Should poetry be timeless or timely? With three new titles that are inextricably bound to time and place, Carolina Wren Press makes a tacit argument for the latter.
Each book contains multitudes within the purview of its author's unique cultural vantage point: William Pitt Root's White Boots is situated among the shining landscapes of the American West; Linda Tomol Pennisi's Suddenly, Fruit investigates modern domesticity on a mythological scale; Evie Shockley's a half-red sea spans our nation's history in a quest to reconcile the "African" with the "American," finding a hyphen always in the way.
Root's verse, as he leads us through reservations and sweat lodges, meeting animals and people (and always, somehow, God), is as tough and economical as the barren tableaux it prickles to life. His enjambments are purposeful, amplifying his swift music: "I stop to walk/ and turn to watch/ the road laid like a/ frown of stone across/ the endlessness of grass." But a poet's only as good as his words, and Root's mise en scène gives him recourse to some terrific ones: White Boots is dense with saguaros, coyotes, chaparral, arroyos and iguanas; chewy, round-edged words that serve specificity while creating their own weird yet terrestrial music.
Some poems here are notable for their concise wisdom and gentle reverence: In "The Tall Well of Twilight," Root and his companions spy a baby pigeon sitting in the mouth of a bull snake, oblivious to its impending fate, and then leave the place "each one of us/ blinking our way blindly into the dark coming on." Others are notable for their hallucinatory descriptive powers: In "Anamax Open Pit: Graveyard Shift," Root's desert is a vibrantly oceanic place, where bulldozers are "huge abyssal creatures/ feeding in the circles/ of their own light" beneath "slate blue moonlit/ shades of hills and sky,/ orange and yellow glints/ of stars, red, blue/ aqueous wavering green." In particular, one notes the radiance of Root's vision. Everything glimmers. "Mothlike brilliance shines/ From the fanned tails/ Of three wild grouse," and Root himself is "A tall attentive glow beside dark water." Who wouldn't like to see this way? If the poet's vocation is to show us the hidden light in things, Root's incandescent perception is up to the task.
Suddenly, Fruit is similar to the pomegranate that is Pennisi's leitmotif: scattered seeds of delight and a lot of sweet filler are bound up in a smooth integument. By "smooth integument" I mean Pennisi's verse. It seems like well-turned prose with arbitrary line breaks, mundanely inflected whether Pennisi is listening to All Things Considered as she cooks dinner or sending Persephone into Hades. By "sweet filler" I mean the book's homogeneity: Mothers are gods; flowers are fertility; children are joy and terror; the inveterate repetition of these tropes leaves Pennisi's poetics feeling somewhat rehearsed. When she writes about two girls walking in a cemetery "as if on the verge/ of fairy tale or magic, or some myth about flowers/ or wells" in "Planting, Memorial Days," one wishes for a little more. But when I say "scattered seeds of delight," I refer to the moments that make this book worthwhile, when Pennisi breaks from her overly workshopped performance and gets at the weird, pithy stuff between banality and myth: the sinister note at the end of "Cooking"; Theo lying in a Greek village with a spoonful of silkworm eggs trembling in the hollow of his chest; the moments when transposed mythologies give way to a tactile world. Not the pomegranate, but the "apricot/ a yolk inside a velvet shell—already/ a little bruised."
I have to admit to two biases regarding Shockley's a half-red sea: I know Evie a little, and I naturally gravitate toward more adventurous, paroxysmal poetics. Shockley's poems are situated along the fault lines where "American," "African-American" and "Native-American" history collide; her verse is appropriately convulsed and necessarily malleable. She avails herself of forms as diverse as the pantoum, the acrostic, the prose poem, the sonnet and the concrete poem. The widening gyre of her vision wheels over slave ships and temples, the Mayflower and the antebellum South and modern Dakar, accumulating the force of unreconciled history with each eagle-eyed pass, angry and playful at once. The objects of this snarled history issue forth at a helpless tumble: "thick walls cannons can-/ nonballs bars of iron/ boulders rocks rough/ muscular winds," Shockley exhales with Morse-code urgency in "castillo del morro: calling your bluff." She catches our culture in moments of irrevocable transfiguration, embodying these violent sea changes in the outsized figures that are their vessels in the collective memory: Crispus Attucks flees into "salt-scented Boston"; Phyllis Wheatley dies in poverty. Like Attucks's "belief in himself," Shockley's poems move "with the uncontrolled power/ of the muscular Atlantic."
These books are available at Regulator Books in Durham and at www.carolinawrenpress.org.