AQ19 Summer 2017 Book Reviews
by Bryan R. Monte
Gary Beck. Tremors. Winter Goose Publishing. ISBN 978-1-941058-64-0, 108 pages.
Kate Foley. Electric Psalms. Shoestring Press. ISBN 978-1-910323-55-7, 164 pages.
Susan E. Lloy. But When We Look Closer. Now or Never Publishing. ISBN 978-1-988098-25-8, 181 pages.
Scott T. Starbuck. Hawk on Wire. Ecopoems. Fomite Press. ISBN 978-1-944388-05-8, 76 pages.
The books in this review are from mature writers in the latter phases of their careers, who I feel are all involved in restating and/or summing up some of their most important concerns and discoveries. These writers have all done their preparatory and developmental work and have had time to refine their style and approach effectively for maximum impact. Their new books reflect the wisdom of their observations and the effectiveness of their techniques.
Scott T. Starbuck’s Hawk on Wire poetry collection is the type the world needs in order to save the planet from wide-spread, lasting ecological destruction. They are poems by a man who has written about his love of nature and his concerns about climate change, species extinction and our planet’s ecological destruction for years even though these subjects are still not part of every writing programme’s curriculum. (I remember writing instructors in the mid-1980s, who felt they needed to stop me from embarrassing myself writing about the beginning of the AIDS crisis which they told me “might not turn out to be so bad.”)
In “Punch Bowl Hike Meditation,” Starbuck writes “For 30 years / I’ve talked to myself / about climate change / but now most everyone is.” His poems show the effect of this type of prescient solipsism on a man, a type of prophecy that is almost as old as the ancients he mentions in his next poem, “Wind Spirit,” first published in Amsterdam Quarterly in 2016. The Wind Spirit asks a person one question: “How will you save the community of species on earth?” and tells him/her each time she/he answers incorrectly, she/he will lose a finger. So in search of wisdom, this person tries to consult the “smart” coyote, the “king salmon” with “a bright red soul,” an eagle with its “unerring vision” among other majestic, powerful, well-travelled animals. Unfortunately, after ten days this person finds that these animals and their wisdom are all dead and he/she has no fingers left.
In “Conundrum” Starbuck writes about “Martha, the last passenger pigeon / who died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.” In “Indian Boy” the speaker asks him: “There was a lake here with fish. Where is it?” and in “Message From Far Way” the poet laments “When people lost trees / they lost the ability to think // and minds were filled / by money locusts.” Starbuck laments not only the loss of trees, but also in “Initiation Poem” that, according to David W. Orr, “Young people can recognise over 1,000 corporate logos but only a handful plants and animals native to their places.”
On the positive side, Starbuck offers some solutions to climate change. One poem with suggestions is “How We Stopped Corporate Psychopaths From Cooking Planet Earth” in which he imagines “’Destroy Your Television Day’” grew more popular/than Xmas and the 4th of July.” and a major oil company is renamed “BlueOrbSolar.” Starbuck’s poems also describe his love for the natural world’s beauty, albeit a world that is quickly disappearing. He continues to write about his passion for fishing in secluded streams and his observation and his admiration of great birds such as the bald eagle, the horned owl and the hawk on (a) wire, from his title poem, who continue to observe and wisely avoid him and other humans.
More realistically chilling, however, Starbuck’s “Thoughts at the End of Empire,” echo somewhat my concern about the lack of AIDS awareness and education in schools and colleges in the mid-1980s: “It’s possible that education will change / from locking children in boxes / to getting them outside in tide pools, / rivers, creeks, deserts, mountains. // It’s also possible, based on our collective / behavior, there won’t be future generations.” Hawk on Wire is a powerful poetry collection worth reading and discussing—especially in writing programmes.
Susan Lloy’s But When We Look Closer is a collection of short stories that describes what happens when some druggy, former ’70s punkers are forced to move back home, to a rest home or other institutions for their own safety. These stories—the dark side of the Sid and Nancy generation—revolve around the subjects of sex, drugs, music, art, money, and mental illness. In addition, Lloy writes about people who are finally freed to pursue their artistic and erotic interests whether this be through finally having a permanent roof over their heads, receiving an inheritance or winning the lottery.
