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The Book of Props
Wayne Miller
Milkweed Editions, 2009

If Basho were around today he might write something like this—shavings of life curling from his pen onto the page. Beginning with nature, adding love and a dose of “thin Midwest darkness,” Wayne Miller records the echoes of snow falling on frost.

A subtly oxymoronic subtext becomes a signature stitch. Completeness is packed with absence: “An empty fountain/full of leaves.” Time does its quantum dance, standing still and moving simultaneously.

Miller recesses his personality and invests cars, barns, hedges and stars with undeniable animation. The sounds of varying raindrops are catalogued with pinpoint accuracy. Basic vitality is skillfully converted into visceral beauty. “Clouds tarp their way across/the city’s billow of light.” Though unusually lyric, the elemental simplicity occasionally clunks. “Hawkers hawking.”

Generally, we are on the outside looking in. Amber windows are “backlit wax.” Such innovative, evocative descriptions drive us as “we slide along/in our melisma.”

From many notes, Miller makes one seductive song. In solitude he maps out refuge. In the humming anonymity of a highway, he pulls us into the odometer’s glow.

In a daring long poem, “What Night Says to the Empty Boat (Notes for a Film in Verse),” Miller populates his spare terrain with scarecrows and angels. The sun is “channeling its light down a furrowed field.” A tightrope walker crosses America. We too are suspended, held up by the images so vividly realized.

It’s easy to believe poems like these “keep the wind in motion.” Basho would be proud.

Yang Chu’s Poems
Duane Locke
Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Press, 2008

“Six ants drink from one dewdrop fallen on an autumn maple leaf.” Ah so. Very much fun to read Duane Locke’s tele-psychic poems partially inspired by Yang Chu, the ancient Ethical Egoist philosopher. Alas, very few of the nearly 300 poems are as pure and enjoyable as this one.

Locke quotes an army of philosophers besides Chu (or Zhu): Plato, Descartes, Heidegger, Gadamer and Lacan are enlisted in a mulligan stew. The chunky chowder can be spiritual, didactic, playful and very independent—so independent that it’s hard to reference or compare to other schools or movements. Zen Dada? Maybe that’s the point.

“Atelier” seems to focus on a character. “The artists [sic] was a Taoist.” He then becomes a “She, the artist, a Buddhist.” Is the poet trying to cover all the bases?

The rhymes sound half clever and half forced. “The models were homophonic, but/The empty spaces, polyphonic./He must be palindromic, for there/Is no sameness, no repetition.”

At his most poetic, in a series of 25 poems that have three quatrains each, Locke finds a satisfying surrealist landscape to position his players. “Psyche” delivers a “sermon.” “History becomes flames… Ashes stomped into the storms of the wood floor.”

Locke looks to a Grecian Stoic philosopher in “Epictetus” who believed that discipline would lead to happiness. But I don’t see happiness (or discipline). Observing a frog “in front of a fallen gum,” Locke would have Epictetus repeat “Ho hum. Ho hum.” ’Xactly.

The Singers and The Notes
Logan Ryan Smith
Dusie Press, 2009

It’s pretty ambitious to write a long poem. Logan Ryan Smith has written two: “The Singers” and “The Notes”. Both use an overarching theme of music, capturing “a choir voice” that is urgent, honest and searching.

Landscape, rock lyrics and game lingo are touchstones. As Smith adjures us to sing, he “follows the movement in ear/tripped this way and that.” Rhymes couple with a restless internal circling to motor the composition. “I’m a failed math class./ A FastPass/A pointed middle fiddler//an infielder//I’ve got the shortest route to the dugout.”

Cricket anthems and forest rhythms stud the tangenitalized forward motion. The surefooted author (who follows his own “Blind feet”) leaps us from floe to floe in a great flowing channel. His lines run and spill together. The “winged breath” is “taken back.” The river is moved.

Smith wants to “Play a tree.” He climbs the limbs and then leavens his ascent with unexpected flippancy as he finds the tree “ridiculous.”

At times Whitman’s great “Song of Myself” is conjured. “Sing. The song you were born to sing.” Logan is scoring “the movie that is happening. …See it happening.”

San Francisco’s darling poet Jack Spicer has left his linguistic fingerprints on these absorbing pages. Smith too enlists ghosts and giants, deserts and oceans in unraveling monologues. He switches from prose to verse freely. His innovations feel natural. He never abandons the personal. You just might feel strangely at home. “Sppssst. Pass it on.”


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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