Three New Books of Poetry
Paul Allen. Ground Forces. Cliffs of Moher, Ireland: Salmon
Poetry, 2008. 100 pages, $22.95.
Cathy Smith Bowers, The Candle I Hold Up to See You, Oak
Ridge, Tennessee: Iris Press, 2009. 89 pages, $14.00.
Philip Memmer, Lucifer: a Hagiography, Sand Point, Idaho: Lost
Horse Press, 2009. 77 pages, $16.95.
When I opened the package containing these three books, I
expected to be reviewing three distinctively different books by
accomplished poets who had growing reputations and a following.
Based on their previous books of poetry, these poets look at life
quite differently: Allen with a Southern humorist’s sense of the
absurd; Bowers with her seriousness about family life, love and language;
and Memmer with his philosophical and mythical approach
to experience. I never expected that all three books would be dealing
with religious questions.
Ground Forces is Paul Allen’s eagerly awaited second book. He
received accolades for his first book, American Crawl: Poems,
which was both hilarious and disturbing in the way it presented the
foibles of the personas in the poems, while letting the readers know
that it was really our own secrets being revealed. It won the Vassar
Miller Prize in 1997. His chapbook, His Longing (The Small Penis
Oratorio), (FootHills Press, 2005) focused on a comic but spiritual
look at all the shortcomings we each have hidden from public view
because of our embarrassment. He has produced two CDs, The
Man with the Hardest Belly: Poems and Songs, and a new CD of
original songs, “Waiting for the Last Bus.” This book will expand
his reputation as one of the funniest poets in America.
The title poem makes it clear where we stand. We are the “Ground
Forces” recruited to be the losers, the cannon fodder, God’s Chosen
People. We are hand-picked like Moses who, when he “gets his huge
oh-by-the-way / from Yahweh: You will see but not get in,” clucks
to himself, “Well, I’ll be.” The poem recasts biblical stories of the
Israelites wandering toward the Promised Land and the story of Jesus
casting out demons by putting them in pigs and sending them over the
cliffs. Allen pities the poor farmers whose pigs they were. The refrain
is, “Well, I’ll be,” as once again those who have put their hopes on
the wrong thing have to suck it up and get on with it. Allen tells us:
See? Winners aren’t blessed because they win
nor win because they’re blessed.
Get it Hiroshima: Get it Cherokee?
They win because the losers have been blessed.
He tells us to go ahead and submit to Publisher’s Clearing House,
and send in that poem or manuscript or resume, because somebody
has to, otherwise
there’s no one for the other
guy to beat. Any jerk can lick a stamp
or call cold contacts when there’s hope.
You, the blessed, must try again precisely because
there is no hope.
In a prose poem, “The Overwhelmed Samaritan,” Allen warns us,
Not everybody is born, but everybody does die. You don’t have to be
a doctor to give the prognosis of every cancer, bullet wound, hangnail,
toe fungus, hemorrhoid, or mid-air collision: Terminal.
He points to the people on the street, the people driving Land
Rovers, the people on cell phones, people like us, and says, “Get
them to the hospital immediately.” We need to be prepared. When
your doctor says he doesn’t hear anything wrong, you need to ask
him to run another test. We’re goners, all. The doctor should get a
check up too, on our tab. “Darfur, drive-by shootings, lepers in
Bangladesh, flyers off the twin towers,” it is just too overwhelming
for any Samaritan to handle.
The spiritual question in these poems is about how to live with perpetual
loss, the constant disappointments, unfulfilled ambitions,
thwarted hopes, and never measuring up to expectations. The list
becomes absurd. In “The Drive Home After the Hearing,” (a
divorce hearing) Allen refers to the mystics and wonders if “The
ache in the absence of Christ / thrills them as proof He is there?” If
so then he says to his ex that must mean they are madly in love.
