U.S. (and the world) and race, don’t read this book. If, like me, racism is not something personally experience, this book will give you some insight to the pervasiveness and horrendous impact of racism.

Visit Claudia Rankine’s Website

See a Video of Rankine Reading from Citizen

“A Boy’s Will” by Robert Frost

A_Boy's_Will_1915This is Frost’s first book of poems, published in 1913, and it set him on the path that we are all familiar with. What surprised me is that this was published when Frost was 38 years old — and he still accomplished so much after this book. The poems reflect Frost’s interest in the rural landscape, the individuality of a person, and ruminations on our place in the world. Like many good writers, Frost is easy to read, but also not content with an unexamined life. He avoids the pretentiousness of many writers and

frost-1913-x

Robert Frost, 1913

 

manages to say more in the process. When poets become popular (e.g. Mary Oliver), some people tend to see them as superficial. Instead, they are often strong poets who have found a way to connect their art with the public. Frost did this.

“Mowing” and “Reluctance” are two of the better-known poems hers. There are many recordings of Frost’s own straightforward style of reading. Here is a recording of him reading “Mowing.”

Personally, I returned several times to:

“Storm Fear”

When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
The beast,
‘Come out! Come out!’–
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
Ah, no!
I count our strength,
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,–
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away,
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether ’tis in us to arise with day
And save ourselves unaided.