FOUR STAR BOOKS
Three New Collections of Poetry from WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY PRESS
The Sleep That Changed Everything, Lee Ann Brown, 160 pg.,
Paper $14.95, (ISBN: 0-8195-6622-5), Cloth $30.00 (ISBN: 0-8195-6621-7)
Outlandish Blues, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, 72 pg.,
Paper $12.95 (ISBN: 0-8195-6584-9), Cloth $26.00 (ISBN: 0-8195-6583-0)
Eating in the Underworld, Rachel Zucker, 80 pg.,
Paper $12.95 (ISBN: 0-8195-6628-4), Cloth $26.00, (ISBN 0-8195-6627-6)
The Wesleyan University Press was founded in 1959, and at this time is one of the nation's spectacular publishing ventures. It suffices to say that many presses which publish poetry fall, fail or sell. With unrestrained enthusiasm and high hopes, the poetry reader has something to hold on to with Wesleyan.
In 2002 this University press issued 39 books, nine of these were poetry books from new and established writers. In 2003, the first of the stream of poetry titles is further testament to a fearless dedication to a new crop of American poets.
Outlandish Blues by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers is a handsome volume, part history, part song, popular and classical African American culture, and, mostly, the blues. (It is dedicated "to Mama and Mr. Langston Hughes.") Honoree Fanonne Jeffers is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, and has received several awards, including the Wick poetry prize selected by Lucille Clifton. Ms. Jeffers has a solid grasp of form and poetics, so that however passionate her cry of emotion, or raw the subject, the reader feels there is someone in charge. "The Battered Blues" is a poem in four sections that takes a woman/subject from physical damage to escape to a shelter, with not much of a happy ending, but this is example of a bad story beautifully told. The blues recitative uses song devices, returning to a chorus, gives the writing a strong dimension:
You know he is going to kill me
He's going to stab me in my sleep
He's going to send me back to God
and pray his soul to keep
An entire section of this book is based on biblical stories, newly told. The voice of pain in poems about the wife and children of Lot could be the story of all loss and grief. "Hager in the Wilderness" has blues lyrics reminding us of venerable poet and master of this form, Sterling Brown:
Fell on my knees and prayed
I asked for mercy in the sand
You know I fell down on my knees
and asked for mercy in the sand
Lifted my eyes and there stood God
a cup of water in Her hand
"Pantoum for a Black Man on a Greyhound Bus" features a subject who was 15 years in prison, a typical case of Jeffers' tragic themes well controlled, not allowed to get out of hand, or to become maudlin, or sensational. There is spit, semen, and sweat in this book from a woman not shy about joining up with James Baldwin, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, as well as other great voices in black culture. Honoree Jeffers cuts a large swath to work with, and is equal to the task I might add. Jeffers contributes a fresh feature to African American literature with this book; but she is placed most comfortably in the role of American Poet, communicating her people by enriching the cadence of their song, and that of American Letters.
Lee Ann Brown is an Assistant Professor teaching in St. John's University in Manhattan. She's a filmmaker as well as a poet, and this is clearly seen in her cinematic, quick stepping verse. She is from the school of venturesome women pushing back the boundaries, and taking permission to do so from such seasoned writers as Brenda Hillman, Claudia Rankin, Rae Armantrout…each different in style but with the same poetic intention. Brown dissects the line to see what lies beneath and it is the subtext of consciousness that lifts language. Playful and risky, the poems in The Sleep That Changed Everything, are songs, limericks, prose pieces, testaments, ballads, utterances and shouts. Best among the prose poems is one dedicated to the poet Rod Smith, "Dear Rod Moth," and another poem made from her mother's letters, "How Glad." These are marvelous examples of stitching language with surprise and making it work.
Excerpted from "How Glad"
For the time being, the doll is in the freezer but that will not solve
the problem forever. When I got the house all decorated with
Dogwood branches which I had forced plus camellias and put the
Ukrainian eggs you gave me on my popcorn dogwood branches,
we were all ready for company. If you are acquainted with any
nutritional "health nuts" who have some new suggestions, please
send them. I served slaw & Herlocker's Barbeque heated in the
the special sauce which Bob had gotten on Highway 29. At one point
he turned several summer salts on the floor while he continued to
play the instrument which is curved in shape…
The reader can only admire some of Brown's antics on the page, for truthfully, it's not always easy to feel included in the poems. And, it was for this reason I felt the book was too long by half. Then page by page, playing editor, I actually couldn't remove a piece without leaving a black hole in the book. There is no one single voice in this book; by deleting any single (kind of) poem we would lose the sound of the poet. The quilted aspect of her poems is various, but, oddly enough, the pieces together grant the volume wholeness. I believe the dozen poems about Obaa are the most arresting, and this is where the narrative runs through the style with a staying power. In this group of poems we have the most powerful and truthful writing in the book for it is here imagery is not as accent, but illumination. Obaa-san is the name for grandmother in Japanese, we are told in footnotes. And these poems are a long and loving elegy. Here is a beautiful one.
(the good bye)your absence makes a space for me to be
thinking you are still there like a moth
dusting me with listening from a distant
distance. I can say good bye without fear
And when you return my dear which you
seem to do the buzz continues its
modulatory measure pleasurable
alternately unpredictable as all love things are
When we wish to leave the coarseness of the daily news and the cave of human politics, greed and betrayal, we can turn to Rachel Zucker's first book, Eating in the Underworld. It is here we really wish to live, in a dreamscape with more earth, air, fire and water than our own world. Here, the elegance of human thought is at its highest in a series of poems playing out the Persephone myth. Not since W.C.Williams'Kora in Hell has such originality spilled from this literary legacy. To the hard lesson of love and lust, we add beauty and more than a scattering of love. The poems personify Hades and Persephone and Demeter in diary, letter and note.Here, taken from a letter from Persephone to Demeter:
At home, the bells were a high light-yellow
with no silver or gray just buttercup or sugar-and-lemon.
Here bodies are lined in blue against the sea.
And where red is red there is only red.
I have to be blue to bathe in the sea.
Red, to live in the red room with red air
to rest my head, red cheek down, on the red table.
Above, it was so green: brown, yellow, white, green.
My longing for red furious, sexual.
There things were alive but nothing moved.
Now I live near the sea in a place which has no blue and is not the sea…
What interests me are the veils of this book. One by one, we can remove the Appurtenance of legend and still have poems glorious to read. When the context is added, the prism turns. When we consider the titles it is yet one more additional bonus to the poem and to the story.Clear crisp language. Every word hits its mark. Nothing is left to chance here. Different forms appear on the page and yet not a one seems arbitrary. Each poem chose the way it wanted to be and this is what we want: poetry secured by the poet with good reason, and a sure hand. Here is a section from "Diary (Underworld)": … consort. A Queen.No more a maiden but still with maiden hands.
It's true I am less without him
but when he sees me
all the gold of this world glows against the marble walls
and the veins of the deep stones blush with color.
His bones make a soft place for me on his granite bed.
His touch is the sweet glance of the past, but his laugh—
he has always been expecting me.So Zucker's mythological beings show how our human sensibilities can be dignified and how to find more light in the underworld than we knew was there. This is one to keep on your bedside table. And think, it’s only her first book.
"Diary (The First Seed)"He gives me the wedding band of the real world
a story with pockets and mirrors
woos me with music that could kill insects
reveals men in the distance forging the bridge
between nether and either
when night sets, the stones return to the earth
and in the morning, work again:
swimming through chaos to find the world