Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone by Rachel Trousdale

Reviewed by Grant Tarbard –

Rachel Trousdale is an assistant professor of English at Framingham State University, the author of Nabokov, Rushdie, and the Transnational Imagination, and working on a project on humour in modern poetry (I’m reminded of Frank Zappa’s album Does Humour Belong in Music). Now she offers us this wonderfully titled pamphlet Antiphonal Fugue For Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone, published by Finishing Line Press.

It opens with the eponymous poem scattered about the page, which the Marx Brothers no doubt would approve of, with brass section woven into the ink. The poem is about those wordplay geniuses, dab hands at slapstick schtick, and interwoven is the word as The Marx Brothers took turns at being Auguste, pantomime, character and tramp clowns:

In they saunter
leap from table to table
like chamois, like apes
(Pom, pom, pom)

Trousdale’s love of the Marx Brothers is clearly evident,

Flinging old oranges at the
head of dignity

but at the heart of this poem is the poet’s grandfather and lessons in strength: “This / is what my grandfather / taught me: / greatness / (Paarp!) / can and should be / preposterous / gleefully giddy”. This is a wonderful sentiment, somewhat concealed beneath its mask of Marx.

‘Five Paragraph Essay on the Body-Mind Problem’ is, at first glance, a stream of consciousness poem, yet it’s honed, taut and edited. It’s about the DNA of love. And bananas.

Humans share twenty-five percent of their DNA with bananas. Given two humans, fallen onto the coat-sleeve of a Brobdingnagian, would it be possible to tell us apart? To tell us from bananas? The yellow bananas found in American supermarkets are generally interchangeable.

At times the poem seems uninterested in itself, but pulls itself together through humour and in differential aspects of love tracked through mind and body.

‘The Alien Observer Gets Worried’ is a meditation on mortality. The alien (the poet is alien, an observer, a watcher of the human animal) is apprehensive about the strange behaviour of the subject:

one of the animals placed in its mouth
a pellet of red ochre, chewed, then looked up
and blew onto the interior wall of a cave
a thin red film

I’m drawn to this poem, but want something more out of the poet: the imagery takes it easy, plays it safe. The poem calls for embellishment, euphuistic imagery; it’s as if the poet is gnawing at a bone and can’t quite reach the marrow in the centre.

My favourite poem is ‘Isabel and Jimenez’ in which Trousdale takes a journey to Spain,

A passing bus, a sunshade overhead
to make the passing pleasant
and imagines Isabella I of Castile, haunted, Isabel
and Ferdinand prayed here, before the scene
of the Nativity,

It’s simply written in six sonnets but you can feel the graft behind each word, as in the third sonnet ‘Outside the Confessional’:

Imagine her: she turns to her confessor
and answers chastisement with argument

Isabella had an interesting life, historically speaking. She ordered the forceable conversion of Jewish and Muslim subjects in the Spanish Inquisition. She also financed and supported Columbus’s 1492 voyage, so hers is a heritage of subjugation which Trousdale passes by, as Isabella did, with a few lines:

At issue is the status of the Jews.
But weigh the losses-merchants and advisors
to the crown, their wealth and skill and industry;
or absolution, union, purity?

‘In the Mirror’, sonnet 4 in Isabel and Jimenez, is my personal favourite, in which the poet describes a statue of Isabella:

She saw what we see in a statue of her,
though its six centuries old and made of wood,
and she was flesh and only forty-one:
pink cheeks; dark hair; dark eyes; downcast with thought
instead of modesty, looking past the hands
steepled in prayer

I don’t want to disparage Trousdale’s book, although I had hopes for the content matching the rebelliousness of the title. It’s not a wholly satisfying read, but the merits lift this up on balloons just above average: read it, do.

Capacious Earth by Lois Grunwald

Reviewed by Emma Lee

Capacious Earth merges everyday life with the natural world, without nostalgia, and without the sense that one is preferable to the other. Nature encroaches on the urban, and the poet wants her readers to notice and respect it. The title poem is set at Rush Creek, popular with rock climbers, some of whom have lost their lives making the climb. The narrator watches a father and nineteen-year-old son on a camping and climbing trip:

The boy pricks his finger to check for rising glucose
and then pushes a needle into his stomach. Later, he swings up
a vertical rock and climbs along a narrow ledge
as if there are no shadows, no falls, ever. A hawk is heard
before it’s seen, a shriek of the dazed or a sharp intake of breath
that moves me along one step, then another,
over that startling gulf.

The rhythms are that of natural speech, deliberately uneven. The boy progresses smoothly in long lines whilst the narrator stutters on shorter lines, driven not by confidence, but wariness. The boy is almost fearless, whereas the narrator is aware of the danger of falling, and of previous fatalities.

