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Archive for the category “Poetry Book Reviews”

What Narcissism Means to Me – Tony Hoagland

20120214-205248.jpgTony Hoagland is a character. Having met him a few years ago at a reading, I can definitely say that the voice of his poems is his own. He has a certain amount of seriousness, that is interspersed with just the right amount of humor to avoid getting bogged down. His book, What Narcissism Means to Me, follows this technique fairly successfully.

The poems are divided into four sections (America, Social Life, Blues, and Luck), and overall the poems for each section actually correlate to the titles they have… a habit that some collections of poetry I have read in the past have failed to accomplish. The first section focuses on American culture and with the poem “America” Tony encodes some serious commentary when he says he remembers how he “stabbed my father in the dream last night,/ It was not blood but money/ that gushed out of him.” This is shortly followed by the comedic turn of his father saying “Thank god–those Ben Franklins were/ Clogging up my heart–.”

The second section deals with the speaker of the poems’ interactions with close friends. One particular poem, “Patience,” details the speaker being chewed out for his attitude. Rather than rise in anger, the speaker sits back and smiles knowing this is what he has needed to hear. The opening stanza really needs to be shown in its entirety here:

“Success is the worst possible thing that could happen
to a man like you,” she said,
“because the shiny shoes, and flattery
and the self-
lubricating slime of affluence would mean
you’d never have to face your failure as a human being.”
-Excerpt from Tony Hoagland “Patience”

The third section hits a far more dark stride with issues such as suicide. One poem in particular, “Suicide Song,” is written in a very intriguing way. The majority of the poem is written in the first person, allowing the speaker of the poem to confess instances of suicidal contemplations and why he hasn’t done it yet, ultimately asking rather humorously “And anyway, who has clothes nice enough to be caught dead in?” The poem then takes a dramatic shift and addressesthe reader in the second person saying “You stay alive you stupid asshole/ Because you haven’t been excused.” The surprising turn of perspective there made me shift in my seat and read the poem a few extra times, but it left me with a stronger sense of hopefulness than I received in other parts of the collection.

The last section of the book didn’t accomplish as much for me as the third. It predominantly deals with relationships and some tinges of experiences after someone’s death, but it ultimately reads like the second section of the book again.

Overall, this is a fine collection for anyone to read. The lightheartedness interspersed throughout each poem and section acts as a nice breather between some truly emotional and dark content. I find it hard to realize, in writing this review, that so much darkness actually pervades this book, because really, when I had initially finished reading it, I felt rather happy and well entertained. If you want some serious content, that relieves any built up tension through some clever humor, check out this book.

Final verdict:

3/4 – Worth checking out

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

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

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:


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