Review of Colette Inez’s The Luba Poems

by Alexis Levitin

The Luba Poems
Colette Inez, Pasadena, CA
Red Hen Press,
2015. 90 pp.

Fifty years ago, dining at the Eberharts in Hanover, New Hampshire, Robert Lowell leaned towards me like a stricken man and said, with painful gravity, “Macbeth is very, very dark. The only thing that saves it is the poetry.”

I would now like to add that whether we contemplate a tragic or comic vision, a realistic or fanciful one, in the end what saves all poetry is the poetry itself. Nowhere else in our efforts to communicate do the musical qualities of language contribute so intimately and inescapably to the so-called “meaning” of a text. In poetry, without the sound there is no sense. There is no salvation.

Colette Inez’ new book The Luba Poems dwells mostly in the realm of the capricious, the witty, the gaudy, the playful, the comic, the spritely, the joyous, the fun-filled, the exuberant. Mercurial Luba, her name the Russian diminutive for Love, bounces around the real world and the world of diction with the spontaneity of a puppy dog. However, all that effervescence, that undeniable joie de vivre, springs entirely from the language in which it is rooted. Without that language, Colette, Luba’s confidant and puppeteer, might be filled with an incredible élan vital, but we would never know it.

If I had to place Colette in the modern poetry scene, I would say she is a most mischevious kid sister to Wallace Stevens. Listen to this:

They sang to choristers        
Who swayed like trees
In the rush of huzzahs
Before rain crashed down 

Luba Quince at the Clavier, no?
We all have feelings. Only poets have words. In any case, here is a poet, armed with words, and delighted to fulfill her role as Homo ludens. Playful, delightful, and serious at the same time.

Let us watch and listen as the adventurous journey begins:

“When the name
                       Luba lifts away
like a leaf in hard rain
                       or goes missing
from its cage—
                       a parakeet not answering
or a scrap of light
                       snagged by a cloud…

How about the pure music of this lightly lilting phrase: “in a frangipani-scented mist,” drawn from a poem about poets called “Noting Names,” in which
“her known identity  [is] named
by the pull of the tide, the unlettered sun.”

Or, in “Din Spool, a Bibliophile,” the lively contrast between a harried world of “drill, whine,/buzz, bang,” from which she “longs to be soothed by anapests at the crest/ of the waves”—and there they are: anapests and waves together.

Often enough, the titles of her poems refer to music:  “Cadenzas for Johnny,” “Serpa Bell Song,”  “Luba Looks at a Menu and Thinks of Music,” and the concluding poem in the book “The Singers.” As for pure sound, here are just a few whiffs drifting among these poems: “Coco Chiroco,” “the moon/frazzled blue jazz in riffs     over    the river,” “disco, jazz, twist, funk…plunked bumpty-bump/from a neighbors whoopee room piano…,” “swerve on like the moon-June jackpot/ of dicey days in the mean meantime,” “in the freeze-grip-crunch of their last bang,” “hunters/ of springbok, dik-dik, antelopes,” “ hey hey di hay… glory wa wa… Doba dee da doba da dee.” Yes, the lady loves sound. And does she sing scat!

However, I would like to note that mixed in with the joyous life-affirming music, there are reminders of the grave side to the human condition. In a poem imagining an abandoned polar bear cub, she concludes “How can he know she, too, /has lost her mother/to blue infinities?” To readers familiar with Colette’s life work and life story those “blue infinities” suggest a poignant sorrow, never utterly healed. In “Luba Reads Merwin,” the conclusion is both valiant and philosophically rather desperate, as it portrays in lovely language our lovely, lonely pathos: “knowing words are tireless and travel/out of nothing to a vacancy of stars.” And in the important final poem of the collection, she concludes with a paean of praise to song and an acknowledgment of its dark source:

We sang
glory wa wa to the highest
bird lit by the sun
Stones applauded
from the stream
clouds leaned in
gathered that dark
where singing comes from
Doba dee da doba da dee

If we are saved, our salvation is both exultant and fragile, a salvation fresh with stream, sunlight, and song, but all in the moment.

Read this book. It is a book of love, as the title suggests: love for the world, love for language, love for us all in our painful, glorious human condition.

Review of Lee Slonimsky’s Red-Tailed Hawk on Wall Street

by David Beckman

Red-Tailed Hawk on Wall Street
Lee Slonimsky, New York
Spuyten Duyvil,
2015. 89 pp.

How many poets plant their flag where Wall Street and poetry intersect? Wallace Stevens stood at a similarly unusual corner, that of the insurance business and poetry. But Stevens never attempted to capture his corporate geography in his poems.

