We just had quite a Poetry Month of April in the Philadelphia region. And here to prove it - and to make any reader very happy - are six books by local poets.
Daniel Hoffman died on March 30, days short of his 90th birthday. His new book of poems, Next to Last Words (Louisiana State University Press, 88 pp., $16.95), shows how vigorous his work remained right to the moment. Formal, classical, clever, Hoffman is also characteristically, in a hard-won fashion, affirmative, as in "Spring":
All the holes
In hollow trees
beneath the eaves
are teeming now
of small squirrels
and the imperative
craws of featherless
ready ready to devour
devour devour devour the world.
Isn't it great to have, from a poet in his ninth decade, almost his tenth, such a vivid, loving image of renewal?
Incisive political/historical poetry ("1931"), assured masterpieces ("The Hill") . . . what a book.
Same for Daisy Fried's Women's Poetry (University of Pittsburgh Press, 88 pp., $15.95); the title is a box on the ears of readers who condescend consciously or un- to the notion that there is such a thing.
How great Fried is published by U. Pitt, a nation-leading press that has forged its own place, open its wide embrace, into our culture. This book shows a wide-ranging mind, a valuable voice. There's a lot of Philly in this book, and Daisy makes it sing. In "L'Allegro: Driving Home," which toys with debts to Whitman and Milton, she writes:
Setting sun behind me
Cracks open over southwest suburbs, November
spilling light to flash sides of glassy Philly skyline:
Molten silver holding building shapes, also greeny.
Has the Philly skyline ever gotten four such good lines before? Read them aloud; Fried the musician, the rhythmician.
She's both an authoritative historical eye and a poet who knows better than to get in the way of what's surreally heard and said, as in "Histories: 2000. July," which follows U.S. tourists in Rome:
"Are you hungry, Sister?" says a fat guy to a nun.
"Would you like some McDonalds?" History
hasn't happened yet.
Not for that guy, it hasn't. The turn of "History/hasn't happened yet" is thought-provoking and hilarious. Fried is a master of the flat comment that says everything. And she has much to say, and much to let her people and pictures say.
Leonard Gontarek, author of He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs (Hanging Loose Press, 88 pp., $18), is one of our area's foremost teachers and networkers of poets and poetry. His Green Line Cafe reading series is one of the town's oldest and best. His verse is not like Fried's, but he shares her taste for the odd bump of images, the clash of sense that life throws at us, as in the fabulous "Email":
I roll down your violet underpants, you go off to work.
All day, tang of money, skin, drip at the back of the throat like allergies.
Images of intimacy interweave with what life throws at you:
Out of everything, the dark, fireflies.
Train whistle, tobacco smoke, devour the night.
Hair fanned out on my thigh.
"Email" is a course in a kind of poetry, one that takes in the lightning strikes of experience without needing to explain them or belabor their meaning. You get it. Gontarek gives us the world we live in, as in "September Evenings":
Our neighbors sit in the great shadow of a tree. They cannot put it into words.
We cannot put it into words, they say. I walk a line of trees.
These are strange days with good signs. Clouds - huge, orange and silver, liquid, race past.
The poetry lies in getting it. Gontarek, a master of getting it, helps us get it, too.
Another renowned teacher-poet, Lynn Levin, titles her new one Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 68 pp., $15). Here's a shout-out to Princeton-area Ragged Sky, which keeps publishing fine local poets. The coy cover by Christina Goodison is of a Dynamite Girl doll, all dolled up, forecasting Levin's fun with pop-cult, especially as girls and women live it. But it also misleads, playfully. Turns out Miss Plastique is no doll, but our explosive friend C-4:
I love the stuff
with a self-love
I never knew I had.
More than my stiletto
heels, Garbo hat, or lipsticks.
I want to wrap some up like bubble gum
and give it to my enemy:
Here. Take me into your mouth. Taste me.
(Note: That last line is in italics, but here would turn back into roman type when the poem is italicized.)
As they say on Twitter . . . BOOM! This poem has its wry jollies with pop culture, but it also reminds us that pain and anger are real, as when it names the Three Graces "Shock, Orgasm, and Wrath."
Dazzling displays of craft abound, as in the sonnets "The Notebook" and "People Can Get Used to Just About Anything," and just-plain-beauties like "The Language of Wildflowers," a name-catalogue starting "Teasel, primrose, touch-me-not." You'll also find Levin's great theme, girls-into-women, as in the schoolgirls who roll their eyes "beneath awnings of mascara" at Mrs. Hay's lecture against miniskirts.
Most of all, you'll find a heartbreaking comic master who tells us the real, honest-to-goodness truth, as in "Twelve Lips":
If only I could gossip
and not be the subject of it.
I'm only being a little clever when I follow Miss Plastique with a book titled Dollhouse, by Elaine Terranova (Off the Grid Press, 80 pp. $15). Through this book runs the profound metaphor of the title. It stands for many things, both the way people are taught to live, as in "Dollhouse Ways" - "The ethics of the dollhouse are that/ a person should be good and pleasant and kind" - and also the lives we end up living because we choose to, as in "The House Speaks": "Life is not easy,/ especially if you are frightened and tiny."
We choose our lives as the rules of the house dictate, and so Dollhouse leans to the hidden forces of social coercion, as in "Mr. and Mrs. Peter Doll Invite You to an Open House":
America is just rolling out of bed.
America is forging steel, confining
working children to factories
or depositing them in shadowy mines.
Outside the doll house, we are told, "is a gate which requires a key/ and police not far off, even soldiers." Think poets don't deal in assured social comment any more? You won't after this book. If someone were going to guide me through the doll house of my days, I'd want it to be Elaine Terranova.
Think poets don't write in form any more? All our poets offer various forms. The sonnet, seen in Miss Plastique, also detonates in Miriam Kotzin's The Body's Bride (David Robert Books, 76 pp., $18). So does the villanelle, as in "The Quilt," which wrings from its subject a story of mother, daughter, life, and death:
She knew the stairs were steep. She felt no guilt
in tumbling down the bulky quilt; that way
she took her mother's favorite patchwork quilt
For years, we had to hear people telling us why traditional rhyme and form were dead. Lies. They live. You just need to know how to use them, how to get the juice and kick. Kotzin does. In poems such as "The Marriage," Kotzin uses traditional music for contemporary comment. Groom surveys bride:
He looked at her face,
Pale, veined in white lace,
yet as commonplace
as a false embrace.
this, to vow, felt base.
Different marriages come before us, man/woman, child/parent, body/spirit, love/sex. Kotzin refers to many kinds of poetry from many periods. She can be very funny, as in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poetry Reading," a send-up of Wallace Stevens:
He rode down Chestnut
In a SEPTA Bus.
Once a joy pierced him
In that he mistook
The squeal of his microphone
Why do I think I know the poet she's talking about? Maybe (I hope) I don't. But I do know The Body's Bride has poems that will last longer than many marriages.
Gontarek reads, with Jen Anolik and Sarah Munroe, at 7 p.m., May 14, at PhillyCAM Studios, 699 Ranstead Street.
Terranova and Kotzin read, with J.C. Todd, at 7 p.m., May 29, at Fergie's Pub, 1214 Sansom Street.