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“The Waste Land”- By T.S. Elliot

“The Waste land” by T.S. Elliot is considered by many to be his most influential work. A long, complex poem, it is thick with allusions to other works, and even had large portions written in other languages, such as Hindi. It is heavily referenced in many contemporary works, and has been said to have had more influence on the works of literature of the 20th century than any other single work.

Indeed, this ‘modernist’ poem is so chalked-full of references to other works that Elliot himself included an immense body of notes at the end explaining many of the literary, cultural, or historical references contained therein. It is comprised of five parts of varying length, “The Burial of the Dead,” “A Game of Chess,” “The Fire Sermon,” “Death by Water,” “What the Thunder Said.” Each part a complex part of a loosely woven together narrative positioned around a central theme.

Much of the poem seems to center around allusions to the story of the Fisher King, in which a king looses his vitality, causing his land to turn into a waste land. Indeed, according to Elliot’s notes, Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend, From Ritual to Romance, (which featured the Fisher King’s quest to restore his land) heavily influenced his work. He there stated that it was also influenced by “another work of anthropology (to which) I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough).

Specifically, it appears that Elliot’s actual ‘waste land’ was a cultural one that he perceived to have existed in the post-WWI era, and this poem is essentially his response to this and exploration of the issues surrounding the conflict that shaped the generation of people whose lives were forever changed by the conflict, as well as itself being a part of Elliot’s personal search for meaning (and perhaps a quest for renewal).

Thus, the tenor of the poem overall is very dark. Imagery and symbolism abound to create an overall sense of apathy, dread and heavy cynicism throughout. That said there are notes of optimism scattered throughout, and even the last line of the poem seems to be a hopeful one, Elliot choosing to close by evoking the Shanti Mantra, a Hindu mantra for peace.

All of that aside, the poem itself, while hard to analyze in a vacuum, still holds merit even without having an encyclopedic knowledge of the various references to other works and events scattered throughout beforehand. Indeed, I went into it knowing little about the work, other than having some notion as to its influence, and was still able to get a lot out of it. Indeed, the first read demanded more research, a thorough reading of the notes and several re-reads so, all in all, I’d say that, while still being a very complex work, it is also still accessible to those willing to do a little bit of foot-work with regard to research. It definitely lends itself to multiple close readings.

“Frost” – Poems by Robert Frost

In the collection of poems by Robert Frost in the book “Frost” we see a collection of Poetry whose tone is often quiet and subdued, but whose content and subject material, though often dealing with the seemingly common-place, speaks volumes. Indeed, the overall low-key tone of many of his poems only seems to highlight their messages.

Most poems here seem to deal with the every-day, the ordinary, but in a way that sneaks up on you. They make the ordinary strange and the strange somewhat more ordinary. Moreover, his poems often set a tone early on and then slowly ratchet it up in intensity, working toward something at the end we’re not quite sure what until we get there. They also often deal with large concepts in the abstract, but approach them in a manageable way by breaking them down into units that might fit into a given person’s every-day experience so as to make them more digestible.

For example, in “The Fear,” we see a woman grappling with her fear of what (presumably) at first appears to be an imagined stranger. That being said, though she is seen dealing with a very specific fear, this poem can be read as a microcosm for how all fear operates, and perhaps points out how people typically see it or try to combat it.

“’…You’re not to come,’ she said. ‘This is my business

If the time’s come to face it, I’m the one

…And now it’s time to have it out with him

While we know definitely where he is.

Let him get off and he’ll be everywhere

Around us, looking out of trees and bushes.”

Above we see that the narrator perhaps sees that this may be an irrational fear at first, as if she had actually expected to find a prowler she probably would have allowed her husband to come along. But here, it’s about an internal struggle. She thinks she saw a face; now if she goes and finds that there’s nothing there, she will perhaps be rid of this fear once and for all. That said, the unexpected happens yet again at the end of the poem when the duo actually encounters a traveler, which just goes to show us the unexpected nature of fears, or, perhaps, that our fears are not always completely unfounded.

