Carolina Wren Press, housed in Durham, has two new collections in its poetry series—quite different and both excellent.
The first, No. 13 in the series, is from Minnie Bruce Pratt, whose first book of poetry was published in 1981 as part of the Women in Print movement in North Carolina. Her Inside the Money Machine is an exploration of work and money, and finally a protest of a capitalist system that dehumanizes work. It is political poetry in long lines, something like poetic prose, and almost documentary-like in its vivid detail.
The poem "Breakfast" portrays the nonstop movements of rush hour: "short-order cooks lob breakfast/ sandwiches, silverfoil softballs, up and down the line." Customers speak quickly and "the cashier's hands never stop." The poem ends with the image of a man eating: "his work boots powdered with cement dust like snow that never melts." In Pratt's frame, we suddenly see the work being done everywhere through portraits of workers: the flight attendant, the call center worker, the tollbooth attendant, the manicurist, the farmer. The collection also documents a more personal story of losing a job and looking for a new one with an appropriately titled succession of poems: "Getting a Pink Slip" is followed by "Laid Off," "The Unemployment Office" and "Looking for Work." In "Standing in the Elevator," Pratt even manages to recast what normally might feel like drudgery as a kind of celebration: "Jobless, I thought I'd never hear/ our Niagara of sound going up the stairs again, never step,/ immersed, into tens of thousands rushing to work. One molecule/ in the many, carried along toward the purpose of our day."
The final section of Pratt's collection calls on us to transcend our economic predicaments. "Street of Broken Dreams" delves into the mortgage crisis: "No way to tell who owns my neighborhood homes/ until the for-sale-by-bank signs grow overnight." It is a poem that celebrates the people who resisted their neighborhood home foreclosures, ending with their imagined chants: "We demand. Not rabble and rabid, not shadow, not terror,/ the neighbors stand and say: The world is ours, ours, ours." Pratt dives into Hurricane Katrina, the Wall Street debacle and health care, and can effortlessly slingshot between a YouTube video in one poem and Bertolt Brecht in another, providing a diverse, exhaustive collection that celebrates work in all its glories and indignities.
From its first poem, No. 14 in the Carolina Wren Press series is quite different in both style and subject. Yvonne Murphy's Aviaries begins with a quote from Elizabeth Bishop, "Marianne was fond of roller coasters; a fearless rider, she preferred to sit in the front seat." And the very first word in the poem calls to mind Moore's famous "Paper Nautilus," beginning, "Nautilus of wood and steel—tracks twisted/ into an exoskeleton of spirals." The poem takes the reader on an imaginary roller coaster ride with Moore: '"Surf's up' seagulls cry between dives for hot dog/ scraps scattered under benches. Marianne isn't looking back,/ the loop-di-loops fling her forward, catapulting gusto." While the poem doesn't copy Moore's linear style, it shares her precision of language, a delight in the unusual subject and an aesthetic that creates poems like polished jewels, each detail carefully placed. William Carlos Williams once wrote of Moore's style, "in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events." It almost feels as if this swirling roller coaster ride was written with that idea in mind, as the poem grows larger at its climax: "Marianne's hair dances its own miracle./ This is mortality, she sighs, this is eternity."
The book is full of whimsy—Ferris wheels, Joseph Cornell, multiple parrots. We can see Murphy's delightful imagining at play in a series of monologues in the voice of the Mona Lisa—the painting itself, not the person who sat for the portrait. The first of the series, simply titled "Mona Lisa," begins, "It's a mistake, this mystique," referring to the great trumped-up mystery of her smile. As the series goes on, scattered throughout the book, Mona Lisa thinks of herself in the eyes of tourists as a "boxed whore." The poem titled "Mona's Box" shows the predicament of a celebrity who can't sign autographs: "A crystal case constructed to protect/ from angry crowds, men who stab?// The tourists'/ cameras flash in penitent codes." She has a dragonfly as a lover, hates the Louvre and imagines escaping in an automobile. In "Mona Thinks of Crying," the painting tries hopelessly to transform back to her beginnings when a brush dabbed liquid on a canvas: "Made/ from liquids she ties to fathom/ returning there—so dry,/ release seems impossible." But time only goes one way.