“Natural Selections” by Joseph Campana

Over the past couple months, I’ve mentioned that I wanted to start a monthly poetry spotlight in order to increase my knowledge of contemporary poetry.  I’m finally doing it!

I received a copy of the collection “Natural Selections” by Joseph Campana through NetGalley.  I read the book a few weeks ago, but I haven’t been satisfied with my review.  Poetry is a bit of a challenge to write about, as it depends a lot on the reader’s perspective and tastes.  The type of style that may work for one person might leave another confused or depressed.  I’m hoping that I’ll get better at reviewing poetry as I read more of it…

The poems in “Natural Selections” have a very solemn tone remniscent of Native American mythology.  They tell the story of a man’s introspection during a nocturnal drive through Ohio.

Here’s a brief sample of one of the poems in the collection entitled “Jay”:

Don’t be blue, said the sky, but the world wouldn’t

listen.  Each night tasted like drowning, each day

choked on its own bloom.  There were darker things

than the eye of sky, there were smaller things too.

Don’t be said the blue so the light stole away.

As for the twisted leaves?  As for the idols of morning?

Nothing left to be.  Nothing left to know.

Some of my favorite poems in the collection were “Homer, Ohio,” which ties modern America to Greek legends, “Democracy in Ohio,” which describes a feeling of powerlessness with regard to government, and “Rural Evening,” which focuses on economic tensions and the harsh reality of life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, as the roadside observations of small-towns and countryside reminded me of my own childhood in Western Pennsylvania.  However, these poems might not be your thing if the motif of a dead deer hanging from a tree is something that bothers you.  Overall, I liked Campana’s tone, which at once contained both a sense of loss and a celebration of nature’s haunting beauty.


Edit:  I’m including this post in the Read More/Blog More Poetry Event.  This monthly poetry event fits perfectly with my goal to read more poetry this year!

Categories: Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , | 11 Comments

“The Swing Girl” by Katherine Soniat

I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.

“The Swing Girl” is a collection of poems by Katherine Soniat.  As a whole, the poems have a Mediterranean feel and call to mind the frailty of life and the abrupt effect of war on daily life.  Not all of the poems are violent; many call to mind snippets of day-to-day life or recollect mythology.

One of the issues that I always have with collections of poems or short stories is that the individual pieces tend to be hit or miss.  This collection was no different.  Many of the poems didn’t strike me as being particularly memorable, but at the same time, others were spectacular.

I particularly liked Day Spool, which recollected the sound of wind chimes.  I was also a fan of The Cathedral of Chartres, which describes a wedding from a gargoyle’s perspective.  Brocade gave me new perspectives on tornadoes with its vivid imagery of items picked up along it’s path.  Garden Smiles, which describes sitting in a museum cafe, reminded me of afternoons spent at the Hermitage or the Russian Museum when I studied abroad.  The Forest describes the narrator selling her car (somewhat sarcastically).

As a whole, I enjoyed this collection.  I don’t read nearly enough poetry, but I’m hoping to make reviews of poetry collections a more regular part of my blog.

Categories: Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” by N. Scott Momaday

I read this book as a part of a class I’m taking this semester on multiculturalism and librarianship.

The book is about Native American culture, specifically the Kiowa.  It tells the story of the author’s journey to visit his grandmother’s grave near Rainy Mountain.  Each page is split into three segments.  Momaday opens each section with a Kiowa myth, then follows up with a segment of historic fact.  He then ties everything together by relating those things to his own experiences and childhood memories, most of which are universal in nature.  He writes in a very straightforward poetic prose, which is easy to read but full of meaning.

There were always dogs about my grandmother’s house.  Some of them were nameless and lived a life of their own.  They belonged there in a sense that the word “ownership” does not include.  The old people paid them scarcely any attention, but they should have been sad, I think, to see them go.

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” is beautifully written and carries profound messages, despite its short length.  The stories of Tai-me, the Sun Dance, and buffalo hunts captivated my imagination, and were told with a great deal of reverence.

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in Native American literature.

Categories: History, Nonfiction, Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Broetry” by Brian McGackin

Everybody needs at least one good coffee-table book.  As a grad student whose life has been impacted by the somewhat shitty economy, I found this book of poems to be hilarious.

