By Jack B. Bedell
Texas Review Press, $8.95 softcover
By Marly Youmans
Phonicia Publishing, $12.50 softcover
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF POETRY
By Kelly Cherry
LSU Press, $19.95 softcover
HOW FIRE IS A STORY WAITING
By Melinda Palacio
Tia Chucha Press, $14.95 softcover
It seems wrong to use a word like ordinary to describe any aspect of Jack Bedell’s poetry. His words are full of evocative metaphors that summon the smell of cane fields burning, the flash of a big redfish at the end of a fishing line, diamonds of light dappling a farm pond on a summer day. The extraordinary and even the supernatural invade Bedell’s scenes of bucolic life, as in “First Comes the Perch,” the story of a family visit to a fishing dock at sunset. His daughter, a toddler, feeds the little fish crumbs from leftover biscuits.
The water boils with them
for a while, then glasses over.
Then come ducks, and catfish arrive too.
… Even the eyes
of a yearling gator float close.
But as the little girl leans out to drop more bread, Bedell is
tracking the movement of air bubbles
inching toward us
from the deepest end of the pond.
Bedell, a Louisiana native, seasons his poems with Cajun expressions. In the wonderful “Lâche Pas La Patate,” he teases the idiomatic French expression for “don’t drop the potato,” into a musing about persistence. The poet sees a young boy trying to teach a pony some tricks. The boy has won the pony at a raffle, and it’s clear the animal has been retired from a petting zoo.
because no matter what the boy does to make
the animal keep going after it’s stopped,
or to turn left out of the circle it walks,
the thing does what it does, moves for three minutes
clockwise, stops for a minute, then moves again
But the boy doesn’t give up, his believes he can train the pony. He doesn’t drop the potato.
I see his faith at work and hope it ages
better than mine, want to tell him to keep it,
to hold on, that his load won’t get much lighter,
but his fingers are sure to grow around it.
It’s faith, too, that Bedell examines in “Les Mains du Bon Dieu” (The hands of the Good Lord), the title taken from a Cajun spiritual. But it’s a fishing expedition with his uncle that provides the lesson in faith. When a bull red takes the 12-year-old Bedell’s line, it’s too much for him to handle, and as the fish makes a run straight toward the boy and the dock from which he is fishing, the uncle grabs his rod and tosses it into the water.
It is all I can do
- ot to follow it, a rig worth more allowances
than I can imagine lost for one fish
But then when the fish comes around, the rod follows as if delivered by the the hands of God. The uncle plucks it up and the fight resumes. It is a beautiful story, beautifully told in a work that is as good a rendering of Louisiana as any poet has ever offered.
Thirteen of the poems in Bone-Hollow True are new, 55 others have been published in previous collections. Bedell is one of our state’s finest poets and this chapbook is an exceptional bargain. Even if you’ve never “gotten” poetry, you’ll find something to appreciate in Bedell’s work which is at once artistically complex yet accessible to any reader. That’s a rare accomplishment pulled off by few poets since Robert Frost.
Marly Youmans, who once lived in Baton Rouge, creates a dystopian epic in 24 poems in Thaliad. In some near-distant future, it’s “a time bewitched, when devils rule.” A catastropic event decimates humankind, “the day of fire.” Youmans alludes to, but never specifically names, the nuclear event that nearly wipes out humanity. Seven children survive and begin a strange journey to find a safe haven in a van they find in an empty car dealership. None is yet a teen. They are led by Thalia, the book’s namesake.
She led the hungry children down the path,
And when no cars appeared down the road,
She marched them down the highway’s center line.
Youmans is a technically sound poet, but also is a novelist of considerable talent. She brings that storytelling talent to this series of poems. The poetry is good, the story gripping but be warned, Thaliad’s depiction of the future is dark, dark, dark.
They grew accustomed to the look of death,
Knew how to edge around a bloated corpse,
Seeing and unseeing, glancing at edge
And not at face or form or anything
That might be moving underneath a shirt —
Particularly disturbing is what happens to some children, including a boy named Gabriel who can’t stop crying. This is a grown up book, thought-provoking and entertaining.
Melinda Palacio lives part-time in New Orleans and part-time in Santa Barbara, Calif. Her vision is wide and encompassing, her voice frank and expressive, her writing is economical. How Fire is a Story, Waiting is 55 poems in four parts. Some are about California and the Southwest or Mexico or her life growing up a Latina. Some are about Louisiana and race and other subjects. She is quick to find a nerve and offer a succinct observation. In “Ramona Street,” a child escapes into fantasy.
Hug your rabbit with the ear singed by a light bulb
Cradle her. Ignore the burnt smell and loose button eye.
The eye on your mother’s swollen face is worse.
In “Dancing with Zorro’s Ghost,” Palacio describes visiting her Panamanian father in California’s Folsom Prison.
How do I talk to the charismatic lunatic, my father
the criminal with the psycho gene and tangled gypsy beard?
“In False River, New Roads, Louisiana,” the poet spends a day in a little town west of Baton Rouge.
Wind rustles sugar cane and
centuries of sweet of secrets
spare your unworked hands.
Palacio’s Hispanic perspective is something different for Louisiana poets. She offers a fresh view of the bayou state, one that is shared by a growing minority. She deserves some attention for that alone but also for the quality of her poetry.
Kelly Cherry was born to musicians in Baton Rouge. Both her parents were violinists. That perhaps explains somewhat her sensitivity to the music of language as expressed in poetry. In The Life and Death of Poetry, Cherry explores the uses of language, sometimes whimsically. For Cherry, there is conversation in all things if you know how to listen as in “Fields With Shrew.”
but every living thing
inscribes itself on land, sea, or air
Even rock, even sun
make a statement
In “The First Word,” the poet playfully muses about what might have been the first word ever spoken.
Someone said it. Maybe
a child calling for his mother.
Maybe a love, inventing
the word you. Maybe
a hunter giving his clan
the signal to kill.
Cherry is aware that not all that is written is fact. She delves into this in “Fiction.”
It has plot,
or, fashionably, not.
And though the constant noise of conversation can transform into Babel, Cherry observes that eventually, clarity will assert itself in “A Voice Survives.”
This voice returns us to sense,
delights and engages,
marries us to language.
That same voice is in Cherry’s work. A past poet laureate of Virginia, she is a poet at the height of her powers, and her talent and wit are on display in The Life and Death of Poetry.