gone sane. poems by christal rice cooper. 206 pages. River King Press, 2011.
Christal Cooper, who is working on her MFA in writing at Southern Illinois, has written an interesting book of poems whose topics are fueled by current events, historical events, newspaper headlines, celebrity tabloid fixations, gutter journalism, and urban legend. The prominent figures she makes the focus of her poems– Jim Carrey, Lady Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Cult Leader Jim Jones, for example — are revealed through her clearly worded free verse with details culled from the press. Frequently, Cooper will use the second person to address the subject, standing outside history, with full knowledge of the subject's fate, and speak. Is it to soothe a departed soul, or is it to help us understand, empathize with figures that may otherwise seem distant to us because of their treatment through the media? In the poem "Lady Diana" Cooper writes:
You lived like a blade
Jewels were your sun,
your water sweet
as Eve's navel
on Mother Nature's green.
you were fatherless.
you were motherless.
you were an orphan
going to St. Paul's Cathedral.
Just so they'd see you.
Just so he'd see you.
And he did.
Falling down the stairs,
vomiting in the toilet,
praying so loud
your throat went dry,
your tongue salty-parched
as the fortune teller's hands,
massaging your blue palms,
fingers. Which was worse?
The conservative wolves at home?
The black land mines of your eyes
exploding in red, white, and blue?
They must have seen
your reflection in the dark
heard your groans.
The camera lens zoomed.
The lights flashed white.
And men in white
massaged your heart
so your blood would flow–
but it froze, lay still
in the Paris dark.
On one hand, I enjoy the telegraphic leaping of the images, their directness, their boldness and energy, their confidence that nothing needs to be explained. But it is also this confident momentum that derails the train of meaning and understanding sometimes. "And he did. [Who did? Prince Charles?]/ Falling down the stairs,/ vomiting in the toilet [When? Where? At St. Paul's Cathedral?]. I get a little lost, frankly.
Christal Cooper is a poet early in her career, and she has a lot of potential. She examines topics that few poets are attracted to, and she does so in an abundance and depth I haven’t seen for a while. Many of the things I see as “faults” can be clarified with a well chosen word or two. If she were a student of mine, I would advise her to read the poetry of David Wojahn, another poet who is attracted to pop-culture and its personalities, and study his approach. His approach is very focused, and a little more bent toward the formal rather than free verse, but he also delves into the gritty details of celebrities' lives, illuminates them through poignant moments, frequently speaking as his subject, with attention to voice, vocabulary, and above all, specific detail.
By Available Light, New and Selected Poems by Michael Carrino. 98 pages. Guernica Editions, 2012.
I am familiar with many of these poems because I have reviewed past editions in which they were contained, and I am even the publisher of one of those books. I have known Michael Carrino for a while. In 1987 he rescued me and another Vermont College student from the Burlington, Vermont airport when we had just missed the last shuttle to Montpelier. We stayed at Michael’s home near Lake Champlain, sipped white wine and talked poetry in the evening, and were fed Montreal bagels and coffee for breakfast before departing in Michael’s Sirocco for the VC campus.
One thing I remember about Michael’s home was a framed poem on the wall, a piece he had published in the literary journal Poetry Miscellany. It was his poem “Lilacs.”
On a cobbled Montreal street
An old man pushes a wagon
Covered by a parasol – sells lilacs
Wrapped in white tissue.
He gives you a bouquet
Of the deepest lavender, their perfume
Heightens the air around you.
Hearing a freighter’s horn on the St. Lawrence
You turn to the sunset,
Shade your eyes to watch someone
Walking toward you, who by his appearance
Might be me. Knowing
How quickly longing unwinds darkness, grows
Brittle with each moment of absence
You lean against the old man’s sleeve
Refusing to disturb this rehearsal.
How appropriate this poem was in a frame, I thought. Its features were like that of an impressionist painting: the “parasol;” the “lilacs wrapped in white tissue.” It was as if Monet had put his efforts into words instead of paint. Plus, there was the advanced pleasure of combined senses, color blending into aroma: “…the deepest lavender, their perfume/ heightens the air around you”; and there was also the music of locale, sound blending into gesture: “hearing a freighter’s horn on the St. Lawrence/ you turn to the sunset,// shade your eyes to watch someone/ walking toward you.” I was in awe of the poem’s completeness, denseness of imagery, and its ability to achieve a world in such a brief space.
These are characteristics that have always been a part of Michael Carrino’s poetry.
Now, after a career that has spanned decades, Guernica Editions has produced a gorgeous edition of Michael’s New and Selected poems: By Available Light. This book includes selected gems from his previous titles: Some Rescues; Under This Combustible Sky; Café Sonata; Autumn’s Return to the Maple Pavilion; and it also features a generous selection of recent poems.
One of my favorites in the New section is a poem that shares a similar spirit of lean, self-monitoring solitude with Edward Hopper’s painting, “Nighthawks.”
Woman At Dusk
Anthony’s Diner – Barre Vermont
This woman will not be rushed.
She lifts a white cloth napkin
To dab at a crease above her pale lips.
I imagine knowing her aching
Sadness in uncertain light
Often mistaken for stillness,
But decidedly sadness
No longer disguised.
She settles the napkin
Across her lap, folds
Small, pale hands on scarred oak,
As if to begin deliberate prayer.
She stares quizzically
At black coffee served by a waitress
Who never left or arrived.
Beyond grease-stained windows
Where one faint breeze
Scatters a crumpled, glinting wrapper,
Main Street will change into road,
Slowly finding one town, then another
Until it approaches Canada.
Stirring tepid chamomile tea
I recall what is revealed—
A drive, Swanton to Montreal
Under hazy, summer moonlight,
Windows rolled open to any damp breeze.
I fell asleep. Awoke.
Not startled, I drove on
Alone, drove on.
To pay my bill, I gesture to no one,