In the office there’s a budding relationship, which could become romance, explored through more than one poem. In “Lake Sunrise”, when a colleague interrupts discussion of a hiking trip:

You bend your head and wish him away. Alone now,
your cheek near mine when I offer a map
of the far-off state in which you’ll travel
tonight after a Nevada car camp and waves
of Utah cliffs. Our arms then hands touch
near the 40th parallel which I’ll see
as photos later in your office with October darkness
in the window.

“After the Embrace” takes place on a trip with colleagues; the narrator and “you” are the last people to leave.

My marriage seems over.
I’m wearing a T-shirt with a blue sky and a hawk
in the morning when you sit next ot me. Plastic salt and pepper
shakers face off on the Formica. Your eyes on mine.
We have to leave this place, I don’t know why.

These are quiet poems that nonetheless capture depths of human experience, against a natural background. Landscape becomes as much of a character in these poems as the human figures. Lois Grunwald’s poems are sharply observant, respectful and carefully crafted.

The end of #pamphletparty: a round-up of the review-a-thon

Claire Trévien

This December I reviewed one poetry pamphlet a day – a challenge made trickier by the fact that it coincided with many holidays… It was all done to crowdfund for our next Saboteur Awards (you can contribute here). I gave myself the additional challenge to review one pamphlet per press, so that readers joining me for the ride might get a glimpse at the diversity of publishing out there.

There were perks to the challenge – having avoided reviewing for most of the year, going through an intense reading period felt wonderful. I remembered what’s great about the process: that pamphlets I dismissed on first flicking through, grew to be among my favourites by the end of the month.

With this in mind, here are a few ‘awards’ to celebrate the end of the process

Top 5 favourite pamphlets:

  1. Warsan Shire, Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth (Flipped Eye)
  2. Cynthia Marie Hoffman, Her Human Costume (Gold Line Press)
  3. Jaswinder Bolina, The Tallest Building in America (Floating Wolf Quarterly)
  4. Lynn Pedersen, Tiktaalik, Adieu (Finishing Line Press)
  5. Josephine Corcoran, The Misplaced House (Tall Lighthouse)

Top 5 most read reviews: 

  1. Reuben Woolley, dying notes (erbacce press)
  2. Warsan Shire, Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth (Flipped Eye)
  3. Inua Ellams, The Wire-Headed Heathen (Akashic Books)
  4. Jaswinder Bolina, The Tallest Building in America (Floating Wolf Quarterly)
  5. Josephine Corcoran, The Misplaced House (Tall Lighthouse)

Top 5 most interesting uses of the pamphlet form:

  1. Sarah Hymas, A Dock is Not a Solid Thing
  2. Corina Copp, Pro Magenta / Be Met (Ugly Duckling Press)
  3. Lucy Furlong, Over the fields
  4. Adrian Sobol, Selfies with the Moon
  5. Kristy Bowen, Shipwrecks of Lake Michigan (dancing girl press)

Top 5 don’t judge a pamphlet by its cover and/or title, because you’ll like it a whole lot more than you expected:

  1. Sophie Reynolds, Theatreland (Indigo Dreams Publishing)
  2. Reuben Woolley, dying notes (erbacce press)
  3. Helen Evans, Only by Flying (Happenstance Press)
  4. Jake Campbell, The Coast Will Wait Behind You (Art Editions North)
  5. Neil Elder, Codes of Conduct (Cinnamon Press)

Special mentions:

Tiktaalik, Adieu by Lynn Pedersen, Review #3

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien

Pedersen_Lynn_COV

The trouble with research-based poetry is that, when the subject matter is sufficiently fascinating, there can be a laziness to the end result. The poet will let the music of the terminology speak for itself without moulding it to be more than this. This can work sometimes, but it’s truly exciting to see someone with a genuine interest in scientific research take source material and create intriguing and beautiful short lyrics from them.

This is a chapbook that uses science, not as a crutch but as a system. Pedersen’s poems are scientific in the way that they query and correct themselves, she is a writer who’s aware that science is a process of evolution, of testing and re-testing, and this comes through.

Take for instance ‘Dickinsonia’, the starting point is a fossil of a multicellular organism, ‘There’s something about soft tissues / that begs empathy & forgiveness’. This might sound like dry subject matter, and in different hands you could imagine a poem that simply lists the strange characteristics of this creature. Instead, Pedersen’s poem embraces our knowledge gap fully:

no language & no language to describe it

but simile: Worm? Sponge? Plant or animal?
It is like fill-in-the-blank because we can’t say exactly.1

The smallest the size of an infant’s outstretched hand,
the largest that of a man’s body.

I admire the way that Pedersen balances giving us relatable hooks while taking us on a what if journey, a journey I’ll all too happily take.

