SIX CHAPS by BALLARD, THIBODEAUX, OPSTEDAL, GREENSTREET, HELD & BIANCHIIVY ALVAREZ Reviews
Scenes from the Saragossa Manuscript by Micah Ballard
Last We Spoke by Sunnylyn Thibodeaux
9th & Ocean by Kevin Opstedal
Learning the Language by Kate Greenstreet
Grounded by George Held
American Master by Raymond L Bianchi
Scenes from the Saragossa Manuscript, Micah Ballard
(Snag Press, 2004)
Micah Ballard’s Scenes from the Saragossa Manuscript is an ambitious work the enjoyment of which derives in no small part from its aesthetic presentation as an object of beauty. The thick, deep-blue French-fold outer cover, the rubric capitals of Gothic script that start each section of the ten-part poem, the monochrome film still for the inner cover, the poems printed on creamy paper—such attention to detail in creating this chapbook is a satisfying manifestation of visual art’s engagement with poetry.
Comprised of highly rhythmic quatrains, the long poem begins:
being haunted by two hanged men
—are there more, have devils gouged
out our eyes sealed them in jars
rolling on the floor. Whatever the case
I will give you all my experiences now
in the name of the Countess who orders
me to tell my story regardless of the guests…
Ballard’s language alludes to a more heroic and romantic time, a time of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, even the fictional storyteller Scheherazade’s The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. After such vivid imagery and intrigue, the promise of a cracking story of high adventure dissipates and one’s attention directed elsewhere. The language changes, the goal is altered and the modern world filters in. The new goal is this poem’s puzzle needs to be solved and a certain knowingness begins to make itself felt:
Talking in riddles will make the journey
More interesting, develop an intuitive
The journey’s end remains to be discovered. The challenge lies in deciphering the riddle even though the rewards are yet unknown. The speaker of the poem confesses:
Ah, but I’m a prattler, bore, whore
who can still discover something
interesting in every story.
The remedy is to simply give over to Scenes from the Saragossa Manuscript’s evident delight in spinning a story, with its ever-present quest for “something interesting” that will be gained at journey’s end.
Last We Spoke, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux
(Auguste Press, 2004)
Sunnylyn Thibodeaux’s Last We Spoke tackles the difficult emotions surrounding longing and loss. She attempts to name the ache of remorse while wrestling with the complexities of relationships and how this connects to life’s transience. Thibodeaux couples this with a subtle gift for assonance and rhyme.
In Thibodeaux’s poems, there are moments when cool observation can capture grief in its shifting form, such as in ‘For Shana Rae’:
There is a hummingbird at my window
a lily in the garden all I’ve known
has been lost in conversations
& quarrels the moonlight
shines on a forgotten house
A woman sits alone stirring her coffee
In other instances, Thibodeaux lets the emotion overcome and overwhelm the crucial moment, weakening its power:
A crow cast a shadow on father’s house
cries out like a child
the black beast of his soul
cries out like an infant
the lies & deception
run deep & long
roar like monsters in my sleep
(‘Something wicked this way comes’)
…and occasionally lapsing into the rhythm of prose:
I pay forward the hard
dollar for prescription drugs & therapy
Still, Thibodeaux’s ease with assonantal and off-rhyme is satisfying to read. This is evident in the previous excerpt’s rapid, successive repetitions of ‘ar’ in ‘forward’, ‘hard’ and ‘dollar’ as well as in the closing poem, ‘For All’:
be careful you’ll break everything with so much noise/
the sky will fall/and me I just sit there and don’t dare look/
the sun and your heart are made of the same material/
a world full of hope/my head smokes/night goes/
Such technique can persuade the reader to re-read this work. Sunnylyn Thibodeaux’s evident love of words and subtle rhymes manifests in Last We Spoke, and promises much for her future work.
9th & Ocean, Kevin Opstedal
(Auguste Press, 2002)
Kevin Opstedal’s 9th & Ocean is an intriguing mix of intimacy, conversation and confession, with poems that considers the emotional links between people and place, whether it is on a boulevard or a place of the mind. The poems rush past in a kinetic dance of fresh and startling juxtapositions, strongly notable in ‘Trace Elements’:
The sky’s a various gradation of
blue electrics with bloody pink cloud smears
Saturday night rolling in
feels like Peruvian gin with a laudanum chaser
a small rubble of quartz
lighting the way
The conversational tone establishes a sense of intimacy tied up to confession and revelation, coupled with a strong, hallucinogenic quality, wafting through the collection like the breath of something intoxicating. While there is a tendency towards a punchline conclusion:
The sky driving rainy spike into the
silver-plated lungs of a dying summer
staggering on the sidewalk—
every time I think about it I get all
bent with warbly inverted stereo
piped in from Neptune’s garage
20,000 leagues beneath the pavement
(‘Sharks Patrol These Waters’)
…this serves only to underline Opstedal’s message.
Like ‘guide wires / pulled taut & humming’ (‘Leaving Palo Alto’), 9th & Ocean’s poems thrum with strange tension. Throughout, Opstedal’s inventiveness is striking. Here are the opening lines of ‘Available Light’:
Time is idling at 1200 rpms
With empty church folders from somewhere
But I feel okay in the face of the inevitable for the moment
A reader might feel lulled by the certainty and neatness in the phrase ‘I feel okay in the face’, which connotes a semblance of normality regained. But the line carries on, so that the speaker’s face which, because of that tricky ‘I’, by some odd transformation also becomes the reader’s face, solidifies the face of the inevitable, anthropomorphises it. This is a thrilling feat in the space of three lines. Kevin Opstedal’s nimble skill with words is both clear and splendid in 9th & Ocean.
