A Gaze Hound That Hunteth by the Eye by V. Penelope Pelizzon (Pitt Poetry Series, 104pp., $18.00)
World Too Loud to Hear by Stephen Kampa (Able Muse Press, 134pp., $21.95)
Storm Swimmer by Ernest Hilbert (University of North Texas Press, 90pp., $14.95)
Satan Talks to His Therapist by Melissa Balmain (Paul Dry Books, 91pp., $16.95)
Some Problems with Autobiography by Brian Brodeur (Criterion Books, 88pp., $22.00)
Wise to the West by Wendy Videlock (Able Muse Press, 116pp., $19.95)
In 2007, A. E. Stallings, the prodigiously gifted future Oxford Professor of Poetry (her term starts October 2023), published her commentary “Why No One Wants to be a New Formalist” at Poetry’s “Harriet the Blog.” Though irresistibly disarming, Stallings’ essay was also serious: her well-argued rejoinders countered then-current stereotypes about who was writing in meter and why anyone would even bother—stereotypes that, almost twenty years on, seem almost comically out of date. (News flash: those who write in meter may write in other modes as well!) Stallings, for the record, rejected “New Formalist” as a polemical term designed to diminish poets of metrical bent. (Drolly, she quipped, “I myself prefer the term ‘retro-formalist’, which at least sounds vaguely cool, like wearing vintage clothing and listening to vinyl, something so square it’s hip.”) Stallings, like others she mentioned, would agree that labels are for vintage clothes, not poets, and her light-hearted defense should have been the last time anyone needed to engage the subject.
Today, poetry is more accessible than ever, which brings its own set of challenges—and not just for poets who write in meter. Small press books fill Amazon portals, lit-mags flash to life online, slams and Zoom readings proliferate, along with workshops real or virtual; book contests keep raking in submission fees, as much for survival as profit; and the profusion of poets keeps churning out verse, the universe constantly expanding. This lively growth of the art—in many ways a good thing—guarantees a numbing effect, and countless poets caught in this wave are outshone by exhaustively charted stars. It’s easier to explore a solar system than an entire poetic cosmos, however, and fortunately for metrical verse, there’s much to find. The poets discussed here, whose birth years span the twenty-year period from 1961 to 1981, have each published multiple books, and their new collections arrive as proof that metrical art—however you label it—is thriving.
Penelope Pelizzon is no stranger to kudos, and in A Gaze Hound That Hunteth by the Eye, it’s easy to see why. Her third book is an absorbing, immersive meditation on the body, the natural world, global cultures (both historical and contemporary), and the deeply rooted, symbiotic relationship between human beings and animals (especially dogs). The poet’s literary knowledge—worn lightly, shared judiciously—ranges widely, as does her wit and prosodic skill. Pelizzon’s virtuosity underpins a collection that is urgent and elegiac, hilarious and harrowing, its detours into memory as vividly realized as the author’s obvious joy in literature and life.
If the poet’s canophilia is what caught your eye, you’re in luck: dogs wander in and out of Pelizzon’s pages, going about their doggy lives, vividly embodying the human-canine bond. For Pelizzon, however, the subject is not an end in itself but a starting point for further inquiry. The title poem originates with cranky remonstrances culled from clergyman William Harrison’s “Of Our English Dogs and Their Qualities” in Holinshed’s Chronicles, the sixteenth-century source for Shakespeare’s history plays. Harrison’s objections to women who pamper their pets earns the poet’s rebuke: “How he despises us, // irksome older women trifling away all / treasure of time with our perverse / cossetings.” In five-line syllabic stanzas, Pelizzon’s witty refutations cascade through the centuries, touching on literature, Elizabethan history, menopause, the pandemic, art’s wellsprings, and, of course, dogs:
Poor man. He’s better off dead, not here ………….forced to catalogue how, today, ………….………….………….I climbed off my broomstick ………….………….and smooched my leashed familiar ………….shamelessly on her damp nose, taking her
along to weed my pandemic victory ………….garden….
The poem’s convergences are striking. After mocking archaic laws in which a dog’s affection, too, might seem “like witchcraft,” the speaker climbs off her witch’s broom, further mocking Holinshed (her stand-in for all misogynist killjoys) by cultivating vegetative “charms” in her garden. (Pelizzon’s book, I should note, is dedicated to her “familiars.”) Of course witches—like Macbeth’s “weird sisters,” sourced also from Holinshed—are often depicted as old women: “how much I know / sieves down to me from men who winced at dames // soothing their hot spells or chilly wombs with love / minced into morsels and hand-fed / to pets…” The poem, puckish and pun-filled, traverses light and shadow: an Internet search for “false indigo” in this “season / of quarantined green thumbs” shifts to how settlers learned to dye cloth blue from Native Americans who died from exposure to European pathogens. What starts as a poet’s witty riposte to a centuries-old insult becomes an indictment of colonialism, a celebration of literature (“In Shakespeare’s uterus / of a mind[,] the chronicles / seeded this fruit”), and a defense of witch and bitch, woman and dog, joint targets and terms of abuse:
………….……………………………………Good thing ……………………..the vicar didn’t catch me ………….next dawn, old bitch crouched beneath a scything
wind off the Gowanus canal, poking through ………….………….my mutt’s scat with a plastic straw ………….………….………….picked out of the gutter ………….………….to make sure the shreds of heir- ………….loom vegetable-dyed wool had made a safe
Pelizzon, like the Bard, writes comfortably of the body, whether prompted by Canis familiaris or her own kind’s fleshly frailties. “Elegy for Estrogen,” inventively rhymed in irregular lines, laments the menopausal changes that men like vicar Harrison don’t want to hear about but which women have always endured: “Must…[a]trophies dwindle once- / trophied glades, whose rivulets / rinsed the helmets / of kings?//…This insistence / clocks can be stopped with resistance / insults…” In contrast, “Orts and Slarts” (that is, scraps and spillage, from Nottinghamshire dialect by way of D. H. Lawrence) turns to the body’s “eructations.” Afflicted with gas thanks to a meal of leeks, garlic, and lentils, the speaker declares, “Nothing’s / more humorous than an aunt / embarrassed, her innards muttering crass // blasphemies in some guttural proto-Nordic /dialect.” What is pain for her is entertainment for nephews, “avid hagiographers / who praise the body’s stinks and stews…” But the body’s rebellions have another side: there’s the “gaunt” father “whose kisses the chemo made radioactive” and the nephews themselves whose food allergies arrived by some unknown route: “(What poison came home / in sippy cups or pacifiers? / With milk in plastic cartons? / Toxins tasteless in the butter-sweet colostrum // warm from the nipple of a mama bear who’s breathed / what breezes off the golf course…?)” Here, low comedy unfolds against a backdrop of unknown dangers brought by the tainted environment beyond.