Now comes Lee Slonimsky’s 6th book of poems, Red-Tailed Hawk on Wall Street, where his dual identity of poet and stock trader meets and generates creative fire, often captured in his alter ego, Paul, a stock trader who inhabits some of these poems:

Paul loves this glade, where time almost stands still
away from stress and brawl of trading floor.
Still numbers, yes: he loves to count the leaves
that brim so green mid-May.

These poems, rooted in the fact of a red-tailed hawk living on a ledge above Manhattan’s canyons, achieve a unique vision that transcends city and country, Wall Street and woods. Indeed, the hawk’s true habitation — the natural world — is home for deep contemplation and tranquility that stock trading can never deliver, yet which Slonimsky chooses fiercely to embrace:

                                             Time’s ancient road
looks brand new to us, like a cresting wave,
effects of wind, a storm, pale lightning’s sear.

But every patch of grass has history,
invisible yet summoned easily
if one would only let thoughts, feelings move
as slowly as the ground dries – yes – right here.

Slonimsky’s hawk, native to country and woods, yet now inhabiting the city, gives wing to these finely etched poems where the poet’s keen eye and relentless imagination capture nuance, feeling and insight:

                                                      No fear:
how grand his lofty view of river, park!
And then he feels himself inside this bird,
as if his arms were winged, his face a beak,
as if transformed by some primordial Word
(if this be sleep, then let him never wake).

Here is the superb achievement of these poems: observer becomes hawk; poet becomes metaphor.

The way a hawk rests on this concrete cliff,
then circles high above the jostling throngs
and glides, her wings agleam, through early mists,
you’d think that Wall Street is where she belongs.

The book’s other sections show Slonimsky’s astonishing range, where poems evoke love in Italy and France (he’s every bit as evocative of affairs of heart as those of hawk); metaphysics of place; and meditations on weather where sunlight, rain, clouds and wind become charged elements in diurnal dramas:

Huge shadows dance on this steep wooded hill
whenever sunlight seeps between some clouds
that quiver in the wind. It’s quite the thrill
to watch clouds waltz and pirouette, the floods
of all last week receded. We’re awash
in breaking skies and warming gusts, the glow
of sudden sun on tangled greenery.

Delight for the reader resides in the arc of this collection, but also in the poet’s skill as a craftsman. Here, the sonnet may be Slonimsky’s chosen habitat, but other forms enrich his palate, allowing line, rhyme and meter to frame and feed the living pulse of these extraordinary poems.

Review of Lewis Turco’s The Hero Enkidu

by Miriam N. Kotzin

The Hero Enkidu
Lewis Turco, New York
Bordighera Press,
2015. 102 pp.

To say that Lewis Turco’s The Hero Enkidu is clever, is to understate its virtues both as a page-turner action story and as an accomplished poem. Enkidu is a companion to Gilgamesh, from the Ancient Sumerian The Epic of Gilgamesh, which, as Turco tells us is “the oldest long narrative poem in the world”—indeed, if there’s another more than 4,000 years old, we’ve yet to discover it.  Instead of being a sidekick to Gilgamesh, Enkidu is the hero, whose development and adventures are presented in Anglo Saxon prosody with metrical five-line “bob and wheels.”  It is a matter of amazement that this construction seems to vanish as the reader gets caught up in the story of Enkidu.

It doesn’t vanish, of course—even the presence of a sestina, with a bob and wheel following each of its stanzas— serves to foster character development or advance the plot.  The bob and wheel sometimes enjambs with the line above, sometimes with the line following, impelling the reader forward. Moreover, the poetry offers evocative descriptions, such as: “….The windowsill /Swallowed shadows.” or “northern light/Would glance from glaciers   laid like tiles/Upon the tundra.”

The epic begins before Enkidu speaks when he is “fully feral.”  He is transformed by Lilitu, but one night Enkidu wakes and finds his bed-companion, Lilitu, is missing, and he sets out to find her.  She had lured him and transformed him from his feral life, but now, anger transforms him to a beast-like creature:
                                        Enkidu raged
To think that Lilitu      had betrayed him.
The moon was full      in the night’s heavens
When Enkidu howled    beneath its beams.
He dropped again     to all four  feet
As he had erstwhile    done in the forest,
Before he became    a human male.

At last he found her    in a crypt of ghouls
Consorting with them   and drinking the blood
Of infants from bowls    made of skulls.
Enkidu entered    trembling with fury
And with disgust.    He called aloud
In the voice of a lion,   “Who are you
Who gather here     to engage in the rites
Of the gods of Evil?”

He gets his answer:  the Seven Spirits who “grind the earth/ like wheat.”  Enkidu gets rid of them:  “With one  mighty / Thrust Enkidu      brushed the spirits /Into the wind…”
The caesuras (pauses) in the following passage increase the drama of the dialogue. Lilitu’s speech is strong, and is followed by Enkidu’s silent turning away.   