Learning the Language, Kate Greenstreet
Kate Greenstreet’s Learning the Language is a meticulous blend of cartography, language exploration, fairytale and dreams, used to excavate meanings from a very strange world. Language is slippery and requires a measure of negotiation and careful attention. There are signs that must be understood, clues deciphered, meanings revealed:
I pondered the meaning
Of the letter—thx (lowercase,
period)—instead of thanks.
Decided I had said too much.
I waited to be asked.
Shoe that fits,
shoe made of glass.
Two poem sequences, ‘Yellow Book’ and ‘Learning the Language’, weave in and out of the collection, reminiscent of travel diary entries. Captioned black and white images are further clues that point the way, but where to and why? Puzzling out meanings from signs is appropriate here because the reader will be but a tourist in Greenstreet’s world, sharing in the experience of the speaker, who attempts to map the unfamiliar, be it in dreams or walking the streets of a new city.
We were finally in Europe.
The water in the fish-shaped font.
Coming down, we bought a souvenir.
I was always here.
My right mind
is a place,
as specific as our driveway.
I was always here,
But I was buried.
(‘A Story of Detection’)
While seemingly at odds with the rest of the collection, the tender and wistful tone of ‘Little Nut’ charts a similar attempt to gain a deeper understanding—in this case, a parent-child relationship—if only one had the right words.
One learns a language to understand and be understood, to make sense of a new world and to negotiate its particular pathways and pitfalls. Greenstreet’s poems require deep attention, the sort of furrow-browed concentration you would give if you were trying to find your way from somewhere unexpected back to someplace familiar. Kate Greenstreet’s Learning the Language is an intriguingly layered and thematically rich collection, paradoxically fractured yet carefully woven together. There is plenty to glean from its strange and wondrous pages.
Grounded by George Held
(Finishing Line Press, 2005)
George Held’s strong interest in nature was present ever since childhood. His second chapbook, Grounded, is a tranquil collection of meditative poems on nature, the passing of seasons and time. With careful grace, the poems examine each season’s tantalising variations. As a seamless complement to the poems within, the chapbook is also carefully constructed, with its whimsical cover image printed on a textured cover, green handmade endpapers and pale cream papers inside, saddle-stitched and all tied up with a thin, glossy-black ribbon.
The collection’s mood shifts from rueful observations of nature’s indomitable will…
Rain in May refreshes flowers
And grows the grass that must be cut
(‘Rain in May’)
…to pure enthralment:
Too rapt for fright, I heard cicadas chirr,
Hooves thump, mink drink, fish splash, although the roar
Of blood deafened me, and dark sealed my sight.
Time’s progress marks the collection with an undercurrent that hints at Robert Herrick’s exhortation: ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, though expressed less stridently than Held’s more pensive tone. There is no sign of regret or self-pity in these poems, yet they betray a gathering prescience of a life beyond the speaker’s own:
…it’s enough to make me feel sorry
I won’t be here to see the scene
And glad the scene will still be there
To be seen by other convalescent eyes.
(‘Stream of Life’)
Held’s enjoyment of musicality in language is very consistent and nowhere more apparent than in the remarkable ‘April Again’:
with war drums in the distance—April
is neither cruellest, nor crueller, nor cruel.
This poem is a quiet stunner, with its subtle distinctions between nature’s cruelty and humanity’s capacity for violence. It deservedly won a Poets & Writers/Barnes & Noble challenge for National Poetry Month (April 2003). For this and other poems, George Held’s reflections in Grounded have a serene power that will linger long in the mind.
American Master by Raymond L Bianchi
(moria poetry, 2006)
A native of Chicago with Italian heritage, Raymond L Bianchi recently lived in Bolivia and Brazil, the effect of which manifests in Bianchi’s American Master as a forceful questioning of place and values. American Master is impressive for its immediacy in impact and energy, with Bianchi creating a work that successfully harnesses the electricity of a spoken word performance and tethering it to the ephemeral permanence of the printed page.
Throughout the ten-section long poem, the reader is both eavesdropper and confidante of a speaker declaiming entertainingly on such arbitrary subjects as Arnold of Brescia, the Swedish and IKEA, monks and Chicago poets:
A few Chicago poets are Chicago poets and their work is filled with a vigor that is upsetting and unabashed and rarely receives praise. A poet who hits the same comfortable notes wins prizes, a poet who uses harsh words ends up on the margins.
Yet for all its randomness, American Master draws a number of important thematic threads together, exploring wide-ranging ideas of religion, race, history, art, philosophy, politics, pop culture, capitalism, materialism and greed, and all with a keen eye on the absurd:
Clots of Blood on the ground betrayal before the assembled host.
Tedious soul, tempting her often with these words:
40% 0ff sale today at Nordstroms!
Indiscreet soul robs Me of the honor due to Me, attributes it to herself, through vainglory, that which is really her own --
grieving murmuring concerning
Aristotle and Plato—Weber and Camus, all banal garbage in the face of
Heidegger, Madonna or especially Jennifer Lopez these are good for bling bling
the coin of the realm .
Such short, sharp shocks abound in a skilful work that is all forward motion.
Bianchi’s work is a clarion cry, delivering a well-deserved jolt out of one’s complacency. American Master is something to be experienced at least once and not to be missed.
Ivy Alvarez is the author of Mortal (Washington, DC: Red Morning Press, 2006). She was awarded the MacDowell Colony Fellowship (USA) and the Hawthornden Castle Fellowship (UK) in 2005. Her poetry appears in journals and anthologies worldwide and online.