A past fellow of the Hawthornden and Amy Lowell Foundations, Pelizzon is a traveler (her partner is a U.S. foreign service officer). “Africa Hand” (the foreign service term for a regional specialist) presents a speaker who is self-aware and intrepid but discovers that “in Africa there isn’t any shortage / of gardens my stupidity can bloom in.” A “spacey driver behind the wheel,” she falls into a daydream trance imprinted by history and geography: “Drive / long enough, I start wondering how far /crows fly between Limpopo and Zambezi, / wanting to taste again the lambent-fizzy /ginger beers in Zanzibar, // imagining radio broadcasts of the last /songs of Songhai.” The word-play of “song” and “Songhai” (the latter an empire five hundred years gone), plus other references, shows both the drift of imagination and the reason why it’s easy for her handbag to be stolen at a stoplight. Like the title poem, “Africa Hand” unfolds by free association: a policeman’s eye-roll which the speaker interprets as meaning, “your naiveté / is dazzling; white people have their fingers / stuck in every pie; how come you haven’t / learned to keep your hands on your own shit?”; or the cluster of radio program daydreams that evoke Africa’s multiethnic heritage: “Caller three, Kanem’s // mosque was where? Who made Warka puppets / dance? Whence the silks in Kawkaw’s market?” (Kawkaw and other references easily Googled are all the more resonant—to my ears, anyway—in their succinct, throwaway form.) Ultimately, the speaker’s chance encounter with a venomous boomslang snake mistaken for a vine caps the poet’s honest self-portrait as a traveler: awed by the natural world, she’s always a little out of her element.
There’s much else to admire here: “Gypsy Moths,” a fine eco-poem about the weather’s influence on whether a fungus fatal to invasive species will kill them soon enough to save the trees they feast on; “Ill-Starred,” triple-rhymed in haiku stanzas, that dissects the strange calm that follows a ski accident; or “Animals & Instruments,” an ambitious free verse tour de force that deserves an essay of its own, addressed ostensibly to the speaker’s students but ranging freely: from her youthful affair with an older composer through various travels, to the lion whose mane “smelled grassy, clean / as a dog’s head after he rolls in an August field” to favorite recordings, the memory of parents—even “the swaddled bébé of camel skull” purchased on impulse from a Damascus butcher. There is little that Pelizzon’s expansive vision doesn’t admit, maybe because, echoing her book’s title, she declares, “I am / a gaze hound that hunteth by the eye”—that is, a dog who, like greyhounds and related breeds, hunts mainly through sight and speed rather than smell and endurance (“The Soote Season”). Pelizzon’s speedy, vibrantly visual poems bear out this mischievous admission, as well as the alert vigilance relied on by hunting dog and artist. “What a curator / the mind is,” Pelizzon writes in “Animals & Instruments,” “restless, can’t stop building these scrappy /cabinets of curiosities when walking for an hour.” A Gaze Hound That Hunteth by the Eye is the superb result of this restless intelligence.
Stephen Kampa’s fourth book, World Too Loud to Hear, confronts contemporary America with alarm and rage. A Hollis Summers Prize winner for his debut volume (2011’s Cracks in the Invisible), Kampa draws from a deep well of formal and metrical prowess. (He’s a professional musician and college faculty member as well.) His book-length critique is nuanced, outraged, compassionate, ironic; he sees what the rest of us do, but instead of wasting column inches and blog posts justifying the damage, Kampa deploys our oldest art form—verse—to resist the surrender to technology gone mad. Whether it’s the guns that Second Amendment obsessives hoard and glorify, or the black mirrors we carry and get lost inside every day, Kampa’s singular vision of clear and present danger is unsettling, poignant, and entirely persuasive.
In syllabic quatrains, “The Collectors” sets the stage for the rest of the book by looking at how mass shooters and the wider culture are jointly trapped by paralyzing narratives. In choosing victims that he “had to” shoot, the murderer claims their narratives—“their stories now his stories”—in a mind-set much like that of gun collectors who regale listeners with trivia and tales of their own weapon’s history: it’s “a means / of owning it more fully.” Disturbing, too, is how we come to “own him”—that is, the shooter, one more “incomprehensible boy”: we’ve “collected another story,” adding to our list of locales that are now shorthand for senseless murder: “Jonesboro, Santa Fe, Parkland, Newtown, Columbine.” “Objects in a list are / always whispering into the ear of their neighbor,” Kampa concludes, quoting poet Lia Purpura and decrying our collective inaction by pointing out the repeating pattern.
