Amsterdam Quarterly Book Reviews Spring 2013 (AQ6)
by Bryan R. Monte

One Window North by Kate Foley, 69 pages, Shoestring Press, ISBN 978-1-907356-63-6
Song of San Francisco, by Edward Mycue, 20 pages, Spectacular Diseases, (no ISBN) 83(b) London Rd, Petersborough, Cambs., PE2 9BS, UK.
Poet Wrangler, droll poems by Marvin R. Hiemstra, 65 pages, Two Harbors Press, ISBN 978-1-937928-46-9
Less Fortunate Pirates by Bryan Borland, 87 pages, Sibling Rivalry Press, ISBN 978-1-937420-24-6.

During the past submission period, I’ve received four books that I felt were especially worthy of mention—each for slightly different reasons. The first book I received was Kate Foley’s One Window North—her fifth poetry book from Shoestring Press—with its beautiful, cover illustration of the view out the poet’s north-facing kitchen window by Claire Peasnall. Since I interviewed Foley in AQ4, I’m a bit more familiar with her work. One of the reasons that Foley’s poetry is so interesting is because she draws the reader into her descriptions. Another reason is because she depicts life in Amsterdam where she has lived since 1997. Before her move to the Netherlands, she was head of English Heritage’s Ancient Monuments Laboratory. Thus, it’s not surprising that many of her previous poetry collections have been about paintings or the process of making art.

One Window North, however, distinguishes itself from her previous books in that it is less about visual art and more a personal view of herself—her life in Amsterdam and her mortality and others’ since, as she mentioned in her AQ4 interview, she is “knocking on a bit.” The book’s first poem, “How Loaves Come Singing” states: “Those who are statistically a little closer/to death, not necessarily wise,/ are less inclined// to find the idea romantic.” “A Short Chapter in the History of Stone” follows. It is about the stoning of an Iranian woman for infidelity. A third poem, “For Agnes Sina-Imakoju” about “a sixteen year-old girl shot in a take away” follows directly thereafter.

There are many more poems about death and mortality in One Window North. “The Tin Factory” describes someone being fitted for an artificial heart and there is the more personal, “Heart Surgery.” Poems such as “More Less an Island” and “Oma” describe elderly pensioners, “Postcards” and “To the Field of Reeds,” the artifacts and ideas of the hereafter from ancient civilizations in present-day Malta and Eqypt respectively. These are sparsely-worded poems about weighty subjects. All benefit from Foley’s cinematic ability to zoom in on only what is important to tell a story.

In fact, most of One Window North’s poems are no more than a page to a page and half long. Foley’s experiments with long poetic series such as the 21 sections of The Silver Rembrandt and A Fox Assisted Cure have been scaled back. One Window North contains a series of six poems entitled “Coming in Late” about music concerts perhaps inspired by frequent visits to the nearby Concertgebouw. Here, Foley has definitely raised the bar. Trying to describe music is far more challenging and abstract than, for example, portraying the colours and/or figures in a painting. How does one describe tonality with images? Foley does so by describing a drumroll as: “a drummer pouring out/the thunder of a barrel of apples,” or “A young pianist, wobbly as a calf,/her plump figures butting the notes,/tears on her face. I must admit I’m not sure I know exactly what “shubertian uplands” or “pizzacato mountains” look like, but I can imagine what they feel or sound like. And this is what makes One Window North a delight to read.

