Review of Robert Zaller’s Speaking to Power

by Miriam Kotzin

Robert Zaller. Speaking to Power. (Philadelphia PA: The Moonstone Press, 2015).  77pp.

Robert Zaller’s Speaking to Power is an impressive collection of superb poetry that evinces the author’s wide-ranging knowledge and indicates a passion for justice.  Zaller’s erudition joins his imagination in writing poems that are responses to literature and philosophy:  not fan fiction (or fan poetry) but daring explorations, expansions.

In Speaking to Power, Herbert, Mayakovsky, Parra, Shakespeare (Hamlet, Julius Caesar), Sophocles, Goya, Giacometti, de Saussure, Voltaire, and their works are subjects for poems, as are a number of historical and Biblical figures. Zaller is a master of the dramatic poem; moreover these poems are unflinching as they confront cruelty.

This is not to say that the poems are grim—far otherwise.  “The Last Citizen” speaks as a poet  “…toiling from word to word / like a miner without a lamp, chipping away  / in my darkness at the imaginary / rockface of the world.”

The book’s opening poem, “Simple Answers,” sets the tone for what follows:  “The simple answers lie before us / with the rectitude of keys / for which all doorways have vanished.” 

This is followed by a response to the poem by Zbigniew Herbert, “Herbert’s Pebble.”  Zaller’s narrator, like the narrator Herbert’s poem, holds a pebble in his hand, “the furnace of [his] palm,” an action echoed by Claudius in Zaller’s “Claudius’s Prayer,” one of a series of Hamlet poems. In the play, Claudius kneels but cannot pray; Shakespeare’s scene ends with the couplet, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”  Zaller’s poem ends with a similar statement, even though the title tantalizes the reader with the possibility of the prayer’s words.  It takes a spine of steel to write something that calls upon the reader to compare a passage with Shakespeare’s. Zaller’s poem holds up to the scrutiny:

         “No thought or prayer
         can comfort like cold stone
         weighed in the palm
         of one’s hand.
         Yet stone, too, is fire-born
         and fire, as is known,
         lives the death of air
         through which thought and prayer
         likewise flow.
         So one can hold nothing then
         that has not come
         and will not go
         no more than pulse of wren
         that strains at flight
         and never goes?…”

All too often political poems are more polemics than poetry—not so these admirable poems. When they are responses to other work, their excellence invites re-reading the source and then returning to Speaking to Power. Robert Zaller’s latest collection is certain to be read with appreciation for its insight, its sensitive use of figures of speech, and its command of cultural history.

Review of Laurel Blossom’s Longevity

by Miriam Kotzin

Laurel Blossom.  Longevity.  New York, New York: Four Way Books.  2015.  pp.72.

Laurel Blossom’s narrative prose poem, Longevity, is a stunner, one of the important book-length poems of the 21st century. Themes intertwine: family, friendship, loss, and memory. When the narrator of the poem says, “Everything is elegy,” the statement is both an observation and a guide to the reader, as the narrator provides a key to the poem: “Where it says she, it means Margaret or Lucy or my poor mother. /Where it says she, it means said. It means dead.”

Memory is not simply film: it is fragile, “brittle,” in danger of snapping: “My whole life flashing. Brittle, bitter frames of film run backwards.”   The words “brittle” and “bitter” are yoked by sound; one informs the other. The metaphor of a past remembered, re-experienced, is “like clacking film.”  The figure continues:  “Memory catches on the sprockets of grief.”  The narrator grieves her friend, her sister, and her mother—yet the poem is filled with light and bright colors, flowers. 

Memorable, original images offer pleasure through their economy, their musicality, and their startling ability to revise the world: “Raindrops hanging on the laundry line to dry” and “Orange shift shimmering in  sleeveless  breeze.” The genius resides, in part, in departures from the expected:  the shift shimmers not in the sunlight, but in the breeze; it is not the shift that is sleeveless, but the breeze.

A similar effect occurs in the images of the destruction of the World Trade Center that haunt Longevity.  The post 9/11 World Trade Center lies in rubble; the iconic image of the uplifted grid becomes “Charred ruins like bones of a great cathedral, arches like hands in smoldering prayer.”  The book begins with a prologue, the first line, mysterious only when we first read it—on second reading, we recognize that this is Margaret falling from the World Trade Center:  “Now when she falls, she falls up, on blue, unfolded wings.” As Lucy dies of cancer, she has a “failing falling body.”  And the mother’s death?  It’s unknown which came first, her fall from a balcony—or a heart attack.  The body is “ephemeral” in Longevity.

