Friday, April 6, 2012

Megan Hall, Fourth Child

Megan Hall's Fourth Child is a deeply intimate collection without being showily confessional or maudlin. And this is its great strength.

There is a quiet power to many of the poems, though few measure up to the punch carried in the second poem in the collection, "Gunshot", which actually led me to set the book down and say, out loud, "Wow... wow." The reader is led by Hall through a recapitulation of shootings from recent films into the depths of a personal tragedy which lingers, for the reader as it does for the poet, throughout the collection. That connection -- between film and life -- is stark and telling; not overdone, not overwrought.

The second to the last poem in the collection, "Wanting" -- though not without faults (there is something almost pedestrian about the sentiment closing the first stanza in this age of self-empowerment; and the closing clause leaves me either baffled or unsatisfied, I'm not yet sure which) -- offers up a real gem:
Wanting puts your heart out on a string,
trawling for the thing that's wanting you.
Those are lines that ache as much as they reveal. Which is precisely what the best of the poems in this collection manage to do.

More about Megan Hall is available on her Poetry International page, including links to additional reviews of Fourth Child; there is also a review of Fourth Child by Grace Kim on the LitNet site.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Melissa Butler, Removing

Two days into my reading for National Poetry Month -- only two days in, I should emphasize -- but I worry I am becoming a bit of a curmudgeon. Why? Because I have yet to be swept away.

That's putting an awful burden on these poets, I know.

Melissa Butler's collection, Removing, comes close but never quite carries me over. There are poems where I've scrawled notes to myself, "does it work?" (and in the case of a poem like, "Cited", with each of the 16 words in the one line footnoted, I feel, "not quite" -- though I do wish I could have heard it read as a duet), whereas others most certainly do:

(Remember): The familiar
gathers itself slowly
and then you are there, in a life edged
by dinner time, a garbage truck
and the neighbor
who walks her dog.
"What gathers slowly" (32-3)

Liberally sprinkled throughout this brief collection (22 pieces and one extended cycle; very much a chapbook) are prose poems. Truth be told, I've never been a great fan of prose poems. Butler comes closest to making them work for me, though it would take a much closer reading on my part (and perhaps a discussion with the poet herself) to puzzle through to a satisfactory answer as to why prose, why here, why in these instances.

She hits her stride, I think, in the closing cycle, "Hadeda geographies", six four-stanza poems with a structure and coherence that allow for and build towards something much more than a pithy insight or a dropped pearl of wisdom. And that, it seems on reflection, is the real strength of Butler's work, and what holds promise for her future work: she's not after the sunburst but instead looks to build and weave quietly. While this may mean that in some instances the reader will sweep through a poem like a little noticed spider's web, Butler will (one trusts) spin another. Which may very well be her most perfect one yet, pulling us up, just short, in wonder.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Francis B Nyamnjoh, Predicaments

I learned a lesson some time ago: never read the introduction to a novel or book of verse prior to reading the book itself. I had one too many books ruined for me by awful introductions.

Whether that's stood me in good stead or bad is an open question; though on the whole I think it's greatly benefited the pleasure I've taken in my reading.

In the case of Francis B Nyamnjoh's, Predicaments, however, I am left to wonder. It is in the brief foreword -- by Emmanuel Fru Doh -- and the introduction -- by Nyamnjoh himself -- that the reader learns that we have at hand Nyamnjoh's "juvenilia"; twenty-five years old and he "would rewrite them today" (ix).

I wish he had.

Despite Doh's (seemingly tepid) endorsement and Nyamnjoh's wish for us to "find at least one poem in this collection that titillates or tantalizes... or more" (ix) this is a mostly undistinguished volume, memorable more for repeated clumsy and labored grammatical reorderings to turn a line-ending rhyme, the affectation of "Oh!"s, and PRAISE IN ALL CAPS than for... well, for the poetry itself.

There are intriguing glimmers of what might have been. "The Whitemen of God" offers up an angry recapitulation of the missionary endeavor, of how "We were taught to hear the bible of a god we knew by proxy" and how "We rejected our cultures and ourselves". But because there is little poetic tension to the piece the ambiguity of the closing line -- "We were forced to forgive, forced to go to heaven" -- lacks any particular punch. It's intriguing (on reflection) but ultimately unsatisfying as it stands.

The strongest poem, by far, is "To the Leader". While it too suffers odd grammatical structures -- "The world won't have you to blame / When the baton on must pass"... really? "on must pass"? why? -- it also has the most evocative lines in the collection:
Let people in you an enigma see,
Not a noodle to be rolled and fingered
This is marvelous. And powerful. And unfortunately noteworthy for how much it stands out.

Had I read the foreword and introduction in advance perhaps I would have been a bit more forgiving in my initial approach. But I doubt seriously it would have made the poetry any better for it.