Other poems address gun violence, too. “The Offering” pairs villanelle refrains—“We offer them our thoughts and prayers” and “The room is full of empty chairs”—to enact the further repetition of empty gestures that solve nothing. My favorite, though, is “Face the Music,” a linguistic master class on the same subject. In response to a friend’s text query about the title phrase, the speaker (a fellow “word nerd”) turns to his laptop’s search engine. He scrolls through options—“‘reference / to a nervous performer,’” “‘the practice / of drumming a soldier out / of his regiment,’” several others—only to light on “‘[t]he sound of gunfire or other / ordnance’”
……………………and that’s all it takes, I’m thinking of what I’ve been thinking of for two …………days straight, the man who hammered out his hotel windows and opened fire on a country …………music festival, killing
more people than any mass shooter in “modern …………American history.” So this is history….
Like Pelizzon, Kampa’s mind leaps between subjects, using puns and twists of speech to make his case. The killings take place in “Paradise, an unincorporated (at root: ‘unembodied’) town / near Las Vegas, a city // enamored of chance.” As ironies and insights gather force in beautifully managed ten-line syllabic stanzas, the poet concludes, ruefully,
…………Numbers keep ratcheting up like a decibel meter reading: the world’s too loud …………to hear. #heartbroken. Gunfire. We’re facing nothing. What we won’t say is …………music to somebody’s ears.
Much of “Face the Music” explores the political division intensified by social media. Kampa is especially outraged by its loudest voices: “the shouters-down, the shammers, the spin doctors, / the czars of twittle-twattle.” “More Furious, More Irrefutable” looks at the irrational fury that fuels far-fetched belief systems. In debunking conspiracy theories regarding jet contrails (they “aren’t governmentally dispensed psychotropic agents / bioengineered to turn the heartland American population gay or autistic or whatever”), the speaker wearily states the obvious; he knows, however, “We keep reading whatever feed fundamentally ratifies the version / of the world we want…” His core insight: “mostly we are waiting for a future that, in its / cataclysm, satisfies // all of our longing for some vindication of this apocalyptic dread.” You don’t have to be a Freudian to see the Todestrieb’s effects or to know that even delusions lend meaning to despair: to lose those beliefs, however false, “would be the/ beginning of what // none of us could survive.” This persistence of stubborn belief Kampa rightly laments and fears.
The prose poem “Candidacy,” couched as a politician’s interview responses to a host named “Terry” (playful reference to NPR’s Terry Gross?), enacts and satirizes our divisions. Using the tired cliches of cable and niche radio, the candidate keeps returning to “America’s most pressing problem: dragons.” With each paragraph, the usual calls to arms are contorted to fit the guest’s agenda: dragons boast “impenetrable skin and unpronounceable names” and threaten “our very way of life” (italics Kampa’s). They’re even responsible for climate change, “[i]f climate change is real,” the speaker adds pre-emptively: “you can’t just burn America to a crisp like a rasher of bacon and expect it not to crank up the global temperature, am I right, Terry?” (To imagine the fictional candidate chatting on NPR reflects the media’s tendency to legitimize extremists.) While the candidate’s verbal tics suggest those of a former President, the poet’s deeper purpose is to examine how, in the age of Tucker Carlson and his ilk, media-driven speech can nudge partisans toward violence. Having said America is facing “a lot of problems with no easy solutions,” the candidate concludes with the “one thing” everyone can get behind: “Kill the motherfucking dragons.” When we think of the human targets who face similar real-life rhetoric, the poem’s critique becomes all the more chilling.
Outrage, tempered by intelligence and craft, is hard to avoid in a book that serves as a cultural wake-up call; still, Kampa’s palette offers subtler hues also. “Obligations,” rhymed in six-line stanzas of varied measure, muses on how required duties, seemingly tiresome, actually serve as a bond between generations: “they’re ties, / Kin to the latticework that backs a chair / Or stitcheries that bind our wiles and wishes / In books we canonize…” After pointing out the bleakness of life without them, the poem ends with the heartbreak of a bereft mother, “Who’d give most anything— / For one more obligation: / The nightly braiding of a young girl’s hair.” (Kampa doesn’t have to say more for us to connect her to the book’s gun violence poems, though on its own, the poem would operate more broadly.) “Let Me Correct You” marries sympathy to social critique, its diptych contrasting the anxiety of kindergarteners forced to take standardized tests with the reference- and knowledge-free roamings of older kids at recess, who chant
Around some common flowers none can name While others mumble, racked by imprecision, Still trying to remember what the game With ropes and jumping is. Hop rope? Jump thing? They wander free. They pace a vacant lot, Untroubled by a single troubling thought.
Stephen Kampa is one of our best younger poets writing in meter. Far from being the jeremiads of a Luddite, his poems are a cri de cœur that reflects rare gifts and empathy. Our culture is far from reaching consensus on technology’s rightful role; but Kampa’s poems refuse to accept the glib answers of industry magnates, politicians, or corporate interests who use the body politic to field test new apps and products. His isn’t a message everyone wants to hear. But a poem like “Gridlock (You’re Not Going Anywhere)” splendidly captures why any thoughtful person should defy this noise that threatens to drown us all. Invoking technobabble that would have seemed incomprehensible not long ago, Kampa sends his protagonist reeling from teleconference to parking garage and beyond, surveilled at every step, using or feeling thwarted by a plethora of devices, unsettled by his unnatural surroundings. Eventually, he suffers a break, escapes to the woods where he sees a bird—and so do we, through Kampa’s use of the second person:
………………………Then it’s there, a bird—what, a mockingbird? magpie?— …………the likes of which you’ve never seen (but could you name half a dozen?), …………beautiful, to be honest, and when it lands on a branch near you and opens wide for song, you see in …………its mouth the momentary …………glare of a camera lens.