Blossom’s Longevity is a remarkable book, indisputable evidence that prose poetry, too, will make you “feel physically as if the top of [your] head were taken off.”

Review of Daniel Mark Epstein’s Dawn to Twilight: New and Selected Poems

by Miriam Kotzin

Daniel Mark Epstein. Dawn to Twilight:  New and Selected Poems. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, 2015.  157 pp.

The arrival of a volume of new and selected poems by an accomplished poet is a much-anticipated event, as was Daniel Mark Epstein’s Dawn to Twilight, which rewards the reader from the early poems through the most recent, confirming that Epstein is a superb poet and translator. 

The poems in this volume span nearly five decades of insightful observations and explorations, an extraordinary, skilled use of language.  Do you read a book of poems, browsing here and there, choosing poems first by title?  Or, with a volume of collected or selected poems, do you read with some discipline from back to front—or the reverse?  In the first of a series of helpful notes Epstein says that his “longer narrative and dramatic” poems from earlier books have been omitted here; instead, he included lyric poems “in roughly chronological order [to] see if those poems would tell a story on their own….I was surprised by the extent to which these shorter poems, irregularly autobiographical, now emerge as a unified autobiography.”

Even without the extra level of interest, the poetry offers uncommon pleasure in poems in a wide range of subjects: those that invite the autobiographical reading (“The Code,” “For a Child Frightened by Lightning,” “Schoolhouses,”  “The Book of Matches,” “Heading Home,” “The Music Lesson,” “My Desk,” “Dawn to Twilight”); those that are inspired by art or other writers (“Russian Village Suite” after Marc Chagall, “Homage to Mallarmé,” “After Whitman’s Lincoln Speech”); portraits and character studies (“The Secret,” “Miss Ellie’s 78th Spring Party,”  “The Follies,” “Cash Only, No Refund, No Return,” “Beauty and the Beast”); or poems about the natural world (“The American White Pelican,”  “Cygnus Musicus,” “Bobolink,” “The Vanishing Oriole,” “The Comb Bearers,” “Fireflies”).  

Taking obvious delight in its exaggerations, the daring “Night Medallion,” with its phallic “Eager candle,” goes way beyond Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).
“My woman is sharper than new truth,
            a clean bullet hole in glass.
Winter cuts its teeth on her, the sun
            cuts its hand on her,
she’s too hot for the beach, the golden sand
            goes all to white crystal under her.

She’s so proud, the full moon is her mirror.
            …”

What is the greater compliment, that a poet write a poem to express his great love and his being overwhelmed by his beloved’s beauty—or for him to be unable speechless?  In “The Glass,” he writes that the woman

            “with all the tricks of nature to multiply
            leaf upon leaf and heartbeat upon beat
            has come to live in my mind as if
            the world were not wide enough to hold her beauty.”
            …
            “When she walks into the room something must break,
            mind’s image meets her coming with such force.
            My glass is shattered and I cannot speak.”

The musicality of these lines is enviable: the beautiful assonance, for example, in the last line.

“A Book of Matches” is an extended metaphor of a marriage ending—as the speaker sets the house on fire; the poem opens with the answer to a question as yet unasked: why?—  “Because I could not stay with her forever…”   The flames climb from the basement to the upstairs:

            “Because I could not hold her long enough
            The fire wrapped our bed in a cruel curtain
            Where our bodies once shone making love

            And at last it burst into the children’s room
            Furious to find them gone, no longer children
            Any more than we are bride and groom.”

Who is the “The Lion Tamer at 2:00 A.M.”?  The poem begins with commentary on human nature: “The crowd is always on the lion’s side…” The poem develops with another observation, “Hard to survive this art, harder to please.”  Not only the lion tamer, this is the poet speaking, “How can I make a show with ten tame lions?”

There’s more than enough show in Dawn to Twilight.   Daniel Mark Epstein’s selection of lyric poetry in this book makes me want a second selected volume, this one with translations and longer poems.