The next book I would like to recommend is Edward Mycue’s slim, ten poem volume entitled “Song of San Francisco.” Sean Carey, in his introduction to this book, refers to these poems as a Song Cycle. The first poem, “The Song of Cities Like Viruses,” starts with the line: “is survival about leaving a message of what works.” Survival and disease are two themes that are woven through the next nine poems. “Sugerstrands” talks about how Mycue’s mother: “…cupped her right hand into my head to press me/into a welter of old beliefs…” to try to protect him. In “I Went Out Into the Sun of Broken Glass,” Mycue describes how “I went out queer, clumsy, read, and egg-/shell thin drinking the evening thickening and soft,” a very elegant beginning of a journey that would take him to Africa as a young adult in the Peace Corps and to San Francisco later as a gay man. He describes failures along the way in “SOUB – Same Old Under Born as: “some solo spinout,/ some bungled possibility, some/token aspiration.” He explores his genealogy in “Old School,” and his connectedness with “We Are All Husbands Here.” And “Memory Tongue” is one of the best poems about San Francisco’s emotional geography: “San Francisco, you/blind, handsome city./your harbor has a stone/ in its mouth.” echoing my sentiments exactly (as a former ten-year resident). This thin book of songs is well worth reading.

Marvin R. Hiemstra’s Poet Wrangler, droll poems, has a more comic tone, but its poems are just as well-written. Poet Wrangler shows the range of Hiemstra’s poems which vary anywhere from very short, thin poem’s of Eastern/hippie wisdom such as in “The Poet’s First Duty.” in the book’s third section called “Dancing at the Last Roundup.” “Don’t forget/to blow/tenderly/in the ear/of the Universe/ as often as/you can.// The Universe/gets/so lonely.” Longer ruminations in the same section include the series of four poems from page 52 to page 57 which include “A Poet’s Handy Tool List,” “A Selection from “The Poet with Us: Nora May French,”” “Just Found Dream,” “Wooly, My Muse,” and “Tell Them You Are in Rehab.”

Hiemstra’s poetry exhibits a playfulness that is not afraid to experiment with line length and typography and mix it with humour to talk about love, loss, and of course, the meaning of life. The book contains list poems, poems about dreams, even poems about prehistory such as “Carbon Dating Can Be Pretty Sexy/Just Remember Forever Isn’t” which begins with “Long, long ago, people got stuck/in thoughts, giraffes galloped by, joyful,//notes bouncing on the landscape. People/painted those giraffes on solid rock.” Hiemstra writes: “I print poems,/heartscapes high on a cliff. Rock Face/will cherish my words, hold them tight/till Earth crumbles.” And he puts the relative worth of his poetry into perspective showing its reception by one of the modern guardians of literature, the librarians, in “Best Compliment Ever.”  “Our poetry review has hatched at last./ I deliver it to libraries stuck on hold: jolting/each slow motion librarian from a dream…” The book fails to excite the “dusty librarian, who stifles an Arctic yawn…” The poem ends with an unexpected validation from a homeless man next to “a jammed Wall Street Journal rack/ he whispers, “Hey man, I really like your shirt.”” This puts the poet’s desire for connection, notoriety and/or recognition into perspective. Hiemstra’s Zen-like, humourous observations remind me of those of Allen Ginsberg or James Broughton.

Less Fortunate Pirates by Bryan Borland is a collection of approximately 50 poems about the writer’s “first year without my father.” The collection starts in December just after the writer’s father dies in a car accident and continues through the next year just beyond Thanksgiving. The collection begins with “Instructions for How to Approach the Bereaved,” at a funeral or wake and continues with a “buried,” “frozen” Christmas where “Midnight mass turns/mourning chapel/Jingle bells toll joylessly.” It includes poems about childhood reminiscences, genealogy, his father’s profession, dreams about his father, and a psychic’s explanation of the real reason for his father’s accident. All of this whilst the writer gets on with his life packing away his father’s belongings, fixing his mother’s home and caring for the family plot.

Pirates is an impressive collection of mostly short poems which are powerful in their combination of the mundane with the writer’s remembrance of his father’s absence. For example, in his poem, “Pedestal Days,” “Pardons come as easy as breath/in the waxy face of difficult decisions,/the color of the casket,/which shirt goes with forever.” Or from “The Day That Cemeteries Change: “Like a backyard quarterback/I kneel with my bare knee//to settle the flowers we leave/against the winds of our absence.” Such writing is simple, precise and concentrated and draws the reader through the collection to its conclusion in December a year later. It is a book, which undoubtedly will touch both those who have lost a parent and lost who have not.