Book Review

Lyric Tales

Although readers and critics tend to think of lyric and narrative as contraries, poets have a long history of invigorating their work through blending the two modes, a practice that goes back at least to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Because so many twentieth- and twenty-first-century poets have defined their art as “experimental,” it’s easy to forget that, in both the “Advertisement” (1798) and the “Preface” (1802), Wordsworth called the Lyrical Ballads poems “experiments,” in part because they are written in “the language of common men,” but also, as the title suggests, because they mix story-telling, associated with folk forms of the ballad, with lyric distillations of thought and emotion (“the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature”). Wordsworth was also counting on his readers to understand “experiment” in the root sense of “deriving from experience”; the Lyrical Ballads are saturated with the subjective experience of their speakers, but also derive from shared human experience (and Wordsworth, following the empirical tradition, invites readers to judge the poems based on their own experience). Unlike many contemporary experimental poets, who eschew emotion and narrative, the poets under review are experimental in the root sense Wordsworth advocates. In the words of Atsuro Riley, they feed “an old appetite as chronic as tides,” a core hunger for story.

In the title poem of Winter Recipes from the Collective,[1] Louise Glück serves up two metaphors for poetry: as food, and as wisdom from “a collective,” a group of elderly people who, subsisting on their own, painstakingly gather and cure forest moss, then make it into “an invigorating winter sandwich,” which “no one said / . . . was good to eat; it was what you ate / when there was nothing else, like matzoh in the desert, which / our parents called the bread of affliction.” Old age is, Glück argues, a time of involuntary retreat and hardship, marked by endurance, making do with what little remains, and moments of dark insight and sly humor, as in this scene from “Winter Journey”:

Say goodbye to standing up,
my sister said. We were sitting on our favorite bench
outside the common room, having
a glass of gin without ice.
Looked a lot like water, so the nurses
smiled at you as they passed,
pleased with how hydrated you were becoming.

Here, as in “Winter Recipes,” the old are outsiders, not a “community” (a group with a shared purpose, or one that ascribes to the peppy, pop-culture notion of “building” something together), but a “collective,” a group who shares ownership of something: in this case, proximity to death, and the attendant (or impending) loss of physical or mental capabilities. That ownership is, of course, part of our shared humanity, although one that most of us would prefer not to accept until we must. Glück’s collective therefore not only sells the sandwiches but compiles the recipes to be at hand when the time comes: “The book contains / only recipes for winter, when life is hard. In spring, / anyone can make a fine meal.” The poems in Glück’s book, in other words, are a far cry from anthology fare like William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” or Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry.” They are recipes for stone soup—without the moral that celebrates community participation, although poem after poem underscore that knowledge of our own mortality and the choice of how to face it, especially through creating things, are what make us human.

That inescapable truth helps explain why Glück stages her poems as parables, a form of wisdom literature. Like the fable, a parable is a brief narrative whose story constitutes a metaphor. Unlike a fable, however, a parable lacks a predetermined moral and invites interpretation and re-reading. Since The Triumph of Achilles (1985), Glück has increasingly experimented with lyric-narrative blends, even titling some of her poems “parable.” In Winter Recipes from the Collective, the open-endedness of the parable form and the austerity of her lyric practice suit her focus on death and old age. Glück merges common archetypes (life as a journey, death as journey’s end, old age as analogous to winter or sunset) with contemporary settings (resort hotel, senior living center, painting class). Lyric and parable overlap not only in the poems’ stark details, and startling juxtapositions of old age and childhood, but also in the consistency of voice. Unlike a fiction writer, Glück doesn’t create “characters,” especially those who sound different from her, but figures—the sister, a blind painter, a resort concierge (who may be Death, or an absent travelling partner, or an alter ego of the traveler whose journey has stalled), who debate with a poem’s speaker and thus serve as teachers, foils, and devil’s advocates. In keeping with the parable tradition, Glück not only tends to leave the resolution up for grabs, but sometimes even obscures the question under debate, as in “Sentence,” the book’s briefest poem:

Everything has ended, I said.
What makes you say so, my sister asked.
Because, I said, if it has not ended, it will soon
which comes to the same thing. And if that is the case,
there is no point in beginning
so much as a sentence.
But it is not the same, my sister said, this ending soon.
There is a question left.
It is a foolish question, I answered.

