Brief reviews of Elegy Owed by Bob Hicok, Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke, and Tryst by Angie Estes.
Bob Hicok’s Elegy Owed
I really like Hicok’s sensibility in this new collection, the diction mix, the word play, the self-consciousness, and the honesty that holds it all together. Many of the poems have sentences that run on a long time, over many lines (or the entire poem is one sentence) and the best of them unspool through subject after subject, turning sometimes on word play, sometimes on dark humor, sometimes on metaphor, loose in the sense athletes or musicians talk about being loose when they’re at their best. The poems are asking themselves (but not so much answering) about life, death, loss, people in a straightforward way that’s personal but not Confessional. I will say I think it would have been a much stronger collection with fewer poems — when they’re good, they’re so good that maybe 1/3 just feels like filler. But the other 2/3 are great.
- “Sunny, infinite chance of rain” (“It’s about to rain, not in the poem but in the thinking / that led to the poem”)
- “Missing” (“I look forward to your tracks in snow / walking on their own down the mountain / while I think of you at the window / as someone who just hasn’t called in a while”)
- “Circles in the sky” (“Dead things here / get a fan club / of vultures. It’s cunning / to watch the sky admit / it wants to eat”)
- “Elegy Ode” (“and you say things or just stand there / helping your clothes not fall down, I’ve no clue / why mind-reading never caught on, I would page / after page of you and dog-ear and marginalia”)
- “A poem that wanted to be a letter but didn’t know how” (“with three deaths / on my mind, of who / who cares, the only difference / between my dead and yours / is everything”)
- “To speak somewhat figuratively for S.” (“Still, she wanted to die and I wanted / to be with her, so we went up into the winds / people don’t realize are in love with tall buildings”)
- “Knockturn” (“Tiptoeing through the grass / not to wake the grass, sheet music / for the laments all over the field / like wings of moonlight”)
Laura Kasischke Space in Chains
This 2011 collection is kind of a split personality, or an example of the fine line certain techniques walk between good and awful. The poems which have some sort of frame (form or subject) within which to focus are quite good, “Landscape with one of the earthworm’s ten hearts” or “Pain pill” or “The Pleasure Center,” but the rest are what I call Abstract Confessionalism and they’re pretty terrible, overwrought and uninteresting. The disconnected images in any of most of these poems could be swapped around without changing any of the poems much at all. “Bright splash of blood on the kitchen / floor. Astonishing / red. (All / that brightness inside me?)” — “War rolls down the side of the Mountain of Grief so peacefully” — “The gods of old Greece / have been reduced to this / disease, stuffed / into a dusty cupboard / in a kitchen full of shit.”
This is Kasischke’s 9th book of poetry and she has written 8 novels too, and it seems, as sometimes happens with prolific writers, that this later collection might have lacked the sort of scrutiny and care that early proving-yourself efforts get, and the result is a book full of poems that really shouldn’t have won awards.
Angie Estes Tryst
This 2010 collection (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer) is full of vividly intellectual poems which are even harder than most poems to say what they’re “about.” Even the poems that center around a definable subject and stay in its orbit bring in satellites and debris and falling meteors and spaceships from all over the universe, but they are held together as if, to extend the universe metaphor, by those laws of particle physics or whatever that people smarter than me understand. Estes is one of those poets whose poems often appear to have started with an interesting fact or archaic quote, but they never just stay with “here’s this interesting thing” — they move like my gradeschool memory of the explanation of the motion of ocean waves, a huge circling around underneath you don’t see evidence of until the seafloor rises enough to make them start to crest at the top. And as such, sometimes I feel like the poems are making an argument I can’t quite get, but they’re not discouraging, I want to come back again to try to learn them.
- “Against Bees” (“never seeing / the light, like the eyes / of Achilles Rizzoli’s mother, / which Rizzoli kept trying / to open at her funeral / now that she had become the cathedral / he drew her to be”)
- “Heart” (“Where I / come from, we don’t eat the bodies / of our dead, although my mother / always said It takes two / to tangle“)
- “Curio” (“because God gives / everything, especially weather, / which in the town of Cognac is called / angels’ drink, for the 25,000 bottles / of cognac that evaporate each day / into the sky above the city / as the city walls darken / with the patina of fumes”)
- “Take Cover” (“and couvre feu, cover the fire / because when the bell sounds, it means / curfew, it is mellow-drama, facsimile / of a tryst, trusted / meeting place, waiting / like a shelter or decoy, duck blind / with the perfect vision / of the Venetian blind”)