Welcome, dear readers, to our eighth venture into the criticism of modern poetry from artists, authors, and actors. What we aim to do here each month is gauge the direction today's poetry is taking, whether it is echoing the traditional standards set by the classical poets of yesteryear or establishing new trends in wordsmithing. But before we begin, allow me to remind you of the rules for our critiques. As a scholarly writer for over 20 years, we have a basic premise we follow when reviewing poetry: The work must stand on its own. We, as critics, cannot analyze the works by their history, the poets' assessments or explanations of the work, or by psychological transference; the poetry must speak for itself. Oftentimes, poets send me a annotation of the poem so that I will better understand it. I'm courteous enough to read the poet's background notes, but always after I've finished my critique. So, let's begin.
With us today, we have seven poets: NaomiQuiñonez, Jaye Tomas, Sydney Leigh, Rafael L. Lopez, Kim Acrylic, Katt Dunsmore, and Viggo Mortensen.
We begin with the "Latina Poet Laureate of California", Naomi Quiñonez .
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From early in her poetic career she celebrated the heart along with the head, advocating strong feminist values in her political community.
Having traveled widely in the United States in the last two decades, she has reaffirmed her conviction that “art can transcend the boundaries that separate people from one another.”
She currently teaches at California State College at Fullerton.
to the belly of the earth
Each soul kicking-out
Flames fed by the heat,
of magma, lava and crust.
Tied to a common center.
We are a bouquet of flowers
balloons and bellies
that cannot escape
each others breath
each other’s divine imperfect lives
Or profane and comic deaths.
Of flesh sliced to pieces
By instigated metal
Cutting through air
To make its mark
On children huddled
In futile corners
Of scattered rubble.
The twisted gut-wrenched cry
In the torn stomachs of women
Who watch loved ones
Explode into heaps of useless ash.
Yesterday’s frightened eyes
Melting into pockets of charred skin.
A civilization disappear
Under a blood-stained blanket
Held by men armed with lies and terror
Another piece of humanity
Ripped out of the womb
Of mother earth
Another dream of peace
Raped at gunpoint.
I carry into the uncertainty
Of each hesitant day.
Of haphazard futures.
The center tugs hard
Yanks the collective heart
Clears the common eye
Pulls the blood from our tangled veins.
You are lying.
By extension, her "birth" includes a cesarean section: "This is how I know the pain/Of flesh sliced to pieces/
By instigated metal" and "This is how I feel/The twisted gut-wrenched cry/Of desperation/In the torn stomachs of women". Furthermore, just as a mother watches her children grow closer to death everyday, the Earth watches her " loved ones/Explode into heaps of useless ash."
In the next extension of the metaphor, abortions transition from c-sections. The children, or creations of Earth, then transform to "civilizations", peoples, who are "Ripped out of the womb/Of mother earth" like the unwanted creature of a "rapist". Here Naomi compares the plight of the Earth as Mother to a rape victim carrying her baby to an undetermined term or future: " My belly is a heavy weight/I carry into the uncertainty
Humanity is depicted as a tangle of "veins" tied to Earth, a complexity of relationships and conflicts, a tangled whole of individuals who feel the pull of the umbilical cords and the commonality of a singular mankind tied to the same arteries. And, Quiñonez warns us, "if you don’t feel this/You are lying." Because we cannot deny the empathy our common emotions, our pain, our pleasure, love and hate. To deny any such empathy would make us liars. And to accept the truth makes us brothers and sisters. A lovely sentiment hidden behind the grotesque lesson.
The Nocturnes Collection consists of five parts. Each part deals with themes of the night. The symbolism concentrates around nocturnal activities and creatures. Initially Jaye introduces us to the "night sirens" with their songs leading the unwary travelers to an early demise. Then Lilith appears and "beckons now raven now jungle cat". Summoning "Lilith" brings a lot of history to the introduction. During the English Romanantic Period, she was seen as a vampire who fed on the blood of children. But nearly every religion and myth has a "Lilith-type" character: from Mother of Satan, succubus, or predator of pregnant women. It is an interesting turn to have her here as a "siren" changeling. Lilith is beautiful, making her evil attractive, just as the song of the siren lures men to their death.
