Five Willows Literary Review

Monday, October 13, 2014

Assistant Poetry Editor Jerry Austin reviews Bethany Reid's book of poems Sparrow

A Book Review Of Sparrow By Bethany Reid (Winner of the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize)

                                                                        Review by Jerry Austin

As a general rule--and this is shockingly pervasive--academics do not write good poetry. The most powerful exception I know of, at present, is Bethany Reid. I consider her one of the best poets in North America, and having read her Master's Thesis, "Calling A Daughter," more than thirty times, I do not say this lightly.

Her newest book is immensely readable, and... enjoyable. By a timely coincidence, I met with an old friend a few days ago. When I told her I would be writing a review of Sparrow, she said, "Yes!.. I read it yesterday, cover to cover. It was so good I couldn't put it down." I smiled because Dorianne Laux writes the same, nearly verbatim, in the book's forward.

It is best to understand Bethany's poetry in the context of all her poetry. She grew up in rural western Washington, and has long written about her childhood. Before earning her doctorate in American Literature from the University of Washington, Bethany wrote: 1) "The Sorrel Mare," an epic-length narrative poem of unusual emotive quality (it reduced to tears several readers I personally know); 2) The Coyotes And My Mom (poems published by Bellowing Ark Press); and 3) her Master's Thesis (mentioned above). It is my opinion that Bethany Reid's poetry should be collected in some form and published so as to be accessible to a larger audience.

Bethany's earlier poems tend toward greater inclusiveness of narrative detail, whereas her more recent poems tend, musically, toward the lyrical (though technically most remain narrative in that they move through time). 

Her poem, "The Horse" (from Sparrow), while in free verse, reminds me of Frost (in a good mood) and conveys some of the magic of Wordsworth's Prelude, though it differs very much in essence from the English poet. There is a haunting ambiguity about the identity of the horse, which I will leave for the reader to discover in the original. In any case, direct experience is the provenance here; this is written by someone who has owned and cared for farm animals, who has observed them with empathy and awe: (lines 14-20)

       She had a way of turning when happy,

       trotting down the path to the open field,
       her powerful legs suddenly loping, rolling her

       through the high brown grass. Her brown coat
       shone in the sun. In rain

       she stood beneath the orchard trees,
       her forelock hanging in her eyes.

There is more poetry in those lines than in most books I read. It may be analyzed, but is meant first and foremost to be experienced.

A major theme in the new book is bereavement, a theme which recurs frequently in Bethany's writing, hearkening back to loved ones and the death of the Sorrel Mare. We discover honesty and grief, as well as surprising and cogent triumphs. The title poem "Sparrow" from the new book exemplifies: (lines 1-11)

       What could the Bible mean
       when it says no sparrow falls
       without God's notice?
       They do fall.
       "The Bible": that's too impersonal.
       It was some writer of the New Testament,
       some Hebrew poet turned Christian
       who chose "sparrow," a metaphor
       for the least things, the small
       and innumerable mouths
       at the breast of the world.

The poet is standing with her daughter (one of three daughters) and preparing to bury a young sparrow that has died after falling from its nest and being cared for by the daughter. Referring back to the biblical poet, we are told: (lines 12-18):

       Maybe our poet had a daughter who carried to him
       in her cupped hands a baby sparrow.
       Maybe they tried to keep it alive
       on sugar water and cat food,
       and when they failed, he wept,
       not knowing how to teach a child
       that life is worth the trouble and the grief....

This is good stuff--albeit sometimes painful. It fascinates and inspires me, how her poems take on more and more meaning within the context of her work in its entirety. I've seen this when reading poets from the past; it's magic if sometimes haunting to witness it among an artist in our own time. I am hopeful that the full range of her poetry will become available to the public.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Out of the Dust --- by Klaus Merz, Tr. Marc Vincenz, as reviewed by Koon Woon

Out of the Dust by Klaus Merz, translated by Marc Vincenz; Spuyten Duyvil, NY, NY, 2014.

