Michael Klein for Word for Word Poetry, August 20th, 2013
Featuring Red Hen Press
“Where do you think they’re going?” asked Paul Romero, our great Word for Word host, to the group gathered for the Red Hen Press reading on August 21st. He was referring to a small group of protesters (the Egyptian coup) walking East down 42nd Street. “To the UN!” came back the answer, collectively from the audience. And so we waited until they passed, and then Paul introduced the first reader of the night, the wonderful and enigmatic EvieShockley, reading from her gorgeous new book, The New Black.Ms. Shockley had just gotten off a plane that came in from Santa Fe and warned that she might appear discombobulated at times. She didn’t appear anything but in complete control of her poetry and its moving and dramatic delivery and actually reminded me of the poet Thylias Moss who also reads each poem with a different inflection which shows, in a way, how each poem gets made. It’s an original way of performing literary work and the results – through a wide array of subject matter including issues of post-racial America, Nashville, and an iconic figure for her, the poet Jayne Cortez – were terrific.
Like many of the poets that read on this particular evening, Shockley’s poems go in and out of history and seem in their great generosity to take in music, lyrics, popular culture at the same time. The first poem, “My Life as China” even took on a whole country: “I was imported…,” the poem begins and ends with: “I was translucent but not clear.” Shockley also likes to make lists, and give names, and give tribute. The work, as a whole, felt somewhere between the rhetorical poem and the slam poem and is never too far away from the political.
In the poem “Post-White” she opens with: “My Country tears of thee” and goes in and out of so many voicings – speaking voice and singing voice both – that she started to remind me of the kind of loose freestyle opening moments of Spike Lee’s brilliant “Do The Right Thing” which gives us a DJ’s patter and narration of a hot, hot summer day. Shockley’s poem also gave me the incredible sense of how culture and history – and the forgetting of history – inhabit the rhythm of the language we use to describe the world.
The next reader was Tess Taylor, whose terrific debut, “The Forage House” is about, in part, Thomas Jefferson’s America – his lineage to slavery and further back to a revelation (in the haunting poem “Eighteenth Century Remains”), of the physical country he inhabited: “a grassy burn that was a road”. And seeing into a strange and somewhat irresponsible legacy, some interesting facts about Jefferson are revealed: he died in a debt greater than the nation’s and he could not afford to free his slaves. Taylor writes: “Where the enslaved went after auction is partial – not written down.”
Taylor’s is a burning lyric conjured from American history and, like Shockley, black history (in an interview, Taylor said: “I think I am ever and ever more attuned to the fact that white people and black people are related to one another in this country. We are actually family, blood relations”). She also crosses – with some of the newer poems she read – personal history as well with a poem called “Feast” which lovingly recounts a meal in Grand Central’s Oyster Bar – a backdrop for a first date with her soon-to-be husband.
The poems are incredibly well wrought and reminded me, in some ways, of the poems by the late Deborah Digges – smart and always questioning. A kind of restless transcendence permeated much of what she read: “Where the enslaved went after auction // is partial— // not all written down” she writes in “Southampton County Will 1745.”
Peggy Shumaker, likes birds. A lot. And the first poem she gave us was memorized – something rarely seen in the contemporary poetry landscape and ironic, too, since at the beginning of poetry as an oral tradition, memorizing – not reading, necessarily – was how the poems got handed down.
What ensued after Shumaker’s first poem was a kind of exercise in light verse for naturalists. Shumaker lives in Alaska and writes of her life there and what she sees moving and flying or buzzing in the natural world. She also spoke of a trip she recently took to Costa Rica where she marveled at the sight of hummingbirds in seven different pools. Animal imagery runs deep in a Shumaker poem: “bright caution” she says. And, in another poem, looking closer at a macaw: “when she opens her mouth, daylight spreads.”
The poems were poised and gentle and I think considered a world that most people don’t see as closely as they might think they do. Shumaker reminds us that the beauty of that world is at the place where the creatures in it live and fly and breathe and sing.
I’m not sure if Ron Carlson is a real friend of poetry or one of its merry pranksters. (I think Billy Collins can be a merry prankster at times, just so I’m clear about prankster here). For instance, Carlson said on more than on occasion that the titles for his poems (prose poems, to be accurate and fair) have everything you need to know about the poems. So, a poem called “Room Service” is about a man who calls from a hotel phone and asks for an actual room; a poem called “The Bull” opens with: “when they lead me into the china shop, I didn’t mind”; and “The Chance” places the proverbial snowball in hell. You get the idea.
So, who accepts the challenge here? Is the bar on Carlson’s poetry and his aesthetic high enough or is Carlson pulling a fast one? I think a combination of the two, perhaps. While the poems are well made (funny and simplistic as they are) and, I suppose, are written beyond their triggering conceits, any surprise here becomes somewhat deflated by each poem’s hand being revealed so early. What finally is surprising – and this was evident in the few poems he read – is that there was something tender at the root of the game playing – a love for language, certainly, but also a love for seeing beyond what we always thought was just reality.