Yes, surveillance drones made to resemble birds are a real thing. Fortunately, so is World Too Loud to Hear: a book of authentic vision, terrific virtuosity, and unrelenting intelligence which we ignore at our own peril.
As counterweight to Kampa’s unsparing social critique, Ernest Hilbert’s Vassar Miller Prize-winning Storm Swimmer explores the quieter rewards of fatherhood and memory—the sort of humane vision that online life threatens to eclipse. In this, Hilbert’s fifth book, storms (including interior ones) swirl and rage, potent in action or as lurking threat. In the title proem, “Without the sun the sea is tangled steel,” while “Pelagic” pulls the speaker into that open sea, “its rush and pull / The same as ever, though I have aged.” Hilbert’s poems unfold patiently, their surface calm disrupted by what roils beneath—chiefly, time’s relentless march and the poet’s concern for loved ones’ safety. “Pelagic”’s “linebacker waves” vie for attention with “the clouded yellow butterfly” that trails the speaker as he floats; soon, he’s “face down in the lapping / Amber glass, the pelagic summer roll of original sea.” The poem’s closure, fraught with mortality, is equally beautiful: “I imagine I’m in a world only / Ocean and sky, four billion years ago / Or in a time to come, floating without / The earth to save me, as long as I might.” “Voltage Crackles at the Edge” gives us the storm in action as perceived by the speaker’s young son who “says a lot of things / He knows must not be true…” The father’s tenderness is palpable throughout as he sees through his own son’s eyes: “The cat is wearing my coat, the sky // Is filled with cottage cheese,” and more, but, tellingly, as he shifts to his own voice,
………………………we’ll live forever
And always be in love, right here, like this, With waves that fly out Ninety million miles to light
Up the book we read together.
As the son brings up monsters and the ghosts he says he’s not afraid of, the father inwardly agrees: “We’re ghosts, / But filled with spirit fire / That floats from somewhere else / And keeps us here for now.” The book they’re reading and the book they’re in become one, father and son joined in that intangible life conferred by literature we treasure.
Other wilder poems are anything but domestic. This composer of lyrics and libretti for Stella Sung and Christopher LaRosa (among others), and the son of an accomplished organist, Hilbert is someone who, as poet and professor Daniel Nester writes at Best American Poetry’s blog, “hold[s] forth about metal bands of all varieties—hair, death, speed, thrash, parody, glam” with awe-inspiring expertise. “The Demon (Stercus Diaboli)” depicts a cover band musician who, as late-night Las Vegas blurs into the next day, carries “a banged-up basket” containing Pepto Bismol and a “lopsided avocado” while he stands in the self-checkout queue, dressed in sneakers, a bathrobe, and “full KISS make-up, / …Star Child tonight, / Tomorrow the Space Man, / Or the Cat, or the Demon, / My favorite…” (The reference to asafoetida, or “stercus diaboli,” aptly signals his condition: a key ingredient of Indian food supposedly once used in magic spells and exorcisms, it’s also known as “devil’s dung” and, on its own, smells terrible.) We don’t need to know what brought him to this state; it’s the character’s search for transcendence that matters, that Blakean road of excess meant for those, Hilbert writes, “[w]ho drive and dare / Whole lives to make / Just one beautiful thing happen.” (Other outstanding poems drawn from Hilbert’s pop culture interests and experience include “From the Balcony on Heavy Metal Tribute Night at the Trocadereo, 1870-2019” and “Monster-Mania Con 44” where “[z]ombies are common,” “T-Rexes get stuck in the revolving door,” and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, bumped inadvertently, snarls a threat “from his fishy face.”) The presence of exuberant enthusiasts side by side with introspective speakers makes Storm Swimmer all the more absorbing.
“In the Hidden Places: In solsitio brumali” is one of several fine poems informed by winter’s bleakness and a Christian sensibility. The Latin subtitle, which translates to “the very dead of winter,” is a phrase that Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” borrows with other material from a seventeenth century Nativity sermon. The mood is solemn, with death palpable and the year “[a]t its nadir”: “Bach’s Mass in B Minor / Haunts with its cathedral heights / The all-day dawn of snowstorm.” This overheard music— a choral work composed during a period of royal mourning, from which Bach would recycle material for a Christmas cantata—perfectly fits the concise tercet; accordingly, it summons “[g]hosts of singers and song, composer / Of winter’s depths whose flights / Of light gather to new forms.” As he listens from his portico, the speaker’s surroundings are changed “[b]y a cold white whose reign / Is whole and pure as time”—and the barely visible sun—a “faint star”— unavoidably alludes to Bethlehem. “Stronghold,” another father-son poem, features a sleepy dad awakened by outdoor sirens in a post-Christmas “muddy dawn”; as a combative neighbor is arrested, he lies listening, glad of his “twice-bolted” home and the “young son” who is “[c]arefully stepping down from stair to stair.” Perhaps the best of these is “Last Star” which adapts the rhymed quintets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Autumn Song” to that time of year when “the strangling sweetbriar / Sleeps in muddy banks of snow.” Hilbert’s bleak midwinter is gorgeous, but the poem’s fourth stanza is something special, reminiscent in sound and sense, of Louise Bogan, or even the Metaphysicals:
To live for not yet created things Is to live in an air that brings …………Dawn through winter trees, …………Sharp air that makes lungs freeze, And sense a song though no bird sings.