Tomas transitions from Lilith to "Merlin" and an age of magic. In contrast to Merlin's use of "white magic", the "Nocturnes" use black magic, wearing "Masks fixed in place, smiles too/Hiding a glittering malevolence:. Even as the old magician wields his spells over the serpent of the night, "‘tis the snake who wields the magic". Just as Lilith was a contrast of beauty and wickedness, magic here is represented by light and dark forces.
Nocturnes 3 sets Lilith in motion "her sweetly gleaming fangs". The serpent now melds with the "sorceress". The "raven" represents the foreboding of the night, and this piece of the collection serves as a warning to men to beware as "her song, her fragrance/burns through you". The further use of the pronoun "you" and the possessive "your" underscore the foreshadowing of Lilith's arriving with the night.
Nocturnes 4 (Owl Goddess) revolves around flight and birds as symbols of predators of the night. As Lilith transforms to a flying creature (it is not clear what appearance she has taken; she bears claws, rather than talons), while the night creatures adore her: "an owl bows before her/while hawk and raven wheel above/
Nocturnes 5 The Moon shifts from Lilith to the myth of this enchantress. The "children", one of whom is the narrator of the five poems, worship the arrival of the bloodthirsty siren. They speak highly of her: "the myths spoke of night singers night walkers/embracing the hunter and the shadows". And here in the night, the narrator tells the story, the myth, once more, a tradition of followers.
The symmetry of the Nocturnes Collection reveals a thematic development in contrasts: mother as life-giver and mother as life-taker, white magic and dark, serpents and birds. And all these elements meld to embody Lilith, beauty and evil combined. Jaye Tomas has captured the innocent "bogey-man" story of Lilith and has turned it into a series of poems that at once recreate the legend of this beautiful succubus and spin a story best told by the light of the moon.
Sydney Leigh usestercet stanzas in her poem, Flesh, Blood, and Bones. This three-line form harkens to Dante's Inferno, though the rhymed tercet was used there. But a prose form of the tercet is a welcomed venue for modern poetry as it echoes the traditions of the great authors of yesteryear, while maintaining a new modern approach with its lack of rhyme. But to the theme. Is the unrhymed tercet aptly applied here?
The poem is a philosophical account of the creation. Its theme: The flesh of man is flawed. Thus, the words are suited to the theme. Subtly blasphemous, openly critical. Life is designed for death: "The thin, salty flesh crawls across your bones,/looking for its way home." Home, of course, being the grave. Note that such thoughts occur at night. But the flesh, the symbolically living part of the body, the tactile or tangible matter, finds only the skeleton (the death symbol of the living person), "calcifications,/a poor reward for living."
Further adding to the fragile construct of the human body, Leigh adds, "The flesh stretches over your face,/
Sydney Leigh does not discuss the cycle of life in magical moments, blessed days and nights where sleep, dream, and wakefulness are equal stages of growth. Rather, she sees this cycle as a flawed fatality inherent with our first breath to our last. At night, we will always consider the journey of the flesh, from the "bones" to the boneyard. Lovely turn. Worthy of Shelley and Keats.
A Winter's Meadow opens with a focus on a tree dropping its last leaf as Autumn turns to Winter. The tree is personified as feeling "cold" as "Yet young she is, not old." Winter, too, demonstrates a peronified apathy for the trees' dilemma ("Winter hath no care".). We also see the employment of a rhyme scheme similar to the love poems of the Victorian Era. But there's a modern twist that we'll come to soon. Besides the ababcdcdefef, etc., rhyme structure, the story of the winter and the trees seem like a throwback to a older time of poetry.
Here the story of the poem depicts a cruel winter, a hapless tree pleading for its last flower to a deaf winter, and finally to the pine tree, whose green needles maintain their color during the cold season. The pine ignores winter just as the season of chills and ice turn its back on the trees of Spring. And just as winter is prideful of its power over the weaker trees, so, too, is the pine proud of its staying power in winter.
The lesson of the poem is for man, who should be more like the pine in harsh times just as we celebrate the good times of springtime. The poem reminded me of Chauncey Gardner from Being There. He often used the seasons to speak for the treatment and care of certain plants during various times of the year. Ultimately, people understood that Gardner was speaking metaphorically of mankind in prosperous and dire times. But Chauncey was really only talking about his garden. Rafael, however, does employ metaphors, personification, and a time-honored rhyme scheme to make his point. Now about that twist I mentioned early on. The last line of the poem is a standalone line. It doesn't have a companion line to rhyme with. It bears repeating here because here is the whole point of the poem: "’Twas the Pine's turn to be admired." No Chauncey Gardner here to be misunderstood.
