Real Poetry

reviews, tips, and personal/local writing

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

One Secret Thing – Sharon Olds


One Secret Thing is a book that sits in the back of your mind and just refuses to leave it.  Sharon Olds manages to encapsulate a surprisingly varied range of emotions from childlike witticism as in “Diagnosis” to the more morose and adult poems later in the book such as “Last Hour.”  The book has almost too varied a scope to be sufficiently analyzed within a mere review, but I will try to get across the general opinion that this book left me with.  Are you ready for it?

Like I mentioned earlier, this book has been stuck in the back of my mind for the past two weeks since I’ve read through it.  Most notable are the strong beginning and ending sections that bookend the work.  The book opens with a section entitled “War” and describes, in vivid detail, snapshots from war.  The Poem “His Crew” was the one that I kept returning to, and still do as I am writing this review.  The closing image of a pilot crashing his crippled plane into the earth “green as a great basin of water/ being lifted to his face” leaves me with a feeling I have a hard time putting into words.  The last section describes the last moments of the speaker’s mother’s life.  It begins with a slow pace setting the scene of the mother having a stroke and falling into a coma in “Still Life,” (Check out that link for a live reading of that poem) but from the moment the doctor briefly enters the scene long enough to say that she has hours left to live in “The Last Evening” the poems begin to build the suspense leading to the inevitable conclusion.  Each poem moves a step towards that final ending and, after the fact, moves along after it to the final goodbye within “Nereid Elegy.”  But unlike the Nick Flynn book Some Ether, this ends on an uplifting hopeful note as the speaker “let her go,/ we ushered her forth, like the death of a god,/ the birth of an exhausted holiday.”  Death brings the end to the long “holiday” the mother had enjoyed on earth.

Now, all the positives aside, I only really have one negative to speak of and it concerns the middle of the book between the two previously discussed sections.  This area is mixed up and has a general sense of disorder and confusion.  I’ll be honest, before this recent reading of the book in its entirety I had started reading and stopped halfway through multiple times because it really wasn’t speaking too much to me.  That said though, there are a few gems within.  One of these, “Freezer,” brought some contention between myself and some friends.  I, for one, love this poem with its opening line “When I think of people who kill and eat people,/ I think of how lonely my mother was.”  I mean come on… if that doesn’t draw you into a poem I don’t know what will.  My friend argued that the rest of the poem dealt with sexual assault, and I’ll confess that perhaps without reading the rest of the book the poem may come off that way.  But when understanding the relationship between the mother and daughter from the other poems… and not choosing to have a mind in the gutter… it comes off as a daughter curious about what it would be like to grow up.

Now, I could go on and on describing the intricacies of this book and the other little nuggets of wisdom that inhabit it, but honestly you need to experience some of it for yourself… plus I don’t have the time.  If you have some time to dedicate and the willpower to push through a sometimes ‘so-so’ middle to the amazing finish, then do yourself a favor and check this one out.

Final Verdict:

3/4 – Worth checking out

Update – Aphorism Challenge

Hey everyone,

I thought I’d fill you in on a little of what’s going on with the blog in the coming weeks.  I’m going to give myself a simple challenge for the remainder of this semester.  In a poetry workshop I am currently enrolled in, we discussed the concept of aphorisms.  For those who are unfamiliar, these are short sayings that hint at a truth of life to some degree.  The stereotypical example that always comes to my mind is Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise by Ben Franklin.

The challenge, more specifically, will entail my attempt to write aphorisms.  Starting tomorrow, I will be writing an aphorism every morning throughout the week.  On Sundays, I will select the one or two that stand out to me and post them up to the blog.  It’s a simple challenge that, honestly, is my thinly veiled plan to get my writing juices flowing more readily.

Hope they come out well and you all enjoy,

Combat Steve

P.S.  As a side-note, I went through the trouble of cataloguing my book collection I have here with me in college this weekend.  Very satisfying nerdy work that ultimately produced this handy pie chart:

Pie Chart

My Poetry – Hermes

Today I’m posting up a poem I wrote for a class I took about a year ago.  The basic idea for my project was to write poems with Greek mythology as a main subject.  This poem, concerned with Hermes, is my favorite of the collection I wrote.  My next review for poetry, as I previously mentioned, will be over Sharon Olds’ book One Secret Thing and should be up by next Tuesday.

by Stephen Recker

The slayer of Argos:
forever remembered
for a murder.

I couldn’t do it,
live with that constant
reminder of killing

Yet for him,
he had no choice.  To live
forever with blood
on his hands,
as a god,
and to be reminded
of his deeds
for ages, through
the oral traditions.

