In Stubble Field, published by Silverfish Review Press, Paul Hunter takes a good hard look at good hard work, and the lives of people working the land. These poems are filled with reminiscence, with humor and empathy–and their strong rhythm and lack of punctuation enhance their musing quality. Yet the images are concrete and tenacious–you are there, and you won’t forget.

Reading the poems, I thought of Donald Hall’s Life Work and Wendell Berry’s Fidelity. All three a good way to get another look at our part of the world and the part we might play in it.

Here is one of my favorite poems from the collection:

The Touch

Though most worked off to themselves
pritnear all the folks studied
some trick of their own to fall back on

got known for doing far and wide
what looked natural as falling off a log
like one old boy could tie a grain sack knot

quick as a cat at spilt milk
one could shuck a dried corn ear
spill a gold twist in his hat

like wringing a young chicken’s neck
some could stir fire in a woodstove
boil coffee up a couple seconds flat

and talk of secret recipes who’d dare
bring cornbread to the potluck
if Rosalie felt up to baking hers

everyone could sharpen axes knives
though stropping razors to a fare-thee-well
came like pie to the storekeep

some could worry through a certain tune
on the squeeze box or gitfiddle
that most never quite got the hang of

a few could do sums in their head
some cooking never measured out a thing
seemed like what they threw together

would always land about perfect
some ventured nothing but a grin
a knack for the kind word when needed

but none expected dinner to appear
without their lifting a finger
or a song to start up on its own

that not a soul could remember
and canning snap beans rolling pie crust out
shingling a hip roof never leak a drop

should anybody run into a hitch
they’d wrack their brains to recollect
who heareabouts could do what needed done

go ask for help admit they had the touch
and sure would be applauded going at
what no one else could figure out a lick

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Where can you find science fiction, Charlton Heston, David Bowie, and elegies for a father?

As well as at least one villanelle and a ghazal?

Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars from Graywolf Press. Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, this volume risks and shimmers. It slows down to the most tender moments. It veers into deep space and the spaces we keep between each other.

Often, I felt out of breath. Especially after reading “The Speed of Belief,” turning the page, and realizing that it was just the first section. So much more to come. I was standing under the trees waiting for my order from the food truck and I had to stop, put the book away until I had the kind of sustained energy and attention that poem demanded and deserved. It was worth the wait.

I delighted in finding a poem called “It & Co.” in the first section and a poem called “Us & Co.” at the end.

I enjoy long poems, especially long poems in sections, and I loved the way these diverged and stayed compressed, linked, at the same time: “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes,” “Life on Mars,” “No-Fly Zone,” the aforementioned “The Speed of Belief,” the tragic “They May Love All that He Has Chosen and Hate All that He Has Rejected,” and “My God, It’s Full of Stars.”

I deeply appreciated the craft and the heart of this book.

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Years ago I read the poem “Upon Witnessing My Mother Impossibly Blossom Above My Father’s Deathbed” and was smitten with it. Am smitten with it. The play of proverbs and homonyms against the heartbreaking image of the speaker’s parents, as he looks on from the side. I knew that it was by Kevin Stein, and finally I looked it up and learned that it was included in his collection American Ghost Roses. I’ll admit, I was a little nervous. What would the rest of the poems in the book be like? How could they possibly live up to that poem?

With honesty, with restraint, with humor, and with music, the balance of empathy and observation at the intersection of image and story.

After reading this book, I wondered how I could do these poems justice here, or come close.

I want to tell you about the Drano poems, “Adolescent Hemlock” and “In the House of Being.” I want to tell you about “An American Tale of Sex and Death” and “Valentine’s Day Boxing at the Madison County Jail”–each of which look at race from the perspective of white privilege and being at the wrong place at the wrong time (on many levels, in many ways). And so many more–on the lighter side: “Etiquette and Epiphany in the Post-Workshop Men’s Room” and “To Bob Marley’s Toe.” Plus “Kandinsky on Concerning the Spiritual in Art” and “Thinking of Kandinsky While Shaving My Father.”

In this book, Stein spans youth and age, coming of age and dying–all of it human.


P.S. My apology for the delayed posting. I was out of town. This will happen again throughout the summer.

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The first poems in The Available World, by Ander Monson, reminded me of the song “This Year,”* by the Mountain goats–a song I love for its grit and its hope. On the surface I don’t share anything with the speaker in the song–no suburban or exurban angst, no drunken video game binges at the arcade, but I connect with the underlying humanity. Reading “Rich World” and “On Basketball” and “For Orts” gave me that same feeling–on the outside looking in, but understanding, I think, what I’m not seeing. Maybe it was these lines from “On Basketball”:

                                           You can
show them up in the arcade later, or on your

amber-screened Tandy, least sexy of all
conceivable IBM-compatible computers,
with Jordan vs. Bird: One on One.
It’s 1988. You’re probably a douche.

(I love the humor of the Tandy as “least sexy”; when I read “douche” I’m instantly back in the New Jersey years, my suburbs.)

And then the music leapt out at me–word play, but also sound play, as in “Avatar: Eclogue:

Pry it wide and climb
…..into the suit of it
its evidence, its realgirl O,
… cherryblossom burst
that you can barely believe
…..its lipstick and sashay, ashtray mouth
if you promise not to tell, its resolution refresh rate,

And in between all of this word play and the technology, there are the sermon poems, references to a sister who has died, references to a brother without arms, references to Wil Wheaton, and “Some of Have Fewer”–a brief, quiet, heart-shattering poem about a mother.

I couldn’t find a link to “Slow Dance with Icarus,” but here’s “Detail of My Sort of Light.”

And there’s more! I didn’t at first notice the link at the back of the book, but in looking online for poems, I reached–the world made available as a journey through the poems, with notes and videos and no central navigation so that each link, each red word, is a package you’re opening, a little gift. (And the Icarus poem might be in there.)

*I love the song, but I vehemently dislike the video, so I’m not linking to it.

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A lovely event at Blakely House yesterday–with crows in art everywhere. Paintings of crows, art incorporating crow feathers, crow sculptures, and one picture that included the entire text of “Maitre Corbeau sur un arbre perche…” (the art was accented correctly). I memorized that in middle school. I still have the beginning, but I enjoyed seeing the art and reading the whole poem. Then a lecture and slide show on crows, ravens, and magpies in art–across the globe and through the ages.

I had a bit of an adventure getting there. Not my usual suburban anxiety, but because, as I later realized, I had written down the wrong address. Mea culpa! If you were wandering around Issaquah wondering “what in heck,” I offer my heartfelt apologies. I’ve double- and triple-checked all the other addresses and they are good to go.

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