These stories, some no longer than a page, often have snap, but always credible endings. For example in “Where To,” a woman who takes a cab to a bar planning to kill her unfaithful lover. She decides not to, though, after a conversation with her Afghan cabbie, who describes how he ended up stranded up in a country, whose military accidentally killed his family. In “Dylan’s Roost” the young bookstore owner, whose shop provides a comfortable haven for both a rich author and a schizophrenic homeless man, is not rescued from financial peril due to his hard work or his good deeds. There is no karma, no payoff for good deeds, but plenty of financial practicalities in the Lloy’s fictional world.
The type of short stories I especially enjoy, those written about the same characters over a space of several decades, are also represented in this collection by “Close Kin” and “Dutch Lite.” In the first story, the main character, Margaret, then a twenty-something, an art school student, is involved in a three-way with Dutch twin brothers, Theo, a violinist, and Joop, an artist, in Amsterdam. She forms a formal relationship with one to stay in the Netherlands, but later their chaotic ménage trois, in which one man was like “the cold Atlantic greets the warm waters of the Indian ocean,” leads to a tearful breakup and Margaret handing her Dutch identity (indefinite stay) card to a Brussels’ airport customs official. Fast forward years later and in “Dutch Lite” Margaret has literally won the lottery and recently purchased a canal house in Amsterdam’s Jordaan district from where she can hear the Westerkerk’s chimes. However, as Thomas Wolff famously warned, “you can’t go home again,” and she finds her two previous lovers distant and in more permanent relationships than she had with them even though she offers them both space in her new home to practice music and paint with no strings attached. Her efforts to meet a new man also fail due to her being less than forthcoming about why she’s in Amsterdam, afraid her new beau might be attracted to her for just her money. When he also rejects her, she finally realises she, as many of her Lloy’s characters, can’t live in the past or, even with enough money, recreate it in the present.
The Canadian and Quebecois references in Lloy’s book also made it interesting to this American, permanent-resident of the Netherlands, who rarely ventured North of Niagara Falls. Lloy describes life in Canada’s French-speaking province and capital as well as its British maritime provinces. She describes apartments along Quebec’s grand avenues and her characters familiar, urban angst of having to look for flats after the buildings, in which they’ve lived for decades, go condo. Her stories set along the coast include those about recently deceased relatives and being party to the suicide of a terminally-ill, local fisherman and childhood friend. They are also about the relatives and friends who attend these funerals and/or spread their loved ones’ ashes along the shore where they will be near familiar rocky coasts and migratory whale routes.
Lloy’s description of mental illness, especially schizophrenia and its relationship to art, is also a distinctive feature of these stories. In “Even Sad Dogs Smile,” Lloy describes the “meds” that prevented Daleighla’s, her main character’s, schizophrenic episodes so she wouldn’t try to destroy the bathroom sink to stop the noise coming from its drain, but which also “clouded her head” so she could no longer create remarkable and edgy paintings and drawings. One episode is announced by her dog, Romeo, who suddenly says: “Give it over, you greedy, tight-fisted bitch,” as she offers him a piece of her sandwich. Tragically, after struggling for years to be represented by a gallery, just as she is accepted, she has another episode in which she destroys most of her work and when she comes back to herself, can’t create anything new that’s as good.
Lloy’s But When We Look Closer is a unique collection of short stories set in North America and Europe where her characters struggle with drugs, sex, art, money, mental illness and, most importantly, loss. As in life, so as in her fiction, Lloy’s characters discover too late that they can’t really change themselves, (even through plastic surgery,) or their past.
The next book I’d like to recommend for this summer is Gary Beck’s Tremors, a very generous collection of 104 poems. As will be familiar to readers of my previous reviews, what nature and climate change are to Starbuck, eroticism and social commentary are to Beck. The book’s epigraph by Apollinaire about ‘having known all kinds, who didn’t fullfil their destinies’ announces Beck’s socially-aware poetic view towards the close of his life which reverberates throughout Tremors. His first poem, “Entropy” is concerned with the passage of time and his desire to “accomplish/anything meaningful/in remaining days.” In “From the Terrace” he compares himself to an elderly lizard/hulking on a heating rock.” In poems such as “Dementia” “Ailment,” “Trapped,” “Summons,” “Question,” “Last Gasp,” and “Tempus” the theme of ageing is described through various metaphors and from different perspectives.
