Three local poets show poetry's human range
Bloom in Reverse
By Teresa Leo
University of Pittsburgh Press. 104 pp. $15.95
By Hayden Saunier
Writers & Books. 94 pp. $16.95
By Ron Silliman
BookThug. 74 pp. $20
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
Poetry these days is best characterized by its breadth. Today's poetry descends directly from Wordsworth's idea that poetry should speak the common tongue. Contemporary poetry insists it should also speak of life as actually lived by the imperfect creatures we happen to be. And that means its songs are best cast as stories. Nothing illustrates this better than recent books from three Philadelphia-area poets.
Consider Teresa Leo's Bloom in Reverse. Its parallel narrative threads address loss on one hand and escape on the other. The loss is of a dear friend who took her own life. The escape is from a relationship gone very sour.
Leo is clear-eyed about both. In "Suicide Is a Mind Stripping Off Petals," the flower best suited for remembering her friend turns out to be the Gerbera daisy,
. . . because each flower is made of hundreds
of smaller flowers, and so there is no single bloom
that provides more chance,
extends the game of He Loves Me,
He Loves Me Not.
Her friend had written once to say she was writing a poem "for your troubled room," but in "Poem for a Troubled Room," Leo notes,
She would never say the room
was a reminder of him, the night he lay
Under the kitchen table, face down,
Chairs strewn and alcohol gone,
Three coherent words from the howling:
Don't go upstairs.
"The troubled room is now my head," the poem concludes:
He is there and not.
She is there and not.
As a collection, Bloom in Reverse is unrelenting and best read a bit at a time. The craft - haiku here, a sestina there - helps make the intensity bearable. Of her friend Leo writes, "Each tree makes its futile attempt,/ in every turning leaf I hear her name." Of the troubled ex-lover, she writes, having killed his rose bush, "your rose bush is not - not here to invoke or provoke . . . a bloom in reverse// just another way to say/ I disremember you."
A tough mind and a strong heart are at work in these poems, leaving the living, at the very end, "ready to burst / through the dead."
At first glance, Hayden Saunier's Say Luck seems almost demure by comparison. But don't be fooled. There's plenty of grit to match the sparkle on display here. "The One and the Other" is even about suicide:
The child hums as he carries
too late, his grandmother's sugar-dusted lemon-glazed
cake to the neighbor who needs to be cheered,
too late for the neighbor
who's stepped into the air
of her silent front hall from a ladder-backed chair
her church dress just pressed, her head in a loop she tied
into the clothesline . . .
The cool, matter-of-fact tone is characteristic, and the almost-wryness adds just enough tang to keep things from being either callous or sentimental. It's how Saunier gets away with writing poems about poetry, such as the title poem and its opening gambit:
Since you are alive and have leisure enough to read poems
I'd say luck has entered your life more than once . . . .
From there, we go on to learn about "Luck and her trusty companion, Split Second Timing." Having dreamed that morning of making out with her high school boyfriend, "I woke determined to write a poem about love," but she declares later that "the first poem everyone reads should be about love./ Not luck. And not trees." Which leads her to remind us of the author of "Trees," poet Joyce Kilmer, "sniper-shot through the head at the second Battle/ of the Marne - that's how quickly it happens."
"Say love and death kicks in the door," the poem continues - and ends with a case in point.
"Sideways Glances in the Rearview Mirror" is a sequence of eight sonnets starting and ending with the line "That's how I watched my first love disappear." How, exactly? "Like that." Because "what's gaining on us comes up fast." And it doesn't matter "which mirror of that shiny trick, the mind" she looks into.
Saunier's takes on the classics are refreshingly irreverent. Helen of Troy in a nursing home explains how she knows "it isn't the past/ right now: by the people// who no longer show up."
Say Luck is a peculiarly cheerful book.
Ron Silliman's Revelator will likely be pegged as modernist or postmodernist or something like that, but read simply as a poem, it fits right in with Leo's and Saunier's books. He's certainly as clear-eyed as they are: "Blank stares, clinic waiting room/ time as emulsion, withhold motion,/ the nurse has her script/ before dawn in the night." And "one/ imagines anything the steady shrill/ scrim of the cicadas' clock's/ second hand ratcheting stiffly around." Prompting the wonder: "how/ many words have I left,/ use them wisely, sparingly, each/ could outlast me."
This is language and image in synergy. Get the book and copy out some lines. You will quickly discover how careful you must be because of how precisely the words and commas are placed.
Referred to in the text as "this compulsive record/ forward from the age of/ a small midcentury lad, sitting/ cross-legged on my bed, scribbling/ anything to be free," Revelator is identified on the back cover as "the opening poem in a major sequence entitled Universe" that, "were Ron Silliman to live long enough, would take him three centuries to complete." Well, let's hope he makes it to the finish line. It could be the first epic as interior, the narrative of what goes on in every human mind.
Most of us don't notice most of it most of the time. Silliman does notice, and he reminds us that every day's dawn is like no other that has ever been or will be: "still/ no hint of sun but/ now all the trees, houses/ visible in silhouette, the dog/ audible by its collar, paws/ over hardwood, then a sigh . . . . "
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue." PresterFrank@gmail.com.