No. 7


Hildred Crill  


Mario Susko
Eternity on Hold
New York, NY, USA: Turtle Point Press, 2005.

Kathrine Varnes
The Paragon
Cincinnati, OH, USA: WordTech Editions, 2005.

J. Kates
Durham, NH, USA: Oyster River Press, 2001.

Ruth Fainlight
Moon Wheels
Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, Northumberland, UK, 2006.

In the trauma and aftermath of war, everything—time, space, sense of self—can come undone. The greatly or irretrievably altered self can be blocked from relationship with others and even the exterior world. Response to overwhelming pain coheres in poems about the experience of war in various ways. Aspects of language, poetic form and content convey and reflect the intricate, often paradoxical states and stages. In Eternity on Hold, by Mario Susko, witness and survivor of the war in Bosnia, fragments of war and life after combine, realign, are enacted mainly through graceful crafting: structure to contain the uncontainable. This control allows the expression of the unspeakable to begin, while contrasting painfully with it.

     The poems flow in smooth syntax and neat lines of similar length, sometimes broken into generally long stanzas but often moving down the page in the shape of a tunnel, which recurs also as image. Like tunnels, the poems offer trial experience of an eternity constricted by standard dimensions. Expected to warp in the tunnel, information from the senses produces a natural transition into the profoundly disturbing: “the rumble / storm through his brain, drowning out / everything else”; “i was let go / to stumble spectrally through a tunnel / into the exploding frameless light / unaware darkness also left me blind.”

     The basic structure—beginning, middle, end—can also lead storyteller and audience even through unbearable events. Some narrative types, such as ballad, dream, surrealistic tale and family story, have conventions that in addition can allow for horrifying and piecemeal events, insane juxtapositions, unaccountable characters, distorted time. The poems of Eternity on Hold use these narrative strategies to hold onto the material of war. 

     But disruptions, fractures, isolations emerge as well. The language of this book is nearly entirely English. (Susko writes books in Croatian also.) At places, particularly in titles (e.g. “In/sight”), English morphology comes loose for inspection. In one poem, un-doing takes place: the prefix “un” wrenches away and returns to cruelly painful combinations, “unhouse every living thing”; “undo my memory / to undie me.” The exterior horror can imprint deep inside the body, “lesions on the membrane of memory”: “the thump of skysweepers I had fled / reverberated again in my metallic throat.” Even after war, the body can seem to disintegrate to pieces: “I run, frenzied and naked, to the mirror / to see which part of me is missing.”

     The poems of The Paragon, Kathrine Varnes’ first book, navigate and negotiate life’s headlong relationships in the midst of contemporary society’s business-as-usual. The narratives bristle with image, structure and language that induce tension and contradiction, what takes place as a culture simultaneously guards its traditions and moves on. Marriage persists while divorce is expected; swearing is for weddings, the formality of court as well as for the curse and the empty promise. Love Milton, observe “the virtuous Lady in Comus” but “Make sure you have credit cards in your name not / his.”     

     Treachery arises everywhere, even in The Paragon’s own drift toward duplicity: “I paragoned / by day. By night” events unfold otherwise. The narrator/survivor’s defense mechanisms often play out glibly with cynical, at times cartoonish language and lines broken to give then yank away: “Darling, we got into a jam / of sugared promises.” In aching contrast, some words embed distant intimacy and low expectation with deft concision and precision: “Next-wives,” “write them @ home” and idiomatic verbs that leave exaggerated, painful holes after them instead of direct objects (e.g. “I can’t believe he’d just bail.”).

     And what setting could be better than the California of legends with its new-world wines, self-consciously healthful cuisine, superimposed track of Sex, Lies & Videotape and cameo appearances by Barbie, Mr. Spock and The Frugal Gourmet? Left coast locations and culture show up throughout the remarkably long, energetic crown of sonnets, His Next Ex-wife. But just when the biting recreations of “made-for-TV drama” resemble Hollywood scripts too perfectly, a complex picture underimposes itself beneath the film. This undercurrent cannot be easily paraphrased and its grief is real.

     One of 21 chapbooks belonging to the ambitious Oyster River Press series, Walking to Windward, J. Kates’ Mappemonde maps encounters, near-meetings and relationships from New Hampshire to Olduvai Gorge. Settings include a classroom, prison, baseball field, train, hammock, couch as well as a “stone and whale-rib house,” one of many abodes of the Sea Goddess. A character in his own stories, the speaker closely observes reactions including his own, the first person even turning into the third, “a silent man / listening to a woman.” When he, “the foreigner / I know I am,” tells a Vietnamese soldier on the Moscow train that he’s American, the man does not “look at me, or speak again.”

     In tune with the shifts between subjective and objective, the brief book-end poems provide transitions into and out of the chapbook. The possibilities of falling defy direction logically at the book’s entrance. The riddle about silence—“Say my name and break me”—is the exit from these poems of details and silences: “I am to your ear / what the new moon is to your eye.”

     Ruth Fainlight’s Moon Wheels brings together nearly three dozen new poems, translations of six poets including Vallejo and Sophocles, and poems from the earlier collections Twelve Sibyls and This Time of Year. Two views of the moon open the book: “its high, hard, wide, bald / brow” and its “disk / far away and small and silver-bright.” With these images, two aspects of relationship appear that involve the self but not a human other. The moon accompanies insomnia’s solitariness and later even avoidance of others, and it portrays the complex, changing way an artist relates to work. 

     Recurring in several phases through the book, the moon brings myth, history and paradoxes including male and female guises. Several poems explore domestic intricacies, angles and shifts—a female I alongside a male you or him—within detailed, nuanced glimpses of human connection and distance: “everywhere / both of us are strangers”; a “pebble can obscure / the widest view — and you / loom large as Everest.”

     But the poems of Moon Wheels also range widely outward, from Tunisia’s “putty-coloured tiles with an elaborate arabesque pattern pressed into their surface” to the tragic “thresholds” of New York City, as well as moving inward, close up across a wide variety of topics. In an unsentimental view of self, the losses of old age form a “Never Again” list: “see every detail in a pattern / hear the highest alto deepest bass / or wrap my legs around your waist.”




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