Despite the emphatic last line, and the poem’s quick ending, the sister’s perspective allows a morsel of hope. Yet Glück keeps us guessing about the ultimate question. Throughout the book, suspense serves as a theme, as well as a narrative and poetic device. At key moments, Glück creates suspenseful enjambments, as in the break here between lines 5 and 6. In some poems, her enjambments make even the plainest of sentences read like Zen koans: “Many things had happened / but nothing had happened / repeatedly, which makes a difference” (“The Setting Sun”). Glück mirrors this approach narratively not only through unresolved endings, but also through interrupting stories midway, as in “An Endless Story,” where the teller, a woman in an old people’s home, falls asleep—keeping her audience in suspense about whether she will die, let alone continue the story. Another teller takes up the tale (to different purpose), only to be upstaged when the original teller awakens and begins again. Along with lending mystery to the poems, this tactic is a metaphor for the value of making; as with Zeno’s paradox of never quite reaching the end, Glück suggests that momentum, however incremental, signifies vitality, even in the most constricted circumstances, and the making of small things—bonsai, porcelain bowls, winter sandwiches, even a single sentence—becomes an understated act of heroism and endurance (and not making things, as the concierge warns in “The Denial of Death,” equals journey’s end). Glück thus bookends Winter Recipes with suspended endings. In the opening “Poem,” the speaker and her sister fall together off a mountain, but never hit bottom. And in the concluding poem, “Song,” the speaker apprentices herself to Leo Cruz, a bowl maker, crosses the desert, and, in the last lines, glimpses his house in the distance:

That is the kiln, I think;
only Leo makes porcelain in the desert

Ah, he says, you are dreaming again

And I say then I’m glad I dream
the fire is still alive

Though there are many ways to read the last two lines, the point is clear: the speaker hasn’t yet reached the end; nor has the reader, whom Glück compels to circle back and re-experience these hard-edged yet invigorating poems again and again.

In More American,[2] Sharon Hashimoto celebrates family bonds and the paradoxical clarity and evanescence of memory; like Glück, she often evokes a feeling of timelessness, even while contemplating change and the passing of time. Yet, unlike Glück, Hashimoto prioritizes continuity: the intergenerational resonance of history and immigrant experience, whether the cultural touchstones of her life as a second generation Japanese-American, or the tensions she has faced from being “more American” than her parents or grandparents—depending on the definition of “American.” Her definition is wonderfully nuanced, for it accrues through a remarkable range of perspectives: not only the poet looking back on her life, especially childhood, but also in poems spoken by, or narrated from, the points of view of family members (immigrant grandparents, first generation parents); a WWII Japanese-American solider writing from the Italian front; interned Japanese- Americans exposing the hypocrisies of the Loyalty Oath; Eve confessing what she never said to Cain (no surprise: she favored Abel)—even a radioactive cow, a survivor of Fukushima.

In Hashimoto’s hands, point-of-view shifts become not just a technical device, but one of the book’s main points: a metaphor for how her speakers gain wisdom as their understanding evolves. In “Soft,” for example, a child who spies on her naked grandmother sloshing out of the bathtub feels initially horrified, then accepting: “But there was something / gentle about the way an old woman / patted the neck dry, rounding / the shoulder with a faded towel, / smoothing the tender spots / inside elbows, behind her knees. / Baby talc spotted her skin / as she rubbed the smell / over the mound of her belly.” The shifts from identifying body parts impersonally to seeing them as belonging to the grandmother humanize both grandmother and grandchild. Such point-of-view revisions also govern the arrangement of More American, for Hashimoto juxtaposes poems to reveal contrary perspectives, as in two views of a Japanese-American internment camp, “A Barracks Window, Outside” and “A Barracks Window, Inside.” Although she cultivates understatement—her descriptive clarity and directness are reminiscent of Japanese poetry and of Pound’s Imagistic narratives in Cathay—her narrative strategies force readers to revise their understandings of the people, especially family members, whom she portrays and, in conse­quence, to empathize with Japanese-Americans.

Although serial point-of-view shifts are common in fiction, the compression Hashimoto gains from moving back and forth in time creates uncanny doubling effects, as if present and past inhabit the same moment. She also intensifies her narratives through synaesthesia. Whereas so much contemporary poetry prioritizes sight, Hashimoto repeatedly opens her poems into other sensory realms, as in “Oriental Flavors,” where “home / was smell” and cooking becomes a metaphor for intergenerational continuity. Sensory blending also signals family connection in an unrhymed sonnet, “What My Blind Grandfather Showed Me,” where, in a dark room, the speaker “didn’t see / his eyes, only the tilt of his head / when he listened to the rug / brush against his bare feet.” By the poem’s conclusion, she has learned to “see” his way: “Slowly I let him / guide me over walls and edges[.] . . . Exposed in the morning’s harsh light, / I stood in a room surrounded by his touch.” In other poems, sound gains poignancy in Hashimoto’s translation of Japanese-American speakers’ English onto the page. Interestingly, she sets these poems in traditional forms—haiku, blank verse, and sonnet—which highlight both her technical skill and the cultural tensions the book charts. The “Seven Haiku from My Grandmother in the Kawabe House” embed the grandmother’s clipped English—and anxiety over having to live in a retirement home—within the restrictive brevity of the haiku form:

Face after face stare
back. I shrug. My weak hearing
makes talking look odd.


