Review: Hayden Saunier, “A Cartography of Home”

Saunier, Hayden. A Cartography of Home. Terrapin, 2021.

Hayden Saunier’s A Cartography of Home (published in February by Terrapin Books) is another breathtaking example of what this poet does best: crafting sensuous language, weaving together word play and close observation. Saunier is like an accomplished oil painter at work with a palette knife. Although we know the shape of the instrument—her work is informed by traditional poetic forms, especially the couplet’s mirroring march—we are still surprised by the deftness of her strokes (the linebreaks that sing) and the vibrant colors of her language. There is an urgency to how Saunier uses time as a lens for looking at the natural world that is poignant and direct without ever tipping too far over into sentimentality.

Saunier can skirt the edge of a careworn metaphor. As one example, the title poem examines the speaker’s relationship with her mother as a map. It might have been easy to rely on trite comparisons like being “pointed the right way” and “sailing through storms,” but Saunier uses the language of discovery and exploration, and yes, cartography, to mourn the passing of the matriarch and the unmarked journey that is ‘matresence’ (a word that recently has gained media attention, meaning “mother-becoming”). She writes, “My mother was a place. She was the where/from which I rose. …as I grew into my own wild country” (Saunier, lines 1-4). The artistry of Saunier’s work is that she translates universal human experiences while still managing to make them feel intimate. It is like looking through both ends of the telescope at the same time. This is a speaker who does not directly reveal a lot about herself, and yet, she admits that, for her mother, “Monsters mark the desert blanks on her charts too” (line 15).

This work looks outward toward the natural world to earn the poems’ resolutions. In some cases, it happens in the final lines that tie back to the title (as in, “I’m Also the Fox”) or a voice that turns toward the reader as if she stands on a dark stage to stage-whisper, “Oh, you didn’t think/there was a catch?/There’s always a catch.” (“Gathering Black Locust Blooms,” lines 26-28). The underlying architecture of Saunier’s work is hard wrought, and like a Swiss watch or hand-forged lock (see the poem “Locks” for more on what this costs), the impressive beauty of its intricacies is that they remain invisible. And yet, her work can be wryly humorous, and I hope I will be forgiven for comparing it to the carrion bird, whom she hallows in her poem “Evening View with a Turkey Vulture”: it is the “cathartes aura/golden purifier/[who may be] beak-and-talon-tired/from a long day’s taking up of the dead” (lines 17-20). These are poems to be enjoyed for what they are doing, how they shift the reader’s attention to splendor and the fading art of really looking at the world around us.

 

 

(Online Bonus) REVIEW: Kirwyn Sutherland’s Jump Ship

Some of the feelings within a Black life cannot be easily expressed; they contradict each other. Sometimes a person wants revenge against the oppressing majority, and other times, they seek assimilation. Despite the difficulty of translation, Kirwyn Sutherland’s Jump Ship illustrates the triumphs and torment of Black people in America.

Sutherland is a poet based in Philadelphia. He has published two chapbooks, X: A Mixtape and X: A Mixtape Remastered, has written book reviews for WusGood magazine, and has poetry published by Tobeco Literary Arts Journal, Drunkinamidnightchoir, APIARY, and Public Pool. Jump Ship’s illustrations are by visual artist and DJ Oluwafemi.

Jump Ship reveals the mental conversations Black people have with themselves about difficult subjects. The poem, “The Email Said” shows the hidden frustration Black people have when forced to code-switch. “Assimilation” details the mind and the fixed smile of a man who tries to conform with racist coworkers. “Taunts to the Klan” is a proclamation of pride and glee to spite racists.

Like a mind racing, Sutherland’s poems read quickly. He does this by using slash marks in some poems and all caps in others. “The Email Said” uses repetition to create speed.

talking to the wall about

what you would have said

to the ‘next person

who spoke so well

of your “speak so well”’ (16-17)

In “Assimilation,” Sutherland creates speed with imagery:

When I heard my co-workers say nigger

It almost knocked the whiteness

out of me but I caught it with my

fist and prayed whiteness wouldn’t confuse

the grabbing for a power move (13-15)

“Assimilation” is also notable for its references to pop culture: an epigraph says it is inspired by Sarge from A Soldier’s Story. Another poem in this collection that talks about conformity, “Uncle Tom’s Redux,” calls out Kanye West, Steve Harvey, and others for selling out their Black pride. The references in Jump Ship make it timely and relatable.

