EYES
by Jack Foley

Poetry Hotel Press 263 pages,  $24.95

Reviewed by Christopher Bernard

 

[Note: In the opening paragraphs of this review, the interlineated quotations in italics are from “Villanelle” (for Ivan Argüelles), by Jack Foley, from EYES. This is an example of an interlineated text, sometimes called a “foley,” which is discussed later in this review.]

Hour: sunset; fire retreating. Hour

For many readers, EYES will be the most important introduction to the work of one of America’s most consistently interesting contemporary poets. That Jack Foley is not better known, and not yet placed where he clearly belongs, in the upper ranks of modern poets in the

Of thoughtfulness, sweet reverie.

English language, is, I believe, something of a scandal, even a disgrace to the literary establishment that historically has been so notorious for similar follies that “missing genius when it is right under their noses” has become the motto of many “publishers,” “critics,” and “academics.”

Let us talk about the stupidity of publishers. …

Given the futility of much of contemporary American culture, Foley’s work is likely to remain a minority taste until our cultural elites, craven before those great gods, popular

Let us talk of the darkening of thought’s tower

culture, the race to the bottom, and the hypercommercialization of the internet, at some point, out of sheer disgust, relearn self-respect they have forgotten and reassert the values that justify their existence, such as intellectual

Or of the endless reverence for money

courage, confrontation with shibboleths, questioning the authority of the local despot (whether an individual dictator or what has been called the “World Wide Mob”), and the slaying of sacred cattle.

At this hour: sunset; fire retreating …

When that happens, writers and thinkers like Foley may finally gain the place they deserve at the

Let us take the rotting floor!

human mind’s cold, clear heights.

 

Let us remember the reviews and their duplicity!

There are some benefits, of course, in the present state of things: while we’re waiting, we

Let us talk talk talk about

“happy few” will have him, like a banquet of all but excessively gourmet fare,

                                                         the STUPIDITIES

                                                                    all to ourselves.

                                                                                        of PUBLISHERS!

And as the main course in the banquet, we have this book: a brilliantly shaped selection Foley’s work from the last several decades, printed in a large, spacious format, with a lovely design by poet, designer and musician Clara Hsu, and graced with a vigorous and munificent introduction by Ivan Argüelles, another of the Bay Area’s poetic masters (and another candidate for wider recognition when “the sleepers finally awake”).

Jack Foley’s work is that of a strenuously active intellectual, which puts him immediately at a disadvantage, of course. America must be only country where the prejudice against intellectuality is so great that even many of the writers run from the aspersion as from a rabid dog.

But Foley’s is a passionate intellectuality, and his work is the expression of a person as deeply humane as he is deeply aware. He is a poet in the ecstatic tradition of Whitman as refracted through the lenses of Pound and Olson and varieties of poststructuralism (where the open-faced smile of the American Emersonian, that happy existentialist, meets the European Nietzschean’s burned grimace), with bits of vaudeville, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and tap dancing thrown in, all of this mixed and blended in a mind, unique but all-inviting, individual yet multitudinous, a spirit deep as day and as broad as history.

And I say this, and believe it to be no exaggeration, no decorative purple patch, because Foley’s work comes out of the generativity of language itself, a generativity that is, to all practical purposes, and conceivably also to theoretical ones, infinite. He has taken many of the crude prejudices and inane rules of “writing,” the sorts of thing that make writing classes and writers groups a curse and a torment to the spirit (“write what you know, show don’t tell, find your personal voice” and the like) that has turned too much of contemporary “writing” into a game between faux naifs and their shadows, and turned them – rules, naifs and shadows, all – on their heads. As he explains in many a lucid philosophical aside, in both prose and verse (he is not afraid of dumping into the mix of mashup rhetoric, truncated phrase and quotation unchained, a workable abstraction or an unambiguous assertion of his own when needed and helpful), Foley writes not from the center of personality in its more limited manifestations, but from the center of language, which is the archetype of the open system, a generator of meanings that, within the possible frameworks of grammatical rules and systems of phoneme and morpheme, signage, and the like, as well as the hermeneutical practices available to the human species, is essentially without limits. Infinity is thus immediately available to us (as available as it can be to an ultimately finite creature) through language, as it is through mathematics, music and the other arts, and the night sky above us.

At the center of language we also find, curiously enough and mirabile dictu, the great putative value of American culture, though it is a value paid more lip service than real service to. And that value is freedom: the absolute freedom of the mind to fashion its own meaning and meanings out of itself, to fashion its world, to crush the given into eternally fertile and life-giving fragments, annealing and reannealing them, over and over, ever and again, into the wilding and scattering shapes, frottage and fractalage, of the spirit’s – my, your, our – ever-changing fantasies and desires. Foley’s work takes place in the great theater of meaning that is language: an open-ended circus, an epic that has no conclusion, an endless conversation between an infinite number of speakers. In Foley’s work there are only pauses; there is no closure. His work contains, as it opens out to, the unexpressed and the not-yet expressed, literally, as at the “conclusion” of the poem “Fragments.”

