FOUR STAR BOOKS
The Word Works, Since 1974, Turns Its Light on Contemporary Poetry
Gilbert & Garbo in Love; A Romance in Poems, by Christopher Conlon.
85 pgs.Paper $10.00
Eight Pale Women, by James C. Hopkins.
107 pgs. Paper $10.00
Two new books just issued from Word Works numbers this publisher's titles to more than 50.This is a credit to small press publishing, nonprofit art activities, and to volunteers and good leadership – whose goal is the proliferation of good poetry – books that we read now, and later find achieve literary notoriety.
James C. Hopkins premieres his first book, Eight Pale Women, with this personal odyssey, as he makes his way across the world through India, to the Pancake House on 29 or getting to Rt. 11 then maybe South Carolina, or Blacksburg Va. This poet leads with his emotional life in his hip pocket and a pencil behind his ear to chart the blue print of a journey – to malehood – to love – and back again. Along the way, the road is littered with carnivals and restaurants, 4 door Fords, a drive-in… each pebble against the shoe is a remarkable sighting of the world seen from a point of view only other poets can envy.
From "self portrait" (p.12)
fifty miles north of fairbanks
the asphalt gives out
the gravel begins
and there's six hundred miles to go.
here's where you start to see yourself from above –
tiny red pickup in a sea of fir,
the upper corner of the world.
and a hundred miles later
it's the arctic circle
and even the a.m. radio dies.
only satellites peeking out form the lid of the sky…
This is no travelogue, readers; this poem becomes an insight into what loneliness means when converted to land and sky, and how one puts himself against his destiny like a giant poker chip. Hopkins does this in poem after poem, so that we come to know his wisdom like no other poet quite does it. There is a strong personality behind every adventure, relationship, observation, moment, event… but what we feel most is the spiritual vitality of a man. From the title poem: "eight pale women" (p.78)
in the yucatan
the feathered musicas
work their gold
into jaguars and bats
and scatter them across the andes.
the trainos tickle their throats
with ivory spatulas
to purge themselves pure for their gods…
at the edge of the woods
pale and univited,
appeared and whispered,
"come with me" –
eight pale women
thin, thin life
i have dreamed you so.
The last line reveals James Hopkins' poetic strength. He is well acquainted with illusion, the veils of light and shadow, the mysteries that populate our roadhouses, runways, and foreign deserts. What these poems say is "I have chosen a world without a ray of dark. I have traveled its surface and find it to be a place to know my humanity." (reviewers comment.) This brings me to the essence of these poems. A longing and searching, yes, but a true belief that what is seen shimmering is our own projection. And if some say travel can be a religious experience, Hopkins actually makes it one. His spiritual handwriting scrawls across each poem with a transparency that makes the reader calm from the reading. Yet real things happen to real people, as this books shows,
a stalled car
in the mohave.
a soapgold smear
of some borrowed
i am falling
from my family
like a stone.
The physical and the mystical are one with Hopkins; this book wants us to fall with him into vision. We feel the east and west comfortably coexisting; for, the book moves its poems from an American trekking the outside world, its rugged paths, to the breath of a man saying the world, from the inner eye. Describing becomes imagining, and finally, we reach an Asian tenderness at our journey's end.
"one meeting" (pg. 103)
in and out
of her dreams
so the tiger
in the tea leaves.
from dark eggs,
James Hopkins has published one chapbook previous to this, The Walnut Tree Waits for Its> Bees (Mica Press,1997.) Eight Pale Women is the work of a seasoned writer who waited to know something about himself before he held it up for the world to see.
Gilbert & Garbo in Love is the second new release from Word Works – a razzling dazzling poetry portrayal of two movie idols, John (Jack) Gilbert and Greta Garbo – subtitled "A Romance in Poems." This is a tour de force for author Christopher Conlon. It's always fun to find a poet who crosses boundaries and is as comfortable on the stage as the page, or at least tries to mix the two. I am speaking about the following poetic skills: creating persona, the dramatic dialogue, and the poem as soliloquy and monologue. All this time, the poet is juggling language, meter, image and form; so, we have an added degree of difficulty, while keeping the narrative line and making a story. This is not for the coward to attempt, for it takes ego-courage. The writer stands the chance of having critics claim that the prose poem is not a poem, that the point of view is shifting, and God knows what else. But thanks to the poet who takes the risk, for then surely we have sustained the art of poetry, and furthered belles lettres, nicely stretching the possibilities to a new poetic conclusion.
In the beginning of this book-length poetic drama, we find "Jackie" Gilbert attached to a neglectful mother who cradles him to her breast one moment and renounces him the next:
From "Night and Day" (Pg.19)
Days, she walks ahead/of him in the street, says/to people who come up/to her, recognize her: /
That child? Mine? /Gracious! Go on, young/man, go peddle/your papers. /Go! Shoo!
This author knows that nothing rivets our eye to the page like dialogue. It is impossible to look away, so he uses it wisely, only when needed, savoring the magic. The nice thing about this book is that no two poems sequence in exactly the same style.
Here's an intro to Greta (then Keta) in "Charity Ward" pg. 23
Twelve years old, thirteen, she takes her father/each week to the charity ward, blue water-streaked/walls, broken chairs, sits him down among/shadow-eyed prostitutes, rickety tuberculars…
So the plot begins for once we see these characters, and know their DNA, their destinies cannot help but radiate onto the page.
From "Oh!" (Pg. 43)
When Greta meets Jack for the first time/he's Mr.> Gilbert> and her ass is sticking up/ in the air. She's trying to tie her shoe/ …He grins, beneficent. We're to be co-stars, /I believe…
…Later Jack will smile, confiding to a friend: /Lovely girl, really. But she'd best hope/they never develop the talking pictures!
Author Christopher Conlon knows well the dramatist's tool of foreshadowing, for this is just the point on which the book will turn. The great era of silent films is found within these beautifully crafted poems. And the narrative line is one leading to tragedy, personal and professional, because the world will not stand still, and the conversion to the speakies was never made by Jack Gilbert. Greta does succeed. (Who can forget the immortal line: "I vant to be alone.")
In "Garbo Triumphant" pg. 79, the decline:
Money in hand, enough for ten lifetimes-/ she knows she's counted it- Greta retires, /and dies. No one, not even she, knows/ quite when, but she does. Garbo goes on, /eternal celebrity, famous eventually/…Except, sometimes, at night, A dream/ she'll see Jack's eyes inches from her own: / she'll cry out, wake; weep But only/ for a while…
What is not displayed here is the mastery of form for each poem, occluded by this reviewer's line placements. The poet writes narrative poems, lyric poems, scenes, and meditations all within the story's frame. Christopher Conlon has published fiction and poetry. He is truly a fearless and inspired writer. Two very good things for a career.
Both of the above mentioned books are part of The Word Works' prestigious "Capital Collection" publications. These books feature works by poets of the Greater Washington DC area.