A good number of the poems included here imply both a rhyming scheme and/ or iambic pentameter. Some, such as “October,” utilize both to great effect. What’s more, here is another example of one that takes the abstract and makes it concrete; here, he relates to us a thread about the changing seasons, the process of one thing becoming something else, but does it in a manageable way by breaking down the season into succinct, concrete images.

“…Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst.

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit might else be lost –

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.”

Here, Frost puts rhyming to effective use; rather than seeming to confine the narrative ability of the poem it instead enhances it, allowing it to flow off the tongue (or the tongue of the mind, as it were) with ease. Further, here, again, is a perfect example of Frost’s ability to shrink down these huge concepts into the local, every-day things that we can relate to, in that he even goes so far as to focus on the well-being of a few grapes. That said, the very fact that the onset of the cold affects even such common-place, little things which we perhaps wouldn’t normally think about as being negatively affected by something so abstract allows us to wonder at what other sorts of things we’re missing in our every-day lives. They also show what other worlds or ways of being we pass by on a daily basis, and makes me wonder what the season’s changes will bring for me this time around.

Overall, the poems here are impactful, moving, unassumingly poignant, accessible to everyone, and go a long way toward showing why his works continue to garner such respect even to this day.

Kevin Young’s book For the Confederate Dead contains poetry that speaks to the grief of African American experience across history. The book opens with a touching elegy for Gwendolyn Brooks, that depicts her as “Unbrittle, brave, graceful yet laceless,” capturing the eloquent rawness of the poet who gave the world the memorable poem “We real cool.” Young continues to venture on poetic projects in sections such as “Nicodemus,” where Young uses the classic “Fire, Air, Water, and Earth” to create a tale of a slave. Occasionally, Young even experiments with extended metaphor, as in the section of Jim Crow, where Jim is depicted as an actual character, whose cousin Rust follows him and sister Sleep is a popular lady amongst his friends. A good portion of the book contains nods and tips of the hat to various locations, persons, and events in history. In the section “African Elegy,” Young makes it a point to note the date of most of the poems, a particularly helpful addition given that some of the poems speak to relatively recent moments such the September 11th strategies. Holistically, Young tackles a great deal of topics within his work, and approaches them in a focused, yet creative fashion. Both informative and entertaining, For the Confederate Dead provides a worthwhile read for those looking for quality poetry and a keen historical insight.

Terrell Taylor

Ron Smith’s Moon Road

This is a book of poetry sprawling in both  style and culture.

Smith doesn’t let you sit and get comfortable. As soon as you are used to the context of  a war torn world in “Washington County, Georgia, 1941” and “Repairs” you are swept off into the hazy and intricate relations of “Because She Loves Me”.  The book rambles through topics as Smith’s identities have changed:  a kid, a father, a husband, a teacher, a traveler, but most of all a keen observer of a world so obviously brilliant. A world that shines through Moon Road.

The hat that Smith most often wears is that of a traveler. In his poem “Greece”, you hear the voice of an overexcited tourist and with the descriptions he gives you’ll soon be one as well. You feel the ire of a local goat herder and the resulting glee and equal disappointment of only being a visitor to a wonderful place. In “Oxford” a less experienced traveler makes keen and comical observations of his new surroundings.

Smith’s longest and best are “To Ithaca” and “Via Appia”.  In both these poems the reader is brought along for a journey in an overwhelmingly real and for me unfamiliar culture which I was half afraid to leave and half afraid to be lost in. Smith presented so many rich details, at times lists, I felt like the stereotypical ogling tourist. These poems really capture the emotions of being in a foreign place: being lost, the language barrier, wonder and awe of culture, history and landscape, the joy of sharing new things, and nostalgia for home.

– Jeff Anderson

The Awkward Silence – By W. D. Ehrhart

The Awkward Silence by W. D. Ehrhart focuses on the Vietnam War. I’ve never been to Vietnam, let alone fought anyone there, but after reading this collection of poems, I felt like I was actually a part of the war. Ehrhart served in Vietnam from February 1967 to February 1968 as a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, so the poems are filled with imagery and details of the war.