There are few ideas headier than these – indeed, this may be why Foley makes the literary and academic establishment uneasy, strikes them dumb and off-balance; hoping that thereby he will go away, that by ignoring him he will cease to exist. They laugh at him, nervously. His few supporters in the literary establishment are sometimes ridiculed for taking him seriously: “He’s avant-garde, experimental, modernist, postmodernist – an extremist, an outlier, not mainstream, an eccentric, yikes (look at the picture, he’s wearing a keffiyeh!), a t(Errorist?)!” All that crazy modern stuff was supposed to have died with Derrida, after Bush bombed Baghdad and Americans became terrified of being kidnapped in the middle of the night, renditioned to a black site, tortured, disappeared, droned. We’ve gone back to story-telling, flattering, coddling. We want fairytales and porn, modest entertaining little poems, unpretentious, a Harry Potter, an E. L. James, a Billy Collins, a Dan Brown, to keep us bottle-fed, giggly, comfortably napping; the last thing we want is a shaman (how 60s, how quaint!). We don’t want to wake up. We might have to change something. We might have to change everything. We don’t want to hear, in English or German, du muss dein leben ändern. And we don’t want literature to have anything to do with reality.

One had thought that all such weak spirits had perished generations ago – we were beyond such schoolmasterish meatheads. But apparently not – the follies of that time are enjoying a comeback. The 20th century is going to have to be fought all over again – from socialism to modernism, from labor unions to the freedom of the heartsoulspiritmind, from revolt to rebellion, from revolution to liberation.

Foley’s work is a reminder of what is at stake.

Enough of ranting, deserved, alas, as it may be; now to a little description. But how does one describe the unique?

At the center of Foley’s literary project (to use an old, but always useful, existentialist term) are a few simple discoveries: that “literature is made up of letters” and that language “speaks us” as much as we speak it, which discoveries (along with the modern notion of the mind’s, and therefore the self’s, unconscious and multifarious drives, in which the ego is less like a crystallized monument to its own ambitions (often our preferred self-image) and more like an arena of energies in constant interaction, frozen only, achieved like a work of art, a symphony, a novel, a poem, at its conclusion) made the multi-voiced poem not only possible but, in a sense, inevitable.

This kind of poem, as practiced by Foley, often incorporates other texts (the poet sometimes rewriting them, bending then, shifting them, shaking them, making them other, making them “wrong”; chopping them up, sometimes rough, sometimes fine, like a chef cooking his dish out of meat and meanings; Foley, the echt modernist, is in this the echt postmodernist as well, just as in his casting about in analog hyperlinks he discovered the internet of culture before the clever fellows of ARPAnet ever dreamed of the internet of technology) to create not so much collages as (as he calls them) “collisions” of texts, from which meanings are presented, produced, invented, hinted at, questioned, splintered, shaved away, blown up, shattered, destroyed, renewed, and then spun through the whole process again and again, in a perpetuum mobile of created meaning, which is the heart of language in its absolute freedom, which is human freedom itself, fantasy, dream, imagination: our only way out of the inferno of reality, our Paradise rose holding universal love in its infinitely opening blossom. It is like an enactment of Maurice Blanchot’s “Infinite Conversation,” without the gray continental flavoring, its flirtation with nihilism and despair; on the contrary, it is exuberantly cheerful (“energy is eternal delight”) and alive.

The immediate engine of this process in Foley’s writing is the question, sharp, and often humorous too, in its Socratic sense of perpetual undercutting of received understanding. In Foley, this does not lead by way of reductive approximations to a unitary meaning, as so often seems to happen in Plato’s dialogues (though often less so than is commonly supposed – many of Socrates’ questions are ultimately left open and not definitively answered; even Socrates seems to be aware that he had opened a Pandora’s box indeed; that all answers are provisional and only questioning is eternal – maybe the world began with a play of questions: “Quark asked: Why?—

Why not? said Higgs” And off we were to the races) and the wretched forced march of western philosophy that followed.