Can being a god
really remove the

or does he
awake in the middle
of each night, sweating
and in tears, make
his way to the sink,
splash soothing water
on his face and
stare in the mirror,
into his own eyes
and ask himself,
“Was it worth it?”

ODE TO MY SOCKS – Pablo Neruda (Stephen Mitchell translation)

As I mentioned in a tweet, I’ve got a lot of work going on in classes this semester, so I will be a little delayed in my next review of poetry: Sharon Olds’ One Secret Thing. To bridge the gap between reviews I decided to post up one of my favorite Pablo Neruda poems, with the translation from Stephen Mitchell.  There are other translations, but this one has the best quality in my opinion.
Combat Steve

Highlanders Highlander Wool Socks - Edelweiss By Polish Folk Arts


Maru Mori brought me
a pair
of socks
which she knitted with her own
sheepherder hands,
two socks as soft
as rabbits.
I slipped my feet
into them
as if they were
with threads of
and the pelt of sheep.

Outrageous socks,
my feet became
two fish
made of wool,
two long sharks
of ultramarine blue
by one golden hair,
two gigantic blackbirds,
two cannons:
my feet
were honored
in this way
They were
so beautiful
that for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
of that embroidered
of those luminous

I resisted
the sharp temptation
to save them
as schoolboys
as scholars
sacred documents,
I resisted
the wild impulse
to put them
in a golden
and each day give them
and chunks of pink melon.
Like explorers
in the jungle
who hand over the rare
green deer
to the roasting spit
and eat it
with remorse,
I stretched out
my feet
and pulled on
then my shoes.

And the moral of my ode
is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it’s a matter of two
woolen socks
in winter.

My Poetry – Ingenuity

Another entry from my own poetry.  With the semester starting up I may begin to struggle to keep up with reviews, but I’m going to try and have one up every Tuesday.  I’ll try to keep up with updating a new poem on the blog every Thursday as well.

by Stephen Recker

I saw a girl come to class
with a roll of toilet paper
and for a moment
wondered if the rolls
provided in the bathroom
weren’t good enough
for her.

Then I saw her sneeze.

It reminded me of a time
in winter when the cold grew
and my ears would burn
walking from class
to class.  So I wrapped
a towel around my head
and tied it on with the scarf
my mom knitted me
the previous Christmas.

My ears stopped burning.

Not This Pig – Philip Levine

As far as titles for books of poetry go, Not This Pig could very well be one of my favorites. I picked up a couple Philip Levine books after he recently became the new Poet Laureate of the United States.  This was the first book I received a few months back and I’ve had the pleasure of reading through it a number of times.  Levine has an uncanny ability to write poetry that doesn’t just demand to be read, but demands to be read aloud.  Early in the collection with the poem “In A Grove Again” I found myself doing just that.  The opening stanza describes how “We stand in a grove where it’s not snowing/ with snow in our hair and on the tops of our shoes/ and along the life of the boughs that bring/ forth the blossoms of snow.”  The speaker for a majority of these poems is almost never alone.  He is experiencing these instances with others and, sometimes, with the reader of the poem as well.  “Who are you?” accomplishes the latter.  In this poem, the speaker places the reader into the role of his six-year-old son.

The realizations that come through some of the poems are surprising in their ability to grasp towards some ultimate truth in a seemingly common or mundane situation.  Two poems stood out to me as demonstrating this ability.  “To a Child Trapped in a Barber Shop” is a brief coming of age poem describing a kid’s first trip to the barber.  The speaker of the poem identifies with the child saying, “We’ve all been here before” and culminates in the brief line towards the end of the poem stating simply “we stopped crying.”  The other poem, “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” is where the title of the collection is derived.  The poem is written from the perspective of a pig walking towards the slaughterhouse.  It begins humorously with the pig taking pride in his “massive buttocks slipping/ like oiled parts with each light step,” but transitions as the pig shows he knows where he is headed.  The tension of the poem rises as it nears the end as the pig notices that the person herding him towards his death shows worries that the pig may put up a fight.  The poem though ends with a stark refusal to fight the fate he has been handed by consumers stating “No. Not this pig.”

All that said, there were a few poems that were overly weird or just confusing.  I always have a hard time following poems that go on for pages and “Silent in America” does just that.  It’s a speedbump to the collection and drew me out of my enjoyment.  There are also several poems that seem to deal with rape and odd sexual content.  In “The Morning After the Storm” it was hard to tell if the speaker of the poem had raped someone or not.  The two other sexual poems were just very weird.  One “The Midget” seemed to be about running into a drunk little person that tries to offer sex to the speaker of the poem for no apparent reason.  “Baby Villon” also has some slight sexual tension that feels just out of place.

