POEM: Engines of Desolation

That stubble, once a forest full of trees,

now rides the hills down to the turd brown sea.

I’d heard the drumming coming from the banks.

An army of axe men formed into ranks.

Firing up engines of desolation,

scarring the earth in ragged ablation.

And down the river, those drums went silent.

Modern man wondered where the tribes all went.

 

In ancient temples they’d preached mysteries.

Lost to the burning of the histories,

by purists who’d gathered in mankind’s flanks

to massacre all of the mainstream cranks.

 

And they sang their songs of faith and nation

to the tune of engines of desolation.

BOOK REVIEW: When I Walk Through that Door, I Am by Jimmy Santiago Baca

When I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother's QuestWhen I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother’s Quest by Jimmy Santiago Baca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a narrative poem telling the story of an El Salvadoran woman who is separated from her child after illegally immigrating to the United States. It’s quite a timely topic, but as a work of literature and a “call to arms” it could have done much better.

This poetic novella is gripping to read, but is over-the-top in spots, and that does it a disservice in two ways. First of all, it takes the reader out of the story as they may become lost in the disbelief. Secondly, it takes a work that could have been a persuasive call for change, and turns it into an angry rant. To give a prime example, at one point early in the piece, the lead character has been (gang-)raped four or five times over the course of two pages, by varied factions including US law enforcement officers. Even if one were to accept the author’s presumed premise that American federal law enforcement agents are morally equivalent to the gangs of the drug cartels (a premise not likely to be accepted by the meaty-middle of society), one is left to ignore the fact that female prisoners, once in custody, aren’t left unsupervised with male guards. I know the reader may say, but this is a technical detail in a fictitious narrative poem. However, given the way the piece is presented (discussed more below), it reads like it’s telling us a story that is meant to move us through the proposition that this is the world in which we live. But once one reads one falsity, one is left wondering whether any part of the story is reflective of reality.

The idea that this woman is exploited by every male she comes into contact with, whether they are gang members or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, has poetic merit. It’s pointing out that without legal status, she is in a perpetually vulnerable state. Yet, it seems lazy and sensationalist to make all such exploitation rape. When one morally equates gangs with agents of a democratic government, one isn’t just saying that the individuals are equivalent, you are casting aspersions against the entire system of rule of law. (Because, of course, protections should be in place, and — failing them — the means to lodge complaints. And I think most would argue that both are the case.) The bigger problem, one found throughout the political spectrum in the US, is that individuals vilify each other, pretending they are being persuasive, when in reality they are just more deeply etching an “us-them” divide. By this I mean to say, one can’t tell people how vile, despicable, and evil they are, and then expect them to see your perspective.

The narrative poem is delivered in a combination of free verse and poetic prose all of which verges largely on just plain prose. That is to say, the emphasis is on telling a story and not so much on the usual core components of poetry, i.e. sound, imagery, and metaphor. (Unless some of these fictitious elements, e.g. the astounding number of rapes, are meant to be metaphorical. Then my concern would be that one risks diminishing a horrible thing, if one throws around that word as metaphor.)

This is a quick read, and, as I mentioned, it’s presented in a gripping fashion – if hyperbolically so. I suspect that it will be mostly read by a demographic determined along political lines, which is a shame. It could have been so much more.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poems by Hermann Hesse

Poems by Hermann HessePoems by Hermann Hesse by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’re like me, you may not have realized that this German author, known for short philosophical novels such as “Siddhartha,” “Steppenwolf,” and “Demian,” was also a poet. This bilingual edition consists of a selection of 31 poems picked and translated by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, James Wright. The poems are short form poems that range from less than a page to three pages, and thus even with the inclusion of the original German verse, the book is only 80 pages.

It’s hard to imagine a more skilled editor / translator than James Wright, who was considered one of the best American poets of his time. When I was reading up on Wright, I saw that major themes in his poems were “loneliness and alienation,” and those themes are certainly seen in this selection, though I cannot tell you if they’re representative of Hesse’s poetry over all or not. The philosophical outlook of Hesse’s fiction certainly shines through in places, as does the sparse, imagery-centric approach seen in Eastern (e.g. Zen) poetry – a style that tries to keep the poet out of it by presenting scene devoid of analysis or judgment.

Though it didn’t do me much good, owing to my inability to speak or even properly pronounce German, I like that the original poems in German are included. An Italian proverb compares poetry translations to women — i.e. the more beautiful, the less faithful. So, it’s always nice for those with bilingual fluency to be able to look at them side-by-side (which is how they are printed.) Sometimes even hearing the poem without understanding meaning can give one insight into the musicality of the verse.