Foley’s way of questioning, like Socrates’ and like the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s, open out into a plethora of possible understandings, undermining the received “wisdom,” the prejudices, the pre-judgments, that many of us bring to common concepts, and all of us to some of them. (What is a “personal voice”? What is “personal”? Isn’t it possible that nothing is personal, nothing individual, (“I am not an ‘individual,’” as Foley says at one point. “I am as divided as can be”), that we are all just made up of the scraps of other people, and those people are made up of the scraps of other people, and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, et ad absurdum, and that there is no ultimate origin? And “what do you mean by ‘voices’?” anyway)

In this sense, Foley is a philosophical poet par excellence, though he practices his philosophy outside the bankrupt discursive practices of western philosophy (philosophy is of course not “dead,” pace Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida, Badiou, Agamben e tutti quanti: philosophy will die on the day that people stop asking questions: whenever you ask a question, you are “doing philosophy”; whenever you ask it insistently, so much so that it becomes a matter of life and death – in this sense Christ, Moses and Socrates are one (the defining Judaic question is the vertiginous set of questions “What is the law that I must follow? And why?”; the defining Christian question is “Why hast thou forsaken me?” and we are still waiting for an answer) – then you are “doing western philosophy”: it is the west that made a fetish of the question; elsewhere, before and since, people who ask questions too persistently are killed) – he seems to have been impressed, and perhaps influenced, by Heidegger’s ideas about language and being, his approach to ultimate questions that are never, finally, answered, and then has taken those ideas to the logical next step. And (as he has said in other situations) he has been influenced by the ideas of Paul de Man on deconstruction, though not to undermine language; on the contrary, to liberate it in literature, and by so doing, purify it, reminding us of what we have been doing all along: that language is our responsibility, a tool, an instrument. And that its innocence is our obligation.

Foley’s multi-voiced poems led, naturally, to his “choral” poems, which are performed by two or more voices simultaneously: some of his choral poems incorporate work by other writers (Foley also practices a kind of interlinear poem, called a “foley,” in which he adds his own lines between the lines of another writer’s work, turning the usually monologic lyric into a dialogue; a poem becomes a heteroglossia; all literature becomes overtly what has always secretly been: a wealth of talmudic marginalia).

For many lovers of poetry, especially those who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is fortunate to enjoy the poet’s bracing, sane and warmly human presence, the choral poems are Foley’s best known work. In a way, that is something of a misfortune, because these readings can give Foley’s work a superficial resemblance to the free-associational rhodomontades of the Beats and their followers, and what one sometimes misses, in the pleasant but sometimes half-baked theatrical experience of the contemporary poetry reading (no lighting, no music, no costumes, no rehearsals), is a sense of the extraordinary care with which these texts have been constructed; this comes across on the written page far more clearly than in the comparative limitations of a staged reading. One misses the visual element too, the placing of words and phrases, “marks,” like skillfully made drawings, woodcuts, engravings, on the page. The ideal experience of these poems might well be to simultaneously follow them on the page, like a musical score, while hearing them being performed.

In EYES we can most easily enjoy the expansive exhilaration of Jack Foley’s literally inimitable work, where no two poems are alike, where in some cases they can never even end, where each work is crafted to a unique shape, where voice becomes voices (“What are ‘voices,’ anyway?”)—a gift to the culture, the country, the time, however long it takes us to catch up to it:

 

we are not—

            those masters of language

summon wor(l)ds

which

resonate

resound

so that experience is

alive with random fragments seeking others—

fragments summoning

not unity but constant interaction

                                               —“Fragments”         

I see this review has often wandered from its subject, and for that I apologize. But it is just one example of the stimulating power of Jack Foley’s work: it does not let you settle down even on itself for very long – it opens the mind to the mind’s many worlds, and encourages you to pursue thoughts, ideas, words, universes, out of the received sanctities, the limitations and limits, the presumed security and safety, of literature – out, into the open, as far as thought dares to go. It’s not the only way to write, of course, but it is certainly a valuable and hopeful one. It is, above all, liberating.

By the way, did I mention that Jack has a sense of humor, sometimes quite wicked? You don’t believe me? Read “The Marx Brothers Run the Country” and weep with laughter, my dears. (Our masters have been reading Jack Foley even if our critics haven’t.)

 

Christopher Bernard is a writer, poet, editor, journalist and Puschcart Prize nominee, living in San Francisco. His books include the widely acclaimed novel A Spy in the Ruins; a book of stories, In the American Night; and The Rose Shipwreck: Poems and Photographs. His work has appeared in many publications. He is co-editor of Caveat Lector  www.caveat-lector.org

Jack Foley has published 12 books of poetry, 5 books of criticism, and Visions and Affiliations, a “chronoencyclopedia” of California poetry from 1940 to 2005. He has appeared on Berkeley, California radio station KPFA since 1988. In 2010 Foley was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Berkeley Poetry Festival.


THIEVES IN THE FAMILY
by Maria Lisella

NYQ Books, 2014, 108 pages

Reviewed by Susan Lembo Balik

 

Maria Lisella’s Thieves in the Family begins with a celebratory poem, called “Since You Asked” about the people, the places, the loving maternal labor that is at the core of who she is.  Her imagery in this poem is exquisite.  “…I am from a…zebra-colored neighborhood where everyone/called my grandmother mamma, where cornrows were ev-/erywhere, but never in fashion. I am from tomato and basil/plants strung low with rainbow-colored yarns leaning side-/ways in damp summer soil.  I am from gnarled hands that/sew and tailor, iron and wash, cook and make all the places/I come from.”