Later, in another poem related to his divorce, “Relics,” he begins,
“This business of belief is a growing concern,” and then refers to
all the commerce that grew up around “Saint Ann’s foot, Gregory’s
venerable hand” and other collected mementos. Eventually the
speaker invites us to see the cut up American Express card that had
paid for his ex’s trip to the Holy Land “in the blue ashtray reliquary.
/ You can visit them Monday-Friday / except for Holy Days
and days of obligation.”
The middle section of the book reproduces His Longing (The Small
Penis Oratorio). In the foreword he claims he is not a student of
theology but cites as sources:
St. John of the Cross’s redaction of The Dark Night of the Soul,
Teresa of Avila’s The Way of Perfection, Thomas a Kempis’ The
Imitation of Christ, Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout
Life, and Thomas Merton’s A Search for Solitude and New Seeds of
Contemplation. For some of the details, I use Robin Smith’s The
Encyclopedia of Sexual Trivia and the internet, the price for which
appears to be a lifetime of spam promising perfection.
The opening poem, “Initial Consultation,” is side splitting funny,
with slips of the tongue by the physician who tells him, “By and
large—oops, sorry—you’re stuck with it,” and a receptionist who
didn’t get a good look at his face when he signed in and “needs to
know which one you are.” Several poems are struggles with everyday
life where we are mortified that others will discover our shortcomings—
oops again. “Repent” is a list of all the things the
speaker has to admit he has tried to get his life in shape, from bottles
of “90 proof God, the great I Am,” hobbies, fads, addictions,
“lies you told yourself hooked on the hype of belief or grief.”
The last section adds to the litany of losses, portraying different personae
whose fate is to be the loser or who has to face up to naked
exposure. One poem, “Ground Forces in Academy,” ridicules the
phrase “war on terror” and the politicians who say that youth should
be prepared to fight. But the poem also states that what is being
taught in the academy is of little use, irrelevant, mere mimicry. Allen
who is a full professor teaching poetry and song writing at the College
of Charleston, concludes: “We arm our raw recruits as best we can.”
Allen’s poem “Reunion” should be compulsory reading to bring
back those memories and recognize that we are all getting older,
pudgier, and loss surrounds us. The elevator in the poem taking the
former classmates up to the bar gets heavier and heavier, with loss,
bad memories, fat, and grief. The speaker keeps looking at the sign
that says 2400 lbs weight limit and wonders if it includes the
ghosts and divorced spouses.
The final poem, “What is Required,” is Allen’s answer. The long
poem in six sections is a recognition that:
At moments when I stand alone
I’m at my most I am.
Everything else is air
and arbitrary firing of neurons.
Call it prayer, then,
the moments where I am not aware
even of how lovely the moment is—
. . . .
And if such moments are prayer,
they are a kind of purer prayer
than the customary tongue work
my churches have devised
to substitute for car horns…
At the end of the poem, he is watching two butterflies during a
break from hoeing. Like Wordsworth he hopes he will take something
from this moment beyond the sweat and the heat. The poem
ends, “Perhaps that’s all the faith I want, or need. Perhaps it’s all
the faith I’m allowed.”
The title of Cathy Smith Bowers’ fourth book, The Candle I Hold
Up to See You, comes from an epigraph at the beginning of the
book: “Speech is the candle I hold up to see you / and the night
bent down to cup us in its giant hand” (from Alan Shapiro’s poem,
“Turn”). A second epigraph by Thomas Hohstadt is a further indication
of the thrust of book: “Metaphor, after all, is neither / the
candle nor the wick, / but the burning.”
Bowers poems burn with intensity, exposing the dark reaches of
humanity, hers and ours. At times it is hard to tell who is it she is
holding the candle up to see. Is it us, her family, or is it God? But
the candle she holds is more than speech, more than words on the
page. She seeks something more because the night that surrounds
us calls for metaphor and transformation. In an interview with
Julie Funderburk in storySouth, Bowers is asked about an earlier
quote where she said “our major task in writing a poem is to shine
a light on a moment of intensity.” Her response is especially important
in understanding this book:
[W]e are in a culture deprived of spirituality. We hunger for it and
are always looking for ways of having the spirit fed. In the best
poetry, the spirit will be fed, and it’s the spirit that should be—not
the brain. The mind is also a part of it—but [the mind] is the
machine that gets the reader to the spirit of the poem. I like to think
of a poem as a river of spirit, and every once in a while there comes
a current of intellect. I like smart poems, but I don’t want the smartness
of the poem to be the main thing. I want to not even notice the
smartness of a poem until many readings later.