The poems, as expected, are generally serious. There are still moments that are light-hearted, but they carry an underlying heaviness. For example, in “Sergeant Jones,” the speaker explains reasons why Sergeant Jones is respected by everyone, closing with: “he can hit a gook at 50 yards / with a fuckin’ .45.” The timing and wording of the statement in the context of the poem is humorous until the meaning of the statement is actually considered.

There is also a general bitterness throughout the poems. Stemming from the frustration of the war itself, this bitterness is reflected most noticeably in poems such as “The Generals’ War” and “Coming Home.” In “The General’s War,” the bitterness is captured in the juxtaposition of soldiers “in slings, on stretchers, in green plastic bags” who have sacrificed everything, to “some general” whose only duty is to read about these men and pin a medal to them. The poem “Coming Home” takes a look not at inter-military frustrations but at the frustration of the lack of support coming home from the war. The speaker notes that in the airport coming home, there were no welcoming parties or even friendly smiles; “Only a small boy who asked me / what the ribbons on my jacket meant.” This reveals the speaker’s disappointment and bitterness that there is no appreciation for the service done in Vietnam, and not even enough respect to teach children the honor that comes along with military service. There is a gap that exists between civilians and soldiers who have served in a war, whether Vietnam or otherwise, and Ehrhart thoroughly explores this gap through this poem and others, especially toward the end of the collection in the last several poems.

The strength of this collection is Ehrhart’s ability to describe the details of combat and the differences from America that exist in Vietnam, and his ability to use these details to describe a broader picture of the war as a whole. From “Farmer Nguyen,” a farmer who was punished by Americans for supplying rice to the Vietcong and then punished by the Vietcong by supplying information to the Americans, to “Imagine,” in which a group of people in America ask a soldier questions, saving the final, unanswered “had he ever killed?” for last, Ehrhart effectively captures the broader scope of the war and the effects on both the Vietnamese and Americans.

–Jacob Dellinger

John Hoppenthaler’s “Lives of Water”

“Lives of Water” by John Hoppenthaler explores a variety of subjects, with poems drawing from fishing, family, relationships, traveling, and history. Hoppenthaler effectively dissects the title of the collection, first with his opening poem of the same title and then with many of the other poems, most of which involve water or aspects of water. For example, my favorite poem in the book entitled “Farm Sitting” opens with a scene at a pond: “Christy throws a rock– / the barn splinters / on the pond’s surface.” The image of the destruction of a barn by a mere stone–even if it is just the reflection of the barn–is powerful, and even followed up with: “I flick my spent cigarette / where the hayloft reassembles, / just to watch it burn.” These are images the likes of which run rampant through this collection. Hoppenthaler effectively relates through scenes like these that water, the source of life, has such power to portray a whole new universe through its reflection yet at the same time is so weak to have this universe so easily become prey to a cigarette or a rock.

Hoppenthaler’s ability to communicate through poetry provides imagery that allows the reader to actually feel what life is like on the waterfront or in the eyes of a nine-year-old buying ice cream or as a child whose uncle just died. In general, Hoppenthaler uses excellent imagery to communicate his thoughts. For example: “a postcard / yellowing on your freezer door” from “Intercourse, PA,” or “I knew you were in the den below, / that orange dot in the darkness / blooming with each intake of breath” from “Grandfather.” Imagery is the most apparent strength of this collection of poetry.

Most of the poems are thoughtful, reflective, and fluid with an underlying theme of remembering when times were better. This is sometimes revealed through an ashamed animosity towards either religion, women (or towards relationships with women), or death and the change it brings. Nostalgic, clear, and thought-provoking, “Lives of Water” provides a good read with poems that will embed themselves in the reader’s memory for a long time.
–Jacob Dellinger

Margaret Atwood’s “The Door”

