Bryan R. Monte – AQ31 Summer 2021 Book Review

Bryan R. Monte
AQ31 Summer 2021 Book Review

Robert Hazel, Praise and Threnody, Circling Rivers Press, ISBN: 978-1-939530-15-8 (trade paper), ISBN: 978-1-939530-16-5 (hardback), 210 pages.

Recently it was my pleasure to discover the work of Robert Hazel, an influential, post-WWII American poet, who, unfortunately was never mentioned during my undergraduate lit. courses at Berkeley nor in my graduate writing seminars at Brown. As I read Circling Rivers’ recent edition of Hazel’s collected poems, entitled Praise and Threnody, I became fascinated by the richness of his poetic voice, which draws on the traditions of Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Dylan Thomas, among others. I was also amazed to discover that this poet’s students included Wendell Berry, Rita Mae Brown, and Bobbie Ann Mason, and that he was briefly The Nation’s poetry editor.
      Hazel’s poetry harkens back to Whitman’s and Crane’s in his description of America and New York, especially, warts and all. In her Foreword, editor Jean Huets quotes Robert Buttel who says that Hazel’s ‘post-symbolist, surreal poems … are the most haunting, brilliant, dramatic and resistant.’ In addition, Huets mentions Wendell Berry’s citation of a section of Hazel’s ‘Celebration Above Summer’:

            Hear dark the priestly insects of my endless summer coast down to cells
                     of wax
           and kind weeds bend my flowers to their colors’ end

which she reports ‘can be read chaotic as an overgrown vacant lot in high summer, chaotic as a disintegrating love affair, chaotic as poetry can be.’
      Hazel is also good at character studies, especially those related to poverty and social protest. However, he also records the joy and beauty he finds in city- and landscapes. In addition, his social themes and their presentation styles also remind this reviewer of Muriel Rukeyser’s attention to the working class and the underprivileged, to John Dos Passos and Alfred Döblin sometimes newsreel or police blotter narrative techniques, to report of social problems, and finally of Allen Ginsburg’s wanderlust in his loving description of America, especially the South.
      In her expanded foreword to Praise and Threnody, Huets adds important facts about Hazel’s childhood and teens including his father’s academic background as ‘at Indiana University’ and later at Kentucky University, where Hazel developed ‘his great love for writing and poetry’. Huets also notes Hazel’s three-year military service in Korea, his Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied with Karl Shapiro and where he met his first publisher, Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
     In her Afterword, Huets explains her organizing principle for Hazel’s collected poems. She decided not to order them chronologically or biographically, but rather thematically: to ‘gather poems loosely based on themes that carry through Robert’s entire corpus of work. I’ll leave it at that; it seems best to allow “who touches this” to discover (or ignore) what those themes might be.’
      I think this method has worked very well. I would divide the parts of Hazel’s collected poetry into four life stages, each prefaced by a prologue or poetic ‘Ceremony” poems I-IV as Huets calls them. The first section is primarily about childhood, youth, family and his early explorations of the world. The second is about young love and youthful adventures. The third section is about mature love and loss including the death of his parents, wife, and child. In addition it has a national focus containing for example, poems about the funeral of US President Kennedy. Finally, the fourth is about preparing for the end and contemplating the meaning of life, with a strong dose of naturalistic nihilism.
      As mentioned above, Hazel’s poetry owes an enormous debt to Whitman, Crane, Thomas, who are sometimes mentioned directly in his poems or in the dedications. This excerpt from ‘Ceremony at Dawn’ demonstrates Hazel’s debt to Thomas:

          east where my fathers worshiped a young dying god
          a chapel of shingles settles in a stillness of bells;
          the tombs on the hill spool fine spiders and ferns;
          immaculate bones turned salt are licked by wild mares

Hazel’s Hopperesque family home and his strict upbringing is described very well in his very short ‘The Pinched Face of Virtue’ quoted here in its entirety

          A correct parlor, a correct wall-clock, a 60-watt light
                   corrected by a plastic shade
          & the sofa dustless & on a dustless end-table
                   the Standard Revised Bible

          Suddenly my father’s bloodless face, legacy of privation
                   & endless correction

His strained family relations are further defined in ‘What Do I Know’:

          What is my knowledge? Parents I can’t find?
          Brothers I visit once a year?     A sister who
          is a Pauline Christian?      A wife anointed by pain?
          And a child who was taken away?