After reading these comments, the title of the first section of the
book comes as no surprise: “Eight Names for God.”
However, the titles of these eight poems are in un-translated, perhaps
un-translatable, Hebrew letters. Each of these titles presumably
represents the esoteric names that the Kabbalah have given to
God. Some versions of the Kabbalah assign 72 names to God, but
other versions list only eight. These are sometimes translated as
Unconditional Love, Physical and Spiritual Healing, The Power of
Prosperity, Purifying Places and Spaces or Destroying the Ego,
Miracle Making, Absolute Certainty, Protection from Evil Eye, and
Attracting “The One.” Because the letters vary in different texts it
is hard to associate which of these translations goes with the titles
of her poems.
The first poem Bowers begins:
This, the Kabbalah tells us,
is the first name of God.
With us from the beginning
in the darkened houses
of our beings, the switch
that was always there
to be turned on.
Calling on this name of God will “undo our ancient crimes.”
Cain’s fist is un-raised, Booth’s gun has not fired, Lizzie Borden’s
axe is still in the shed. All we have to do is “rest your eyes, the
book / instructs, on the untranslatable / beauty of each character.”
Bowers’ prosody is so pure, the mystery of the Hebrew letters so
unreadable that we are almost convinced that she is actually telling
us all we have to do is look on those letters. But we soon realize
that the names of God are really our words for what we want provided
to us. Oh, we pray, if only God would rewind our lives to
before it all went wrong.
The next poem, with different letters, “is the name that says we can /
reclaim those sparks that once // emboldened us.” This is the name
we call on to reawaken us when our lights have sputtered out like
distant stars, the name we hope will keep our light alive long after
we are gone. In another poem, Bowers suggests that we want miracles
not metaphors. Those who try to explain away the Red Sea
parting or Joshua stopping the sun are pundits who do not understand.
This is the name to call on when we need to see miracles.
Gradually, these names of God become very personal pleas to rectify
some part of the poet’s (and perhaps our own) life. In one,
which resembles protection from the evil eye, she wants to be rid of
her mother’s fault finding and paranoia that has grown worse in
the nursing home so that she will finally become, “The perfect girl
she wanted / all along.”
As Bowers’ personal needs further inhabit these names of God, the
poems become more complex. In one poem, that at first seems to be
the name of God she would call on for healing, the speaker realizes
that as a child she loved her sickness because of “The way my
mother // pampered me, yes loved / me more than all the rest / when
I was ill.” She enters into her memory of the warm cloths and poultices
and being all alone with her mother after her brothers and sisters
and father had left for school and work. She ends the poem:
To your health,
In any language, this name
of God proclaims.
The only name I know
to call upon, now
that she is gone.
In another poem she says, “Kabbalah, too, affirms / our dreams yet
another name for God.” Dreams, she says, are “Like receiving a
letter from God / and not bothering to open it.” We call on this
name when we need the ethereal fantasies to be true again as they
were in childhood reveries and in dreams. Another name for God
will right again the tumbled twin towers, Penelope’s weaving,
Pompei’s daily life. This name calls “back into essence / the bright
fragmented brilliance / of our lost selves.”
The last of these poems is a recollection of a childhood crone who
frightened the children in her neighborhood, sitting on her “ramshackle
porch” with a gun
resting in her lap
like a child she loved
just waiting for those of us
she didn’t to step one scrawny
foot beyond the boundary
of her drive.
If only she and those children had had “this name / of God, we
could have stepped there anyway.”
