Brief reviews of The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White (1982), Charms Against Lightning by James Arthur (2012), and Blood Sisters of the Republic by Wendy Willis (2012).
James L. White’s The Salt Ecstasies is a gorgeous book full of beautiful, difficult longing. Its artful passion is simply excellent. The poems are both explicit and humble, (“Sometimes I’m their first. / Sweet, sweet men. / I light candles, burn the best incense. / Make them think it’s some kind of temple / and it rather is.”) and the general passion and exquisite human feeling speaks through them all (“In this joyous season I know my heart won’t die / as you and the milk pods open their centers / like a first snow in its perfection of light. // Good love is like this. / Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better, / this being out of myself for a while.”). White died in 1981 just before this book was originally published; it was re-issued in 2010 with an as-always excellent intro by Mark Doty and some uncollected poems and a very human autobiographical prose fragment too. It’s a remarkably even collection — every one of them is a good poem.
I didn’t like James Arthur’s debut collection Charms Against Lightning very much. (The title poem is an exception, however.) Most of the poems are full of uncertainty and doubt, which I’m not against as a rule, but they’re also full of that motion that’s so popular with so many poets who are getting popular these days, that arm’s-length confessionalism I find so uninteresting and wish contemporary poetry would grow out of already (“I went to Hiroshima and didn’t cry. I know pretty well / what my promises are worth, / know the worth of material things.”) next to quite nice lyric lines (“Just this summer I heard a raven sing / and thought of a stone rebounding / down a bottomless jar”) without enough pressure put on either to make them dynamic. So despite some moments of real feeling (“I marry you in the morning / and I marry you each day. // I feel the strain inside the song, / the Atlantic in the shell. / I feel a tall wind rising up to take / and bear me far away.”) the whole thing kind of adds up to meh. A week after reading Charms Against Lightning I looked at the cover and couldn’t remember anything about any of the poems in it.
Wendy Willis’ Blood Sisters of the Republic isn’t a collection I can read all in one sitting, which isn’t a knock against it — I can’t eat everything on the Pix Patisserie menu in one night either. Willis’s poems are fierce and charming and smart and heartfelt (“Even the late geese // can’t sashay up to speed now. Only once, / that April night, the one when the mayor / sang, we stumbled close, your slingshot arm wrapping me in, both of us knowing / my faithless horse was already in the yard.”) and fast-talking in their packed-as-fruitcake (but a really tasty fruitcake) diction (“A field of thick-fingered pickers pulls blue stalks and flails the bolls, / wailing one long note of blessing. Carding feathers from flax, / she curls her spindled legs, spinning inland on gristle and bone.”) The standout poem of this collection is definitely the one called “Thinking About Mary Baird Bryan Waiting For Her Husband to Return From the Oregon State Fair While I Wait for My Own New Husband to Come Home and the Republicans to Take Over the House of Representatives.” It begins, “Labor Day and the bluebottles must have been thick / even still—glittery clouds feasting on high-peak corn // and nipping at the nether regions of horses / and Presbyterians.” I’m happy to say Willis is a Portland resident and Oregon native, and I’m looking forward to whatever she does next.