Reading this volume of 80 pages by Klaus Merz, Out of the Dust, as translated by Marc Vincenz, I had to ask: why do some of the short lyrics hit with the aphoristic depths of Nietzsche, with the precise language of the lawyer/poet Jean Follain, and with the beautiful music of “Dust in the Wind,” an immensely popular song of the 70s American rock group Kansas, while some other of these poems are opaque and seem to hang as the dull moments of life itself? Is the complaint the usual complaint about translations, especially of poetry? But MarcVinzenz is a veteran translator of the German and himself has six volumes of poetry to his credit. The fault must lie with me to some extent of my complacent laziness not to really distinguish the signifier from the signified. In Zen terms, I am mistaking the moon for the finger pointing at the moon.

Let's start with Merz's “Biography (p. 31)” – “In the passing of time, / I became a pencil myself, / a pencil that also remains a pencil / when it doesn't write.” This is a very modest self-assessment considering what the publisher Spuyten Duyvil of NY, NY tells me. Klaus Merz was born in 1945 in Aarau, Switzerland, and has published twenty volumes of poetry and numerous works of fiction, has been recognized with major awards, including the Herman Hess Prize in Literature in 1997 and the Holderlin Prize in 2012.

Here is the rub; the problem may lie with me. Born just a few years later than Merz, I am a village boy transplant from China and know nothing of the German language or much European culture. I have to take the English words of the translator Marc Vincenz for its veracity and faithfulness in its rendition from German to English. Vinzenz is British-Swiss and was born in Hong Kong, a city I had briefly lived in. Although I have lived in the US since 1960, I am no less of an exile than all the immigrants and refugees whose recollections of their homeland now only exist in solipsistic memory. The world has transformed this global village, and so I should perhaps try to discover some sort of permanence that poetry can afford the soul and to find it in Merz's work.

It become quite plausible to connect with Merz, for he is an unobtrusive commentator of life. Since the Chinese are like watercress that when strewn anywhere there is mud and running water, it thrives. I personally connect with “In Command (p.19),” a poem Merz's grandmother speaks to her brood, from the couch to narrate family history, and Merz comments, “already we are all over the hills.” My maternal grandmother was such a matriarch who in fact had her feet bound and her brood is all over the world. The reader is able to fit the shoes Merz provides whether he/she is musician who “transform their / impermanence into tones / and reconcile us in time,”or be he/she simply be anyone living in a region who comes “to know themselves / as the head that doesn't / fit into their hat.”I find the word choice “hat” astonishing for when I was young, my Uncle in China told me, “Never wear a tall hat,” which variously means “do not take false compliment,” “do not be corrupt as an official,” or simply “don't be a dunce.” As an aside, the Supreme Leader of China Deng Hsiao Ping had been paraded in public wearing the dunce hat. Merz is indeed a master of the precise apercu.

This volume of poetry is divided into five sections of thematically related poems with headings like
“Residue of a Dream,” “Big Business,” and “Beyond Recall.” It is also illustrated by Heinz Egger with what resembles Sumi-e ink brush work. One possible reason why it is just making an inroad to the American poetry scene is Merz's unassuming and unannounced subtlety, of which I recall great American poets like William Carlos Williams and Donald Justice. But it reminds me also of Chinese poetry whose use of poetic devices is sparing and whose meanings are multiplicities. In “Wiepersdorf, later, (p.10),” I found this incredible imagery “the carcass of a rabbit still fleeing (my italics),”and in “Repose (p.14),” about farm life, after the labors and the harvest, “Behind the silo the farmer / leans on the farmer's wife.” Yes, we ought to give credit to where credit is due. The title of the book “Out of the Dust” almost implies that we will also “Return to the Dust,” but before all that, there is a little “waiting game,” as in Merz's poem, “Happy Days (p. 15),” where Beckett's nephew is seated / in a corner” and he is waiting “for the wrinkles / to appear in his face.” Likewise, I am waiting as Robert Creely said, “If you wander long enough, you will come to it.” I have come to the end of this review, but I will be wandering in Klaus Merz's poems some more. He has inspired me “to waste more time (Robert Bly)”, and that's because unlike much contemporary American poetry, Merz's poems are not just for himself, as a masturbatory exercise in “construction” or “employment of devices.”

Reviewed by Koon Woon
Five Willows Literary Review
August 1, 2014

Sunday, March 30, 2014

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