The Gravity Soundtrack. By Erin Keane. (LaPorte, IN: WordFarm). 88 pages. Paperback: $12.00, ISBN# 1-60226-000-1.
The Amputee’s Guide to Sex. By Jillian Weise. (Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2007). 84 pages. Paperback: $14.95, ISBN# 1-933368-52-7.
Standing in Line for the Beast. By Jason Bredle. (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2007). 80 pages. Paperback: $14.00, ISBN# 1-930974-67-1.
Interpretive Work. By Elizabeth Bradfield. (Los Angeles, CA: Arktoi Books, 2008). 112 pages. Paperback: $20.00, ISBN# 0-980040-71-X
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and by this, they usually mean watch out, yes that guy’s a beefcake, but he’ll charm the pants off of you, cheat on you, and leave you with nothing, not even bus fare, or hey, that woman’s looks will fade, but her stupidity and her dishonesty won’t. Yet with books, as with potential mates, we can’t help judging books by their covers, at least at first; we don’t go on that first date or pull that book off the shelf unless there’s a strong initial attraction. This is to say that Louisville poet Erin Keane’s first book, The Gravity Soundtrack, has the most attractive cover I’ve seen on a poetry book in years, which made me eager to pick it up. The folks at WordFarm have a professional background in commercial publishing, and the design is alluring.
Unlike my ex-girlfriends, The Gravity Soundtrack didn’t disappoint me at all. It’s an engaging, pleasurable read, from cover to cover. Keane, a graduate of Spalding University’s MFA program and a recent recipient of an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, writes with clarity and authority about rock-and-roll (there’s a dead-on character sketch of a secondhand record store clerk, for example), science fiction, beer, cicadas, and the surreal places where Orwell and Warhol intersect.
In the book’s strongest sequence, “Never-Ending Stories,” Keane assumes the personae of minor characters from children’s books and makes us re-think the stories we grew up on and have come to take for granted. For example, Keane has us wonder, along with Curious George, “What does the big yellow hat do / for a living anyway?” In “Where the Wild Things Are,” the wild things ponder Max’s motivation for leaving them, and they tell us that when he does return, “Then, we will show him monster.” In “Alice in Wonderland,” Keane re-imagines Alice smoking marijuana in the high school bleachers, leaving town in a Camaro, winding up as a waitress who says “the duck, sir, / an excellent choice, but wouldn’t one prefer / the duck?” While The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams broke my heart, “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Erin Keane tore my heart out and tossed it into a trash compacter.
Recommended for fans of: Richard Cecil, Gaylord Brewer, Denise Duhamel, The Clash, The Replacements, Johnny Depp, and Bud Light
Back in 2000, after Charles Simic gave a reading from Jackstraws, a book that’s full of religious imagery and insects, I asked him, “What’s the deal with all the religious imagery and all the insects in these poems?” He replied, “Each book has its own obsession,” and he was right. Whether or not the poet has consciously grouped poems by theme or structure or motif, there is always some obsessive subject matter that emerges and unifies the book, if the book holds together. In Jillian Weise’s frank, bold debut collection, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, the various personae are all obsessed with the human body, or more accurately, they discuss, in poem after poem, what it means to house a whole mind and a whole imagination in a body with missing parts, or parts that aren’t functioning.
Weise, a University of Cincinnati graduate student who will begin a tenure-track job at Clemson University in Fall 2008, certainly has a fully-functioning ear, an exceptional one, in fact. In one poem, we’re shown what it’s like to have strangers constantly asking “What happened to her leg?” and the speaker points out that “tact” very nearly rhymes with “attack.” In another poem, when a boyfriend tells the poem’s speaker that he likes her despite her prosthetic leg, she considers the word “despite.” “I know / that word. It means / the desire to hurt something.” In the closing couplet of “Olympia,” Weise employs a mosaic rhyme, pairing “here-goes” with “eros.” My favorite wordplay (and the one that took the longest to sink into my skull) recurs throughout the book’s third section, wherein Weise and her various speakers consider every amputee’s chief nemesis, Holman.
One of my favorite poems in The Amputee’s Guide to Sex is “Abscission,” which begins “Your favorite post-coital pastime / is nicknaming my scars. / The name for the railroad track / along my back – Engine.” The speaker moves from the personal to the botanical (“like the beautiful word: abscission, / / to cut off, in botany, to shed leaves”) and from there to the historical:
. . . I think of the wives
of the twenty thousand masons
who raised the Taj Mahal. And how,
when it was finished, the emperor
ordered a mass amputation of thumbs
so the craftsmen could never build
a more perfect mausoleum.
Reading those lines, I can’t help but think that some of those masons – the ones who were true craftsmen – surely continued working at beautiful buildings, despite the emperor. I also think of John Milton, whose response to going blind and then being imprisoned for his role in a failed revolution was to write, arguably, the greatest epic poem in the English language. Recently, at a poetry festival, I was fortunate enough to hear Jillian Weise read some of her new poems, and I can’t wait until she releases a second full-length collection. Like those masons, and like Milton, she is a true artist and an unstoppable force.
Recommended for fans of: Paul Guest, Josh Bell, Lucia Perillo, James Wright, Franz Wright, Gabriel Gudding, the OED, and sex.
