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Local poets help us see our area, world

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.

Elaine Terranova's book, "Dollhouse," leans to the hidden forces of social coercion.
Elaine Terranova's book, "Dollhouse," leans to the hidden forces of social coercion.Read more

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 always was. Formal, classical, clever, he's also, in a hard-won fashion, affirmative, as in "Spring":

All the holes

In hollow trees

And crevices

beneath the eaves

are teeming now

with snouts

of small squirrels

and the imperative

craws of featherless

starlings ready

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? What a book!

Same for Daisy Fried's Women's Poetry (University of Pittsburgh Press, 88 pp., $15.95). How great that Fried is published by U. Pitt, a nation-leading press that has forged its own place in our culture. This book shows a wide-ranging mind, a valuable voice. There's a lot of Philly in this book, and Fried makes it sing. In "L'Allegro: Driving Home," 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? Fried 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. He shares Fried's taste for the odd bump of images 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.

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 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, forecasting Levin's fun with pop-cult. 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.

As they say on Twitter . . . BOOM! 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." Most of all, you'll find a heartbreaking comic poet, 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). As a metaphor, the Dollhouse 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. Outside the Dollhouse, we are told, "is a gate which requires a key/ and police not far off, even soldiers." If I needed a guide through the doll house of my days, I'd want it to be Elaine Terranova.

All our poets offer various forms. The sonnet, seen in Miss Plastique, also detonates in Miriam N. Kotzin's The Body's Bride (David Robert Books, 76 pp., $18). So does the villanelle, as in "The Quilt," 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


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,

so new,

yet as commonplace

as a false embrace.

To do

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. The Body's Bride has poems that will last longer than many marriages.