By questioning prayer’s efficacy, the poem places doubt and faith in balance—“Can one live in that deadly air / Before the light, without…much of a prayer, // and believe what’s yet to be?”—but Hilbert’s answer reassures: “We survive by what we cannot see / Because it isn’t here / Yet—hope that answers fear—/ As ash in earth sustains a tree.” The song sensed in the silence points toward the light’s return, and “[w]inter creeper and bull thistle” are only “dead for the time being”: “Out here, in cold, the weed / Aspires to come back, feed / On waste, reach farther, and grow deep.” Ernest Hilbert’s Storm Swimmer, so remarkable for its style and polish, is most impressive for its kindly, meditative depths.
Melissa Balmain’s Satan Talks to His Therapist approaches family and culture from a satiric, often sympathetic perspective. The longtime editor of Light deploys her formal resources astutely, confirming that metrical command and expert timing, operating in tandem, are the wellspring of comic verse. Like her elders in light verse mastery (I think of Marilyn Taylor, the late Tom Disch, or the inestimable R. S. Gwynn), Balmain treads that fine line between comedy and tragedy in poems graced by telling details, surprising turns, and a keen sense of the absurd. Take the title poem, one of several inspired by politics: for most of it, the infernal patient speaks in iambic pentameter quatrains whose second and third lines form a couplet but whose fourth line points to the next stanza:
Where there’s a henhouse, guard it with a Fox; spawn loopholes, larceny and legalese; and best of all, when there’s a new disease, make sure fantastic numbers will be killed…
And yet (life isn’t fair!) I’m unfulfilled….
The poem’s punch line arrives through the fallen angel’s frustration with “that blasted man” (that former President again!) who, no matter what evil scheme the devil dreams up, ends up doing or saying it first; still, Satan concedes in the final stand-alone line, “At least some people give me all the credit.” What might have come off as a glib jab gains extra kick from Balmain’s excellent ear: “loopholes, larceny and legalese” are alliterative and also energized by pleasingly varied vowels. Plus, there’s the speaker’s voice, so suitably Satanic in its Schadenfreude: “best of all, when there’s a new disease…” Balmain is always most fun when she’s being bad, and who’s badder (if, here, a little crestfallen) than the Prince of Darkness himself?
Of course “bad” can be a highly gendered term, as Balmain knows, a word used to shut down someone attempting to speak her mind. In “Five Ages of Woman,” pithy stanzas give new life to the issue: “Though all of the boys / are allowed to make noise / I am told to exhibit politeness / and poise.” Praised for being “cute” as an infant, the speaker comes full circle: “I gum pureed fruit / and regret I can’t shoot / all the nursing home staffers who murmur / I’m cute.” Sure, the stanza’s funny, but it also gives vent to frustrations bubbling underneath—with the double standard women live with, the indignities of condescension (and old age, too). Like Pelizzon, Balmain confronts midlife head-on. Lighthearted anapests open “To My Son, Upon Removal of One of My Ovaries”—“Was it lefty or righty that started you out / (with some help, naturally, from your dad)”—though, by stanza two, the college-age son’s pending transition away from family (and Mom) takes center stage. The tetrameter couplet sonnet “Memo to Self, in Middle Age” directs its barbs toward doomed cosmetic attempts to remain youthful: “drown every hair in L’Oréal, / balloon both boobs with MemoryGel / till your reflection swears to you / you’re not a day past thirty-two.” Efforts that are all in vain, as a subtle nod to Snow White’s stepmother confirms: “beware of gazing at old friends / who haven’t masked their age a bit: / they’ll do the job your mirror quit.”
In talking about Balmain’s work, I fear I’m draining away its humor. Satire drags hypocrisy and power dynamics into the light so we can mock and endure them; situational humor and wordplay convert foibles and incongruities into laughter. But laughing is instinctive, not analytical. Explaining a poem may rob it of magic. Explaining a joke may rob it of wit. Explaining a light verse poem, however, threatens to rob it of both. It’s best to read Balmain’s poems in their entirety: try “Public Relations,” whose speaker hopes to savor untried vices well into her dotage; “Invasive Species,” which features cruise ship tourist-hypocrites who fancy themselves environmentalists; “Sidewalk Face-Off,” one of several poems about the pandemic that dissect COVID’s effects on social conventions; or poems of a more literary bent, such as “A Literal-Minded Virgin Reads Robert Herrick,” “Philip Larkin Tries for a Vaccine Appointment,” or “What Dylan Thomas Would Say If He Were Around for National Donut Day.” (If you guessed, “Donut, go gentle into that good night,” you guessed right.)
