Three Collections, Briefly Reviewed

Woman in the Painting by Andrew Hollander Budy, Troubled Tongues by Crystal Williams, and Things That Happen Once by Rodney Jones.

Woman in the Painting by Andrea Hollander Budy

Andrea Hollander Budy is a recent transplant to Portland from the Ozarks. I heard her read at one of the Mountain Writers series readings at the Press Club (a nice little bar in SE Portland; all the crepes and sandwiches are named after writers). This collection, full of well-made poems, is from 2006. I second Maxine Kumin’s blurb about Budy’s “impeccable conversational diction” and Stephen Dunn’s nod to her “subtly registered emotional world.”

From “East Third at Ocean,”

Six o’clock. A few teenagers take a final swim,
shake out towels, brush sand from their bodies.
So many lost sounds, thinner than money, thinner
than a trivial thought. Behind a young boy going home

the ocean hushes. The streets, too, begin to empty,
and a few men wander into the local tavern
where it it always the same: dark mornings
become dark afternoons, and only a human voice

answers the small prayer of the woman unable
to rise from the bar. […]

Budy’s poems tend towards the moment, the story or person told in an image, and then often a silence of realization. These poems risk falling towards the flat, but rarely do. What moves in these poems (moves within the poem and moves you) moves subtly, and you can miss it if you read too fast. But take a little time with them, and most will reward you for it.  Some favorites from this collection: “First Time,” “Living Room,” “Giving Birth,” “Elegy for Gregory, Drowned at Twenty-Three,” “East Third at Ocean,” “Spaghetti.”

Troubled Tongues by Crystal Williams

Crystal Williams is a great reader in person, great presence and an excellent voice. (A nice video of a reading from May of this year can be found here.) She gives each word its due respect (but none of that overdone, over-pronounced, end-every-line-on-a-rising-note thing, which I can’t stand). She’s also a transplanted local, a professor at Reed originally from Detroit. Troubled Tongues was published in 2009 and it’s very good, but the more recent work I’ve heard her read is even better (some poems from a manuscript-in-progress are on her website here).

Dorothy Allison’s blurb for Troubled Tongues talks of Williams’ “wise and tender glance on what it means to be human in ever more difficult times.” There are lots of people in these poems, and their voices are successfully distinct and well-painted. I love the way Williams’ poems deliver their wisdoms in such well-crafted, deeply-rhythmic turns of phrase. From “Parable of Divas,” for instance, about Aretha Franklin & Diana Ross, “Back in the day, Ree Ree & Miss Dee were sweet meat, ours / to pick over like vultures. We were Detroiters; after all, / it was duty to learn from our lost.” Then later in the same poem,

                                                  […] We thought,
no. Tend yard, offer back. Savor the sweet stuff of our city.

& yet we too moved, forgot the chance gardeners
& thankless hussies of youth, became them
in varying degrees, in spite of ourselves. Unavoidable, this.

There is always some pigeon nipping at the shoelace
because it is there & speaks to stature […]

Some favorites from this collection: “Polliwog,” “Night Bloom,” “Lace,” “Cosmology,” “Cut,” “Parable of Divas.”

Things That Happen Once by Rodney Jones

What I don’t like about this collection, published in 1997, isn’t that they’re poorly written poems, because they’re not; Jones can certainly turn a phrase, and one of the striking things about the whole collection is how strong the endings of the poems are — he can twist it tight in the last couple lines, hit it hard. But reading the whole collection, too many feel entrenched in ‘this is an issue this guy is working out’-ness, and it gets old. Maybe if come upon one at a time I’d like more of them more, but as a collection I think the worldview of these poems is too cynical for me. It’s not just that many of the subjects are grim, it’s the relentlessly same approach to them throughout that turns me off, and makes so few of them stand out in my mind after reading the collection.

One poem from the bunch I do quite like is “The Cycles of Silence,” which starts with a meditation on language, “Before there were words, the sounds / Were already here. The meanings / Set down in books were already old / When the first brief lifetimes sparked // Hot in the cold salt battery of the sea.” It moves neatly into going to a summer cottage, days of sleeping “the sleep of things / That have been shut for a long time” and then into drinking on the dock with the old couple from next door. Then after “The women are in bed, he’s Norm, / I’m Rod” and the old man, with “this big jelly glass of bourbon,” one moment happy, turns sad, and the poem ends

                              […] It’s not
The moment when he says, “Fuck it,”
And dumps it, but just afterward,
When he stands with the empty glass,

Wanting it again and knowing it lost,
But reaching down anyway — and this
Is when it’s not language — it’s whiskey,
And then it’s the ocean in his mouth.

“A Ride with the Commander” is also vivid, and “The Troubles that Women Start are Men.”

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