In love with decay is an extended metaphor about addiction, its past, present and future. The narrator may or may not be the poet (she is either scolding herself or a dear friend). Kim Acrylic has a true poetic voice: angry, frightened, determined. She can't just call an addict a dirty word like "junkie" or "hype"; she must employ the language of poetry to relay her message (when I'm angry, my sarcasm takes on Shakespearean levels). Let's see how Kim approaches the subject of drugs and death with her angry voice.
The strongest metaphor she employs sarcastically and sardonically is the opening line: "In love with decay." How would a nonpoetic person have said this: You're killing yourself. How mundane. Then she uses my favorite line of the poem: "you smile with a cocaine flavored nose". Or: You use so much coke, your nose is red with busted blood vessels. More mundane. Kin, however, keeps the momentum of her anger moving.
The time frame is askew as Kim captures the warped time zone of an addict: "Merry Christmases in dark Octobers sweat out your/poisons". Wow. How can we have Christmas in October, you ask? The poetic speak for: From October to December, you go through withdrawals. Note that these are the holiday months, the time of the high suicide rates. One either tries to clean up their act or snuffs it.
We learn more of our addict as Kim extends her angry metaphors further: "Climax out your monthly irritable red muse/Over-eat your sullen addiction of euphoria's secret stupor". We now know it's a woman (monthly period; red blood). The addict becomes depressed (secret stupor) after failing at cold turkey or even at succeeding (both interpretations are viable). But the narrator continues to berate the addict: "Shed upon the bed you burned, cry into pillows made of/lost nightmares". Even as the addict suffers from loneliness and pain, the narrator is relentless. But she is angry, remember? Not mean or vicious.
Kim Acrylic is one of my favorite poets today. She exemplifies the word modern. The Beats of the 50s were angry, but they were addicts. They were angry with the straights, the "squares". Kim brings the Beatnik anger to bear on her subject in In love with decay. I don't think she has a mundane bone in her body. I look forward to reading more works from this fine talented poet. Keep the anger alive.
Katt is married to her beloved husband, Dinny, and they make their home in the Charlotte North Carolina area with their Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix, Briscoe, and their feline companions, Sixx, Psycho, and Misfit.
Katt Dunsmoreutilizes the sestet form in First Date, Last Date: six lines and three rhyming couplets per stanza. She employs four stanzas here. As we've seen earlier, this form harkens to the age of Romanticism, and even earlier, to the Restoration, where Alexander Pope perfected the "heroic couplet." Let's see how Katt utilizes it.
It appears to be a standard poem about potential love, but that last line, "At end of night, somebody dies", has elevated it to a level equal to the Fin de Siècle poets of the 1890s (Oscar Wilde, artist Aubrey Beardsley, Edgar Allen Poe, for example). The popular belief during this age was that the world would end in 1900, just as many believed the world would end in the year 2000), so the art and poetry and novels of the time focused on death. Let's follow this line of logic with First Date, Last Date.
HOME by Viggo Mortensen considers the comforts of home and turns them into surreal images, much as Salvador Dali does in his paintings. There are "unopened letters in his refrigerator", a sign of an old person putting things away or a forgetful person leaving the mail in the icebox when he got a soda to drink while he read the letters. The "fake fingernail in the soapdish" explains the presence of a female, either young and in a hurry, or older and busy with a big family. This is a house in disarray, a home in use. Note how nature (the "breeze") unsettled the order of the house, everything in its place.
Well, these things are the ropes that make up the net that represents his family, his reason for his going to work ("performs the movements that make the clock work"). Using a metaphor for chaos, Viggo has captured the life of a family at peace with their messes, lost shoes, lost mail, and misplaced cosmetic fingernails. This is life, loud and proud. To the casual observer, this madness would lack a method, but for Vigoo, the madness is the method that he calls HOME.
My thanks to all the poets who contributed to today's poetry column. As I mentioned, Charlie Sheen will be our guest poet for next month. I want to return to the two poems per poet format next month, so contact me if you want to be a part of next month's column. Including Mr. Sheen, I could use about three more poets. I can be reached at email@example.com.
Till next month, stay cool in the darkness.