Lummox Number Two, Place, edited by RD Armstrong, (Lummox Press, 2013), 225pp., $25. ISBN 978-1-929878- 47-5.
Reviewed by Conrad Geller [Originally published in LP3, October 2014]
Place, along with a few essays and reviews, is mainly a collection of American poems about localities, mostly in the U. S. but a few Continental (American exiles generally avoid Britain and visit Southern Europe, maybe because the wine is cheaper and the rain less frequent). The American vistas in these poems span the continent from California to Philadelphia, and the more than a hundred seventy poems range in style from the prosaic to the metrical, giving a good view of where American poetry is and, perhaps, where it is going.
The mood of a fair number of the poems is fashionably gloomy. Many of the poems are reminiscences from childhood which, to judge from these poems, were not happy times. A typical example is ‘Trailer Park Mazes Have No Exits’ by Leanne Hunt:
You entered the trailer park with a swell under your skirt. The quick
ceremony under your daddy’s watchful eye and your momma’s
averted face was the welcome mat you stepped across to the threshold
of slamming screen doors, the sharp retort of a backhand across
a woman’s face, the endless wailing of a dirty, runny-nosed toddler,
and the leaning towers of stacked beer cans, monuments
to what one night in the backseat of a car can crush.
More intensely personal, but equally depressing, are these opening lines from Jennifer Jackson Berry’s ‘Fat Girl on Winter Beach’:
Empty beach, out-of-season,
not a sunbather, not a bikini.
I want someone to be with me,
but am only comfortable alone.
No one to touch the morning fog with.
Tired of touching myself, but I never want
a man to touch me.
The theme of misery is not limited to the past, however. Some of the entries, which might fit into the category of “shock poetry,” include ‘Red Light’ by Father Luke:
At a red light a man sat in his car
punching his wife in the face
again, and again…
When the light changed
he put the car in gear and
At the next red light the
wife pulled out
a pistol and shot
her husband in the face
again, and again…
and Radomir Luza’s ‘My Soul’:
. . . Convicts eat lunch on doormats
Made of lice
Mothers abort fetuses
Because they can
Fathers kill potential
In the darkness of day
And in the end
Giving is the ultimate vulnerability
An open palm
A fist to the face
My soul has been ravaged
Even raped . . .
But as if to prove that a dysfunctional childhood is not a requisite for the development of a poet, a similar number of reminiscences are positive. Here are lines from a joyous memory of a rural past (Sheryl L. Nelms, ‘summer was’):
with horseradish mustard
in the cool
then hot afternoons
in the front porch swing
shelling green peas
down the pods
air full of lilacs
thick and sweet
as sorghum syrup …
This is what reminiscences are supposed to be, we imagine. Similarly, in Darrell Petska’s ‘Register of Historic Places’ we are treated to a happy memory of father-son bonding at a country diner:
My old man and me forking in
steaming roast beef sandwiches
mounded with potatoes and gravy
reddened with gouts of ketchup
How’s that sandwich? he asks,
gravy flecking his chin
So good, I remember–
a pilgrim to his humble grave–
so good we split our last bread roll
to clean every blush of gravy
from our plates, then leaned back
full in our chairs and grinned.
In the matter of subject matter, finally, what is it with birds and poetry? The fascination starts with Chaucer and goes through Shelley and Dickinson, all the way to Maxine Kumin. Maybe a quarter of the poems in this anthology are about birds, mention birds, or use birds as vehicles for metaphor. “Returning to a Mountain Cabin in March” shows how often, when there are places, there are also birds figuring saliently in the poet’s perceptions:
I’ve been the topic of conversation here
for days among the birds. When I walk
a deer path, the hillside robins say—
But, you’re not a deer.
When I sit on the rock, ravens surround
me, saying ‘out, out’—
Scrub jays grumble among themselves
about how pinche I am
when I don’t put out more seed. …
(I had to look up “pinche,” too. It’s of Mexican origin, a derogatory word meaning somethinglike “stingy”.)
There is little in the way of formal poetry in this collection; In fact, the only form I found in Lummox Number 2 was a strictly formal haiku (5-7-5), Doris Vernon’s ‘Untitled’:
I’ve been towed away
I parked my heart at your place
Without a permit.
and another short poem, ‘Haiku’ by Don Wentworth, which doesn’t follow the Japanese form but may actually carry more of a haiku’s eccentric perspective:
You say you’re lost
but look – see
The only poem that is irregularly but recognizably iambic, breaking briefly into couplets, is ‘Igor’s’ by Georgia Santa Maria:
. . . Gives the regulars a gorgeous grin,
Shining eyes and coffee skin,
As she ties her apron behind her back,
Outside the trolly rolls down the track . . .
But never mind all of the above. There is beautiful stuff in this collection, whatever the mode, the style, or the outlook. The beauty here consists of some sharply-seen details (“She unfolds a bee in the bedclothes,/ in a cup carries it outside,/watches sturdy yucca fray/in pale curlicues/along the edges of its spears.” from Jane Lipman’s ‘Choreography of a Garden’) or in ‘Fields’ by Linda Singer:
The flowering corn stalks flap like flags of surrender.
Bees helicopter, hovering above as the hours bristle
toward midday heat.
Beauty is found, too, in ‘At Home’ by Grace Cavalieri, with its haunting liturgical anaphora, reminiscent of Whitman :
Within the house there is a window, within the glass there spreads a light
Within the light there shines a fire, and in the heat there melts the iron
Within the iron there glows a spell and in the gleam the sky reflected
And in the sky there flies a vision, within the vision there is a threshold
Within the cloud a kind of street, in the street there walks a woman
A stride like a young boy,
and the exciting melding of sounds in Alice Pero’s ‘California Sunset/Backyard’:
I am sifting through a shimmer of fruit,
darning a sock of sweet papayas, drinking
a soulful slurp of sun just setting,
burping the horizon of bright orange,
waiting for the garden hose to mist me in this
hot, dry California backyard where the desert
itches with its thorns and hardy, dry, yellow blooms. . .
We’re all here reading reviews of poetry, I suppose, because we love poetry and look for it wherever we can find it. Places is certainly a book that presents, if you look carefully, plenty of good poetry, along with a healthy dose of innovation, imagination, and energy.