Margaret Atwood’s The Door is at first sight an unprepossessing book of poetry, with its cover an image of a nondescript little girl in a doorway, layered over light and dark and joined by simple text. Upon consumption, however, the book is anything but uninviting, as it serves to illuminate the reader’s consciousness with a view of humanity both uplifting in its energy and humbling in its reality. Captured in both her short and lengthier poems are concise, vibrant scenes in which images are projected into the audience’s mind and a relationship is immediately formed between the readers and the written word. Also apparent in every one of Atwood’s poems is a unifying thread of solemnity and disassociation. No matter whether her speaker focuses on the death of a beloved childhood pet, the steady degeneration of a loved-one’s mind, or the opaque prophecies of an oracle, it is this solemnity that delivers a revelation: that the sorrow and suffering inherent in life often serve to corrupt the humanity of the individual. As previously mentioned, Atwood uses an oracle as vehicle for the dissociation from humanity in “Another Visit to the Oracle”:

…Is there no hope?
They ask that over and over.
Though the sky is as blue as ever
the flowers as flowery,
they stand there slack-mouthed
arms hanging useless
as if the earth is about to crumble,
as if there is no safe refuge.
Of course, I say.
I hate to disappoint.

After reading The Door in its entirety, the cover takes on new meaning. Congruently with the piece from which the book takes its title, there is reflected in the cover the duality of human life that Atwood so deftly exposes: the seemingly nonchalant little girl in the doorway is, upon closer inspection, dressed in clothes that appear as if splattered with blood. Conversely, this duality is expressed in “The Door”:

…The sun comes out,
you have swift breakfasts
with your husband, who is still thin;
you wash the dishes,
you love your children,
you read a book,
you go to the movies.
It rains moderately.

The door swings open,
You look in:
Why does this keep happening now?
Is there a secret?
The door swings closed.

As Atwood so masterfully relates to her readers, the duality of humanity is sometimes left unnoticed, but should never be taken for granted. Every event, from the most mundane to the heart-achingly personal, is a chance for the reflection upon and appreciation of the life we are all a part of. “The Door” is a book worth reading simply for the experience, so long as the reader expects an unbroken, elegiac style.

-Glenn Milich

More on Baca’s “Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande”

While perusing the Lending Library the other day, Carol M. was placing a book back on the shelves, but stopped to suggest I read it too. The black and white cover depicting what looks to be a tired bride in traditional Native American clothing drew me in. I later read the back cover before digging into the main pulp and knew I would be interested in Jimmy Santiago Baca when I learned of his International Poetry Slam championship.

I found many of the same elements that the review before this mentioned, but also was able to other elements too. First, I love how this book reads like a great album – you know the ones, every song fits together, some common theme and the order in which they play on the CD simply makes sense. There are no gaps or leaps between the subjects and/or time of the poems, and for this, I felt comfortable following the stories that Baca has to tell. In poems like “ChicaIndio” (quoted below, 17) and “Shattered Trust” readers can feel the personal issues Baca faces with fears of commitment to something/someone other than the Rio Grande river he so much cherishes. For instance, in making love to a woman in Wyoming he explains his emotion this way:

my heart bellied up

in an oil spill of arctic deceptions

A very bleak and powerful way to feel indeed.

Also, the color green seems to be rampant in Baca’s life and important as it keeps bringing him back the reality of his spiritual and nature-driven mentality. The second stanza of “Blacksmith’s Hammer” (44) readers see the “lime-green neckerchieg” and “green coffee cup” that are among the remaining items of importance upon an altar of Baca’s. Later, at the end of thought-provoking run in “The Last Leg” the speaker reaches out to “touch the green irrigation pipe gates /that mark the end of my run south” (59) indicating a sense of relief and comfort in these pipes – so conveniently colored the symbol of nature.

Many times throughout the book, readers are provided a lens of the speaker’s eyes being drawn upward toward the sky – for prayer, to follow birds, to describe the trees, and to acknowledge the Heavens above. As the previous review stated, Baca spent five years in a Federal prison before the age of 30 and his change in values are apparent in his voice of the poetry. Readers sense his yearning for something higher, some power to make him even more a part of the natural world around him. As he writes in “I Send Prayers Out,” we see the effect the epically large birds of New Mexico terrain have on him:

They have long ago scratched in me a love of them,

sunk in their talons,

nested their language in me

and birthed a migrating part to my soul. (4)

In all, I can truly say I’m grateful that Carol handed me this book for it has released in me a sense of how to write about nature in a more meaningful way. It is hard to get around that word in poetry and harder still to use it without the ever-evil descriptor “abstraction.” I couldn’t find this word anywhere in the text and am all the more happy to see an author accomplish this great feat.