Speaking of Charles Simic, in his new book of journal entries, The Monster Loves His Labryinth (Ausable, 2008), he declares, “The worst offense one can commit in a poem is humor,” but I suspect that he’s kidding, because he’s Charles Simic and because elsewhere in the same book he writes, “I prefer Aristophanes to Sophocles, Rabelais to Dante. There’s as much truth in laughter as there is in tragedy, a view not shared by many people.” One extremely humorous poet who is not kidding is Jason Bredle, whose debut collection, Standing in Line for the Beast, was selected by Barbara Hamby as winner of the 2006 New Issues Poetry Prize and published in 2007.
Like Erin Keane, Bredle keeps the pop culture references coming, referencing Martin Sheen, Footloose, and Rob Lowe in his poem, “Werewolves,” for instance. Like Jillian Weise, he also throws highbrow references into the mix. Case in point: “Werewolves” contains references to Flaubert, existentialism, and Jai Alai. Bredle splashes the proper names of friends, ex-girlfriends, streets, and businesses all over his poems in a manner reminiscent of Frank O’Hara in what Marjorie Perloff dubbed his “I-Do-This-I-Do-That” poems. But unlike O’Hara, who didn’t feel at home anyplace where there wasn’t a subway handy, Bredle’s characters haunt places like Zanesville, Ohio; Grubbs, Arkansas; Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey; and Plainfield, Indiana.
Bredle likes to take a single word like “parasol” or “subtitled” or a phrase like “you could be” or “Todd Bernstein” and repeat it until the energy of that repetend ignites a three-to-five page poem that sparkles and pops and then blows up in your hand. The poems are frequently hilarious, but they address serious topics such as the unpredictability of life (“Anarchy”), the difficulty of functioning practically and emotionally (“Subtitled”), and the pain of being rejected, as in these lines from “When Disaster Strikes 4”:
Like you’ve never stood in a Wal-Mart parking
lot in late September with a woman you love
and the guy she loves and asked her to make
a decision and watched her walk away
If this book has a shortcoming, it’s that there is a structural sameness to the poems. They are all long and basically stichic – there are only two stanza breaks in the entire collection. Bredle writes a particular kind of poem with such aplomb that I can’t help wondering how he would handle other kinds of poems. What would a Jason Bredle sonnet look like? What about a Jason Bredle prose poem? His second collection, Pain Fantasy (Red Morning Press, 2007) has already come out, and he’s surely got a lot of other books in him, so I suppose I’ll find out.
Recommended for fans of: Kenneth Koch, David Kirby, Albert Goldbarth, Jack Handey, belly laughs and cathartic tears
I find a lot of “nature poetry” kind of inauthentic. That is to say that often when I read poems about nature, I get the feeling that the poet is using elements of the natural world as a metaphor for human emotion; I don’t often get the feeling that the poet loves nature for what it is. A big exception to this is Elizabeth Bradfield’s debut collection, Interpretive Work. Bradfield is currently a Stegner fellow at Stanford University, but she has spent a good deal of her professional life as a naturalist, telling tourists things like “Whales / don’t sleep like us. They rest one half of their brains at a time” (“The Shepherd of Tourists on a $20 Sunset Cruise Speaks”). She knows that the proper term for a whale’s exhalation is “pouf” (“Concerning the Proper Term for a Whale Exhaling”); she knows that there is a species of firefly, native to the Pacific Northwest, that does not bioluminesce (“Fireflies First Seen at Age Thirty”); and she knows that puffins do not return to their nesting site until they reach sexual maturity (“Psyjunaetur”).
In the book’s epigraph, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, we are reminded of the importance of awakening “the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom” and directing the mind “to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us.” This is where Bradfield’s work as a poet intersects with her work as a naturalist; she is devoted to training us to observe the world closely, “searching for a response unlayered, genuine / true to what was there, gone, there in the woods” (“Fireflies First Seen at Age Thirty”) and “unable to not listen, unwilling to miss anything” (“No More Nature”).
In addition to being Bradfield’s first book, Interpretive Work is the coming-out party for Arktoi Books, a division of Red Hen Press established by Eloise Klein Healy “to publish literary works of high quality by lesbian writers.” In poems that are by turns audacious (“Cul-de-sac Linguistics”), sweet (“After All”), heartbreaking (“Site-Specific Adaptations” and “Butch Poem 4: Losing a Father”), and joyful (“Prodigal”), Bradfield teaches readers about love in the same matter-of-fact way she teaches us about animals in other poems. After reading the following lines, from “Endurance,” I felt challenged to become a better, truer lover:
Of course this is how
I see love – something of endurance
and unreasonable calm.
Harder to attempt once you’ve known
the numbing tiredness, the unrelenting salt,
the safe boat unable to gather you up
if you want the miles to count for anything.
And you wade in anyway.
You’ll come away from Interpretive Work feeling inspired and illuminated. You’ll want to fall, headfirst, deeply in love with the world and with someone in it, knowing you’ll get your heart broken time and time again, knowing it will be worth it.
Recommended for fans of: Mary Oliver, Linda Bierds, Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, Basho, William Wordsworth, and Handel’s Messiah
Book review editor Tom C. Hunley is an assistant professor of English at Western Kentucky University and the director of Steel Toe Books . His latest books are Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach and Octopus .