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Jul 31, 2018

Blood Atlas


Blood Atlas by Lynne DeSilva Johnson, 90’s?. As in all atlases, geography is central. From Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn in the first poem, near the Marcy housing development, to the candles melted into Himalayans, to the ride on the Hudson Line, we are reminded of the importance of place and of a cartographic approach to living and life. Gazing at a partner, the poet muses, “How foreign, the geography of another.” In the final poem Baedeker, a reference to a German publisher of travel guides, a home is viewed in geographical terms, the living room, an archipelago. The collection is rooted in a complex New York, the one found in Concrete Shadows – part whore and part dream maker, permanent as steel and fragile as snowflakes. Lullaby of Birdland declares, “Here lives possible.” Here we find “teacups of art and despair.” New Yorkers know what she means when she says,

Young pigeon city,

to thee I desperately cling

with all love’s folly.

There is a bonus in this slender volume – an essay entitled About the Trouble with Bartleby, concerning a blog Lynne maintained which led to her own press. This essay turns into an eloquent manifesto on the subject of publishing. Many will recognize the frustrating quest for a publisher in her words, “the 20thcentury capitalist, colonialist model of exhausting, expensive submission and rejection. . .has long been broken.” Instead she envisions a more collaborative and mutually supportive view of publishing. Her parting shot: “ONWARD, Humans. Be kind to each other.”


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  • xxpaulmartin12345x
    Jun 25

    The Crazy Bunch by Willie Perdomo ’85. If you’d like to take an anthropological trip to a different culture right within the confines of Manhattan island, this book is for you. These poems take you into a classically compressed weekend during which a group of young men in Spanish Harlem come of age (or are tragically thwarted from coming of age) while hanging out (“lamping”) on the street corners and littered playgrounds of their neighborhood to the sound track of 80’s-90’s hip hop. An aura of myth envelopes the events as they occur through the filter of memory in a space now altered by time. Apparently, you can’t go home again. I count among these poems about 11 dialogs between an entity called The Poetry Cops and Papo aka Skinecky (the dominant voice of the work) and his friends. Since several begin with Papo showing the poetry cops a photograph where we meet the Crazy Bunch and other members of the community, my read is that these cops act as liaison between the hood and the surrounding culture. Sometimes they raise questions which guide the non-Puerto Rican reader and sometimes the cops themselves struggle to understand. The events of the weekend are numerous, probably too numerous to be possible. There’s the hanging out, which seems unrushed, almost outside of time, the preparación , an occasion where la Bruja, the Cassandra of the piece, makes predictions, the crashing of Josephine’s Sweet Sixteen Party, the trip downtown to break into a shoe store, various battles, and the deaths by gunshot and suicide. As always in poetry, the words count for more than the events. So here are a few lines to ponder. From “Drug War Confidential:” False claims, fake news, old blues, blood & feathers, gold & water, bad weather, black bodies, brown detentions, low retentions, you know, same ole same ole. And from “They Won’t Find Us in Books,” lyrical heartbreaking nostalgia. You have to read the whole poem, but here are a couple of lines which mark loss through the passage of time: Gone are the old spots near the takeout, old flames where we used to make out, the spots where the light used to fade out, and the letters we wrote from burning buildings. There is so much in this work that is astonishing and, even with the poetry cops help, hard to access. I am astonished by the burlesque note that jumps in smack in the middle of tragedy. The fabled story of Don Julio, who in stormy weather “cartwheeled to the light post, but he never let go of his porkpie hat” is echoed in the tragic moment of Dre’s suicide when “his white yarmulke gyrated like a dizzy UFO” as he fell to his death. Or Petey’s jet-propelled trip to triage. The cast of characters pulls you in. The girls, though kept in their place, respond with spunky swagger. The people of the block, always watching, provide a Greek chorus. The rap vibe pulses with muscular spondees. The Crazy Bunch was the band of brothers who shared a time and space, offering each other comfort when crime, drugs and danger surrounded them. Here is their farewell to adolescence, the last time “The corner was between us & the world.”
  • xxpaulmartin12345x
    May 6