Lip licking around
me—people gossip, tasting
many distressed words.

The blending of sight, hearing, taste, and touch all within six lines suggests both the grandmother’s disorientation and her original perspective on the world, learned from a lifetime of straddling cultures. Similarly, in “Last Day,” the logic of the sonnet structure and the father’s simple, direct sentences, give his worries an edge of defiance, despite his claims of confusion:

Strange dream I have. Maybe I lose my mind.
The newspaper headline say I already dead
but daughter’s hands feel warm. Not understand
how I can be this way; I know my blood

go round and round. My heart get tired. Not sad,
just big surprise. Don’t fuss for me. No need.

As in the book’s other sonnets, Hashimoto’s off-rhymes are unassuming enough that some readers may miss them, a practice she extends to other poems in form (terza rima, couplet, villanelle). The approach epitomizes the book’s engaging lack of flashiness. Its lyric deflections of self into the nourishing networks of family and community are like the below-the-radar rhyme patterns: an invitation for readers to find and trace the connections Hashimoto weaves within, and between, these moving poems.

Whereas Hashimoto, in writing sonnets about, and spoken by, family members, draws on the form’s deep history as a love poem, Boris Dralyuk, a seasoned translator of Russian fiction, extends the love poem convention to a place, My Hollywood,[3] and a people, Russian-speaking immigrants to the West Coast. And, whereas Hashimoto cultivates memory as a means of family continuity, for Dralyuk the past is past—and gone, although made present, momentarily, in his lively formal verse. Like Donald Justice’s paeans to early twentieth century Miami, Dralyuk’s sonnets to lost, early twentieth-century Los Angeles brim with nostalgia, though they are not gauzy but, like Justice’s work, turn on a plain-spoken clarity and formal deftness. Justice mythologizes the Florida of his childhood; the people and places he describes are alive in his memory because he knew them. For Dralyuk, the relationship is more complex, for the Hollywood he elegizes is a collective cultural myth, rather than a lived, personal one: an era of movie palaces and silent film stars, or locations frequented by elderly émigrés, which give the book’s Hollywood an Old World flavor; the places Dralyuk memorializes are either radically changed or no longer standing. In many poems, he looks back to a Hollywood so long gone that he needs to orient readers through epigraphs, as in the opening poem, “Aspiration”:

That night I discovered the park at De Longpre and Cherokee. . . . Looking at all the small houses, telling myself that these were where Swanson and Pickford and Chaplin and Arbuckle and the others used to live in the good old days . . .
—Horace McCoy, 1938

This much is clear: the good old days have passed.
Some giant fig trees, a few pygmy palms
drop broken shade on disenfranchised grass;
dogs loping, limping; vagrants begging alms;
and in the center—ludicrously named
Aspiration—face uplifted, framed
by dusty fronds, he stands on tippy-toe,
abstract Adonis, bronze lothario.
Sit here all night, if you can bear the grime—
watch people come and go, but you will see no
women in black shed tears for Valentino.
The Sheik sinks deep into the dunes of time.
A crow clacks in the branches overhead,
like a projector slowly going dead.

Layers abound in the poem. The epigraph signals that the era, and its icons, were already a subject of nostalgia in 1938. Then Dralyuk, in a series of anticlimaxes, abrades the myth further in his present-day description of the park and its dilapidated deco statue. His choice of the sonnet form is deeply ironic, given that the statue memorializes Rudolph Valentino, the most hyped heartthrob of the 1920s, who died a most unglamorous death (from a perforated ulcer) at age 31. Leaving the icon anonymous until the sonnet’s turn, Dralyuk portrays him as an urban Ozymandias, symbol of hubris, and through the witty couplet rhymes (“tippy-toe”/“lothario” and “see no”/“Valentino”) undercuts whatever romance even the name has left.