All that aside though, the good far outweighs the occasional hiccups of some hard to follow poems.  If you are into reading poems that have nice concrete messages that are truly surprising in their simplicity it would be worth your time to give this one a read.

Final Verdict:

3/4 – Worth checking out

My Poetry – Sand Castle

I’m going to try and make a habit of posting up some of my own poetry sporadically within this blog, to help fill the void between book reviews.  This poem “Sand Castle” I think is fairly self explanatory.  Hope you enjoy.

Sand Castle
by Stephen Recker

and suntan lotion
sting my eyes as I look out at
the somber, constant pulse
reaching out to dissolve
my sand castle.

Half the base is gone,
barely holding up the teetering tower.
I want to save it,
but before I can move

Dad picks me up,
carries me out,
and puts me
into the water.
I have to jump to stay above the waves,
glimpsing the tower as it reflects
the greens and browns of the sea glass
windows as the sun

I struggle closer to shore and see,
in a moment, what remains of the tower,
a grim husk,
before I’m slapped down.

My head smacks the sand, my ears ring,
I swallow the brine, choke, and vomit.
When I look up,
between heaves,
the castle is gone.

Some Ether – Nick Flynn

Book Cover for Some Ether           Some Ether is a downer.  It deals with suicide, death, and the overall loss of human contact and an inability to move on from the past.  The poems are divided into four sections that focus on particular aspects of family life and, for the most part, manage to convey a sense of confusion that would come with these issues.

The first of these sections, The Visible Woman, discusses the suicide of the speaker’s mother and moves haphazardly to before and after the actual death.  At first, I found this rather overwhelming, but on reading it again I started to see this highly emotional experience as something that may not be understood in a linear fashion.  This section has one of the starkest opening lines for a poem with “You Ask How/ & I say, suicide, & you ask/ how & I say, an overdose, and then/ she shot herself.”  The simplistic and realistic quality of these lines instantly drew me in and made it one of my favorite poems of the collection.

The second section, Oceanic, can best be summarized as growing up.  “Cartoon Physics, part 1” had me smiling wistfully remembering the days when I would watch old episodes of Tom and Jerry, Wyle E. Coyote, and Bugs Bunny (Though I honestly still enjoy them today).  Flynn points out “that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff/ he will not fall/ until he notices his mistake,” and a more apt and thought provoking statement on the age old running off the cliff gag I have never heard.  The section takes a turn in “Flashback” when it describes an apparently abusive personality that used to live with the family.  The poem details a person that “shoots out all the windows, splinters/ a chair, cuts his hand deep/ putting it through a cabinet door.”  The change only manages to replace the pall that had been lifted momentarily with poems like “Cartoon Physics, part 1.”

Devil Theory, the third section, detailed a hard to follow relationship with the speaker’s father.  This section was confusing.  The poems failed to flow cohesively for me and the section as a whole felt like a missed opportunity for more understanding of the speaker’s family.  The only poems I enjoyed and felt rewarded for having read were the three fragment poems spaced throughout starting with “Seven Fragments (found inside my father),” and I don’t even know why.  I’m not usually able to make sense of writing that jumps around as those do.

The last section, Ether, finally introduced sex.  Don’t misinterpret me.  I don’t think a book of poetry necessitates sex, but the speaker of these poems just needs some kind of physical human contact.  The overall negativity is definitely a bit of a chore to read through by this section.  You may think sex would lead to a more uplifting (wink wink) tone to end the book.  Unfortunately, the sex of the poems removes the speaker even further from human contact, as in “The cellar a machine whirring through the night” when the speaker of the poem is watching himself have sex rather than being mentally present.  The section ends up leaving the speaker with an apparent inability to move on from his past and instead leaves him to dwell on his suffering endlessly.

This book is depressing.  You will not leave it feeling happy or ready to conquer the world, but I suppose poetry doesn’t always have to inspire happiness.  I read poetry for an emotional experience and can’t deny that this book provided one.  Just be forewarned, as I said before, this is a downer.

Final Verdict:


Greetings Blog World

I’m finally sitting down and starting this poetry review blog.  I’m hoping to make this a fairly constant update with reviews for contemporary, and some past, books of poetry.  If you have any feedback just sound off in the comments.

Combat Steve

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