The collection, entitled “Broetry,” is written by a guy who actually has an advanced degree in poetry.  The subject matter lies along the lines of frat-house humor and the plight of the newly unemployed/underemployed generation.  Poems cover subjects ranging from booze and sex to Mama Celeste pizzas and Captain America.  “Broetry” is strewn with pop-culture references and is good for a laugh.

This book is not for the easily offended, of course.  Many might deem the poems “dumb” or “misogynistic.”  I, however, found this book to be quite enjoyable.  I also realize that humor is not meant to be taken entirely seriously, but rather exists for amusement and as a form of social commentary.  I particularly enjoyed the poems Final Final Fantasy, Do You Believe in Magic?, and Why You Should Listen to Classical Music (and yes, the lightsaber duel in Star Wars Episode I is one of those reasons).

I’m going to post one of the poems in the book, just as an example of McGackin’s style.  It’s the shortest in the collection, in the form of a haiku.

“Why Do Buses Smell?”

The young girl asks her
mother. I listen, because
I want to know, too.

I recommend this to anyone looking for some good tasteless humor about college, job-hunting, and life in general.

Categories: Humor, Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments

Thomas the Rhymer

One of the books that I picked up during the Borders liquidation sale was Ellen Kushner’s “Thomas the Rhymer.”  I thought that before reading it I would like to take a look at the legend upon which it was based.

“Thomas the Rhymer” (also known as “True Thomas”) is a ballad that is closely related to Tam Lin.  Several variants of the ballad may be found here if you scroll to the bottom of the page.

There are many different versions of the ballad, but they all follow the same general storyline.  Generally, Thomas encounters the queen of Elfland.  Upon kissing her, he follows her to a point where three roads intersect.  One is the path of righteousness, one is the path of wickedness, and the third is the road to fairyland.  He goes with the Queen to fairyland, where he spends the next seven years.  Upon leaving, he is given the gift of truthfulness/prophecy.

One of the things that sets this ballad apart from “Tam Lin” is that the fairy Queen isn’t malicious, and doesn’t really mean Thomas any harm.  She isn’t sacrificing him to unknown powers, but rather holding him prisoner for seven years sort of in the same manner that Odysseus was held captive by Circe.  It’s like a magical vacation that comes with visions as souvenirs.

For a more modern version of the ballad, one can listen to this song by the group Steeleye Span.  I’m not sure how I feel about their vocals, but I do like seeing the modernized lyrics, as they are far more readable than the original text.

The “Thomas the Rhymer” legend, like “Tam Lin,” has had much influence throughout fantasy literature.

Categories: Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot

The image to the left is by sive, and I thought it fit the poem incredibly well.

“Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

In describing T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” it’s hard to even decide where to begin.  The poem opens with two allusions.  One is to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which deals with the evils of colonialism in Africa.  The other is, of course, to Guy Fawkes.  These references set the dark and eerie tone of the poem, which describes a feeling of emptiness and superfluousness found in the narrator and his generation.  The last stanza pairs religious references with the realization that life isn’t what it seems or what we’ve been told it is, but rather that we are caught in the middle of varying extremes.  If Eliot knew how to whine, I’d assume that he was somewhat emo/gothy, but I think that his poem manages to capture an impression of emptiness paired with suspense in a way that not many poets can, especially if we consider that the two references at the beginning of the poem give one the idea that everyday individuals don’t and can’t really do much to change the larger political forces that shape their worlds.  I would also point out that both references at the beginning of the poem were examples of times where the idea of religion was used as an excuse to justify violence.

Or, everything that I wrote could be absolute bullshit.  This is a problem with interpreting not only poems, but literature as a whole.  There are so many different ways of interpreting any given piece of writing and reading into it lots of things that the author never put there.