Clever rhymes like these crop up often throughout the book, creating tonal shifts that sometimes work well, as in this case, when Dralyuk mocks Valentino’s (and, by association, Hollywood’s) preten­sions to glory. In other poems, however, the rhymes call too much attention to themselves and sound not clever, but clunky, as in “The Flower Painter,” who “. . . for years played host / To pleasure seekers in his man-made Eden. / Decades ago, that Eden went to seed and / it pains me to recall what is no more . . . / My Hollywood, mon vieux, is not ideal: / a grand old dame reduced to dishabille[.]” Part of the problem lies in Dralyuk’s penchant for punctuating his sonnets with couplets; while the “ideal / dishabille” rhyme gives the second couplet a shivery, Old World languor, its tonal shift from the comic “Eden / seed and” distracts, so that the couplets jolt against one another like a film jumping frame from Buster Keaton to Theda Bara.

Overall, however, Dralyuk’s formal dexterity and tricksterish sense of humor enhance, rather than mar the poems, especially when he turns a waggish eye upon himself, as in his series of self-reflective gnomic poems, or in “Late Style,” a sonnet where the writer, long-awaiting his late style, gets stood up by it on a blind date; or the wild and wonderful “Ballade of Hank’s Bar,” whose refrain line “sunk are the dives of yesteryear” resounds as a paradoxically rousing anticlimax. In the “Ballade,” “Pantoum of Plummer Park,” the villanelle “Émigré Library,” and sonnets embedded with back-to-back couplets, Dralyuk milks the forms to imply both obsessive repetition—the mind returning again and again to what was lost—and the contradictory pleasures and pitfalls of being stuck in the past (or a seductive illusion of it). Rather than craft plot-based narratives, Dralyuk skillfully deploys metonymy in his lyrics to suggest narrative: poems offering extended descriptions of places, or lists of things (stuff for sale at “The Bargain Circus,” vitrines full of memorabilia monsters at a movie poster store, the “quaint crafts”—rubber stamp etching, book binding—of “The Minor Masters”) all encourage readers to imagine underlying stories. In “Babel at the Kibitz,” he even constructs a tongue-in-cheek, Yiddish-inflected tale—or the quirky high points of it—from a list of oddments left in a trunk Isaac Babel inherited from an Uncle Lev, who absconded to L.A. and died in a madhouse. Throughout My Hollywood, Dralyuk crafts polished lyric tableaux, enlivened by formal wit, wry anticlimaxes, delightfully mixed emotions, and exacting descriptive details that hint at the multiple stories percolating beneath.

As a narrative device, metonymy evokes story and character in Dralyuk’s lyrics because he works with and against familiar archetypes: the romance of faded Hollywood, or the disaffection of Old World émigrés (familiar in East Coast settings in stories by writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer but not as well known as residents of L.A.—or in poems). In contrast, Atsuro Riley grounds his emotionally intense narratives on alienness. While his literary models are recognizable—the riven, mythic Mississippi of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the sonic saturation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s lyrics, the gutteral wealth of Seamus Heaney’s Celtic-centric diction—the habitat of Heard-Hoard[4] is disquietingly original. As the title’s pun on the Medieval concept of “word-hoard” heralds, the book is rich in wordplay. And Riley’s word-hoard is an “ur hoard,” drawn from origins: whether his own, in the idioms of South Carolina’s impoverished low country, or the etymological ground bass of English, for, like Heaney, Riley favors the Anglo- Saxon stream, words thick on the tongue that resonate with the raw physicality of experience. Even when he chooses Latinate words, he tempers his lines with Anglo-Saxon based ones—as in “Our (crescendo-timbrous) amphi-glade of bug-chirk, burgeon”—or through highlighting uncommon Latinate words whose etymological crux is concrete, such as “rudimental” (harking back to “rude,” “elemental,” and, sonically, the Nordic word “rød,” for “red”), or “radicle,” a botanical term important enough that Riley defines it in a note: “the embryonic root of a plant; the rootlike beginning of a nerve or vein; the rudimentary particle of anything; a primary atom or element.” In the ars poetica “Creekthroat,” he connects both of these words to story. The speaker—who could be the poet, or a local tale-teller, or even the creek itself—opens with the declaration “By hook or by bent / I guttle the rudimental stories,” which ties such stories to hunger prompted by lack, and in the last lines he again connects story to a deep-rooted, core craving, “This old appetite as chronic as tides— / on foot or by boat by night (please) come slake me with radicle stories.”

