T.S. Eliot writes, “April is the cruelest month,” and this April certainly has been a meanie, weather-wise. But take heart! April also is National Poetry Month, and you can celebrate it by enjoying the latest books by three terrific local poets: David Elliott, Amanda J. Bradley and Laurel Radzieski. Granted, a lot of people shy away from poetry, but I can assure you this remarkable trio, which spans nearly three generations from Baby Boomer to Millennial, has something for everyone. Their poems will make you laugh, weep, and even contemplate your own innards.
In the most recent of his three books, “Through the Silence,” David Elliott shows us a poet at the height of his powers, celebrating all the things he holds dear: family, friends, his garden, jazz, the sun-washed landscapes of Greece. One of my favorite “family” poems, “For Greg,” recalls his younger son’s college graduation and his birth, and speaks movingly of a father’s love. “I was the first to touch you,/ to hold you, and I have felt you in my hands ever since…./Now imagine my love, all the love/ in your life lifting you off your feet in a cosmic hug —/there’s that much, and it’s all yours, sparkling,” he writes.
Elliott also contemplates the fragility of our planet and his own mortality. In “Birthday,” he writes: “I know my age, I can/do the math. It adds up….”, but he leavens the heavier bread of these subjects with some poems that will make you laugh out loud. Must-reads include “By Any Other Name,” in which a frustrated ad man claims he’s never gotten credit for all the phrases he invented (thinking outside the box, long story short and spoiler alert, to name a few), and “Donald Rumsfeld in the Inferno,” which makes use of some of Rumsfeld’s more ridiculous quotes. Elliott’s specialty is haiku, and there are several sequences, so spare and beautiful they seem to fly like the geese that appear in many of them.
Just as David Elliott looks at his own life and manages to make what he sees universal so, too, does Amanda Bradley in her latest book, “Queen Kong.” The blonde ape clinging to the Empire State Building and flinging away her pink bra on the book’s cover (illustrated by Mikayla Lewis) personifies the courageous exploration of the poet’s own life, her anger and dismay at the havoc we’ve wreaked on our planet, and her powerful feminism.
While I love all three sections of “Queen Kong” for their passion and daring, I am drawn back again and again to the first – a series of autobiographical prose poems that take us on a physical and emotional journey from age 8 to Bradley’s graduation from college. Her family moved so many times, I lost count. Although she adapts, and mostly enjoys these changes, her 16-year-old persona, facing yet another uprooting, says, “I am simply losing people and places, losing people and places.” What attracts me most to her story of growing up is the way Bradley manages to make the events and feelings she experienced remind us of our youth. You will see yourself in the kids who “collect fuzzy caterpillars at recess and sneak them into our pencil boxes,” and recall, perhaps, how you, too, at 14, began “… to realize my body can be a weapon, can be violated, can be impregnated, can make me strong or weak.”
Many elements make Bradley’s evocation of her past come alive for the reader: her attention to specific detail, her wonderful images, and what, to me, is a stroke of genius: her decision to use the names of the vocalists, songs and bands she listened to as a way to pull the passage of time into focus. Blondie, Queen, Rubber Soul, Violent Femmes, Sinead O’Connor, The Pixies and Kurt Cobain provide a soundtrack to her life. We also observe Bradley not only experimenting with sex, drugs and rock and roll, but also developing into a poet and lover of literature.
In “To Twenty-First Century American Women,” the final poem in “Queen Kong,” Bradley urges young women to “Take up your pens….You know/the answers. Seek deep for them and then raise/your hands. Make them into fists./Fight with your fierce voices.” While the broader message is clear, it seems to me that she could be speaking to the youngest poet of the three I encourage you to read, Laurel Radzieski. Her first book, “Red Mother,” may be small in size, but it’s enormous in its inventiveness. Unlike the others, this book tells a single story and, as if she were heeding Bradley’s cry to “Seek deep for answers,” Radzieski does just that – quite literally. In a one-sided conversation consisting of very short poems, the narrator, a parasite, speaks to its host.
I know this sounds gross, but please don’t cringe. Amazingly, the creature says “This is a love poem,” And it is. Think about it: why wouldn’t a parasite adore its host? After all, the host gives the creature shelter, sustenance, warmth, a place to explore and grow. Yes, the idea of being inhabited by another life form is repugnant, but the microscopic creature asks, “Why am I a monster?/I know so little:/that only I am thirsty,/that only this horn will pierce and guide/me to your folded rows of nectar,/that only God could house such plenty. It concludes with this (pardon the pun) food for thought: “Besides,/whatever I am/you are too.” Later, after it has been discovered by the host, like a lover about to be forsaken, the parasite tries to make a case for them as a couple. “I can show you/ways to curl and bend./You could be/my dancing queen./We could be a warm miracle.”
To me, “Red Mother,” “Queen Kong” and “Through the Silence” are miracles. They take us to places we recognize and to places we have never traveled. The poems speak of the particular passions of their creators and of the human condition. While this April may have been a disappointment, these poets are not, so do yourself a favor and read them!
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