    Body of Work by Tina Cane ff. In this evocative work, Tina explores a vast range of topics, from concrete vignettes depicting the poverty of her Chinese immigrant grandparents to a cosmic perspective on motherhood. In the first section, REALITY SERIES, we are introduced to the theme of the passage of time as the poet, apparently back in New York after an absence, sees a familiar skateboarder “on the same oldschool/ skateboard as ever” still around, not as changed as one might expect. Then she sees her own first rebellious gray hair. Poems memorialize her mother piercing her ears and a fire in her bedroom. We see her Chinese grandfather toting home a television set, still in the box, but obliging the family to watch the old set where everything is green because it hasn’t yet completely worn out. Life Hacks offers some great suggestions (before you discard a post-it note, use it to clean out the crumbs on your keyboard). All of this section leads to one place: her father’s grave at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Here is the other pole of her identity. In the section, (MY) AMERICAN JOURNAL, Tina’s thought evolves; she works toward a Whitmanesque view of America and her place in it. Though she refers to this journal as her continuum, she has trouble understanding the brutal, embittering life her grandmother experienced. “I grasp truth like I cup fog.” She doesn’t hear America singing exactly, but she does see it as a reality show. I grow into myself mixed product of multitudes glorious bastardization for amber waves of grain and footprints on the moon are particulars portrayed as proof of a manifest dream which counts me. The last section is called WORK., all kinds of work from writing poetry (the first poem in this section refers to Anna Akhmatova’s promise that she could encapsulate in words the horror Russia had become) to childbirth and motherhood to driving a cab. Night of my mouth dry with stardust light of my children breaking through The poem about the cabby is called Hack, which harks back to Life Hacks in the first section. But this time we are back at the death of her father who left very little material legacy but a wealth of the other kind, who ripped open his Christmas presents saying, “An embarrassment of riches.” There is much that is beautiful in the collection. What stays with me is the poem called YOUNGEST SON . Having learned from his mother that he is formed from stardust, this young boy imagines he must have been flying among the stars before he was born. He says, “I fell like a raindrop into your mouth.” It’s worth the book to see what Tina does with that image.
  • xxpaulmartin12345x
    May 6

    The Analyst, Poems by Molly Peacock ff. Powerful emotion is the engine for powerful poetry, and this collection of poems erupts from a raging furnace fire. Behind the fraught story of the poet and her analyst is the violent childhood that propelled the poet into treatment. During the decades of analysis, the poet learns to take charge of her trauma but of course it remains, fueling her work. The occasion of this collection is the analyst’s stroke, which turns the tables on their relationship. The poems abound in metaphor (cranium is to ideas as fishbowl is to fish) puns (what a distance there is between “rest” and “the rest”), and wordplay (the progression of the word “jar” from pottery jar, to Plath’s bell jar, to the canning jar). Perhaps George Herbert’s “Glass of Blessings” and the cracked mug belong to this leitmotif. I guess it will come as no surprise that my favorite poem in the collection is How to Say “Thank You” in French . The voice of the erudite teacher explaining the myriad ways to say “thank you” in French gives way repeatedly to the profound gratitude the poet feels toward the analyst. The little French lessons provide a step of remove so that we (and she) are not awash in a sea of gratefulness, so that the whole story can be apprehended of how analysis kept the poet from hardening into a brittle, compartmentalized entity, allowing her instead the softness she needed to feel, to write—to become a fully realized person. Molly’s images can be boldly grotesque. She drags a “carcass coat,” heavy and constructed of many pelts, through the airport. This poem has the feel of a nightmare, where shapes can shift. When she gets to her seat on the plane, this repulsive burden shrinks and easily stores in the overhead bin. (Take that you moldy memories!) One scene seems to me straight out of Maurice Sendak. The poet says, “We married each other to parent each other,” and then presents the fanciful image of the babes she and her husband were long ago, tossed into the air by their feckless parents. The minute we left their hands we began Grasping for one another even though We hadn’t seen a speck of each other. For me, this is the book’s most enchanting moment. But throughout, it is the dance between poet and analyst that affords this work its density and complexity. When the poet falls and must use a cane (as the analyst does), we wonder again who is helping whom. The analyst is an artist, and now, with her word retrieval damaged, turns to watercolor pencils. ….to draw the jonquil things you saw, and live the raw I am, as you do now, relearning how to show the few of us who stay in touch how to twist and learn.