Riley argues throughout Heard-Hoard that stories define us and that the most primal ones are “radical”: arising from extremity and provoking equally extreme change (soul-splitting, and thus soul-making). Throughout the book, therefore, he intertwines metaphors for origin (root, seed, grain, ember, spark, dirt), for breaking (sunder, cleave, split, gouge, hack, pierce), and for weaving the pieces together (mesh, weft, warp, braid, stitch, plait, pleach, plexus). Riley even describes wounds, in the aftermath of a beating, as woven: “The broad back-skin on the tallest boy / —a (ripening) welt-weave, a lattice.” But, like the fabric of a bait-woman’s bag (“coarse croker-sack cloth”), the weave is always loose, indicating that such pain can never be fully healed, nor the person afflicted made entirely whole. A loosely woven fabric, where the gaps are as integral as the connections, is analogous to Riley’s construction of poems from lines or couplets—often sentence fragments, or italicized snatches of speech—separated by spaces, split by gaps, or laid out at a distance from each other on the book’s broad pages. The interplay of isolation and diffuse bonds also reflects Heard-Hoard’s array of voices: some poems are spoken by solitary narrators, others by a chorus, a collective “we.”

Thus another pun Riley twines into his title is “herd.” Rather than focus on the origin-story of a single character, as he did in his first book, Romey’s Order, in Heard-Hoard he creates a polyvocal effect, telling lyric tales of how extreme suffering has fractured the lives, and sharpened the perspectives, of low country people, such as Johnny Pep, a Vietnam P.O.W.; Candy, a truck-stop proprietor; Tetsu, an iron-tough Japanese immigrant mother; Willa, a roving bait-seller; boat lady Zindi, a hoarder; and boys kidnapped to work in itinerant field gangs (and be beaten and sexually abused by their bosses). In poems spoken first-person by these characters, or filtered through their points of view, Riley individuates their trauma yet also shows it as shared, in that the characters have endured similar horrors (whippings, sexual violation, captivity, vagrancy, and, most commonly, fathers gone AWOL, whether from drink, sheer meanness, or flat-out abandonment: “we low on daddies hereabouts,” sings the chorus in “Knell”). The word-hoard of the book is not entirely Riley’s own, therefore, but that of a community, and thus constitutes a kind of collective memory—an anguished, living speech, pieced together poem-by-poem. Yet the pain and alienation articulated by each character are nonetheless singular, as in the pitch-perfect (and perfectly paced) “Moth”:

I been ‘Candy’ since I came here young.

My born name keeps but I don’t say.

To her who was my mama I was
pure millstone, cumbrance. Child ain’t but a towsack full of bane.

Well I lit out right quick.

Hitched, and so forth. Legged it.
Was rid.

“Bane,” in the mama’s dismissal, evokes a Medieval world, like that of Beowulf, where monsters steal people and eat them, where even mothers may be monsters, and where anyone ingenious enough to escape from a monster, or from abduction by faeries, returns forever changed. All of these archetypes fuel Candy’s tale, though the monster is a sexual predator, rather than a fen-demon or faery, but hungry nonetheless:

This gristly man he came he buttered me
then took me off (swore I was surely something) let me ride in back.

Some thing
(snared) (spat on) Thing
being morelike moresoever what he meant.

Transformed from person into thing, Candy endures a trauma so radical (in the moment, and in memory) that she can only speak of it through metaphor, or not at all:

No I’d never sound what brunts he called me what he done
had I a hundred mouths

How his mouth. Repeats
on me down the years. Everlastingly
riveled-looking, like rotfruit. Wasn’t it
runched up like a grub.

First chance I inched off (back through bindweed) I was gone.

Nothing wrong with gone as a place
for living. Whereby a spore eats air when she has to;
where I’ve fairly much clung for peace.

Came the day I came here young
I mothed
my self. I cleaved apart.

A soul can hide like moth on bark.
My born name keeps but I don’t say.

By the poem’s end, the repetition of “came here young,” from the first line, shifts the sense of “here,” making it not just a local gathering place, and one for transients, “Candy’s Stop, up Hwy 52,” but a state of mind, “gone as a place / for living.” Riley turns the classical Greek metaphor of the soul as butterfly into a grittier moth analogy for Candy, whose split self (a common survival technique for trauma victims) allows her to hide, in plain sight, seasoned enough to know better than to reveal her true name, which would give others power over her, yet brave enough to go by a name that recalls her captivity. In its disjunctiveness and linguistic density, Heard-Hoard may seem to be the most conventionally experimental of the books under review. Yet, in its portrayals of outcasts and vagrants like Candy, its grounding on local speech, its emotional intensity, and its devotion to story, it is, ironically, the most Wordsworthian: radical in its bracing mix of lyric and narrative and in its deeply compassionate humanism.
[1] WINTER RECIPES FROM THE COLLECTIVE, by Louise Glück. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.00.

[2] MORE AMERICAN, by Sharon Hashimoto. Grid Books/Off the Grid Press. $16.00p.

[3] MY HOLLYWOOD, by Boris Dralyuk. Paul Dry Books. $16.95p.

[4] HEARD-HOARD, by Atsuro Riley. University of Chicago Press. $20.00.