Phebe Davidson poetry review

Exploring Our Own Amazement: Three New Books from South Carolina

New and Selected Poems by Marjorie Wentworth. University of South Carolina Press, 2014.
148 pages. $16.95. ISBN 978-1-61117-322-2

Twinzilla by Barbara G.S. Hagerty. Word Works, 2014. 76 pages. ISBN 978-0-915380-90-9

My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass by Susan Laughter Meyers. Cider Press Review, 2013. 72 pages.
ISBN 978-1-930781-35-1

Poetry is nothing if not various. While neither Christopher Fry, nor Carl Sandburg, nor Lawrence Ferlinghetti hail from South Carolina, their quoted sentiments are apt introductions to the books sitting on my review desk this morning. South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjorie Wentworth’s New and Selected Poems, particularly in the book’s early pages, takes its readers again and again to the sea, to its air full of birds, to the heart that hears their cries. Barbara Hagerty’s Twinzilla, brash and exhilarating with language in flux, reaches the heart with its own accelerating idiom. Susan Laughter Meyers’s My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass, winner of the 2013 Cider Press Editors Prize, captures readers with the sheer grace of language, with the generous sense of what an astounding thing that is. There are three distinct sensibilities at work here, but they have much in common, all three poets being old enough to know loss as well as the intoxicating beauty—and bounty—they describe, and to find in sorrow new measures of both.

In New and Selected Poems, Marjory Wentworth offers readers a fine overview of her career as poet. The work is presented in four sections, the first of which is made up of poems from 2003’s Noticing Eden, her first published collection. These are poems that fuse interior and exterior landscapes. In “Barrier Island,” for instance, the reader unites with the poet to “awaken to another night of delicate rain” only to end “suspended at the edge of earth/ on a circle of sand where we are always / moving slowly toward land.” Subsequently we learn “[y]ou can’t see grief darken the wind / rising over the islands” (“Carolina Umbra”) and that on the night a loved one “ died / stars were nesting / near my window” (“The Nest of Stars”). If, as Wentworth tells us, “wind is an empty place (“Toward the Sea”), she is also the poet who reminds us that wind is “the resurrection of water” (“Core Banks, North Carolina) and that “[the] sight of the ocean / always brings me home” (“Findhorn”). The poems from 2007’s Despite Gravity begin, not surprisingly, with ocean:

We return to hear the waves returning
to the beach, one after the other, connecting

us like blood.
(“Tangled”)

Subsequent poems explore other manifestations of water— a refugee drinking from an airport fountain, the water circling “in the back of his throat” (“Linthong”), and of sand, which remains when the rest is gone, “waves rolling over sand” as if they were “steady distant breaths” (“Sand”). We see the poet, as she moves through this second volume, trying new steps with new characters, demanding that we look beyond surfaces. She tells us what is said to underscore what is left unvoiced. Of Idi Amin, we read:

He passed his time singing,
swimming, boxing, playing
the accordian and driving
around in a white Cadillac.
(“Apparent Tranquillity”)

The title poem, arguably the strongest in this second section, celebrates the vision of possibility, of an army of workers swarming to a bridge-in-building that

— rises from the earth
as if gravity was something imagined,
and the forces of the universe were suspended.
(“Despite Gravity”)

2010’s The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle celebrates what is too often viewed as ordinary, so that having ridden “on the back of a motorcyle / to Montreux where Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea / were playing duets. . .(“Boat People”) is a moment infused with magic. Birds seen from a distance “— look like a line of crosses / trembling beneath a sky full of sadness, full of song” (“Nothing Can Contain You”). In New Poems, we find a keen observation about journeys through both life and art, underscored by Wentworth’s knowledge that “— I am moving / into the future, but stumbling / through my past . . . (“Family Reunion”). The language is unfailingly accessible, reflective in tone, not surprising its readers so much as welcoming them into the world these poems inhabit.

Barbara Hagerty’s Twinzilla presents itself in a somewhat different poetic mode that is brash in tone, studded with pop culture references, and fueled by the momentum of language in configurations that range from short clipped lines to sentences that seem to go on for miles.
The book’s title, Twinzilla is an echo of Godzilla, the 1954 Japanese horror movie described by the Rotten Tomatoes reviewers as “the roaring granddaddy of all monster movies.”
Thus, a certain tone is set before the book is even opened, and we will discover (as did moviegoers in the fifties) that there is an emotionally compelling strain of shared humanity within the perspective(s) contained in Hagerty’s three numbered sections of text.

Section 1 of Twinzilla tantalizes and badgers with suggestions of just what it means to be human and to have, simultaneously, a constructed double, suggesting, in fact, that it “probably isn’t human nature to feel someone / is building a simulacrum of you” (“Like Life”). And yet there the sensation is. There also the thoroughly human need to address it.