An illuminating collection of poems, the reader is taken on a journey through Lisella’s past (she was born in Jamaica, Queens, and lived for 40 years in Astoria) to her present life as daughter, wife, stepmother in Long Island City. Immigrants make up the fabric of her family and the city life around her.  In “The Same” she writes of the tug-of-war ethnic groups play, not wanting to fully assimilate into the American culture.  While riding the subway one day, she encounters two Chinese Americans deep in conversation, oblivious to her desire for silence.  Their loudness, their defiant attitude, echoes in her grandmother’s voice that replays in her head. “…’I may shop in Costco/wear jeans, a North Face down jacket,/but you’ll never/make me a Westerner,/won’t drop/my Chinese voice/a single decibel/to suit you and your/Anglo-silence on subway cars…I hear my grandmother’s/staccato Calabrese vowels/clang against brick walls/in an alleyway in Queens with the same defiance,/the same pride,/the same sorrow to be in America.”

In “Father, Fix It, Please,” she remembers her father’s basement sanctuary, a place of comfort and solace, a place where broken things were made whole. “…Sometimes I lose your voice,/but remember the crease in your/starched white sleeve/as you repaired a pen, a frame,/a dining room chair.”

Her devotion to her father is further evident in “Before It Gets Tough,” a poem that is one of the most tender in the collection. “…Standing on my father’s feet/we waltzed in the kitchen/waiting for the dough/to rise—punch it down/two times, spin and dip/flour on our faces/yeast in our breaths…”

In “The Last Time,” Lisella is the loving daughter in denial.  Her stubborn willingness reassuring her father that he will return from the hospital; though, he is equally adamant he won’t. “…If I leave this house, I’m not coming back./And I said, No, you will be back./And he said, I don’t want to leave./ And I said, You will be back./He stood for the last time, pulled his socks on/wrapped his Indian chief bathrobe tight,/padded across the lit lawn, circled/by neighbors, knowing what he knew.”

A natural storyteller, Lisella keeps the reader in suspense during “Skippy,” a poem that is both intense and playful; the last line revealing her sense of humor.  “When he ducked into a store/for his contraband De Nobili cigars,/my grandfather tied Skippy’s/leash to the bumper of a truck/that vanished up Sutphin Boulevard/to Jamaica without noticing the dog./Skippy ran at top speed for miles/barking until he was released./His raw and bloody paws bandaged,/the vet did not leave much hope./When Nonno walked through the door,/Shkeepe stood up on all four paws/peed on the stainless steel table,/a sign of life if ever there was one.”

Lisella is unflinchingly honest; bravely offering up this perspective in “The Call.”  “…I watch from the perimeter,/Stepmother/not blood, not natural./Despair respects no borders/legal, illegal./You love what/you touch, love more/what touches you.” 

Later, in “The Boys,” Lisella is at the center, able to soften the rough edges of a family gathering through food and photos, a universal language she learned from her upbringing in Queens.  “The last time the boys visited/…One just out of jail,/the other from a mental hospital./One quoted the Koran,/the other, the Bible and Malcolm X./After ziti, cacciatore,/salad and coffee, I took/old photo albums out/to remind them who they were,/who they are.”

Strung together purposefully, sparingly, her poems are as compact as her body—a subject she paints boldly in “Lethal.” “…Short meant/I was first in line, in the front row./I learned not to waste motion,/stayed close to the core,/my center of gravity./To balance en pointe,/spin double pirouettes,/coil on occasion,/lethal, small and ready to spring.”

Thieves in the Family showcases Lisella’s energy, her narrative, her imagery, her musicality; all of it resonating from her core outward through this powerful, memorable body of work.

 

Maria Lisella's Pushcart Poetry Prize-nominated work appears in Amore on Hope Street (Finishing Line Press) and Two Naked Feet (Poets Wear Prada). Her collection, Thieves in the Family was published by NYQ Books in 2014. She co-curates the Italian American Writers Association readings.

Susan Lembo Balik is Associate Director of Cultural Affairs at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ. She has published a book of poetry, Sinatra, the Jeeperettes and me (Garden Oak Press, 2014), and her poems have appeared in Lips, Paddlefish, and Tiferet.


 

REALLY HAPPY
by Jim Reese

NYQ Books, 2014,  80 pages

Reviewed by Kevin Carey

Really Happy does what a good poetry collection should do, it opens the door to a poet’s life.  Reese reveals the many sides of himself with these poems, the teacher, the parent, the friend, a man involved in a life of service and reflection.  Once the door to this life is open, Reese leaves us wandering around inside it by painting clear pictures of his South Dakota home and honest portraits of the people who live there, and we are left with much to consider about what it means to be human.
 
