Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: Karen An-hwei Lee's Phyla of Joy

Phyla of Joy
by Karen An-hwei Lee
Tupelo Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Karen An-hwei Lee's third collection, Phyla of Joy, shines with poems of refined craft and subtle linguistic play.  Love of language, love of the divine and reverence for the embodied human feminine each together and in turn animate the delicate interior and closely magnified exterior landscapes of these poems.

Many of the poems include in their titles the words "Prayer," "Dream," "Meditation" or "Psalm."  In Lee's work, a dream, a prayer and a mediation are cut from the same cloth.  To wander the world with eyes and heart open to nature and to the divine is to meditate, to dream and to pray.

Sometimes, as in "Meditation on a Cenote," an observation leads to a small but profound self-discovery:  "Memory is a cenote or limestone pool/ where the moon's underground eye// confesses fawn-colored vapor/ or sublimates violet irises in a jar —/ the self's watery other, shyly adrift// as the body:  a cenotaph, water monument/ for the self who is missing elsewhere,/ empirical matter in a field of spirit."

"Preservation of Rare Languages" is a lamentation on the inevitable loss of once vibrant and dynamic tongues around the the world,  which women strive to keep alive by intergenerational transmission.

In "Faith By Hearing," she writes of "studying books by the light of fireflies,/ by ch'uang, the ideogram for window,/ source of fires paired and housed/ passed from woman to woman,/ inherited only from mothers,/ phosphorescent hum."

In Horses of Famine, Horses of War," a blind woman acts as a sort of oracle for a language that is as incomprehensible as the nature of life itself:

A blind woman considered the inverted thinness of cigarette paper, almost
fish skin or petal.  A man is passing on and no one knows his name.  Paper
with a name on it floats out of her hand.  A book is a closed green circle.  Or
a woman whose first name sounds like sycamore-fig whispered.  Or a book
is a shore.  It encircles hungry fish consuming these words.

As with the lyric entreaties of the old poet-mystics, language for Lee is an imperfect but necessary means of approaching the divine.  The answer to such entreaties is sometimes silence, at other times grace, as in "Psalm I":  ".... Young stars are only/ hundreds of millions of years old.  God turns on the light in her body,/ a soft lamp with a paper shade a mother uses while nursing her infant."

Later, "Psalm III" references the double helix of DNA in a stream-of-consciousness mediation on human nature:  ".... Open/ your eyes.  Double strands of inheritence.  Chirality.  Our nucleotides/ are right-handed optical isomers.  What is the probability of this in/ nature.  Why carry this urn of ash, yesterday's blindness.  An orphan in/ exile sketches a rose under a full moon...."

In the series of poems entitled "Selenographia," a woman's aging body is compared to the moon's surface.  In "Selenographia III," the narrator asks, "Is this the body observed without conjecture/ dripping on the smooth rim of her personal sea/ with whispering clocks of lunar craters/ formed long ago when the world was// a thread of light in the beginning?"

However, earlier, in "Invocation," a young girl's mother affirms the speaker in rejecting the objectification of her body in language, insisting on the girl's own fluid self-definition of her embodiment:

Your body is neither flora, fauna, nor brass.
You are not a mountain range.  Our voices,

ringing as one, are not the boat-laden rivers.
We are neither rain nor sorrow.  Speak.  I am 

my mother's daughter, four summers old.
I am a strong girl, fourteen summers.

Lee's  sense of the feminine is one of self-aware presence, as she hints in the opening poem, "Yingri":  "Inside me is a bridge, or the beams of a house" — maybe a bridge to the ineffable divine.

The "garden boat" she goes on to mention, atop "an old ground swell," could refer to language, the vehicle of transport between the two.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Sandra Kohler's Improbable Music

Improbable Music
by Sandra Kohler
Word Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

The poems in Sandra Kohler's new collection Improbable Music seem to draw on decades of mindful observation, both of the daily dramas inherent in family life, rivalries, resentments, addictions, and the dramas that unfold on the world stage, conflicts, wars and the legacies that violence bestows to those who must endure it. In both these realms there is the specter of loss and the void it leaves.

The collection's first poems deal with family: intergenerational loss and estrangement and the tension between siblings who are now without the parents who once bonded them. Sisters spar with and comfort each other in turn and a brother wonders whether he can save another from years of steady, incremental self-destruction.