However, in this section is also included Hazel’s awareness of the deleterious effects of social and racial inequality in his poem ‘Who Touches This’, one of Hazel’s finest:

          crying, “Whore of Babylon!”
          Near sleep I heard something
          perfect as a dream
          so certain that I felt
          it would survive my waking.
          It was only the hoarse
          repetitions of a drunk man
          shouting, cursing, weeping
          how this nation was killing
          all his innocent children.
          Yet strangely when he stood
          pounding the garbage cans
          and imploring, “America!”
          the words sounded beautiful
          as if he believed it

      This description is very close to my almost weekly experience in Haight-Ashbury in the early ‘80s, when, in the middle of the night, someone went off his/her meds, or was just fed up with his/her marginal life, until someone from the Free Clinic, across the street, brought them inside.
      The second section begins after ‘Ceremonies II’, and describes his first loves and corporeal experiences in the world, and the changing role of his parents in his life. In ‘Not by Bread’ the poet laments: ‘My father and mother have become my own / children’ It also includes poems about his East Coast exploits such as ‘To A Young Woman of Twenty I Carried On My Shoulders at Five’ which I consider to be one of his clear-voiced poems, possibly influenced by the New York School, about adults exploring roles and costumes, perhaps in the funky dress up days of the Summer of Love:

          I was glad to see you
          despite your Cowboy boots
          Western jacket and hat
          and your air of being interested
          in nothing at all

and ends with:

          I might have said, “Timothy Leary
          loves Doris Day” and you would
          have had to run me through
          with your Army Surplus bayonet

      Praise and Threnody’s third section reveals a more mature poetic voice with poems that represent his grief over the loss of his parents, a wife, a child, some friends, and a president. It is a more earnest exploration of the world, including it social and political problems. His robust travels in the American South as a vagrant poet in the back of a truck, in ‘Shenandoah’ reminds me of Allen Ginsberg’s picaresque adventures.

          In the rack of a cattle truck
          calves scratch my hands with little tongues
          I make my own music
          I catch a hatful of whispers like old rain
          that will not fall as long as I

      It also contains six poems about President Kennedy’s funeral in the subsection ‘Guard of Honor’, parallel to Whitman’s reverence for President Lincoln including Hazel’s poem from ‘Riderless Horse’ with its iconic imagery

          Above the muffled drums, the high voice
          of a young soldier
          tells the white horses how slow to go

          before your widow and children, walking
          behind the flag-anchored coffin—
          and one riderless black horse dancing!

      Huets saves the best for last in the ‘Love, Thou, At Once’ section, when Hazel is at the height of his poetic insight and technique. His lines are no longer overgrown with Thomasesque natural symbolism, but rather pruned to short and powerful lines and stanzas where he has just the right amount of greenery to get his point across.
      This section has finely crafted poems which discuss such weighty issues as President Johnson’s foreign policy in ‘Lines in Praise of Myself, a Frederic Thursz painting in ‘The Red and the Black’, the British Empire in ‘Empire’, and Dachau in ‘Star’. Hazel’s famous ‘Letter to a Kentuckian’ dedicated to his former student, Wendell Barry, is also included here along with ‘Under A Florida Palm’ with a reference to Wallace Stevens and the Sermon on the Mount in ‘Consider the Lilies’. It also comes with a strong dose of naturalistic nihilism and honesty. One such poem, ‘Death Flowers Are’, I imagine depicts a suicide.

          My flowers fan tall on wrists, their fragrance
                    welcome
          as the odor of powder from a fired gun.

      In ‘For the First Day of Benjamin’ Hazel collapses all of the history of human aggression in three short lines:

          All times are evil
          From the first stone thrown
          To the high-blown atom

Finally, this section is crowned with one Hazel’s longest poem, ‘Clock of Clay’, which I think should be considered as his consummate achievement. Here, the poet realizes he is at the end of the road:

          I have no future                  The river
                    is flowing backwards
          My present is my past
          & retort to Charcot, Freud, Husserl
                Binswanger, Heidegger, Buber,
                You tone deaf piano tuners
He continues a few lines later with ‘I am becoming nothing’, and a few more lines after that with the observation:

          I am the man who cannot exceed himself
          Threnody is my name

He reports further that: ‘Christ isn’t there/only a dead Jew my people pray to’ and that ‘I run a treadmill / level with evil – no gain into good’. Hazel also refutes the Bible. ‘The last shall never be first’ and his imagined escape plan from end-of-life-care ‘Before my life is reinvented by tubes / in imitation of the living cord / I shall cut free’. He also mentions that he is grappling ‘in the handcuffs of language’, an appropriate image for the difficulty of the writing process and the limits of language.
      Praise and Threnody is an impressive collection that successfully recapitulates Hazel’s themes as well as his artistic journey. It adds another voice to the landscape of American poetry from the 1950s-70s, which is sorely missing. It is a book by a poet who merits renewed and further consideration. AQ

Pat Seman – Photos from Crete

Pat Seman
Photos from Crete

                                          There is a land called Crete…
                                          handsome country, fertile, thronged with people
                                         well past counting, boasting ninety cities

                                                            the Odyssey, Book 19, line 194

One such city was Tylissos, not far from the palace of Knossos, where Odysseus found shelter when he was blown ashore by a fierce storm on his way to Troy.

Pat Seman, Tylissos, photograph, 2016

      But the place in Crete that has drawn me back repeatedly is Ancient Eleftherna, site of one of the island’s most important ancient city-states. It lies on the slopes of Mount Ida, the birthplace of Zeus, amongst swathes of olive trees, carobs and oaks, its high ridge looking over the distant sea.
      Here excavation is still on-going. Recent finds include a tomb housing the cremated remains of warriors from Homeric times, brimming with opulent grave gifts of jewellery and weapons. And a cremation site with funerary pyres, which conform in every detail to Homer’s description of the pyre built for Patroclus in the Iliad.

Pat Seman, Eleftherna Acropolis, 1, photograph, 2017

      The archaeologists plan to eventually return the warrior’s remains to their place of rest in the sheltered valley where they had lain in peace for so many centuries.

Pat Seman, Eleftherna Acropolis, 2, photograph, 2017

Peter J. King – Recollections of a Byzantine Official

Peter J. King
Recollections of a Byzantine Official

                                             (after K.P. Kavafis)

Symeon the Logothetis          stood up from his desk
and stretched; his neck          was stiff, his eyes
were sore and gritty,          and his stomach rumbled.
He had spent the morning          calculating soldiers’ pay,
and tracking down corruption          in the purchase
of Greek fire, and now          he needed food and rest.

He strolled down to the Neoríon,          joined the throng that bustled
through the gates, and bought          some fresh-baked bread
and Cretan cheese and wine          at a taverna on the harbour front.
A regular, he nodded greetings          to the sailors, shipwrights,
sutlers, and sawyers passing by,          and one or two received
a warmer, secret smile. Refreshed,          he strode more briskly
back to where his desk was waiting;          in the quiet of the Strategeíon
(for the staff were mostly napping          through the drowsy afternoon)
he laid out all his writing tools          and his unfinished Chronicle.

Sighing, then, he set to work          where he’d left off
the day before: the reign          of Romanós Lekapenós,
whose dark and liquid eyes          he still remembered,
gazing into his across a cushion          of embroidered silk.

Cammy Thomas – Sea Nymph Leucothea

Cammy Thomas
Sea Nymph Leucothea

Swimming beneath the dark waves,
I feel the storm, pressure in my ears,

and look up at Odysseus, his pale legs

churning in the ridges, naked,
alone, clinging to a spar.

As a bird, I break from stinging foam,

land on his broken mast. Once,
I was Ino, a human girl. Humans in the sea

must breathe, unless the gods transform them.

This man will be abandoned. The angry god
will let him die. I remove my magic scarf

to wrap around his middle, but as I reach,

he shrinks away. In his face
I see—I’m no longer human.

Still, he takes the scarf, and it scares

the water calm. I sink back into cold
and foreign gloom that is my home,

turn, and swim down.

J.R. Solonche – Perseus

J.R. Solonche
Perseus

I almost peeked.
How could it be true?
No one could be that horridly ugly.
No one could possibly be that ghastly.
Turn men into stone?
Turn boys into stone, yes.
Any old hag could do that.
I’ve witnessed it many times.
My own grandmother turned me into stone once.
But to turn a man into stone?
A man who has slept with hundreds of women?
Young, old, fair, swarthy, slender, fat?
A man who has been everywhere, seen everything?
No. I did not believe it.
But I brought my shield anyway.
Just in case.
As insurance.
And as I say, I almost looked at her.
I felt pity.
For a moment, I truly pitied her.
I even wanted to tenderly touch her face.
I wanted to whisper, ‘I’m sorry.’
And I did.
I did whisper to her.
As I looked in my shield and slew her,
I whispered, ‘Forgive me.’