I see some of you bandaged at the wrist,
Forearm, belly, throat…
If we treat men like animals they’ll eventually
Start to chew their way out—
                                (“New Folsom Prison Blues” 57)

The poems in Really Happy are sometimes funny (“Feels So Good to Be So Fat” 16), (“I Know Goldfish” 25), others have a strong sense of place (“Shirley Temple and a 7-10 Split” 24) and some are driven by a dialog (“The Pulse of San Quentin” 33). Some evoke a hidden sense of despair or regret, and some have an acceptance that reflects the hardscrabble landscape and those who have to endure it—  I Can Muck Thirty Stalls Before Breakfast! What can you do? / Cowboys for Christ / My Other Tractor is My Neighbors (“South Dakota Bumper Stickers—Redux “ 30 ).
Reese has an authentic, conversational style in his work. He often acts like a local guide, removed enough to be an observer but always within reach of what he’s writing about, always a living, breathing participant. This personal style creates a sense of verisimilitude that draws us in and invites us along for the ride as if we were following a first person character in a story.

But shit, man,
Maybe I have it all wrong,
I see the Chevys and Fords, hear the engines call,
The glass-pack’s throaty cough.      
                (“Still and Silent as Stone” 54)

Reese has the guts to tell us the truth in these transformative poems. They reflect his life as a poet, as a teacher in a prison, as a college professor. They are personal poems about trying to make a difference and the struggles, both internal and external, that sometimes make it feel impossible.  He is honest about these obstacles, the ones we all face— our own mistakes, the ingrained systems that stack the deck against us, the failures we contribute to. He observes all this with an acceptance of his role in it, and with a voice that can be funny and tragic in the same breath, evident here in a poem about trying to get his daughter to eat her vegetables.

                I get up from the table,
                lower my head and put my hands behind my back.
                I pretend to walk in shackles.
                They cuff you up, and you’ll have to eat your vegetables without
                any silverware. …

                Paige begins to cry.
                Her sister, Willow. Who is seven-and-a-half, says
                That’s not funny, Dad.
            
                Not only have I reinforced their fear of prison.
                I have ruined vegetable medley.
                Being a father isn’t easy.
                Being funny isn’t either.

                (“Medley” 56)

There is much to admire in Reese’s poetry. It’s heartbreaking, it’s funny, it’s accessible and important, but I think more than anything it’s the voice that is the ultimate sell. Often Reese speaks to us with internal italicized comments, reaffirming and filling in the blanks of his world with colloquial seasoning.  Get off your ass up off the couch and get a job! We’re broke and I’m pregnant (“Unlimited Absolutes” 48), Twenty six dollars for about ninety russets— / are in my dryer. It’s 50 degrees in there (Potatoes in the Dryer 49), Hell this is a caste system they trying to run in this country  (“Down” 65).  
                
With this voice, and with the fearless approach he takes with his subjects, Reese is able to
capture a place that is both familiar and strange, hopeful and haunting. He does it with remarkable precision and candor. He is a sure-handed guide who knows his people, their disappointments, their will to push through, and he handles their hopes and dreams deftly, with a style that is guaranteed to entertain and challenge any reader of contemporary poetry.

 

Kevin Carey teaches at English Department at Salem State University and Endicott College. He has a chapbook of fiction "The Beach People," from Red Bird Chapbooks (2014) and a 2012 book of poetry “The One Fifteen to Penn Station,” from Cavankerry Press, N.J. A new collection of poems, “Jesus Was a Homeboy,” is forthcoming (CK Press). kevincareywriter.com


Jim Reese is an Associate Professor of English; Director of the Great Plains Writers' Tour at Mount Marty College in Yankton, South Dakota; and Editor-in-Chief of PADDLEFISH. Reese's poetry and prose have been widely published, most recently in New York Quarterly. His book ghost on 3rd was a Finalist for the 2010 Milt Kessler Poetry Award.


Sinatra, The Jeeperettes & me
by Susan Lembo Balik

Garden Oak Press, 2014, 95 pages

Reviewed by Penny Perry

In her debut collection, Sinatra, The Jeeperettes & me, Susan Lembo Balik sees and creates poetry in small everyday events -- a walk with her family along the same route the poet took to the same school she once attended becomes a new memory, a mouse observed dining on dog food in a midnight kitchen creates a moral moment, the sound of rain on a tin roof leads to meditation.  

These linked poems form a memoir that spans several eras:  The Great Depression, the Big Band swing years, World War II, the 1950s to the present. The book’s title refers to the time her parents were courting in the Italian section of Paterson, NJ -- Riverside. They “took busses to the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs/and danced to Frank Sinatra.” In high school, her mother “belonged to a secret/club called the Jeeperettes, with her friends/Izzy, Viola and Margie.”

Her father worked three jobs, her glamorous mother washed dishes in high heels. Their example leads the Hawthorne, New Jersey girl to love and marriage with an Iowa farm boy and the dedication to care for her own two children the same way her parents cared for her.