“Taunts to the Klan” uses speed similarly to “Assimilation”; both use description to create intense situations. But thematically, the poems conflict. The narrator of “Taunts to the Klan” can spot a closet or a proud racist within seconds, but the narrator of “Assimilation” wishes to fit in with the racists around him, so much so that he maligns his Black co-worker. Black pride and self-doubt, ideas like these are explored in Jump Ship.

Some poems use slash marks as well as line breaks to affect pacing; others use capitalization to affect the volume and intensity of specific words or phrases. Most of the poems manipulate their speed in some way, leading to a reader feeling impassioned. These poems are not contemplative gazes at nature; they’re a door kicked off its hinges. They’re shouts of pride and wails of agony from centuries of torment.

 

 

 

ONLINE BONUS: POETRY BOOK REVIEW

Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (2nd Edition) [Texture Press, 2019]

Review by Jamal H. Goodwin Jr.

Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets is more than a motivational tool or instruction manual for a beginner poet. It is a source of joy, insight, melancholy, curiosity, and humor. This variety of emotions arises thanks to poets of various levels, from students to classical poets to professionals. Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin, the authors of Prompts for Poets, contribute poems as well. Fox is a writer who teaches at Drexel University, and Levin is a writer and translator who teaches at Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania.

But this book is more than a writing guide with prompts for poets: it is also a poetry collection. Prompts for Poets offers strong lines, voluble stanzas, and opportunities for both humor and contemplation.

The narrator in Levin’s “Paraclausithryon” ostensibly pleads for entry into a lover’s abode, but is actually castigating them:

I beg news of your dreams

the milk of your voice.

Don’t waste yourself

like an unread book

I will wait a year, maybe two

then don’t blame me if I seek

someone simpler

less in need of coaxing.

 

The scorn of the narrator is palpable, and the ease of their transition from serenading their lover to threatening abandonment is almost disturbing.

Devin Williams’ “Rats” delivers insight on a marginalized soul. The mythology that Williams evokes demonstrates that there is more to a rat. They are not just subway dwellers; rats have admirers, and rats have feelings, too:

I am present when food is abundant.

Companion of Daikoku,

Savior of Sesshu,

First sign of the Zodiac

It is only language that separates us.

Yet, you avoid me

And attack me.

You don’t know me,

How can you claim to know how I feel?

 

Prompts for Poets has humorous, carefree moments too. In chapter 11, “The Advice Column Poem,” desperate readers ask columnists for life advice. Each poem’s columnist gives an absurd answer, one that ignores the question and frequently prompts a laugh. In Lauren Hall’s “Lost without Frank,” a wife inquiring about difficulties with her husband is told by the crystal-ball-consulting Madame Rosa that he does not exist:

You say this Georgina never existed, and there Madame Rosa agrees, but who’s to say that Frank wasn’t just more of the same? Who’s to say you didn’t make him up one afternoon while you were sorting your sock drawer or scrubbing the toilet?

There’s plenty more prompts and poetry to be found in Prompts for Poets. The prompts and instructions are sure to get the mind warmed up and ready to write while the poems bring about contemplation or give rise to a laugh. More can be found on Fox and Levin’s collaborative website, https://poemsforthewriting.com/.

 

Review: Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven by Grant Clauser

Clauser, Grant. Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven. Codhill Press, 2020.

I read once that Sylvia Plath’s original manuscript order for Ariel began with “Love…” and ended with “spring” and that this was intentional and significant (despite being woefully out of step with the mythology that has grown up around her work since her death).

Similarly, Grant Clauser’s Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (winner of the Codhill Press Pauline Uchmanowicz Poetry award) begins, “Lord, forgive us our pessimism…” and ends, “…giving the world all/it can take, light/playing over every/precious thing.” These choices are also clearly significant in terms of the voice Clauser cultivates between these covers.

These are not naïve poems, but they are hopeful. There are times when the voice is wry or even briefly despairing, but they always seem to carefully weigh the natural world and the father’s place in his growing family to find something to rejoice in, as he states in the closing lines of one poem: “how in this life we tell each other/stories to get through the day, to teach/our kids to love something distant/…because it seemed/like the best way to preserve/the time we had, the time we have” (from “Adopting a Manatee”).