Extinction is a theme throughout this book, as is the figure of Darwin and his grief for his daughter Annie, who died while he was on board the Beagle. Then there are poems ‘The Mier Expedition: Drawing of the Black Bean by Frederic Remington (1896)’, in which 176 Texan prisoners drew 159 white beans and 17 black beans, those who drew black beans were shot. This might seem like a deviation from the overarching theme, but this too becomes an enquiry on the illusion of choice, ‘how each outcome would taste if / rolled on the tongue?’

At the same time, this kind of musing doesn’t take away from the horror of the situation. Again, Pedersen could have amped the pathos, but she stays away:

No shackles, but it’s the math
one can’t escape: the problem of
how to differentiate color without sight—
perhaps the black beans slicker, the white
softer to the fingernail

[…]

There’s no logic
to what happens. The men in line know this,
some of them joking, some staring
at their feet, just wanting to go home.

I could keep quoting from Pedersen’s pamphlet, it’s eminently quotable (‘It wasn’t my place to appropriate a valley’s grief’ from ‘Correction’), but beyond the tremendous writing, what strikes me is her ability to shift from detachment to heartbreak without it ever feeling heavy-handed. It’s quite a feat that when she goes a bit Broadway with ‘But there is no account in the Origin of the Species / of grief. No Cretaceous eulogy’ (from ‘Something about Darwin’) it somehow feels earned.

There’s a lot more I’d like to discuss, more than fits into a day’s worth of reviewing, but this really is a must-read for any poet working with archival or scientific material, or found poetry (I wish I could tell you about the magnificent Dodo found poem that’s in here), but you’ll just have to find this out for yourselves.

This December, I have given myself the task of reviewing one pamphlet a day to raise money for next year’s Saboteur Awards. You can help by donating, or sharing the link using the hashtag #pamphletparty. I am not sure how this month is going to go, some pamphlets will be easier than others. I have given myself the aim of writing at least 300 words for each, a lower word-count than the usual reviews on Sabotage, in the hopes of making it more manageable!

The Dog Runs On by Merie Kirby

-Reviewed by Bethany W. Pope

843Kirby_Merie_Cov

Merie Kirby’s first collection, The Dog Runs On, is a fascinating discourse that centres around what it is like for a poet to look at the cruelties of the modern world through the warped crystalline lens of myth, and the ways by which repetitive violence can render even the kindest, most sensitive people callous to the suffering in the world. ‘Sunday morning’ highlights this nicely. In this poem, the media is meant to shock, not inform, and each bloody repetition adds another layer of skin to the poet’s mental nerves, deadening response until:

You’re less moved
than if it were a nightmare
you just woke from.
It takes something stronger
to wake you each time.

 

It’s not only adults who are damaged by the media-drenched culture we live in; children are too soon inducted into our culture’s voyeuristic cult of horror. ‘When the kind girl grows up’ opens with a shotgun blast of fairy tale imagery reminiscent of the transcendent work of Helen Ivory:

 

There were the fairy tales, of course, the fire-hot
shoes, the pecked out eyes, the sliced off
tongue, the horrifying stew, the finger flying
through the air – that world where sweet words
are rewarded and bullies end up with a mouth
full of burning ashes…

 

But these satisfyingly moral tales are wiped from the speaker’s daughter’s consciousness by exposure to the darker, bleaker, world of ‘News’:

 

She asks, in the car, at night, in the dark
between restaurant and home,
Have any kids died or killed themselves this week?
and later her worried father draws me aside
Where did that come from? 

The poem ends with a bitter, cutting revelation as the poet remembers being ‘confronted continually with evidence / that fair may only be another word for pretty.’

 

This collection is remarkably strong, but it is not perfect. Kirby’s style ranges from concise fifteen-line free verse poems to sprawling experiments in narrative and it is in the later field that the poet exposes her few weaknesses. ‘Ashes, ashes’ was conceptually very interesting, dealing as it does with the magic of growing up and the darkness that hides inside of nursery rhymes, but it would have been much more effective as a prose-poem or a piece of flash fiction:

 

For her
the most interesting part is that the rhyme is magic:
she can sing certain words and her mother will spin with her,
then drop to the kitchen floor laughing, and let herself
be pulled up to do it again, while dinner bubbles merrily on the stove.

 

Let me be clear. The writing in this collection is universally good, but this poem would have been more effective if the poet had given in to the urge to write in paragraphs and not inflict line-breaks on writing that wanted to be prose.

Kirby has more success with ‘When I think of genocide’, a prose-poem that uses tight, brutal paragraphs to create breathtaking bursts of ideas and imagery:

When I think about genocide I think about landscape, how it doesn’t matter. I think about religion and how it doesn’t matter. I think about the borderless globe viewed from outer space and how that does not matter. When I think about genocide I think about how hate and politics meet flesh and rend it.

This collection thrums with life; the poems in it are beautiful things united by quality and theme. I look forward to Kirby’s second collection. I am certain that it will fulfil the promises given by the first.