Four local poets gathered for a portrait. From left, Su Smallen, Anna George Meek, Peter Campion, and Kathleen Jesme.
Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune
"El Dorado," by Peter Campion
"Buddha, Proof," by Su Smallen
"Engraved," by Anna George Meek
"Albedo," by Kathleen Jesme
Poetry: Skirting the fantastic
- Article by: ELIZABETH HOOVER
- Special to the Star Tribune
- April 13, 2014 - 10:13 AM
“Engraved,” by Anna George Meek. (Tupelo Press, 24 pages, $9.95.)
In 1859, Merriam-Webster published the first illustrated dictionary, hiring anonymous artisans to engrave tiny pictures. Anna George Meek uses these images as a source of inspiration in “Engraved.”
She notes that when looking at the illustrations, the “best parts of imagination emerge.” These wildly imaginative poems are astonishing in their density, vividness and precision.
She writes, “An idea books / passage, … the mind sails … the narrow channels / … only to wreck on uncharted land.” Meek’s poems chart that wandering, beginning with precise descriptions of illustrations that lead into speculations about what is off the frame or into beautiful meditations on how humans construct meaning: “Pediculina / crawls up the page to Peacock / and its showier tail: The Pediculina pauses / takes a left to Passenger / Pigeon.”
While the dictionary’s illustrations make words visible, the picture’s engraver remains invisible: “Before vanishing, the engraver / has pressed on me and inked a gothic hope.”
Meek is interested in how these images isolate an object from context; the blankness surrounding is fertile ground for the imagination. In an illustration for “gargoyle,” “a cathedral affixed to each figure, cavity / for a god who goes unrendered.” Her poems skirt the fantastic with esoteric words rich in sound and history and near vanishing themselves: cupola furnace, clavichord and toboggan.
Full of surprising moments of vivid description and sudden swerves of thinking, this chapbook will leave the reader eager for more. Hopefully, this slender volume is a prelude to a full-length book.
“Albedo,” by Kathleen Jesme. (Ahsahta Press, 112 pages, $18.)
Impressionist painter Claude Monet painted Rouen Cathedral more than 30 times in 1892 and 1893. The subject of these paintings is not the church, but the phenomenon of how light interacts with surfaces.
Similarly, Kathleen Jesme is a poet of phenomenon. She revisits images, trying multiple descriptive strategies in order to capture the ineffable in words. Many of these images deal with shadows and reflection; “Albedo” is the scientific term quantifying the reflective power of a surface. She writes of “trees skinned of light,” “things visible only in the absent / part of the sun” and “a man walking through the sunlit trees partak[ing] in the scattering.”
The book circles around an event — the death of the speaker’s father — but doesn’t narrate; rather, it describes how the loss changes the speaker’s perceptions. She sees “the shadow, but not the man.”
After his death “whatever my hands / were not holding / disappeared into the general dark.”
Jesme employs different formal techniques: thick blocks of prose, fragments scattered across the page, short stacks of lines and long, gestural lines. Yet all of her poems share a sense of murkiness. The word “something” or “thing” appears often: “that indeterminate / moment / in which something / happens” and “things wait … suspended in mist … to condense/along the body of a grass blade”
This vagueness coupled with the repetition can make the book feel overlong. But the repetition also gives the book a spiritual dimension as it references the repetition of ritual: myth, meditation, liturgy and prayer.
“El Dorado,” by Peter Campion. (University of Chicago Press, 63 pages, $18.)
Peter Campion writes: “That digital tremor, that hard-wiring burning / that signals just beyond beyond beyond.” Awash in signals — televisions, cellphones, car radios — we are distracted from the here and now. Campion roots his poems in time and place, not by tuning out those signals, but by integrating them into rich meditations on place.
Cellphone conversations “spidering air with bargains and blandishments” become “one primal invocation” when woven with fragmented images, information from ubiquitous televisions and Campion’s own observations.
In “Concourse C,” Campion also adds his translations of Anglo-Saxon riddles: “Who is so smart / that he can tell who drives my outcast force?” These lend a sense of grandiosity to the banal space of an airport.
He elevates what most consider no more than digital ephemera with lavish descriptions. An anchor’s face has “pixilated features / slackening back to sympathetic grimace.”
As moments spiral outward, Campion anchors his work in specific places with titles like “Car Radio Near Cleveland Near Dawn,” “1995: The Sawtooths” and “Boston: Red Hair.”
Lacking the cynicism that marks much writing about pop culture, these poems radiate with sympathy for others. A man is full of “embarrassment / tremoring through him like dismay or fear / whose cause had fogged, forgotten.”
In Campion’s poems, the speaker listens, remembers and records. Even in liminal spaces like waiting rooms and highways, he searches for America’s “barely knowable soul / swift as an eel escaping the slit mesh.”
Peter Campion will read at 7 p.m. Friday at Common Good Books in St. Paul.
“Buddah, Proof: New Expanded Edition,” by Su Smallen. (Red Dragonfly Press, 49 pages, $15.)
Su Smallen’s approach to Buddhism is an “American embrace,” emphasizing humor, happiness, compassion. In 30 poems imagining Buddha in contemporary settings — eating Cheerios, shopping at Target, stuck in traffic — she coaxes readers to contemplation with a light touch.
Buddha likes Target “because it is easy / to attain Empty Mind / there.” He loves the single setting on his toaster because he can make toast and “not-toast.” “A complete meal, most satisfying.”
Placing Buddha in unexpected contexts creates humor and allows Smallen to argue that principles of mindfulness are relevant in a traffic jam “simulat[ing] a vow of silence” or on a roller coaster “for the / sensation of each / moment … gyroscopic bones / and gut intelligence / and tuned by laughing.”
Her other protagonist, Barbie, appears in more poignant poems emphasizing compassion. When Buddha instructs Barbie to “empty yourself of concept,” she cries, “I’m nothing but concept!” Barbie wonders about the wife Buddha left to take on a life of asceticism. She imagines he “just / blew out the candle of everything / She thought she knew about her life.”
Other poems resemble Koans, or statements meant to provoke doubt in the student of Zen. In one, windshield wipers “advise ‘panic panic panic’ / until Buddha laughed.” A poem ends: “Buddha is dog and duck, Buddha is muskrat and squirrel.”
In this slender volume, Smallen succeeds in introducing major concepts of Buddhism in a way that is welcoming, approachable and full of joy.
Elizabeth Hoover is assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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