I enjoyed this selection of poems, and while I can’t say how much is Hesse and how much Wright, either way they were well-composed and pleasant to read. I would highly recommend this selection for poetry readers.

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Five Farm Haiku

gleaming steel
plow blade turns the dirt, but
dirt taxes the blade

 

a weed pulled
in due time, beats one hundred
plucked too late

 

stalk stubble,
the haggard mourning face
of the field

 

mile high crazy quilt
viewed by climbing passengers,
brooding nature’s mood

 

when light is short,
but field days are marathon
harvest gloom

BOOK REVIEW: 100 American Poems ed. by Selden Rodman

100 American Poems100 American Poems by Selden Rodman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked this book up in a used bookshop (the edition is copyrighted 1948) and was excited to get to reading some poems from my native land. However, I was a little off-put when I read this sentence in the editor’s introduction: “… Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and Whitman’s ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ are inferior and unrepresentative poems by any discriminating standard.”

I thought, “Oh, no. This is one of those editors who only likes works that are too cryptic and incomprehensible for the common man (or woman) to enjoy.” The type who’ll rave about Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but will mock Huxley’s “Brave New World” as lowbrow tripe. Surely, being beloved by massive numbers of readers counts for something.

Having read the book, I’m pleased that the editor took the attitude he did — not because it presented me with “better” poems, but because it offered more obscure poems than one would expect to see in most such collections. (And they weren’t particularly arduous or tiresome examples.) The book does include all the poets who one would expect to appear, e.g. Emerson, Longfellow, Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and E.E. Cummings, but there are many lesser known (i.e. lesser remembered) poets as well. The 100 poems include works by about 60 different poets. And, while the big names tend to have more poems per poet, their selections almost invariably don’t include the best-known works of the given poet. Long story short, if you get a chance to pick up this collection, you’re likely to find some selections that are more obscure but none-the-less great.

As one can imagine from the fact that it includes examples from those twin pillars of American poetry – Dickinson and Whitman – one can expect both metered / rhymed poems as well as free verse. [More of the former in the early part and the latter among the latter pieces.] Poems that are longer than about three pages are generally excerpted. So, there’s a mix of short and intermediate length poems, but only excerpts of long ones. The only ancillary matter is the Introduction, which does give the reader an overview of not only what he / she will be reading, but also some general information on the flow of the American poetry from colonial times through the first half of the 20th century.

I enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it for readers interested in American poetry from the early 18th through the early 20th centuries.

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5 Haiku on Emptiness

white space,
where readers’ eyes go to
rewrite stories


when thoughts cease,
senseless pictures form;
minds abhor stillness


Plato’s pupil knew:
“nature abhors a vacuum,”
if not much else


the fog wall,
flush with the land’s end,
invites guesses


endless dunes,
stretching far as eyes can see
yet never the same

Nepal Haiku

birthing Buddha,
distant looming mountains
breed wisdom

 

glassy lake,
mirroring boat hulls,
a world below?

 

standing aside
as beam-totting porters
pass us on the trail

 

tea-house quarters
cozy and quaint lodging,
’til snoring starts

 

cool air in face,
trudging up — oblivious
to cloud-freed snowcap

 

glacier gone,
scoured trench, gouged in earth —
maybe next year

 

monkey overlook,
from sacred stupa to
the human warren

 

5 Haiku on Silence


harsh silence,
lost beats steal word’s
authenticity

 

silent snows
seen through crossed muntins,
drifting eerily

 

fog resting on
Coconut Grove’s soil until
chased by dawn’s din

 

ridge rows,
in waning shades of gray
end in white void

 

creek burbles
hushed to unheard drips
from icicles

POEM: Pillar Rock

enshrouded in cloud,

a Chinese painting transplanted to India,

gnarled evergreens grow from cracked granite

like the bonsai that twists into a broad bloom of foliage,

i’d have thought the great white space, simple shapes, and gorgeous deformity

wouldn’t appeal to the Indian mindset —

so taken with vibrancy and fullness,

and yet crowds throng round,

staring in wonder,

ensnared by the same scene as

Shen Zhou when he painted, “Poet on a Mountaintop”

or

Fan Kuan as he painted, “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams,”

like two lovers fixated on one moon.

Desolate Snow Haiku

boot crunch
‘a cloudless night,’
he concluded

 

old coat of snow
nary a track in sight
beauty abandoned

 

snow blind
trudging and slogging
pure torture

 

crust of snow
over dry powder
bone cold

 

drifting flakes
add a wedge wall
to a farmhouse