The next section of the book is entitled, “A Sentimental Education.”
These poems are coming of age poems, and have a similar tone as
poems in her first two books, The Love That Ended Yesterday in
Texas, and Traveling in Time of Danger, both published by Iris
Press. Here we sample the deft mastery of Bowers’ prosody as she
recaptures the memories, the mortifications of childhood, along
with her discovery of language, syntax and poetry. “Syntax” begins
with a line of poetry she wrote for a creative writing class after she
had been reading “Byron, Keats, and Shelly / lots of Poe.” Her family
had fallen apart as she, her mother, brothers and sisters fled
home. She loved how the cadence of her line, “Where haunts the
ghost after the house / is gone?” fit the morass her life had fallen
into. But her teacher said, “You’ve skewed your syntax up” and that
was the last thing Bowers remembered from that class except:
That spring her house burned
down, she died inside. Where haunts the ghost
after the house is gone? I had several alibis.
In the next section, “An American Family,” Bowers makes it clear
that hers is not an all-American family, even if they had tried. The
title poem starts out with her wanting to carve jack o’ lanterns with
her husband and blond haired daughter. She eagerly carves the face
of her pumpkin only to discover that her husband and daughter are
giggling at her earnestness and instead of carving are pounding
acorns in for eyes and naming their jack o’ lanterns “Crack Kills,”
and “Syndrome.” Then she admits that her daughter’s hair is not
blond and that her daughter’s father and she are living
in sin, bound straight for hell
as his mother continues to warn—
that woman who named me
for the slut I guess, after all, I am.
The next two sections, “Unmentionables,” and “Questions for
Pluto,” deal with loss and language. The title poem,
“Unmentionables,” is about how her mother, like many of her
generation, could not say the word, leg, and on Sunday insisted on
saying dark meat or drumstick and who said unmentionables for
panties or “That unfortunate down the street” for prostitute. How
fortunate, Bowers thinks, her mother died before they had to
“amputate her lower extremities.” One of the most poignant
poems in the book is “My Brother’s Star.” Even though he has
AIDS and says he is healed, he sends each of his siblings back home
with different items of clothing or St. Christopher’s medal. But
when one comes back with the star that each year he had placed on
the Christmas tree, Bowers screams:
And I knew, finally, what
my brother meant. What he meant
when he said, I’m healed.
But the most stunning poem in the book is “Last Day” which
recounts how a friend had gone shopping after hearing her husband
say, “You won’t have to worry about me / anymore.” The
poem continues with Bowers meeting her husband after shopping
too and later telling him what had happened.
How had he done it, my
husband wanted to know when I mentioned the suicide.
And in my happy ignorance so began
the stunning last revision
of his plan.
What name of God will undo this tragedy but leave us the poem?
I was not familiar with Philip Memmer’s work. His first two books
of poems are Threat of Pleasure (Word Press 2008) and
Sweetheart, Baby, Darling (Word Press 2004). He is also the author
of three chapbooks of poems, including Greatest Hits (Pudding
House Publications), The Apartment (Piccadilly Press) and For
Resident (FootHills Publishing). Lucifer: A Hagiography, which
was awarded the Idaho Prize from Lost Horse Press, was published
in January 2009.
The book tells the story of Lucifer, a name which we learn in the
preface, referred originally to the planet Venus, the “light of the
morning” (Job 11:16), and “the aurora” (Psalm 109:3). Later it
was applied to the King of Babylon (Isaiah 14:12), and “finally to
Jesus Christ himself (2 Peter 1:19; Apocalypse 22:16; the “Exultet”
of Holy Saturday), the true light of our spiritual life,” according to
the Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX.
Clearly, this Lucifer is different from the one we were taught. But
Memmer realizes this and knows that some might want him to
repent, so he includes Frost’s couplet: “Forgive, O Lord, my little
jokes on Thee, / and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.” But this
book is no joke. It is a serious quibble with the God story we have
been taught. By the time the book is over, Lucifer is seen as sympathetic
to the plight of humans and repulsed by the perverse testing
and continual praise demanded by the God of our churches.
