PATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN Reviews
The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead by Eleni Sikelianos
(Coffee House Books, Minneapolis, 2013)
On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson
(Solid Objects, New York, 2013)
In the Laurels, Caught by Lee Ann Brown
(Fence Books, Albany, 2013)
Poetry is one site that allows manifestation of varying correspondence between both what is and what is not. The space wherein creation occurs, that “made thing”—Robert Duncan’s insistence on the poet as Maker—offered up from out the poet’s struggles with experience in turn shaped to a given form in language. An engaging exchange representing what might be called a thought happening creation event. These three recent given works by Lee Ann Brown, Elizabeth Robinson, and Eleni Sikelianos breach already exemplar standards set by of each poet’s previous highly engaged poetic acts, pushing their results in excitingly divergent directions.
In On Ghosts Robinson announces the discovery that “Presence, then, is a way.” (Robinson 5) This kind of presence, however, necessitates absence. Robinson is probing the realm of what may not be seen by eyesight alone. She reports back instances in which she has felt herself to be encountering the spectral spooks of her title. Robinson’s work is subtitled, “an essay” and it endeavors to reveal the many manners in which, as Sikelianos says in The Loving Detail of the Living and Dead, “(The dead are caught in our studies of motion.)” (Sikelianos 80) Each poet presents an explorative engagement of how we the living might interact or at least come to be aware of possible interactions with those presences dwelling in a space separate from yet ambiguously tied to our own experience.
“death wherefriends had
friends & we
had friends & fathers”
These poems are invitations are from the eternal beyond calling forth our response. Brown’s In the Laurels, Caught is a celebration of her return to North Carolina homeland where the company is a freely robust mélange of the excitements caught up between joys of being very much alive and the certainty that only comes with an exacting awareness of place and the relations of one’s own proper belonging.
picnic with the ancestors
and asking of each one
what will my portion be”
Brown demonstrates a healthy respect for chthonic orders, stringing together a diverse accumulation of poetic stylizations that never looses sight of how much she owes to the land around her, the very environment within which her poetry flourishes.
stream sings to
These italicized lines are from a long poem running across the bottom of her book’s pages, and which may be read backward or forward—as well as singularly page-by-page concurrently with lines from the principal poem appearing on the page above them. Unplanned and unintentional correspondences may thus be identified as the lines of each poem thereby gain additional heft.
“…how the tune transported itself from an inactive faucet to the throat of the man.”(Robinson 56)
It often seems ghosts favor enclosed rooms. Perhaps the confined space, similar to that of the printed page, allows for sensitivity we otherwise are distracted from. Voices, felt weight, shifts of color, blemishes of normality heightened.
Although Brown reminds us we do locate our Familiars while in the outdoors, wild critters and vegetation teaching us habits of presence, being in the present.
“Unstopped by daily business we
transition successfully into ecstacy
by way of you, my mountain dewer.”
Recalling as if from out of dreams the lessons learned, assistance offered:
and that was from that day
I first met the tree
also called Chaste Tree
you are Agnus Castra
the castrated lamb
said to be “monk’s pepper”
as in saltpeter
so I resist touching you
That’s the last thing I need
but one seed jumps into me
you even out estrogen
your Leaves are opposite”
Or otherwise other lives lived in otherwise other locations:
“By a stream in Boulder
Harry held up “Horsetail” and told me
“This is an Equestrian Plant”
& I, in turn,
crushed a leaf of you, Ailanthus,
and said to Harry Smith,
this plant smells like Peanut Butter
then he replied
What did it smell like
A poet gains identities in the writing of them:
“in my future life I was
a cowboy, killed
in a bar fight”
Sounding out the ever various locales traveled through at an ever increasing rate in our present era. For poets this fact of experience offers more and more opportunities to play words off one another in explorations only language allows for.
“I found an if and
if it were France?
Let us go on cultivating these fields of error
Found a so and so I found mysel
in a havoc of bees, fallen and frozen
I found a what and what
to do with it?
I found a to and pointed it but did not pull the trigger
Found an or or
an ear I
couldn’t hear which”
When it comes to acknowledging who and what we love, it is an absent presence we’re drawn towards: found in inescapable laments that are usually for a parent or loved one too soon and far gone from us.
“Dead dad again, & again the circumstances of his death.Drunks, hillside, darkness, loss. Again,Someone who could have helped him but did not. I fear that body mayBe me.”
“instead of saying “father,” I must say “yourfather” or “this man I knew” or “this dead man’s eyebrow.” What is adead man? What does a dead man?”
Always, even when the poet questions, even when stating what’s clearly demonstrable there is the same set of laments for the presence which refuses depart.
“…another mark of the ghost. Absent or present, always incessant.”
All that must be said gets said, including this or that odd totemic totality.
“I do believe / the soul’s logic is good.”
The poet must reiterate lessons learned when under the spell of drooling poems. Tripped over readings into which she has been drawn, irrepressibly indenturing herself. To be enclosed and yet manage slip free is the colossal challenge posed by her chosen undertaking.
“Perhaps the most unearthly of experiences is to feel so thoroughly at ease, so full with trust that, for once, the body is not a boundary that hems one in.”
A weightiness that clings round every bulletin the poem posts upon the page.
“If the full belly is haunted, then ghosts are a satiation.”
With the poet’s work accomplished over a lifetime arrives knowledge set according daily occurrences. Time’s presence thereby is felt, acknowledged by minor, incidental facts adding up day by day.
“Little by little
My sweater dresses
turn into shirts
The more savage course is, for the devoted poet, a vast archive of her own lived knowledge ready for the pillaging. The books only accrue. Ghost scripts wherein dwell the odd set of has been and what ifs let loose upon readers, a pleasurable recourse for amused distraction from problems of life. Further evidence we’re searching for the deal the dead know more of than we ever will. Yet from this side of things the poet has no other choice than to continue on. Only light reveals what’s been happening in the dark.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. Recent poetry and/or criticism appears (or is expected) in: 1913 A journal of forms, Amerarcana, American Book Review, Bright Pink Mosquito, Bookslut,The Critical Flame, Dusie, Forklift, Htmlgiant, NewPages, Otoliths, Oyster Boy Review, Rain Taxi, The Rumpus, Shampoo, Spolia, Truck, and the Volta. His books include GUSTONBOOK and Das Gedichtete.