Some of the most haunting poems deal with her mother. In one heartbreaking moment, Balik recalls her mother at her mahogany dresser, “fingering/the grain of wood, as deep and dark/as the emotion in the room. You linger,/afraid you may never see this piece/of furniture again." In mourning, she slips on her mother’s black gloves, “the scalloped/edges ending half way up my forearms . . . In this moment/I feel like Greta Garbo, like Elizabeth Taylor./ In this moment,/I feel like you.” In "Channeling" she writes: "I feel her running barefoot/through my blood/a river of crushed grapes/beneath stained feet.” The loss remains forever raw, the new questions can receive no wise answers.

Balik’s father is her hero. A stoic model of determination and stamina, as a teenager, he lived in a caddy shack at a golf course in a neighboring town and walked to school in Paterson each day. As a husband and father juggling three jobs, he had only the dinner hour to share with his family. At 89, he was still working.  In "My Father the Limo Driver," he takes a bad spill, but refuses to let that stop him:  “the customer/half asleep didn’t notice the blood splattered/on the front of my dad’s white golf shirt or the red tissues/wadded up on the passenger’s seat.”

She longs for her father to express his love for her. In "Love Poem to My Father," she finds him on his old couch, “in your grey sweat pants and V-neck cashmere sweater, /the one mom bought for you. I look at you and can see love/in your eyes -- or is that just what I want to see...”  A wife and mother in her own right, she is still “Daddy’s girl.”

She lives in the same house she grew up in, but the world around her has changed. As a teen, she practiced twirling fiery batons with her friends, back “when no one seemed concerned that a handful/of teenage girls played with fire on the street.”  

Concrete details draw the reader into a tenderly scrutinized life. A trellis hiding the house next door separates neighbors. A model wears a bloody fox fur to an animal rights rally. Small moments -- the return of a lost dog, a goodbye to a scavenger cat, a storm that worries the big white house on the corner -- define mysteries of the heart.

Balik values the people, plants and animals (stray cats, roosters, horses) she shares the planet with. An activist, she speaks for black bears, minks, rabbits, abused circus elephants -- any species that can’t speak for itself.

On those days when I'm a little weary and tired of routine, I'll treat myself to a few more moments with Sinatra, The Jeeperettes & me. Then I'll put on my parka if it's winter or my broad-brimmed hat if it's summer and walk my neighborhood, taking my cue from this gifted young poet to see my own world fresh and new.  

 

Penny Perry is a three time Pushcart nominee, her first collection of poems, “Santa Monica Disposal and Salvage” was published by Garden Oak Press in 2012. Her poems have most recently appeared in Lilith, Earth’s Daughters, the San Diego Poetry Annual and the Patterson Literary Review.

Susan Lembo Balik is Associate Director of Cultural Affairs at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ. Her first book of poetry,  Sinatra, the Jeeperettes and me was published by Garden Oak Press in 2014. Her poems have appeared in Lips, Paddlefish, and Tiferet.


TEN THOUSAND WAVES
by Wang Ping

Wings Press, 2014, 112 pages

Reviewed by David Cope

Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves (2014) is an extraordinary volume of poems.  Ranging across China, the poet presents us with a portrait of a great nation in transition, featuring snap- shot narratives of familial dislocation, corporate oppression, class and ethnic conflict, environ- mental disasters and poverty amid promised wealth.  Despite the clearly devastating critique, this book is also a love letter for her nation, as in the title poem, which laments the deaths of twenty-one Chinese immigrants who were drowned by an incoming tide while harvesting clams on the Atlantic coast of England:  “Who can fill the hollow hearts / in the bottomless North Wales sea?”  One of the victims sums up the problem of choices:  “Tossed on the communist road / We chose capitalism through great perils /All we want is a life like others . . . No moon shining on our path / No exit from the wrath of the North Wales Sea.” 

The following poem, “The Great Summons,” brings the depth of Wang Ping’s love for her homeland as a coda to the loss.  Quoting the famed early poet Qu Yuan’s “Zhao Hun”—Great Summons—in the refrain “Hun xi gui lai! wu yuan you xi!” (Please return.  Please do not wander too far away), the author reinforces that love by quoting this classic Chinese poet from the distant past.  As with the characters in Wang Ping’s book, Qu Yuan (343-278 BCE) focuses in his most famous poem “Li Sao” on:

love of one's country and the sadness of separation. It touches upon various historical themes intermingled with legends and myths, and depicts, directly or indirectly, the social conditions of that time and the complex destinies of the city states of ancient China. The conflict between the individual and the ruling group is repeatedly described, while at the same time the poet affirms his determination to fight for justice. This passion-
ate desire to save his country, and this love for the people, account for the poem's splendour and immortality.  (Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang)