The first poem, “The Birth of Lucifer,” is a very different version of
creation. It begins:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God
and the Word was
quiet as the empty spaces…
The Word spoke when she wanted and didn’t care who heard or
didn’t hear, so God was always listening in case she said something
that was the start of something new. When Lucifer was born, God
wanted to know where it came from and why Lucifer’s mother was
not watching over him. Finally, she said, “Your son is hungry, she
answered, / and did not speak again until he was fed.”
We see in the second poem that God is forgetful. He forgot he put
Hell down there and Lucifer is always just about to fall in. “God
thinks about putting out the blaze. / …But someday. He will make
mankind, and they will need incentive.” We see Lucifer playing
with a dog, throwing stars for his dog to retrieve, and we see him
in an orphanage with angels scrubbing pots.
In “Lucifer Wonders about his Mother,” he wonders what his
Father might have done to keep her from leaving and if she can see
him from wherever she is. Who does she pray to, “To my Father?
Or does she pray at all?” When it snows he falls down and moves
his arms to make a heavenly snow angel and the other angels mock
him because he doesn’t have real wings. His mother, the Word,
laughs and says, “Go ahead…You can fly.” At this point our sympathies
are with Lucifer (reminding some of us of a Stones’ old
song and the heroic Satan of Paradise Lost).
Perhaps the most important poem in the book is “The Departure of
the Word.” The Word is speaking, and not to Lucifer but to us:
In the beginning, I was.
In the end, too, I will be.
And in between, here I am,
word after word after word…
Yet the Word claims that she is like us in that she does not know
what was before the beginning or what will happen “When that
last word is spoken.” She acknowledges that our lives are so much
shorter, but reminds us how long she has been speaking and yet we
humans have been “mostly deaf, forgetful, / created as you will be /
in his own image.” By the end of the poem she says she has had
enough and will leave it all to Him. The Word says, “let Him make
/ His idiotic world—yes // I know what He has in mind.” She tells
us, though she claims we will not remember, “Farewell. / I am
going. I am done.”
Memmer in this poem seems to be saying we have not listened to the
Word, the mother of all, and now we are alone without her still,
small voice to listen to. This is more that a reversal of the traditional
male, hierarchical interpretation of ontology. As a result we are left
alone to the mercies of a forgetful, scheming, egotistical God.
As Lucifer grows up we see him like a boy, learning to bike on the
“asphalt / fresh-paved Heaven.” He plays ball with the Father by
throwing prayers, “fast balls, curves, and sliders,” but his Father
always know ahead of time what he is going to throw. Lucifer
thinks it’s unfair. He plays on the piano his mother left behind and
dances on the point of a needle.
The second section of the book “First Days” is about the Creation.
Each of the poems in this section is an interlinked sonnet, most reproducing
the words of Genesis. The first poem ends, “Let there be light!
There was. And it was good—.” Lucifer wants to know what is the
point, and God’s answer is that anything he thinks will come to pass,
and immediately there was a sky above the waters. Throughout this
section we see God showing off, bringing up land from the muck,
covering the land with green, all just so the angels will clap.
In one poem Lucifer notices that as the days pass some of the
plants stop growing and crumble and asks why. In the next poem,
“God, his Father answered. They are dying.” Lucifer wondered
even more about the fate of the animals who also died, “Why make
their time so short?” God doesn’t answer right away, but creates a
succession of all creatures including a strange one after which God
puts his feet up and says, “That animal is Man…” In the next
poem he explains that
It is for Man that I have made all this.
Not for their pleasure, no. They are for mine.
If they pass my tests, they will earn heaven.
If they fail—well, that’s where Hell comes in.
All this makes Lucifer sad, and he asks what kind of tests. The
answer is a surprise:
I’ll send you down to be their sacrifice…
All you have to do is let them kill you, and
then I’ll bring you right back up to me.