Melody Wilson – Medea’s Last Girlfriend Consoles

Melody Wilson
Medea’s Last Girlfriend Consoles

Yeah, you were kind of hot, out there on that island, and you had skills. Big fish in a small pond. But Jason came along in a Pontiac or a longboat, something about a sheep, and off you went, total defiance. Your brother’s head in tow. Kind of a groupie, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, new to town, in over your head. You didn’t even know all the words, fiancé, fellatio, souffle. Such a bumpkin. You were both outsiders, but he was smooth and shiny, and you were broody, and there were parties. You got to know people. You had the palace, the boys had a tutor, and you could walk around the market shopping for pomegranates and smile. It wasn’t enough, of course, and that thing about the boss’s daughter. Okay, she was beautiful, like Charlize Theron in that J’adore commercial, and you kept saying, “It’s just the dress,” and well, you got that proved. Then there was no turning back; he would send you packing, and the boys would know, and they looked just like him, and well, that’s the thing about scorning.

David Melville – Purgatory

David Melville
Purgatory

                ‘Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati sceemi –
               But Virgil had left us, he was no longer there –’

               – from Canto XXX, in which the pagan Virgil
               must return to the underworld having led Dante to heaven

Wince not for Virgil solemn on his march
from heaven, the ramble and stumble down slope,
last rays on his neck, and judgment’s gap a stark

crack in the earth; inferno without hope.
Behind him, pilgrim Dante soars to joy
in folds of pure light: angelic throats

whose music rings in blissful, holy voice,
with all existence one vast dream in song.
Yet Dante shall slip down again, psalm destroyed,

bereft of Beatrice, his dead love gone.
At last each poet comes to know the fruits
of paradise are rarely tasted long:

Though saints and lovers sing devoted truths,
artists’ souls ever sink back to earth.

Jennifer L. Freed – Orpheus, Not Looking

Jennifer L. Freed
Orpheus, Not Looking

He lets her purple sweater rest
on her wing-back chair. It is there
beneath his fingers
each time he passes by.
On the bureau, her little jars
and bottles, their scent
a whisper of her near.
By the back door, her garden
gloves, her rubber boots.
As long as he does not look
for her, he can let himself believe
she’s only busied for a while
by some small chore.
Soon, she’ll follow him out
into the sunlit yard
to sit beside him with her cup of tea,
listening for the mourning dove,
the meadowlark, the chickadee.

Jane Blanchard – Ars Moriendi

Jane Blanchard
Ars Moriendi

                after Death and the Miser, Hieronymus Bosch, c.1485/1490

We like to think that we can still decide
As Death comes through the door—at last reject
All stores of worldly treasure and elect
A present, thus a future, without pride—

But there will be competing lights and voices
While good and evil forces battle on—
Plus, any power of judgment may be gone
Or limited by many former choices—

So it is prudent to convert before
The final arrow—lifted, aimed, released—
Hits home—since sickly sinners, once deceased,
Are out of time and cannot ask for more—

Yet even though this lesson is well-known,
Too few alive lose faith in what they own.

Bob Ward – Witnessing Edith Cavell, 1915

Bob Ward
Witnessing Edith Cavell, 1915

                When the Germans occupied Belgium at the start of WWI,
                Edith Cavell was the Matron of a hospital. She treated all
                casualties from both sides of the conflict, but secretly helped
                Allied troops return to their own lines. Found out, she was
                court-martialed and shot. She is buried in the grounds
                of Norwich Cathedral.

The woman overwhelmed his memory:
His only course remaining was to write
How as an army chaplain history
Forced itself upon him when human spite
Dressed up in uniform had no answer
To integrity but a firing squad.
Head, heart met four bullets—she’d not defer
To arrogance; her measure lay with God.
The young men cast in military poses
Might soon be dead themselves, no one could tell . . .
Staff at her hospital ten weeks before
The trial had sent her in a bunch of roses
That she cherished, even when they fell
As withered petals on the prison floor.