Kalyna Jowyk

“The Dollmaker’s Ghost” by Larry Levis

Upon first reading, The Dollmaker’s Ghost seemed an ordinary collection of poems about ordinary things. The final section, pertaining to ghosts of times and places secluded, held the most interest in its unusual stories, like the lovers in “Some Ashes Drifting Above Piedra, California,” who

Naked, and for a joke,

Tied themselves together with cast off clothes

And leaped into a canal—

Where the current held them under a whole hour.

However, further reading proved that Levis’ most interesting stories are those about the living in their loneliness and in their communion with the nonliving.

In this collection are several mini-collections of works related by theme, including three nature-poems tinged with ambivalence, an homage to five revolutionary poets, and the aforementioned section about ghosts, which carries home the impermanence of memory lamented throughout The Dollmaker’s Ghost.

One group of poems bears witness to violence in the lives of several individual women. The dedication to the stories of hardships unique to women was unexpected and refreshing. In “The Grass,” Levis writes of the pain a woman endures after the night a soldier—senselessly, it appears in this poem—beat her when she was nineteen:

But I think of each muscle it must have taken

For her body to walk through the cold sunlight once,

To find a service station, a bathroom mirror,

To comb her hair and feel it bleed

And say nothing.

The late revelation of the story after her appearance as a healthy, content woman may seem to suggest a success story in reverse, but beyond this the device of the reverse-telling also reveals that even women who appear happy and strong may hide a past marked with abuse and terror, a chilling thought carried throughout this section.

The most inventive piece in this part of the collection is “Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931,” a poem about the woman in that painting. The woman’s story is so enthralling and real that the final stanza serves to remind the reader that she is, after all, only a painting:

And now it is too late for you. Now no one,

Turning his collar up against the cold

To walk past the first, full sunlight flooding

The white sides of houses, knows why

You’ve kept on sitting here for forty years—alone,

Almost left out of the picture, half undressed.

Yet the ambiguity blurs the distinction between reality and artistic vision, bringing the inanimate uncomfortably close to life. Moments like this, when imitations of life take on their own vitality and when the dead speak to the living, make The Dollmaker’s Ghost an unnervingly insightful book and a collection worth, at the very least, a second read.

-Erica Mathews

Timothy McBride and “The Manageable Cold”

This first collection from poet Timothy McBride is a shot well-heard. Over fifty selections are divided into three sections of the “The Manageable Cold.” With a clear affinity for lyrical forms McBride has, as a sonneteer, employed a limitless sense of impact and diversion with his poetic narratives. Each line of McBride’s burns, spreading fire through synapses of pain in the muscles’ intensive motioning, and to his head, the obsession, from “Squats,”

“Such nonsense. Still, like me you’re at it yet,

though grace and might seem less sublime than vain

and vanity not half what makes us sweat

not half what fuels compulsion in the brain:

that badger – born in anger, fed on pain –

sulks fat beyond this regimen of strain.”

The fight, the competition, the battle to survive, to gain the strength that will at least allow us to tread water, McBride never ensures a likely win. Instead, his power is in the denial of expectations, mastered with careful crafting and his often funny, at times heartbreakingly so, threading of implicit metaphors. A favorite piece of mine, “In The Walls” is a tale of “next-to-nothing” mice who “lingered,/emboldened and at home” to the great fright of the speaker until they are poisoned, by said fed-up speaker, who admits, “Let them sicken and die in the walls.”

McBride’s clever wit is profoundly thoughtful and aware of the mistakes in one’s life, deeds of one’s past that cannot be undone, and the philosophically political points that often anger one enough to fight, to take action. McBride is seemingly unable to avoid the political notations that appear in his work, by no choice of his own, these larger-than-life, real-world instances merely exemplify his idiosyncratic and at times imagined world. With an ease of simple truth in pleasantly pure and plain language, McBride conquers his reader’s sense of expectation with a bona-fide stamp of approval.