Homuncula, you ape me perfectly
in your outward mimicry. A knock-out
knock off, complete with shiny hoodtop finial.
But underneath, in the engine,
who but we can map that terra incogita”

(“Twinzilla Disambiguation”)

Whether the poems lead us to the lyrical, “[t]his day has birdsong it in, / and a color like regret,
. . .” (“Beetle”) or to the predictable narrative of aging

An old man begins
the slow work of dying,
removes his hearing aids,
naps through morning.
(“Slow Work”)

we cannot avoid the unsettling question: “— Doesn’t everybody have / an ‘evil twin’ who sings inside the wreck?” (“Twinzilla Disturbology”).

The book’s second section begins with a conclusion: “I can’t tell you anything with words,” (“Twinzilla Incommunicado”). In “Late Bronze” a woman has grown “elongated / chilly and classical / a version of someone’s mother” while “Grounded” reveals “—the agile man // who vanished, leaving this birdcage of flesh.” What emerges from this series of images is the poet’s claim that “I myself became something to disprove” (“Twinzilla Solipsism”). The passage of time yields a sense of impermanence and hunger, themselves twins of a sort. If, as it seems, time cannot be stemmed or stilled, the twinned selves of Twinzilla will continue to exist in continuous, troubling dialog. Thus, for example, the book’s third section, the twin becomes “[t]he bad coin no woman wants” (“Lump”) and the “enormous shadow” that “projects a very small person” (“Bad Karma Day”). They will, in all likelihood, share “the dent in your chair back / where leather memorized you,” (“Impending Absence”). There is even, disconcertingly, a trace of the sardonic in the book’s closing admonition : “Lock your trays in the upright position. Wheels up” (“Twinzilla Fandango”).

My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass, winner of the 2012 Cider Press Review Editors Prize, gives readers a gracious spread of Susan Laughter Meyers at her estimable best—displaying both deep emotion and great restraint, the poems unfailingly elegant, the language quietly compelling. The book consists of four sections, the first two numbered, the third titled, and the fourth numbered. If a viable genre of epistolary poetry were to emerge today, it would need to begin with this book.

The first section begins:

My hummingbird’s perch, that highest twig,
has no leaves. Today no bird.
I call the vacancy sorrow.
A door ajar:
should I question the necessity of doors?

(“Why Does Rain Cast This Longsome Spell”)

The question then resonates throughout the following poems, as both loss and plenitude are delineated, line by line by line.

A new flock of geese bails out of the sky
with honking, as if to say,
Look at me.

And for these few minutes—
far, far from anyone I know
who is dying—I do.

(“Landmark Inn”)

Of a funeral we read

You must learn to look at the world upside down,
the preacher said at Phil’s funeral—
the preacher sid this clearly, despite his stutter—
the world will never be same,

(“The Tilt That Stumbles Me”)

The same section gives us a woman braiding her hair who is seen as “Merlin’s Daughter,” and a trio of adults, joyous on the summer beach,

You can hear their glee
in the laughing gulls they’re reaching to feed,
see it in their faces,
their tilted heads and fly-away hair.
(“Season of Tourists”)

In a beautifully wrought ending to an otherwise whimsical poem, we are given what might be the real reason George Washington cut down that cherry tree—and simultaneously we are taught
how time and history create meaning from event:

He cut it down because a hard
hard lesson was on the other wisde
Of cutting—
before,
and after, the lie he wouldn’t tell.

“Prunus serotina or Why George”

The books second section, which introduces the death of a mother, also gives readers three memorable epistolary poems, which includd “Dear Yellow Speed Bump,” “Dear Melancholy,” and “Dear Summer of Few Bees”— , all of which serve to ready us for the third section, a grouping of poems titled “Letters Lost to Wind,” which can be read as a sequence of letters (“Dear Happenstance,” “Dear heavy Traffic,” and so on) or as a litany of titles, some with poems attached, others floating free ([Dear Birdless Trees . . .] [Dear Something Venutred. . .] [Dear Billboard . . .]. One result is that reader is cast adrift in the sensory bounty of this life, no matter that
Soon—I can’t tell you, and you can’t imagie—
the wideining.

This cup of moss, a feathering.
Tomorrow, the swamp’s solitary hour.

Believe me, that small sun you’re privy to,
there is more light than.

(“Dear Prothonotary Warblers in the Birdhouse”)

No matter, also, that you might be [Dear Weather Forecast . . .] [Dear Nevertheless . . .]

in the wind unhinged
parchment waiting for
weather to write a final trestament.

(“Dear Loose Wing of a Dragonfly”)

or, if luck holds,

You are morning, its jig
of surprise, hello-goodbye,
hallelujah free and feather borne.

(“Dear Black-Hooded Parakeets at the Intersection”)

Intriguingly, the stagger grass of the book’s title (the atamasco lily— a common southeastern wildflower toxic enough to induce staggers in horses) doesn’t make an appearance until the beginning of the book’s fourth and final section.

You are danger, deep-throated cup
lipping the stippled light,
brightening the leaf mold.

(“Dear Atamasco Lily”)

Beauty, inevitably, in all three of these books, is one with danger, but is no less beautiful for that. What Wentworth, Hagerty and Meyers have give us, with great generosity and tremendous skill, is poetry that wounds and renews, that extends experience and enriches understanding.

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