Though the tone and approaches of “Li Sao” and Ten Thousand Waves are different, these themes are all central to Wang Ping’s book as well, and in harkening back to this legendary poet, she summons the spirit of loss and exile—and of the need for familial love and purity of heart—as a struggle central to the heart.  The motif of loss through drowning also surfaces in “Plunged into the Sea” and “In Search of Chinese Poets,” where the slang term “plunged into the sea” implies abandoning one’s profession by turning to the risks of commercial business.  The dilemma of love and loss is given its most intense contemporary treatment in “The Last Son of China,” a prose-poem narrative exploring the case of artist Ai Weiwei, famous for his outspoken

criticism of the government, and secretly detained from April 3-June 22, 2011:
and you speak. . . threatened. . . under house arrest. . . and you speak. . . inviting the guards
into your studio for a cup of tea. . . and you speak. . . I’m used to pain. . . you say. . . and
I’m ready to die or to disappear. . . I’m the last son. . . you say. . . to your tormentor’s eyes. . .
I’m here for you. . . so your babies will never again have to drink milk laced with poison. . .
so your daughter will never wonder when the classroom ceiling will drop on her. . . so
your parents will have shelter medicine food.

Central to Ten Thousand Waves is the theme of familial dislocation, usually with overtones of class or ethnic conflict or environmental degradation.  “A Hakka Man Farms Rare Earth in South China” is a prime example.  Hakka, as “guests,” came to south China from Mongolia almost a millennium before, and thus their dislocation is both historical and a current concern:  “our sweat fertilized the fields, children, ancestors’ graves,” yet this land is now valuable to the larger world for the “rare earth” it contains.  They must dig “this red dirt speckled with blue and yellow” so that the world may have “I-pods, / Plasma TVs, wind turbines, guided missiles— / things that make the world / cleaner and more beautiful, as they say.”  For the Hakka, however, it is a death sentence, both for themselves and for the land.  They themselves are being poisoned by “Dysprosium, Neodymium, Promethium,” and “tomorrow is gone, like our village.” The grieving Hakka husband ends by noting that “we, children of / Genghis Khan, return every night in our dream, / which is gone, too, they say.  Mongolia, / our origin, now a rare earth pit for the world.” 

Dislocated workers abound in this book, ranging from the “Dust Angels” who “bend over screeching wheels / making trinkets for the U.S.A” to the multiple ironies in “Luosang’s Dream” or “Paradise.” In some of these poems, the multiple dislocations and struggle to survive in a cutthroat economy are only balanced for their narrators by hopes that their children will escape the trap they have found themselves in; this is the case in “She Shines Shoes in the Metal City of Yongkang,” “The Snail Catcher,” “The Newlyweds’ Bedroom:  A Migrant Story, Chongming, Shanghai,” and “Plunged into the Sea,” yet in many cases “most . . . are from the countryside.  Their kids don’t know their fathers, and their wives work in other cities as nannies, maids, masseuses, street walkers. . . “

Some poems highlight internal conflicts associated with one’s position in the new eco-nomy; two of the most poignant are “Bargain” and “All Roads to Lhasa.”  In “Bargain,” the Americanized narrator, returning to China as a tourist, finds a pair of handmade shoes, “the craft my grandma tried to pass on / before I left home for good.”  Using a bargaining trick learned from her American partner, she tries to talk the shoemaker down to a minimum, and the negotiations get tense when she says “you peasants are getting greedier day by day.”  The seller retorts:  “do you know how many nights I stayed up / to stitch the soles?  Do you see / my fingers?  Do you see my eyes?  See / my little brother waiting for a bowl / of noodles my shoes could buy?  / His hunger does not lie. /  My callouses do not lie.” The tourist narrator walks away, knowing the seller will follow her and give her a lower price, and after her “victory,” she only realizes the cruelty of the bargain when, home in America, she finds the shoes in her trunk:  “red and loud like thunderclaps:  ‘You saved a dime, fool, but lost your soul.’” 

“All Roads to Lhasa” presents a narrator who is half-aware that he’s living a lie, but too caught in his own “success” to face it directly.  Despite the glacial melt that is turning the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau into a desert, the narrator says, “don’t ask why.  I’m just a Tibetan Buddhist sutra translator.  I know nothing about global warming,” yet following the claims of Japanese scientists, he states categorically that such climate changes have nothing to do with human activities, claiming that “we’re cleaning up the lakes, planting trees around Beijing, monitoring the air so we know when to go out and when to stay home.”  Having said this, he recalls his own childhood; his family lived along the river, an area rich in fish and seafood, swimming every day.  Now, however, “in only twenty years, my hometown has become one of the richest towns in China, a hub of factories and super highways.  But the river in front of my house stinks with chemicals.  The water is thick with red, green, and yellow.  Nothing grows, not even weeds.”  This rudimentary awareness of the environmental degradation around him is accented by the fact that, despite the government’s efforts at planting trees on the plateau, he knows that trees have never grown there:  “too high, too cold, too little oxygen.” He also sees clearly that “the Tibetan herbs, 95% of them are poison”  and notes “the algae explosion on Lake Tai that left 2.3 million people in my hometown without drinking water,” though he won’t say why.  He too is a victim:  despite his current role as “Director of Cultural Studies of China’s Northwest Region” with a free apartment, chauffeur, funds for research, friends and women, his wife keeps their asthmatic son in Minnesota “and I pine away in Beijing, a kite without a string.” 