Humor may also serve as a defense against despair, as seen in Balmain’s poems about sorrow. One of the best is the collection’s final poem (“Why This Is the Poem of Mine That People Will Share When I Die”). The sorrow imagined will be felt for the poet at some far future date: “This poem has no news or namechecks in it, / no clues to decade, season, week or date— / which makes it timely if I die this minute / or make you wait.” It’s hard to resist a poem so pragmatic in its planning, couched as a thoughtful gesture, yet so on-target in its spoof of poetic ego. (I love the dig at impatient mourners-to-be.) Other poems, including some on the real-life death of her mother, are only light verse on the surface. Especially touching and fluently crafted is “To Mom, in the Beyond,” a sonnet which relies on delicate descriptions of beloved décor to provide an indirect portrait through belongings that serve as a memorial: “Each mantelpiece and shelf was also planned, / each ledge, nook, countertop, bare inch of floor, / or wedge of open air beneath a gable. / Even the sill behind the ping-pong table—/ those poor doomed tchotchkes!—was accounted for.” (In a line effective and affecting, Balmain concludes, “They’re all still there, of course: we’d hate to move them.”) And there’s outstanding description throughout the book. In “Supermoon,” hyped to be the “brightest yet,” the faraway satellite looks “completely mummified / by gas and vapor, deep and wide”; in “To the Blue Jay That Woke Me Every Morning…,” the offending bird’s discordant call is a “high-decibel, rusty-hinge squawk”; and in “On Looking at an MRI Cross-Section” (her own), Balmain writes, “a horseshoe crab / stares heavenward with jumbo-olive eyes (the pitted kind).”
It’s intriguing that, behind their wit and verbal play, her poems, taken together, yield some version of the author: a persona observant and smart who just can’t keep from speaking the truth—from being “bad,” as some might see it. We meet neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, and family, while the poet navigates our shared world of political insanity, troubling losses, and daily small victories, all sharpened into punchlines and real poetry. For Balmain and the rest of us, humor proves a reliable, socially acceptable means of broaching taboo subjects or feelings—of stating what’s forbidden with a smile that is shared. She knows how to leave us with that smile, too, as in that pre-posthumous poem I mentioned earlier: “It barely mentions habits of ill breeding. / Its words are rarely of the vulgar sort. / And if you find it crap not worth rereading, / at least it’s short.” Satan Talks to His Therapist is a serious book that’s very funny, and Melissa Balmain’s gift is being able to tilt toward humor without losing the ache beneath the laughter.
Brian Brodeur’s fourth book, Some Problems with Autobiography, a New Criterion Prize winner, asks us to reexamine the relationship between poet and speaker, truth and fiction. Much here appears to be autobiographical: there are poems about family, public events, nefarious technology, marriage, aging, and much more. But things are not that simple. In a 2017 Writer’s Chronicle essay, Brodeur addresses issues of voice and personae: countering Eliot’s “The Three Voices of Poetry,” Brodeur proposes that a “fourth voice” emerges in persona poems that feature internal monologues or soliloquies. Such poems spotlight “the poet speaking as an imaginary character addressing itself within the context of a written text.” But we notice this fourth voice “only when the persona is significantly other”; if it isn’t, we hear “the poet addressing herself in thin disguise.” This fourth voice provides, to use Brodeur’s terms, either “dramatic confession,” which allows poets to express something personal from behind an adopted mask, or “dramatic possession” in which poets “subordinate” their own voice to that of the character they inhabit—or, depending on how you look at it, the character who “possesses” them. Which doesn’t mean we’ll know for sure which voice we’re hearing here: as Brodeur’s title poem asks beside a fountain’s eroding angels, “What if this tale isn’t yours to tell? / What if it is? The stone lips stay closed.”
Having Brodeur’s distinctions in mind, while not essential, keeps things lively. “The Carpenter’s Tale,” told in fluent terza rima, sustains its conversational rhythms admirably, its epigraph alerting us that the speaker is someone else: New York City Department of Education carpenter Kerry Breen who, during the worst days of the first wave of COVID-19, was on one of the teams that built coffins in the gyms of shut-down schools. (No wonder Brodeur resorts to Dante’s verse form.) The poet perfectly captures both Breen’s matter-of-fact manner and initial disbelief as he and his co-workers learn of their new assignment. Facing laughter and wisecracks, Breen’s supervisor “looks up from his clipboard and glares at me, / then gives us all the plans his boss gave him: / ‘We’ll be building coffins for the city.”’ Brodeur knows that his own “Kerry Breen” isn’t the same person who was interviewed by Chana Joffe-Walt on This American Life (episode 744—you can look it up); this poem’s “Kerry Breen” is an invention, a persona who allows Brodeur to express his awed grief at the human capacity to rise, humbly and heroically, to grim occasions despite incomprehensible loss. Or perhaps this is a case of fourth voice dramatic possession? It doesn’t matter; the poem is first-rate, its Chaucerian title spun into a Dantean purgatory of laboring souls performing a duty they never asked for: “We run through two-by-fours and they bring more— // wash, rinse, repeat. I mean, we’re getting paid, / but after so long it occurs to me: / my god, they really need this many made?”
Effectively couched as autobiographical is “The Doll” in which a nine-year-old boy finds the anatomically correct male doll that his mother, a social worker, uses to elicit information from sexually abused children. (The epigraph’s specificity, including date and location, suggest a true story, barring memory’s tricks or artistic license.) Its sestina form is perfect for the content: the boy’s tentative curiosities, the mother’s evasions (due mainly to the need to share only age-appropriate information about confidential, and terrible, crimes)—each question and answer advances toward an understanding evident to readers but out of reach for the son. Any parent who’s ever had to tell a child some awful truth about the world (and it’s always too soon, isn’t it?) will recognize the balance of love and dread that the poem traces:
She’d give the girls the girl doll named Jeannine. The boys got Kid. (That’s just what they were called.) But they were only toys—I could still play. Mom showed me how she’d teach the kids to use the dolls—to point out, like a test in school, the place where they’d been hurt….
Later, the mother slams the phone at news of another abused child, quietly venting her (likely long-simmering) rage, till now kept from her son. “The Doll”’s repetends are cleverly subtle: “call,” for example, becomes “anatomical” and “cubicle,” while “nine” becomes “Jeannine” and, finally, “strychnine” (the abusers’ deserved punishment, blurted out in her angry moment). Still, enough has been held back that the boy asks, in the final line, “why it was bad to touch a kid”—the answer readers already know.