She looked at him    with eyes of fire.
“I am not your kine,    Enkidu my love.
My soul is mine     as is my body.
I do with it as    I please; I go
Whereever I go     whenever I wish.
You have no rights     to me or mine.
Why did you banish   my Seven Spirits?”

Enkidu said nothing,   He merely turned
And hastened away.   He had to find
A place to stay   and be alone
To deal with such   immense betrayal.

Equally engaging is Canto VI, the goddess Ishtar’s proposal to Enkidu—and his refusal, which reads, in part:

What, then would be   my advantage?
You are a ruin   that gives no shelter
From the weather   to any man.
You are merely   a rear door
Without resistance     to blast or storm.
You are a palace     that dashes the heroes
Living in it     into shards and pieces,
A pitfall covered     with twigs and leaves
That will fail and trap     him who walks
Upon its surface.   You are a bottle
That leaks in the desert,     limestone that rots
And lets ramparts    crumble in ruins.
You are chalcedony   that does not guard;
A sandal that tears   and causes its wearer
To fall by the wayside.     How many husbands
Have you loved faithfully,    who has been your lord
And had the advantage?     Let me unfold
The endless roster     of your husbands,
And you will vouch     the truth of the list:

These invectives make “bitch on wheels” seem a quaint raised eyebrow of disapproval. Enkidu then lists Ishtar’s husbands and what befell them—e.g., transformed into a spider.  Her revenge follows.

With all its violent exploits, battles, the living dead “night walkers, ” and seductions and attempted seductions, this poem would be R rated were it to be made into a 3-D animated film, which it should be.  Imagine Lilitu transforming into an owl and flying away with her owl daughter out over the heads of the audience, or The Bull of Heaven incinerating the men, its flames leaping upward to the cinema’s ceiling.

The Epic of Enkidu is great fun to read.  In addition to the poem itself, this volume includes an informative introduction by Michael Palma and an Afterword by Turco, about 20 pages that begin with a discussion of prosody and then move to a fascinating literary memoir. Per Contra published The Prologue, Canto I, Nimrod and Lilitu and part of the Afterword, in the Winter of 2013, and a revision of Canto 5, The Forest of Humbaba, which incorporates a newly published translation of a tablet of Gilgamesh.  

Review of Lee Slonimsky’s Bermuda Gold

by Harry Steven Lazerus

Bermuda Gold
Lee Slonimsky, Abbeville, SC
Moonshine Cove Publishing,
2015. 266 pp.

An engaging new private eye has sprung from the keyboard of Lee Slonimsky, a poet and hedge fund manager. J. E. Rexroth, a financially struggling shamus subsisting on the lower rungs of PI work, comes alive on the pages of Bermuda Gold, Slonimsky’s new mystery-suspense novel.

Rexroth—from whose point-of-view the story is told—is a totally believable everyman with a poet’s eye and a penchant for trying to do the right thing. The novel opens when the beautiful wife of a hedge fund manager asks him to investigate a series of threatening phone calls she may or may not have received. The intricately plotted novel moves with the speed of polished steel as it weaves together financial skullduggery, marital infidelity, murder, and the threat of nuclear terrorism. This isn’t simply a novel of detection, however. Rexroth’s digging to find the truth endangers not only himself but the love of his life. There are plenty of scenes to cause your heart to pound and pulse to race, and occasionally you may have to fight the temptation to skip some lines to find out what is going to happen as the author ratchets up the almost unbearable suspense.

But you won’t want to skip lines anywhere because you will miss much of the subtlety and beauty of the writing. The novel has a definite sense of place, and Rexroth, as he drives around the Inwood section of Manhattan and the hills of upstate New York—areas that the author seems to know well—describes what he sees with poetic elegance. There is the ever present picture of the natural world, even in this book with an urban setting, as for example the relationship between wind and clouds: “The wind went on making its albino sculpture of clouds high overhead…” Or this, as he drives to an airport: “… a red sun rose fiercely into a white dawn, while arrows of fire assaulted the waters of Jamaica Bay, targeting ripples that turned into quivering bloodstains, while black-crowned herons and herring gulls … caressed the frigid air with their graceful wings…”

The reader also gets easily digestible lessons on hedge funds as Rexroth, no financial maven himself, sets out to learn about these obscure, but influential, organizations. And throughout the novel, there are interesting tidbits about the history of places that appear in this story.

There is much to recommend Bermuda Gold: a page-turning plot, elegant writing, interesting information not usually found in the pages of a novel, and a sympathetic protagonist who is hard not to care about. Let’s hope that this is not J. E. Rexroth’s first and last appearance in a detective novel, but the start of a long series.