These are only a few of the portraits that present a picture of a great nation in transition, the prices ordinary people pay when their government adopts a cutthroat economy, when the powers that be neglect their traditional culture and the integrity of the beautiful land that they were given.  Wang Ping’s book is a sorrowful love letter for her homeland, but it also raises questions about the worldwide chaos of degraded environments, the commodification of relationships and the spiritual and economic impoverishment of ordinary people.  In the end, Qu Yuan’s refrain—“Hun xi gui lai! wu yuan you xi!” (Please return.  Please do not wander too far away)—is the keynote for the entire volume, calling to contemporary folk across centuries to return to the lost roots, the familial home, the lost communities abandoned for an illusion.

 

David Cope is a Michigan poet who has published six books of poetry and has edited and published Big Scream, which Allen Ginsberg once called his “favorite small press magazine,” for 41 years.  His poem “The Return” was published in The Great Falls: An Anthology of Poems about Paterson, New Jersey, ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan.

 

Wang Ping published 11 books of poetry and prose including American Visa, Foreign Devil, Of Flesh and Spirit, New Generation, Aching for Beauty, The Magic Whip, The Last Communist Virgin, 10,000 Waves. She’s recipient of NEA, Bush, Lannan and McKnight Fellowships. She’s the founder and director of Kinship of Rivers project.  


The Divine Kiss: An Exhibit of Paintings and Poems in Honor of David Campagna
by Carolyn Mary Kleefeld

Cross-Cultural Communications, 2014, Paperback: 48 pages

Review by Mary Gregory

 

The heart speaks in many languages.  Carolyn Mary Kleefeld has put two of them—poetry and art—to great effect in her recent collection of paintings and poems, The Divine Kiss.  

The thin volume is a thing of beauty, elegantly produced by The Seventh Quarry and Cross-Cultural Communications, with gold vellum-like front and back pages and vivid full page reproductions.  The Divine Kiss records exhibitions of the same name at the Karpeles Museums in Santa Barbara, California, and Shreveport, Louisiana, where the poet/painter's work was recently displayed.  

The paintings, with their evocative, mystical subjects and rich colors are reproduced beautifully, and the accompanying poems give melodic voice to the imagery.  

Kleefeld's paintings blend realism, imagination, fantasy, and abstraction, but mostly speak of the stirrings of a striving and ever-seeking heart.  They are, like her poems, deeply spiritual and moving.  Paintings like Divine Kiss, Ghost Lover, and Eros and Aphrodite recall the work of many masters.  One feels the romanticism of Klimt, the whimsy of Chagall, the sensuality of Matisse, the abstraction of Picasso, and even hints of the monumentality and symbolism of totems or cave paintings.  It's a heady combination, and hard to pull off, but Kleefeld does it with great success.  Yet, despite Kleefeld's obviously deep connection to artists of the past, in all the works, it is her own spirit that comes through.  

Seeking to express a "oneness with all things" by touching back to the purest and innermost self, Kleefeld's paintings use bold brushstrokes, strong, pure colors and archetypal imagery to evoke universal themes.  Dancers dance, fantastic and symbolic creatures appear, but more than anything else, lovers join and embrace.  The paintings, after all, are meant to accompany love poems.

Kleefeld's poems speak of love from an open and tender heart.  She writes, in "That Sliver of Nothingness," of "a richness that brightens / my waning heart."  Yet, it does not seem the feelings expressed in this collection come from a woman with a waning heart.  In fact, in a later poem, "A Whole New Sun," she writes

"Continually in re-invention,
we keep discovering one another
in the unfolding moments."  

And, these are, indeed, poems of unfolding, of opening.  They are deeply felt and fearlessly expressed.

Both the poems and the paintings in Carolyn Mary Kleefeld's The Divine Kiss are passionate, joyful, exuberant, unapologetic declarations of joy.  They voice an eternal energy in a new way, and truly touch and warm the heart.
 

Mary Gregory is a novelist, arts writer, art critic and historian.  She writes a monthly column for the art section of Long Island Pulse, one of the largest regional magazines in the United States, and her reviews appear regularly the City Arts section of Our Town/NY Press, and other publications.

Carolyn Mary Kleefeld is an award-winning poet and artist, the author of 19 books, many of which have been used as inspirational texts in universities and healing centers worldwide and translated into Braille by the Library of Congress. Her writings have also been translated into Bengali, Bulgarian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Romanian, and Sicilian. Her art has been featured in galleries and museums internationally.