24 JANUARY 2018 | KAREN KAO
A poet is someone willing to bare her soul. At least, that’s what I always thought. But it’s been a while since the last time I seriously read poetry. Back in the day, my favorites were Ai and Tess Gallagher, Charles Wright and Yusef Komunyakaa. That was when my dream was to become a poet like them. Then came the long drought in which I read little and wrote less.
It’s raining now and my field has turned green once more. I read as widely as I can, though my tastes seem to run naturally toward fiction, long and short, grand old masters and new kids on the block. I need more of a prod to delve into a poetry collection. Luckily, I live in Amsterdam where a good poetry reading is always around the corner.
In March 2016, 3 poets came to town. Charles Martin and Andrew Hudgins came with fellow Sewanee Writers’ Conference teacher Erin McGrath to read at the American Book Center. And my friend Milla van der Have launched her first poetry chapbook.
Charles Martin – Signs & Wonders
Martin is a poet, critic and translator. His biography at the Poetry Foundation website describes him as a poet
known for his erudition, wit, and dexterity with form and meter [who] tackles contemporary themes with classical grace.
The contemporary event that lies at the core of Signs & Wonders is 9/11: the attack itself and the response by the Bush Administration. Not that all of Martin’s poems are overly political. As reviewer Maryann Corbett put it:
I will hazard a guess that one piece of history marks a difference between the old collections and the new one. […] The whole of the new book is tinged, in a way, with that [9/11] tragedy: with history, with the pall of mortality, and even with a special, nostalgic lingering on the neighborhoods of New York City.
Notwithstanding the profundity of the theme, I could not get past the pyrotechnics of form and meter and rhyme. Or, perhaps I’m not well-read enough to appreciate Martin’s points of reference. To me, it was form over substance.
Andrew Hudgins – After the Lost War
Hudgins, too, is a man of many talents. He’s a poet and essayist in the Southern Gothic tradition of American literature. His poems
swell with sanguinary images of guilt, sacrifice, and powerlessness.
After the Lost War is a sequence of narrative poems that trace the brief and tragic life of Sidney Lanier: poet, musician and Confederate soldier born in Macon, Georgia in 1842 and who died at the age of 39.
One of my favorite poems is “Postcards from a Hanging.” Each numbered stanzas represents a postcard Lanier sends to his brother.
Clifford, we’ve grown too far apart.
So yesterday I bought some postal cards
and resolved to send them all to you.
But what to say? I’m doing well
and Mary says to say she’s doing fine.
The poem goes on to recount a lynching Lanier witnesses. A black man accused of touching a white girl’s breast is strung up a tree. After the hanging, a peddler asks for the dead man’s boots.
Does this make sense to you? This afternoon
I walked five miles into the woods,
sat down in a clearing in the pines,
and sobbed and sobbed until my stomach hurt.
When I stopped, I tied the laces together,
slung the freshly dirty boots around my neck,
and walked, barefooted, home. When I got there
my feet were sticking to the ground with blood.
It helped a bit. I’m doing better now
and Mary says to say she’s doing fine.
Hudgins is a fine storyteller but I wonder, why these particular line breaks? Reviewer Paul Breslin asks the same question, speculating that
lineation were decided by the four-count alone.
For me, the form didn’t get into the way of the story but it didn’t help it either.
Milla van der Have – Ghosts of Old Virginny
Milla is a young poet, nearly half the age of Martin and Hudgins. Ghosts of Old Virginny is her first chapbook. So I fully expected her work to be overshadowed by these masters. And I worried about that because Milla and I are friends.
To my surprise, I found her work much more fun to read. There were no overwrought forms or classical references. No line breaks that drew attention to themselves. Milla uses plain language and free verse to transport the reader into the old silver mining town of Virginia City, Nevada.
She’s at her best when writing about nature, as in “My Virginia City Trails”
But each day history loses face
to these slopes, to the gentle
longevity of the lizard
the many lives of the moth.
And down below the horses
roam, slowly giving way
to untenable views.
She’s also a dab hand at conjuring up ghosts, whether lingering in an old mine shaft or appearing for the express pleasure of tourists. In “Afternoon before the Civil War Weekend”, we meet ghosts Andrew Hudgins would like.
Dark clouds fold over mountaintops.
There’s smoke in the air,
an old ventriloquism of the wind.
Down by the canyon the boys
still play. Their cheers
rise up like bugle calls.
There’s depth in whatever we do.
Nothing is silent, a thing
by itself. We fill
the shapes of those that when before us.
Or at least we grow into it
like spires still touching upward
to reclaim their fallen.
All I’ve got to say is: well done, Milla.