Monday, August 13, 2012

Summer Reading: Part One

My next three posts will review some of the books I read this summer.  No matter what my qualms, they inspired me to write about them.

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Reveling in the power of anachronism, Matthew Hittinger's Skin Shift, his much anticipated debut book of poems, engages in a sadomasochistic relationship with myth, most spectacularly with Narcissus.  In the poem, "Concussion," Hittinger writes: "His mind arced off like a broken/rainbow, no keystone to lock indigo/or red, color scumbled into charcoal sky." It's a bit unnerving how much Hittinger is determined to aquiesce, eviscerate, and somehow even heal (with reservation) the classical stories.  This is no unequivocal tribute; there's a comic blasphemy operating in these poems.  Look at the sonic quality in "Cruising," also starring Narcissus: "His lips locked/his lips, two slivers, jaw-line jagged/edge wed to a jagged edge of light."  Yet when Hittinger disengages from myths, there's no slack, just more profundity: "What does the question/of life matter so far from the sun?"  Or in the poem, "An Orthinologist Ponders the Zenaida marcoura's Vanishing Point": "Top and bottom sit,/contemplate the long/horizon and lift off in sudden wing/whir from separate/points, flights paths spread, treasure flaps tethered, wish/bone headed to V."  Eclectic in form, yet unaffected, Hittinger creates rhyming ballads, sonnets, Sapphics, terza rima, villanelle, dramatic monologues in free verse, ghazals among others.  You can always feel Hittinger's authority in this long overdue book.  He's generous with his fictional personaes, and they, in turn, are generous back with their rhythmic declarations.  Even in a poem as expectedly slight as "Aunt Eloe Schools the Scarecrow," Hittinger finds the moral center of his character.  Her words also function as his ars poetics:  "Go back/before these stories were writ before your/tar and straw and wood and you'll find Caw loved/Howl even then, there where their forms had yet/to settle into fur and feather."

Matthew Hittinger's Skin Shift is available through Sibling Rivalry Press.


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Even if there are some tired, flat domestic poems, you can see the great promise in Ruben Quesada's wonderfully titled Next Extinct Mammal.  He's best when he deals with the issue of family in an off-handed way.  Take these nicely stated lines from "Tamale Serenade": "...I stand with Abuela facing/ the Griffith Park Observatory.  Her hair almost black/against the alien Hollywood skyline;/to our right James Dean's bronzed head ignores us."  Some other great lines appears in one of my favorites, "Photograph in Costa Rica": "Your plump face is fixed/into the lake of my occipital lobe, processed/like an unwanted cyanotype photograph, blue/and washed out against the horizon/of an empty road." Perhaps he hasn't had enough distance from the poems that feel more obviously dramatic.  When one of the narrators talk about their mother, it feels less like a poem, than a litany of biographical facts: "My mother has decided to move out,/at fifty-five. She's packed up/everything she's collected.../Her parents dead, brothers, too.  She's decided to move/father into America."  Sometimes he doesn't transform raw material, dealing with early childhood memories or moving away to college into something more exceptional.  This happens with an all-too-easy gay trope in a poem like "Memories Are Made Like This": "A clandestine kiss in a movie theatre/or a hurried fuck after leaving/work early on Friday afternoons--/even at the risk of being discovered/by the family of the man/whose love I shared--"  All in all, there's no doubt that once he gains more of a definite vision, Quesada will leap from the more conventionally domestic and launch himself into "the blue like Picasso's player" which "swells overhead, blue behind strings/of clouds..."

Ruben Quesada's Next Extinct Mammal is available through Greenhouse Review Press.


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