Like Stephen Kampa, Brodeur, too, is a social critic as plainly seen in both his satiric impulse and the empathy that infuses his personae. Set in the distant future, “The Anthropocene Wing” unfolds as a docent’s lecture in some post-human culture when the loss of numberless species is traced to humanity itself: “the rise of this one species brought the fall / of all else: elm trees, breeds of waterfowl.” The speaker suggests a motive: “At first, we blamed a meteor, but now / strong evidence suggests the white rhino / and damselfly—that mankind wanted this.” (The Todestrieb again.) A skilled, concise sonnet like this one is the perfect vehicle for a dramatic confession (Brodeur’s term) in which the poet’s alarm at species devastation is best delivered by an invented voice ingeniously rendered. “Space Junk,” doesn’t require an identifiable persona, but the poem’s resigned wit, cosmic imagery, and elegiac tone convey the strangeness of watching once-vaunted wonders swirl endlessly in mundane routine: placed in orbit, they’re “abandoned, orphaned, multiplying, like us,” but fated to end “in a rapture of scrap iron and / spare parts…” “Like us” indeed: the satellites, too, experience a “rapture” akin to that of some evangelical Christians; the track they follow, an O around the Earth, is like a “mouth droning hosannas”; “[t]hey were never born so can’t be born again.” The language of faith, when applied to circling space junk (whether functioning intact or smashed to orbiting dust) ensures that their obsolescence and ignominies feel like metaphors for our own.
Brodeur’s book of decisively fine poems is graced by formal variety and intellectual playfulness, subject matter both personal and public, and wisely skeptical takes on contemporary life. “Algorithm,” one of the latter, offers a high-tech spin on the old “suppose-our-lives-aren’t-real” hypothesis: “if our species is an avatar / doomed not to live but only interface, / it’s not impossible this super-race / might grope through its own simulated night.” If everything’s simulated, including oblivion, the question of what’s real might be moot anyway; more troubling, though, is that we may be simulations residing in some virtual past designed by more advanced descendants. (What would The Matrix’s Morpheus think of that?) Ubiquitous bar codes, too, receive Brodeur’s attention, their use in an unexplained health care setting hinting at a narrative untold: “what trapped infinities of ones / and zeroes might populate these X-dimensions / summoned by a cardinal chirp of light? / Never mind the snapped-on patient ID bracelet…” Here, what’s human is eclipsed, once again, by new technology, with readings gleaned from a scanner valued more than a patient’s name (“Barcode Ode”).
“Midlife,” whose epigraph reads “for my wife,” recounts the inevitable question of longtime couples everywhere: which of us will die first? Things pale and white, losses and erasures, dominate the imagery—“I scoop and spill a cup of flour again / like chalk dust on the laminate’s false grain— // white as a tulle gown, white as smashed milk glass”— though it’s hard to surpass the opening couplet’s impact: “What is this wanting now to know which one / will be the first, who will leave whom alone?” “Days of 2018,” a sonnet sequence the author should be proud of, meticulously braids marital stress (i.e, frantic scheduled efforts to conceive) with isolating in place due to reports of an unsuccessful but still dangerous on-campus shooter (as he remains at large, active shooter drills ensue). The sequence touches on so much—miscarriage, mortality, the absurd inadequacy of our responses to gun violence (“[t]he woods where he was hiding were clear-cut / and TeacherLocks installed in every room”)—that it’s easy to miss the facility Brodeur brings to the project: rhymes and rhyme schemes surprising, slant, or unobtrusively pure; shrewd stanza breaks that vary pacing and form; and a voice that is as loving, ironic, or urgent as the narrative requires.
I guess there must be people who belong, who pull up to their faux-Victorian in Shipshewana, crunching through dried leaves, and think, as houselights flick on, This is me.
Brodeur is an English professor—like the poem’s protagonist—and teaches in Indiana, which is where Shipshewana is located. I’m pretty sure “Days of 2018” is mostly autobiographical. But when he writes, “This is me,” I have to wonder: is it? Throughout Some Problems with Autobiography, Brodeur grapples with the question and asks us—playfully, perceptively—to join in.
Colorado’s Wendy Videlock is both a highly original poet and a visual artist specializing in vibrant alcohol-ink paintings of birds, beasts, and landscapes. There’s no one quite like her, though her use of internal rhyme and preference for brevity recall Kay Ryan’s work. The author of four previous full-length books (plus The Poetic Imaginarium, a compendium of essays and poems enhanced by whimsical color plates), Videlock is capable of lucent description, shining insight, gnomic reflection, and pithy narrative. She moves easily between free verse and meter, sometimes within the same poem; and though rhymes near, slant, and full almost always grace her lines, they often leap up in unexpected places. Her hallmark in Wise to the West and earlier books is the use of freely formal nonce forms that carry a sense of wonder.
“Like you,” whose title is also its first line, embodies her method at work. One of Videlock’s shortest in the new book, it’s a small sonic marvel.
I’ve been kissed by tragedy and illness, by clarity
and clouds of mist, by tiny gifts and little trees of amethyst, by bursts
of amaryllis, by anger’s fist, by glimmers of forgiveness.