In the final stanza of the collection's opening poem, “From the Albums of Strangers,” Kohler writes: “The dead cannot be/ robbed, the living touched; home is the place/ you can't get from here, your body the naked/ fact that cannot be hidden. The loved traveler/ who returns cannot be embraced, only held/ at arms' length and gazed into, a mirror,/ impenetrable, remote, impossibly close.”

In “The Age of Departures,” the narrator observes: “Once we thought each farewell the end/ of a world. Each is; worlds end every day./ The unthinkable is the natural: we learn this/ as we did our first language, slowly,/ unconsciously, resisting, disbelieving.”

Personal mortality is confronted in “White”: “... For days now, a recurrent pulsing in/ my diaphragm nags, aches, sets me to imagining/ fatality; this morning I realize why it's familiar:/ a fetus' quickening. The omens of life and death/ are twins: the threat of death, the promise of life;/ the threat of life, the promise of death.”

In “Transitions,” Kohler lightens the tone by indulging in some nimble language play, while remaining philosophical:

The first day of hunting season: I come to
the gray window and bring my gray landscape
to bear on this one. Bear is not what they're hunting
but buck. The heart is at bay, the heart astray in the
deepest woods, lost. I am going to the river, I'll
walk till the day is found again. That will
happen when my eyes permit it.

Later in the poem, she simply states, “I pick up my gun, my life.”

The poems in the collection's second section are centered around the appearance of a heron, dubbed Heraclitus, at the same river (but is it the same heron?) The Heraclitus poems are leaner and more impressionistic than the bulk of those in the collection, but with Kohler, it's often the meatier poems that pack more punch.

In those grouped together in the third section, “Writing the Wound,” the personal and political converge in moments of urgency. 
In a poem about the outbreak of war in Bosnia, Kohler muses: “We are only what we can bear to resent./ Does any of us star in anything other/ than the dark dream of the soul, its/ betrayal, its secret history of irrevocable loss...”

In a later poem she observes, “Rain and sleep and bombs. Yesterday we bombed Iraq./ Blotches of cloud over hills, to the north vanishing into/ fog, to the south, thickening to slate. A small gray-haired/ woman walks up the path as she does every morning./ Wind rises in the bare twigs of the mulberry...”
In “Heraclitus in Eastern Europe,” Kohler describes a grim sort of “human nature preserve”:

Our century's mapped in the forests,
rivers of Eastern Europe: rail lines stitched like
a wound leading to the Polish camps, mines
studding Bosnian wetlands, unmarked bones
beneath Balkan soil. It's our nature preserved
here: wars and their aftermath embedded in
the landscape, imploding at a touch, a step.

In “Borderlands,” she gazes unblinkingly at the full horror of war, the personal devastation that is forced on the uninvolved, a mother from a nonpolitical family who “never threw a stone.”

…the head of my son
was on one of the greenhouses...
four hundred meters away,
the head of my son. And I
kissed it,....I saw a hand
in one of the trees, and
I kissed the fingers.”

Kohler ends “Reading the Hebrew Scriptures” with “... None of our models of what life/ can be mirrors its intricate living machinery,/ answers its raw cry.”

The poems in the final section return to the realm of the personal. 
In “September Song,” the tone is somber: “... The garden's// become a scrim, a facade, something essential lost: we// stay in the garden but Eden walks out, leaving it....”

The collection takes its title from lines in “Maybe Sibelius”: “In the dream we are dancing,/ while making love, to improbable music, maybe/ Sibelius....”

The narrator has absentmindedly put words to this scrap of dream-music, the Beatles' “I've got to get you into my life.” She's unsure what the words signify. She bickers with her husband. He says she's obsessed with the garden.

The poem ends: “The rain/ is a sudden burst, deluge. You are what I have/ to get into my life. You are what I have. What/ if, hurtling through these storms, we forget to/ touch, to make the gesture that will heal us?”

In each of these poems, there is a chance of healing, of connection, a question that is raised like “the interrogative curve” that Heraclitus makes “in the scratched geometry of reeds...” Sometimes the chance is embraced.

These are poems that look deeply into the heart of matters and often emerge with not answers but solace in what can at least be shared.