Other poems criticise the wielders of artistic, social or financial power. In “Middle Class Poets” he scorns the “bloated poets,”…“sneering” at “the world” because of their “protective cloak of tenure…mumbling impotent objections”. In “Past Sighting”, the poet “saw a processional of faces / loved ones I have known and lost”. In “Futilism” he ponders power and observes “Castles are only safe/from marauders / when built on hilltops” and that they are only maintained by “oppressive power / harshly inflicted/on diverse vassals.” Perhaps timely food-for-thought for the current, Microserf, pre-robotic generation. In his very short poem, “Free Will,” Beck refers to destiny again: “The lines of destiny / in my troubled life / have never been as thin, as crossing, or not crossing,/ the next street / turning the next corner / expecting discoveries.” In “Errata” he “fondle(s) old mistakes” and shows “hopes…curdled / by too much desire / for material things.”
In Tremors, the poet finds an uneasy respite in literature and sex. In poems such as “Lust Song” and “Inspiration,” Beck refers to “the tender lust of power, / dreaming you perfect” and “Praise for reawakenings.” In “Woman” he pines: “I can do without you no longer”.
His less frequent and more unusual poems include the picturesque and informative “Mallorca” with its beautiful description of the island and its history and “Hitchhiking North” in which the poet bathes in a pond and leaves feeling the “water’s pure deliverance.” It’s a pity there’s not more of this type of poetry in this collection. Perhaps because this deliverance is brief, as the tremors mentioned in his poems “Detached” “I lie beside your tremors / silent, hoping to endure” and in “Ianamorata” “When last my fingers, / gripped hard to your flesh, / squeezed until my tremors burst,” quickly return Beck to his primary modes of eroticism and critical social observation.
In Tremors, Beck has written a generous, poetic collection, from which readers will certainly find at least a some poems that will deliver a few mindquakes.
Electric Psalms, new and selected poems is British-born poet and Amsterdam-resident Kate Foley’s latest book. Its first eight sections contain many of Foley’s more well-known and previously published poems from her first collection, Soft Engineering, to her most recent, The Don’t Touch Garden, the latter of which was reviewed in AQ14, in autumn 2015. The ninth section includes 27 new poems with subjects as wide-ranging as pre-, natural and recorded history, being a linguistic ex-pat, dangerous Amsterdam cyclists, ageing, Quaker meeting, an artist’s unstoppable urge to create, and the evolution and possible end of humankind. In 28 pages, Foley explores these subjects and more with her keen sense of observation. In poems such as “To Write a Natural History, “What I Once Knew,” “Squirreling — Or An Archaeology of Memory,” she zooms in on the words that “lie in the cave of our mouths,” or “the spider on the back gate / (that) drew a marvellous / map with silk, / a living harp / to sing winged creatures in” and “All the lives you touched live on walls,” respectively. “My Humble Body,” “Why is Patinated OK,” and “What I Once Knew” are all about ageing, “from The Other Side of Sleep” about dying and “Washing the Dead” about death. Though some poems contain the same subjects, each creates a different mood, by using a different structure, style and set of metaphors.
Most interesting are Foley’s poems about life in Amsterdam. These include “A Different Psalm” about Amsterdam Quaker Meeting, “The Collective Noun for Bicycles” and the book’s title poem, “Electric Psalms.” The last two are about the city’s seemingly mad cyclists who are a law onto themselves. In “Electric Psalms,” Foley describes cyclists who “whirr (past) like demented coffee grinders.” She marvels at the torrent of helmet-less cyclists, “Helmets? Ha!” some wearing “high heels” or with “mobile phones…clamped to one ear.” In “Electric Psalms” it’s “Traffic lights? Ha!” or bikes with “no brakes,” or cyclists who “Text as you ride?” all of which captures the hurly-burly of living in central Amsterdam.
There are also poems about music and musicians reflecting the influence of the nearby Concertgebouw on Foley’s life. In “Borrowing the Old Man’s Shoes” she describes how Beethoven “stepped out of his carriage to write music on the road.” In “Tuning the Brook with Stones,” she writes of the music water makes as it goes downstream.
Foley even includes an apocryphal poem set in the Netherlands entitled “After It’s Over.” In the poem she asks what will happen: “when all the restored windmills / have broken loose…when Facebook turns the same / tired page tirelessly, / and all the ringtones of the world / sing in polyphony?” Her solution to this domesday scenario and one of the keys to her poetic perspective as a trained midwife and scientist is “to celebrate / the grief of elephants, / their ivory yellow sadness, / the scattered far-flung / molecules of belief.”