To be good at writing literary criticism necessitates turning bullshit into an art.  I didn’t always think this, but then I started taking lit classes in undergrad and actually reading literary criticism.  Some critics will decide that a presumably straight character in a novel is actually gay, and having a relationship with other characters, pointing to subtleties in the text to back up their “theory.”  Another critic, whom I greatly enjoyed reading, wrote that Dostoevsky’s work was entirely about domination and submission.  While a good part of this is true, I think that said critic was writing about his own unfulfilled fantasies.  No, I’m not exaggerating.  Mikhailovsky wrote a two-page analogy about wolves enjoying eating sheep to talk about Dostoevsky, saying that he “burrowed into the profoundest depths of the wolf’s soul, in search of subtle, complex things–not simple satisfaction of appetite, but sensual enjoyment of anger and cruelty.”  And then there’s feminist literary criticism, which is rather easy to write… just find a female character and say something about society, and you’ve got a paper.  Marxist literary criticism can be written simply by treating Marx’s word like fanatical Christians treat their Bibles.  Freudian criticism is hilarious.  You can say pretty much anything you want in the world of literary criticism if you can make up something intelligent-sounding to back up what you are saying.  Now, where was I?

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Categories: Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“Winter Evening” by Pushkin

Aleksandr Pushkin was one of the greatest Russian poets of all time, and was responsible for modernizing the Russian language.  He also has kind of an interesting backstory, considering that his great-grandfather was from Africa and was given as a gift to the tsar, who took a liking to him and made him a general.  Puskin himself was a famous poet by the time he was a teenager, because he was just that good.  Of course, like so many Russian authors, he got caught up in the “wrong crowd,” who decided to rebel, and even though he wasn’t personally involved, he got arrested for it… and the tsar became his personal censor after that.

One of Puskin’s most famous poems is Winter Evening.

The poem basically says that Russian winters suck, but that there is a way to deal with it–to drink heavily.  However, Pushkin’s language is much more eloquent than my own.

Pushkin’s poetry is a good excuse to take a look at translation as a whole, because a lot of meaning gets lost between languages, and translators have a hard job trying to maintain the voice and tone of the author while conveying meaning and staying as true as possible to the original.  Sometimes, as in the case of poetry, that means taking some liberties.  The first Ardnt translation is my favorite, because it takes a balance between literal translation and keeping true to Pushkin’s original style and rhymes.  Sometimes shades of meaning just get lost in translation.  One example here is the word “старушка.”  The word is translated as “dear granny,” “my dear,” and “dear old granny.”  I don’t think any of those translations capture the fear of the word, which is a diminutive that would more literally be an affectionate (while at the same time respectful) way of saying “little old lady.”  She’s not necessarily a grandma, and just going with “my dear” doesn’t really capture it right, so it gets lost.

So, for anyone who reads literature of any sort in translation, respect the translators.  Their job is harder than it seems, and saves us all the trouble of learning the language of every author we wanna read.  =D

Also, side note… the picture in this post is the first statue of Pushkin in the US.  It was a gift to the US from Russia, and thanks to an awesome professor, is located on the George Washington University campus in DC.

Categories: Dead Russians, Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments

“Tam Lin”

Rather than reviewing a book today, I’m going to take a look at the old Scottish ballad Tam Lin.  This ballad has served as the inspiration for a great many novels, including The Perilous Gard, Winter Rose, and Tithe.  I first became interested in Tam Lin after reading The Perilous Gard as a teenager.

As Tam Lin is an old ballad, there are many different variations in the story, depending on what version one reads.  The story is, loosely, that Tam Lin dwells in the forest near Caterhaugh and takes the virginity of any maidens who pass by.  A woman, generally known as Janet or Margaret, passes through and becomes pregnant.  She refuses to name the father of her child, claiming that he is an elf.  Janet returns to Caterhaugh, where she learns Tam Lin’s story–he was captured by fairies and will be used to pay a tiend to hell.  Tam Lin tells Janet how she can stop his death, and she rescues him.

Different versions of the story can be found here.

The ballad is both eerie and awesome in each of its variants, providing an inspiration to modern adaptations.  Several musical adaptations do exist, including one by the band Fairport Convention.  However, my favorite modern adaptation is by an obscure band called Outgrabe, and can be found here.

One of the things that I find interesting about Tam Lin is that it features a strong female character, even though the ballad comes from a time period where women didn’t have much social position at all.  It also shows the triumph of humanity over the fairy folk.  Some versions seem to portray the conflict between mortals and the faerie folk as a conflict between Christianity and paganism.



Edit 6/17–I just realized that I’ve had the wrong song linked since I posted this.  I fixed it.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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