“September Song” closes: “Pour me a small cup// of the wine we were drinking the night you first realized/ my laughter would be the last sound that warmed you,// the night I saw lights flicker at the end of my vision,/ and knew loving you was the mirage I'd subsist on.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Review: Jenna Le's Six Rivers

Six Rivers
by Jenna Le
NYQ Books, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

In Jenna Le's accomplished debut collection Six Rivers, the poet draws inspiration from the bodies of water she has known – from memory, from her mother's reminiscences, and from the collective imagination.

Exhibiting a rare natural ease with demanding forms ranging from the familiar sonnet and villanelle to the lesser known French triolet and Japanese haibun, Le imbues even her free verse poems with a certain formal sensibility. Nothing in her style is haphazard, yet the poems' narrative candor and lyric intensity keeps them fresh and vibrant and occasionally searing in their brutal honesty and self-deprecating humor.

The narrative trajectory of the collection can be read as a sort of bildungsroman told from the perspective of a second-generation American who achieved the proverbial dream her parents aspired to, for themselves and for her, at a young enough age to feel the limits of its promise. In "Ada Lovelace," we hear the tale of a young woman gifted in the pure science of mathematics who could not entirely elude the vestiges of poetry lurking in her genome, the legacy of an absent father once larger than life and subsequently repressed by a pact between mother and daughter that took the form of linear equations and geometric proofs.

The poem ends with lines addressed by a friend of her father's to young Ada on meeting her at a party: " 'Young lady,' he mused,/ "your mouth is exactly like Lord Byron's.' "

The collection begins beside the Perfume River of Vietnam, the narrator's ancestral home, where in the opening poem we learn that her mother once lived in a "brick house overrun by chickens."

The first river of the narrator's own childhood is the Upper Mississippi which flows through her native city of Minneapolis. In "Trick," she employs a simple but potent analogy to tell the familiar American story of an immigrant couple's attempt at assimilation, with its attendant longing and persistent alienation that is subtly transmitted to their American-born child: "America, you're/ the Halloween costume/ my immigrant father/ rented and never returned." The poem continues, "Dressed up in you,/ my father seduced/ my starry-eyed mother/ behind a tall hedge.// But now the costumier/ is demanding you back./ He calls our house daily,/ ringing the phone off its hook."

The next section, set on Boston's Charles River, begins with the poem "Remonstrance" that sets the tone for the sensual poems that follow with "Here in Massachusetts, brine scents the sky/ in a way that masks the small individual/ odor of your sex."

The section set on the Hudson River continues in this sensual mode. These lines from "Three Short Poems on a Common Theme" are pitch-perfect in the subtlety of their eroticism:

I couldn't sleep a wink all night: my brain agitated its solitude
like a washing machine/

filled with copies
of your immaculate white shirt."

Knockout lines are the exception here, though, as the collection isn't riddled with extractable gems that outshine their context. The punch in these largely narrative poems is in their skillful construction and their delicate unfolding. The surprises they yield are subtle but satisfying.

In the section entitled "The Aorta," Le draws on her medical background for inspiration, and in a poem about Claribel Cone, one of the first American women to attend medical school, she quotes Henri Matisse, of whom Ms. Cone was a patron: "Matisse described his art/ in this way once: 'It starts/ as flirtation, but it ends// as rape; it ravishes me."

Looking beneath the provocative phrasing, this quote seems to apply as well to the literary artist. Is Le thinking of the revision process, in which the roles of poem and poet, subject and object, are often reversed, and the poet in the end serves the poem?

In “Ada Lovelace,” the narrator speaks of her math tutor: “He seized up geometric concepts as though they were cold-blooded eels,/ sliced off their heads, and proceeded/ to dissect them with sexless fervor.”
In poems like “Art Lessons,” where “if there are no straightedges,” love, art and violence are again mingled: “... My dear// if I'm ever reprieved from hanging, we shall/ be lovers. But if I'm ever reprieved from love,// we shall be hangmen, and your silken voice/ the rope.”

The collection's final section, entitled "The River Styx," includes a "Hymn to Aphrodite," which closes with:

Teach me to stop trying to mix
shyness and love,
two substances that are as averse to mixing as
oil and tears.

In these bold yet delicately crafted poems, Le's unique voice and formal technical prowess present the substantial promise of an emerging poet with much to offer.