Monday, September 18, 2006

Poems you gotta read: Frannie Lindsay, Catherine Rankovic

My favorite recent find is Lamb, by Frannie Lindsay. It's just out from Perugia Press, an excellent press with a good track record. I liked one of their earlier books, Red by Melanie Braverman, and I like the breadth of the press's taste, evidenced in the selections they print from year to year. Perugia's books are carefully (and fairly) selected, and beautifully printed. But I digress...

Lamb is deeply elegant, gorgeously crafted, and at once both painful and redeeming. Lindsay's poems about father and daughter and the violation of borders are difficult to read because they are brutally honest -- yes, that is exactly the way it is, yes you do have to look at it. They are compelling -- you can't stop reading -- not because of the subject matter but because they are damned fine poems. Lindsay's special grace is that she doesn't stop at blame and anger, but instead circles round with a hard-won compassion for a father who, finally, is brought down by age and sickness. Instead of forgiveness, there's compassion.

Each poem has a stunning detail or two that made me feel I was holding the poem in my hands, not just reading it.

Drinking Hour

He has trouble getting his fingers to curl
around the stem, for he has not had wine
in over a year, not any, and now
there's a table right here where his glass
can rest between sips of ordinary merlot,
and I have steadied him,
bone by bone, into the family's
oldest chair. And he blinks his lips
the way the skinny kitten, a feral, blinked
its eyes when I gave it the antibiotic and water
through a dropper, one tear at a time.

Most of Lindsay's poems are fully felt, fully rendered, and so multi-faceted in their understanding of the inevitable, the guilty, the loved. Here is the ending to a poem about -- at least on one level -- a horse whose last day has come:

...And the mare,
who stands hour by hour in her stall
like a fire-damaged piano
knows all

about frost on the hay,
the achy barn door that reached
as far as it could every single day
with willingness, leading the same
enormous morning in.

I do love these poems. I hope Frannie Lindsay writes many, many more of them. There is instruction in these poems for what makes us human, and they are rich with love and surprise. I can't resist quoting just one more...


She stood in the tub beside me again
a little slouched over her workaday belly

teaching me how a grown-up girl
must always clean herself:

she made a paw of her washcloth
and rubbed it back and forth inside,

she had me try it too in front of her;
then she helped me climb out

and dried me until I could stop
my shivering; she folded my peach-

colored towel over hers

I leave the poem instructed by where she puts full stops, simple commas, line breaks, enjambments. These are poems I'll go back to many times.

Next on my list of favorites is a writer local to St. Louis. Fierce Consent and Other Poems by Catherine Rankovic (WingSpan Press) is fierce, funny, quirky, and individual. Reading her poems, you walk, jerk-step, through her life and (if you're a writer too) your own. Her poems are not contained easily, and many reach out and grab the reader either through direct address (to the "Reader") or through a no-holds-barred wrestling match in which language and destiny battle it out. (Rest assured, language comes out the winner.)

How many writers will feel themselves caught in the heat-waves of this encounter:

...She went to hear a poet, and afterward went
up to him, said she wrote poetry, too, O
fatal youthful idiocy.
He'd nothing to say to a female
trembling with destiny, underage
and looked it, but "Run along, little girl."
God's good; she never heard nor read his name again.

God, interestingly, makes several appearances in these poems. He's one of the most interesting stage characters yet:

When two people love each other,
God rejoices, and settles back.
This is fun,
this is the kind of thing He works for.
He calls for beer and popcorn,
has tissues there for the tender scene,
cheers for the one who's wrong in the argument,
is amazed what they've made chocolate mean,
and only in their bitterness
or resignation suggests He's there,
but He can never have a kiss, His mom
never made Him wear idiot mittens,
He has no grandfather; His exquisitest
roses stay unboxed exactly where they are.

Rankovic's reach is wide and probing, and crushingly close to the bone when she looks closely at the life around her. Here's this one, witnessing a crowd leaving a bus:

These are God's people also, spilling from the bus,
their pink polyester clothing edged
with dirt as with rust, and bow-legged, bow-backed,
permed unprettily, at home a skirted sink
serving as a vanity, the white-trash hordes
of upstate and outstate as I'm white trash from Wisconsin.
Their hunger, if not literal, is for a crude,
accessible beauty, the protractor's
French curve, the velvet painting, gold-
toned base metals, a caesura in the pain of living ...

My favorite poem, and one that, after the preceding self-mocking fandangoes and delicious belly dances echoing the tone and language of everyone from Berryman to e.e. cummings, succeeds in bringing me to my knees, is The Shadow. It's appropriately placed as the penultimate poem, uncovering a hard-won understanding of the thin and temporary -- and mocking -- victory of the artist's "fierce consent" to achieve something in this world. In this poem, Rankovic knows her shadow well -- but not quite as well as it knows her:

...I am cobalt blue; gray in sunlight;

no one else when knelt to
kneels to you. I am closer than anyone on your pillow

and always you lay your cheek on mine....

Assigned to you, to dog you
with what your body does, to double your crimes, to lie about your figure,

to flatter you and to counterbalance radiance...

These poems are tender, fierce, courageous and well-honed, alternately mad as hell and funny as hell. If this is where poetry is going, we may be ok after all.

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