These poems build upon the voice and awareness Clauser first explored in Reckless Constellations (his 2018 collection from Cider Press Review). In that collection, the poet’s love and nostaligia for his childhood spent outdoors resonates throughout his poems. In this one, his meditations mourn the coming loss of the natural world from climate change. He also looks to past environmental disasters through the lens of individual creatures, such as the ill-advised dynamiting of a whale carcass on a beach in the 1970s, an “anti-ode” for the spotted lanternfly and the creature who lends her name to the collection, the Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven (a fossil discovered in China and thought to be about 66 million years old), who “was beautiful/because even as it died/it was so close to flying.”

Several of the poems make use of Shakespeare or Miltonian lines as their titles, but the trained eye of Clauser’s poems return to the smallest living thing as a telescoping metaphor for our purpose here on the planet as in “Hummingbird,” which previously appeared in the Sugar House Review (wondering in the closing lines, “how dark worlds hidden from sight/can still bend starlight around them”). But the beating heart of the collection is the poem “Men Weeping in Cars,” where Clauser admits, “Maybe life is good after all,/you’ve worked and saved and built/but the color of the sky reminds you/how thin the line is between wanting/and needing, and you tell yourself/not to do this to your heart again.” Trust this poet and his brilliant poems.

Muddy Dragonby Grant Clauser

Review: Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews

Matthews,  Airea D. Simulacra. Foreword by Carl Phillips, Yale UP, 2017.

Airea Matthews’ Simulacra doubles then quadruples its mirroring. As the author teases in her Notes, “the [title] derives from the Latin… meaning ‘to make like’ or simulate. …[but], according to [Philosopher Jean] Baudrillard, the simulacrum was that which ‘hides truth’s nonexistence.’” It is clearly this secondary definition that she is playing with in her text: these poems seem to pull back the curtain, revealing a dark mirror or pond that in its brightest spots truly illuminates the show behind us.

The compelling majesty of these poems is that they somehow remain inviting; it would be easy for such complexities to lock out the casual reader. But Matthews draws on a vast literary store of familiar characters (from Ancient Greek mythology and celebrity poets), folding in a modern sensibility that manages to not feel gimmicky. She often uses epigrams from French philosophers and writers (Camus, Baudrillard, Barthes) to remind us of the depth of what she is trying to achieve, even as she drops her characters—some recurring, like Anne Sexton the nurse who has never heard of Anne Sexton the confessional poet—into familiar settings. Matthews uses the operetta and biblical-style verses as easily as she does some more quotidian forms of communication that hardly seem artful (like texting and tweeting), until, in her hands, they become so. The text messages delivered, significantly, out of order—so that the reader must rely on timestamps and numbering to read them in their intended sequence—between poet Anne Sexton and the doomed Arthur Miller character Tituba from The Crucible of “Sexton Texts Tituba From a Bird Sanctuary” could really be titled something along the lines of ‘desire, foreboding, and womanhood.’ Those ideas pulse throughout this collection.

The spine of hunger, longing and trauma runs as an undercurrent through all of these poems, voices, and shifting presentations. As Carl Phillips mentions in his foreword (detailing his decision to select Matthews’ manuscript for the Yale Younger Poets series), “she offers us nothing less than an extended meditation on the multifariousness of desire” (xv). The poet herself remains unknown, even though she uses several characters (like “The Mine Owner’s Wife,” “The Good Dentist’s Wife” and Anne Sexton the poet) as stand-ins for the “I” presence, so that it becomes clear that there is something she finds compelling about women who were limited in their ambition at the hands of their male counterparts. But these are far from “domestic poems,” as some of these titles would have you believe. Matthews’ heroines are powered by their self-awareness, even though they are trapped. Her voice vibrates with the power of the poet Ai, that great master of the dramatic monologue. Matthews seems to be saying that there is power in femaleness that rides the great tide of generations. As she writes in “Select Passages from the Holy Writ of Us,” “They called her morning.5 She misheard mourning.6” This collection is a tour de force in its breadth and depth.

https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300223965/simulacra