Suck on the Marrow, by Camille Dungy

Suck on the Marrow, by Camille Dungy

Suck on the Marrow

Suck on the Marrow
(88 pages/Red Hen Press 2010)

Suck on the Marrow’s subject, the lives of U.S. slaves between 1831-1850, is potentially fraught with poisonous emotion. Yet Camille Dungy approaches it with lyric, narrative poetry that channels the unwritten, unspoken, unexpressed daily lives– not of ciphers, caricatures, shorthand archetypes, or sentimental portraits– but of real women and men. The language is deeply her own, and at the same time collective on an experiential level:

she marked the failing of a sick buck when it died
then stowed her traveling dress beneath the carcass
in three days she’d made a stench skirt
to slow the hounds

Dungy disappears into the work, allowing the imagined past to speak, not in justification or condemnation, but lived as present time. Dungy’s art comes from not imposing an interpretation, but trusting that the reader comes laden already, so the past needs no intercessor, only a clear voice. Her language is direct, beautiful, internal in the way unselfconscious thoughts are, and as poet she never allows herself the conceit of “speaking for.”

Suck on the Marrow is ambitious, complex, unflinching, and ultimately welcoming, so that the ugliness, the pain and suffering that can’t be avoided in this history can actually be experienced fully by a reader who is not being called to war, but as witness to human experience.

Come on All You Ghosts, by Matthew Zapruder

Come on All You Ghosts, by Matthew Zapruder

Come on All You Ghosts

Come On All You Ghosts
(96 pages/Copper Canyon Press 2010)

Matthew Zapruder’s third collection of poetry, Come On All You Ghosts, fully engages humor, whimsy, and inventiveness in a game of chicken with the existential absurdity of trying to capture or fathom human emotion. These poems are like little viral infections of hope and expansiveness, doing work on the psyche akin to being taken out for mystical cocktails, shaken up inside a snow globe, and then left beside a backwoods road with only a dim recollection of how you got there, but a lingering sense that you had a really good time, and that you might never be the same.

It’s all here: depth, invention, the unexpected, the spinning of another version of this world, into which the reader is willingly abducted. Zapruder’s pursuit of insight is both acute and sprightly, turning away just before head-on collisions with meaning and pathos so we can turn and rubberneck as they go by. The fun is always leveraged by an underlying honesty that acknowledges the tension between the ludicrous, resilient life of the imagination and it’s effort to cope with the banal, the ironic, and the tragic.

Come on All You Ghosts is a kind of supernatural sci-fi melee set in real life, where alchemical language and expanding possibilities fling kernels of truth in all dimensions, and the robots don’t stand a chance:

Come to the edge
the edge beckoned softly. Take
this cup full of darkness and stay as long
as you want and maybe a little longer.

Come On All You Ghosts was the 2010 Northern California Independent Booksellers Association poetry book of the year.

Pleasure, by Brian Teare

Pleasure, by Brian Teare


Pleasure, by Brian Teare
(69 pps/Ahsahta Press, 2010)
ISBN: 9781934103166

In Pleasure, poet Brian Teare repossesses one of our oldest stories of identity: the fall from innocence. Pleasure contains an intertwined narrative: in one, a man recounts the experience of watching his loved one sicken and die at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. He is blindsided, as stigma and fear replace what he comes to recognize as a former state of grace.

In this fall, he comes to understand that Eden is the idea of a closed garden, a mythic place that is an ideal no one can ever return to. It is a memory one creates, perhaps helplessly, in defiance of loss:

… dead says Let there be a record,

dead says Let memory live a little

longer, dead says Do not forsake me,

dead says and says and this is

our common immunology…

The memory, the story, replaces what was once real:

…I author this Eden

to keep you near. Understand? Outside, the real garden

withers, too; the door warps and on the hottest days

won’t let me out of the lyric, which can’t keep anything

alive. I’ll tell you how I feel: fuck the real.

From this impossible place, a cold, flawless plot, Teare’s second narrative springs: it is the story of storytelling itself– how the mythic reality we create, our individual and collective Edens, become inextricable from the actual. The act of creating these stories, or Language, Teare asserts, could be seen as the snake in the garden, both the way we acknowledge our mortality, and the way we try to outwit it:

And the snake,

lumen skin

of alphabets, rubbing his stomach in the dust…

flickered and split

and new

black sinew out of the slough dead lettered vellum

legless crept and let fall wept

whisper, hiss, paperhush:

with the skin

language left behind I bind time to memorial…

Teare’s choice to reclaim the Eden story is particularly powerful, as it is a protected narrative, one so carefully guarded in some interpretations that to re-write it could be considered an act of blasphemy, a spiritual crime. This is illustrative of one of the many points Teare makes about nature of language, and of storytelling, and its intrinsic connection to our mortality: we are caught between the reality of experience, and the alternate, fleshless body we weave in story:

O Deus, I remember: Self and Other,

and between us every elegy, all the fallen

Language that couldn’t hold it’s own

and wouldn’t give it back, had no flesh

except how long dust keeps our alphabets…

Pleasure isn’t an intellectual exercise. Though its concepts are heady, the poetry isn’t sacrificed for the ideas: it is wrested from them. Pleasure is filled with music. It is powered by grief, but the kind that rises on a spiral of emotional force that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

The reward of Pleasure is Teare’s honesty, skill, and soft, insistent ferocity, acknowledging to the reader that we are living a shared, evolving manuscript:

…what was wordless, what passed as fact :

late summer outside the windows :

dim doors struggling shut; wind

an umbrella open against dull sun;

to keep them clean, all the small dogs in sweaters;

all theories of the real :

a ruin somehow intact…

Meanwhile: the spectacular disaster

of the actual.

Listen to Brian Teare read from Pleasure, here.

Romey’s Order, by Atsuro Riley

Romey’s Order, by Atsuro Riley

Romey's Order (Phoenix Poets)

Romey’s Order, by Atsuro Riley
(64 pages/University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Atsuro Riley’s rich, jangling, spry, feisty sound-paintings in Romey’s Order make reading his poetry like taking a synesthetic drug: sometimes it is hard to tell if you are tasting a sound, or feeling a color, or vividly remembering a place you’ve never visited.

This is the house (and jungle-strangled yard) I come from and carry.
The air our here is supper-singed (and bruise-tingeing) and close. From where I’m hid (a perfect Y-crotch perch of medicine-smelling sweet gum), I can belly-worry this (welted) branch and watch for swells (and coming squalls)
along our elbow curve of river…

Riley creates a way of seeing through sound: read his work aloud. It is meant to be read aloud. What comes out of your mouth will sound like a southern gothic symphony, and it will be a place you want to live.

In the poem, “Skillet” Riley stews in all the goth of Faulkner, but then boils the broth off. He claims his language and then spins and spins and spins with it, like a gypsy moth, or like Willy Wonka with the flavor of cast iron:

Was mine-drawn,
Was pig-iron;
Is a cast-heft
Chokedamp’s in it
Born blackdamp.
Ore-stope, lode-lamps,
Turnturbulating crubble-corf and -barrows.
Trace-tastes of (blast-furnace) harrow-smelt and pour.
Holds the heat hard. Rememories flavors: no warshing.
Carques and plaques itself in layers, like a pearl.

Finally, there is a book of poetry not “about” language, but singing language alive. Romey’s Order conjures: place, people, scent, humidity, humor, meaning. It is pure maple sorcery.