Those who die believing you were mine
will join us here for all eternity.
Those who don’t believe will burn and burn.
At that Lucifer says, “That is the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” and
threw himself down into the world.
In the next section Lucifer adjusts to living on earth. First, he has
vertigo, then he comes upon the Tree in the garden and is disgusted
by the grunting of the humans trying to talk with the Serpent. He is
reminded of his mother’s words, “Created in the image of his
Father,” and then watches the Serpent pull down the fruit to the
starving Man and Woman. They are expelled and the Garden is
plowed up and guards are set to protect it. Lucifer stays away from
Noah’s stinking boat during the flood by swimming away through
the bits of clothing and rickety crafts built in haste by those who
were laggards. He even swam past “the faces / of infants, refusing
to sink, // their wickedness punished at last.”
Time passes and Lucifer comes upon the burning bush where he
watches as Moses thrusts his fist into his heart and dies, then
presses it in again and came alive. The Flame in the bush explains
that Moses will obey, “because I have made you to know / that you
are nothing.” Lucifer sees many go up to the mountains and come
back with tablets of stone that no one pays attention to. He yearns
for the Word because her songs were not etched in stone. When he
goes into the hills and returns, his neighbors are surprised he has
no beard like the prophets, no bad news, is in clean clothing and is
glad to be home.
In the poem, the “Temptation of Lucifer,” we are presented with
yet another reversal. Lucifer comes upon a table of food in the
desert with Jesus, his younger brother ready to eat. Jesus eats and
then Lucifer takes him away from Satan to the city where they talk
about heaven and think about going back. Lucifer thinks they will
never be back.
In “The Pigs,” Lucifer does not appear, but Jesus now is dealing
with Legion. The pigs come to the sea and instead of drowning,
start frolicking. The people don’t realize that as they return, the
pigs are in charge, whipping the men who were
made to till the fields…
their wives, enslaved…their children taught to squeal.
And after all this time, swine still rule.
We do things their way and listen as they snort
about the great things Jesus can do for you.
At Jesus’ Crucifixion, Lucifer is there and weeps with the rest but
insists that when they write about it to leave him out, even though
he was the one who sang at the end and lifted wine to his lips.
When Jesus asks, “Why have You forsaken me?,” only Lucifer
heard God’s answer in the noise of the street, but he remained
silent. In the “Psalm” that follows we hear that God is like a parent
who is never pleased and learn that humans have held God
blameless and named his twin Silence. They forgot where the
Father’s ashes were spread, but occasionally wonder if maybe
someone switched the Father for Silence at birth.
The last section begins with a terrible “Psalm” that tells us what
science has left us with:
Tremble, earth, at the absence of God
which turns standing water to desert
and desert to sand, sand to atoms,
atoms to particles, particles
to theory, a human hand grasping
for faith it will not call faith. Tremble
at faith which turns the quark to nothing,
the atom to nothing and the earth
to a test.
The next poem is “Lucifer’s Window,” where we find him missing
the time of all the miracles. Now that man is forgiven, not much is
going on except the garbage truck coming by on Thursdays.
“Lucifer Feeds the Billions and Billions,” turns the story of feeding
the thousands into McDonald’s kind of miracle where a pimplefaced
boy at the window takes orders, watches humanity pass by,
and hands out the food. In one poem Lucifer returns home, hoping
to be received like a prodigal son, only to find the place abandoned,
not even a note on the refrigerator.
In “Lucifer at the End of Days” we find him in a cold universe, the
seas frozen, missing man who was frightened of death and wondered,
“What if there is no God?…What if we only die?” Lucifer
answers to himself that “God exists, or did” but now that His
plans have been fulfilled, it is almost like it was at the beginning. It
is cold, and nothing is alive. Lucifer has an urge to sleep. He lies
down and awakens the next moment:
My son, my son, murmurs the Word, shaking
his shoulder, smiling and frowning at once.
Where has your Father gone? What has he done?