April may be the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, but....
It is also a 30-day chunk of calendar full of the slow-boil beauty of language, the compression of stanza, the squeeze of sestina, the reduction-sauce of haiku.
Yes, April is aka National Poetry Month, inaugurated in 1996 by some very compassionate, smart-thinking academicians (who may also have had a bit of the ol' armpit-stain of sweaty desperation common to hoarse-voiced prophets crying in the wilderness, ice salesmen handing business cards to Eskimos, and poem-lovers trying to get a tin-eared population to listen to what they have to say and tune in to that slow-boil beauty, etc.).
Frankly, National Poetry Month is no big deal to me. That's because I've learned how to integrate poetry into my life 365 days a year. It's quite simple, really. I begin every morning by reading one, two, sometimes three poems. Said poetic event usually takes place during my morning constitutional. I keep a book of verse on a small shelf next to the toilet in the upstairs bathroom and I read a few stanzas while I--well, you get the picture. Waste out, words in.
--Sorry, am I oversharing?
Though I'll sometimes dip into the classics (Hiya, Walt! Nice to see you, Mr. Coleridge!), contemporary poets are more the norm. That's why I was all primed to add a few new volumes to my collection when I received the Copper Canyon Press catalog in the mail earlier this month. We're talking kid-in-a-candy-store kind of happy. April or no April, I wanted me some fresh poetry. Here are three of the titles which I clickety-click lickety-split ordered (a fourth, The Infinitesimals by Laura Kasischke, is due to arrive in June), with synopses, blurbs and sample lines from the publisher:
Darkness Sticks to Everything
by Tom Hennen
Tom Hennen gives voice to the prairie and to rural communities, celebrating—with sadness, praise, and astute observations—the land, weather, and inhabitants. In short lyrics and prose poems, he reveals the detailed strangeness of ordinary things. Gathered from six chapbooks that were regionally distributed, this volume is Hennen’s long-overdue introduction to a national audience. “It’s hard to believe that this American master—and I don’t use those words lightly—has been hidden right under our noses for decades. But despite his lack of recognition, Mr. Hennen, like any practical word-farmer, has simply gone about his calling with humility and gratitude in a culture whose primary crop has become fame. He just watches, waits and then strikes, delivering heart-buckling lines.” (Dana Jennings, The New York Times)
The sky has become too heavy for itself
And bumps the hilltops,
Catches on wooden fence posts.
Then the first snowflake
Is pushed out of its nest.
from "Under a Dark Sky"
50 American Plays
by Matthew & Michael Dickman
Identical twins Michael and Matthew Dickman once invented their own language. Now they have invented an exhilarating book of poem-plays about the fifty states. Pointed, comic, sad, and surreal, these one-page vignettes feature unusual staging and an eclectic cast of characters—landforms, lobsters, and historical figures including Duke Ellington, Sacajawea, Judy Garland, and Kenneth Koch, the avant-garde spirit informing this book. “If you haven’t heard or read the poems of twins Matthew and Michael Dickman, here’s your chance to read their ‘plays’ and jump back on the hot-new-poet bandwagon. 50 American Plays, the brothers’ first poetic collaboration, is an emphatically irreverent tour of America’s backyards, guided by a Hamlet-obsessed Kenneth Koch, a tug-o’-warring Fred Astaire, the homeless, Social Security, and all fifty states themselves. Anyone else care to argue that today’s verse overlooks the ‘average’ reader? Me neither. Hit the road this summer, in your head, with this histrionic wonder of a genre-breaking book.” (Colin McDonald, Common Good Books)
The way the trees
All down Main Street
Seem to drip
With silver acetone
How the newly new buildings
Against the past—
That entire neighborhoods
Look like black-
from "The Moonlight in Arkansas is Almost a Song"
by Kerry James Evans
A gritty and hard-hitting first book, Bangalore burns with the rage of a class warrior who comes of age desperately poor and in the most hardscrabble parts of our country. From homemade tomato soup to homosexuality in the military, the poems serve as a portrait, a new understanding of an American identity: “You cannot escape your family. You cannot escape / the South, Alabama, Golden Eagle Syrup, / the quarter horses in your Uncle’s barn / or that goddamn clay red as your wife’s hair.” While Evans’ war poems capture all the nuance of such an experience—the camaraderie, tedium, tensions, prejudices, and horrors—the everyday is never forgotten. His poems are also elegiac, a high southern lyric not afraid to be perverted by visits to a brothel. He has perfected the dirty underbelly that can only be achieved through experience, which is to say, there is vulnerability in the tone of his poems, but firmness in the telling. “Evans’ jarring debut book of poems draws on his experience as a combat engineer for the Army National Guard…A strong contribution to wartime poetry composed by combatants…Given recent controversy over domestic surveillance and enlisted whistle-blowers, this is a necessary read, indeed.” (Booklist)
Bent over in a folding chair, my arm a rag of oil,
I scrape the carbon from my M-16
with a pipe cleaner here in the armory
named after a young colonel
who hanged himself.
No one sitting here really knows
whether or not the colonel
was a homosexual.
I bring up my mother-in-law,
Outside the window the local convicts
have decided to mow down the lilacs
blossoming along the roadside.
We go back to talking about homosexuals
and homosexuality, and I say:
We are all a little gay, which lands me
on the floor in a wrestling position.
from "Lilacs and Razor Wire"
I think you can see why I'm looking forward to reading these three books--in May, June, September, whenever. Words like these make my blood sizzle, my eyelashes tingle. No cruelty, no "dead land," but, yes, some lilacs.