The intimacy of “Like you,”—its assumed bond with whoever’s reading—ensures connection even as the poem evades specifics. We fill in the blanks with our own life milestones while bright gems of language light the way: “little trees of amethyst,” “bursts of amaryllis.” A few letters fall or rise, and purple quartz becomes a flower, the magic of language demonstrated sonically. Every element is necessary: tragedy, illness, some clarity, small gifts, these make up every lifetime. Even, inevitably, anger and, if we’re fortunate, forgiveness, offered or accepted. Videlock’s ear is something special: her elegant single sentence gives us “kissed,” “mist,” “amethyst,” and “fist” as full rhymes, with “amaryllis,” “forgiveness,” and “illness” forming a trio; yet all share that short-i assonance (as do “gift” and “glimmer”), forming an aural unity that threads throughout the poem. In essence, that vowel sound pulls us through to those final hopeful “glimmers” that free us of guilt and pain.
The lovely “Figures,” dominated by two-beat lines, looks at figurative language, the raw material of metaphor. Its opening, a definition, signals Videlock’s focus: “A metaphor is not a wall / but a turn in the sudden / feel of it all.” No poet I know would disagree. But there’s more: metaphors for metaphor that are brilliantly playful: “the breath that comes / before the fall,” “a shapely reminder / that language is limber, / thought is a bridge, // the brain is a gate…” The more intuitive Videlock’s metaphors, the more magic they hold. There is, for example, a kind of pause before vehicle and tenor connect; there is a “breath” (like the kind we’re told we take when a line enjambs, or after certain punctuation). Or is it that last breath of Edenic air before expulsion from Paradise, our fall at the moment of knowledge? The poem’s closure is perfect: “the heart’s inclined / to the primal sound / of the undiscovered // waterfall.” Is the heart, then, like a listening ear, attuned to some fusion of language and the world? The metaphor strikes and resounds deeply, however simple it seems at first.
In the title essay of Poetic Imaginarium, Videlock observes, “It’s often said that an artist is just a person in love with her art supplies. For the writer, that means a sensitivity to and a love of language.” As words are the poet’s matériel, this is no surprise; more so is Videlock’s perceptive take on the connections between poetic language and the non-verbal, non-human world. In another essay, “The Language of the Land,” she points out how “the natural world” urges us toward “the very animating forces of literature.” Included in both books, her poetic aviary “Deconstruction” serves to demonstrate the aesthetic and visionary qualities that bring subject and speech together in a poem. Six stanzas (two seven-line stanzas first and last, plus four five-line middle stanzas) introduce Videlock’s feathered friends through internal rhymes and poetic equivalences shared in an authoritative tone:
The chickadee is all about truth. The finch is a token. The albatross always an omen. The kestrel is mental, the lark is luck, the grouse is dance, the goose is quest. The need for speed is given the peregrine, and the dove’s been blessed with the feminine.
The title term, used loosely, is both critical methodology and a gauntlet thrown by those who resist its inherent suspicion of meaning. Is Videlock playfully pointing out language’s instability, the way syntax may be used to assert relationships that may or may not actually exist? Can any such relationships be said to exist anyway since words are arbitrary signifiers and the connection of “dove” to the real-life bird cooing on a ledge is merely an agreed-upon convenience? Or is Videlock disassembling the usual associations between certain birds and metaphors? I think she’s doing something else: gathering associations that do ring true while underscoring poetry’s power to bridge the gap between bird and metaphor, world and word. If you’ve spent time with one, the canary is “the bringer of ecstasy”—just listen to its song. “The loon is the watery voice of the moon”—how easily the line conjures the bird’s spectral cry on a moonlit lake. And the owl is indeed “the keeper of secrets, grief, / and fresh fallen-snow”: just visualize that pale raptor (probably a barn owl), inscrutable as she glides and listens for prey in a winter landscape. The option of saying one thing “is” something else holds a rhetorical impact that remains, for poets, a crucial resource—and, for readers, a source of delight.
Videlock’s love of poetic form is mirrored by her love of natural forms. “Radial Symmetry,” dedicated to Australian poet Cally Conan-Davies and inspired by her gift of a sand dollar skeleton, examines its “bone-colored circular form” with attention to its change from creature to aesthetic object:
A velvet-petaled, skim-and-burrow deep-sea creature becomes this: a sun-drenched clean design, conjuring thoughts
of transformation and the sublime….
Concise, sonically precise, “Radial Symmetry” is a quintessential Videlock poem: intelligent, assured in pace, visually memorable. It’s not overtly ambitious; short poems seldom are. Still, it’s hard not to think of it as an ars poetica, one that other poets under review here might appreciate. A living creature, somehow, becomes a work of art and nature whose mysteries reach back and forth from sea to sky: “…At the heart / of the five-pointed star / five even tinier pores, where / the architecture // of the world appears to surge.” This celestial reach is how some of us think of art (or at least some art, sometimes), and the sand dollar’s radial symmetry (its pattern around a central axis) reflects a shape—a form—that’s ideal for what it is. Isn’t this perfection of shape what poets are reaching for through language—not just in metrical poems but poems of every sort? Through our words, we shape the silence, a voice contrasting with its absence, the poem on the page its twin and visual reflection.
That voice inheres in the form a poem takes. Wendy Videlock, who is currently Colorado’s Western Slope Poet Laureate, concludes, “And should you crack / this fragile shell in half, as all / sea-children come / to learn, / five small doves emerge.” Those “doves” are literally the tooth-like segments rattling inside; but to call them “doves” is also a case of the mind at work again, seeking resemblances, seeking metaphors. Given a final line that almost makes it sound like they’re taking flight, maybe those doves are the magic that makes a poem’s form come alive: the rewards of a spell cast to brilliant effect, its secrets known to all the poets discussed here.