Hope, Gratitude, and Joy; Poems That Wow
Iron Horse Literary Review is published six times a year by the Department of English at Texas Tech University. Volume 14.2 is the latest edition of their annual issue celebrating National Poetry Month.
Carrie Jerrell, poetry editor of Iron Horse, tells us in the foreword that in the best poems, “compassion and imagination are inextricably linked.” She goes on to say (and it's worth repeating even at the expense of space in which to discuss the poems themselves) that the “best poems remind us in the wisest, most raw-nerved, un-Hallmarky of ways that we will not flourish if we are not mindful of and kind to ourselves and others.” She goes on: “The best poems also move us to hope, gratitude, and even joy; by entering into each other's suffering, we are equipped to appreciate more fully each other's triumphs.”
Ms. Jerrell just became one of my favorite people. Why? Because there isn't a single entry in this issue of Iron Horse that doesn't fulfill her definition of the best poetry. Her taste, and that of editor-in-chief Leslie Jill Patterson, is impeccable. I have no idea where to begin in discussing the best poems here. For a reviewer, this is Christmas in July. There are 28 poems (including a final, hilarious triple limerick), and if I single out 8 of them, it's with sadness that I must overlook the other 20. Reviews, like literary magazines, have their space limitations.
So here, in order of appearance from the beginning of the issue, are 8 of the best poems I've read in a while.
Chuck Carlise, “A Dozen Riders Arrive at the Binghamton Greyhound”:
This poem reminds me of an Edward Hopper painting. Any Hopper painting. The characters “stand on the tar in oil-stain rainbows, / gather bags, make calls, wait.” One by one they depart into the night, whether by cab or on foot. There is something ineffably sad about them, about this netherworld between flight and arrival. Something metaphorical is at work here, almost existential. “Stone-chipped curbs rise to our knees; / what can we offer them? Witness? Prayer?” One by one they complete their journey without us. “We are five. Now three.” This is the most unforgettable poem in the issue, the hardest to shake off, and maybe the best.
Dorianne Laux, “Pacific Rim”:
I learned about igneous rocks
in the San Diego school system,
from the charts that lined the walls
of every classroom I sat in 1st to 6th grade.
Childhood as seen through the rarefied lens of a passion. Laux presents a girl obsessed with learning, and in particular with learning about “'iron-bearing materials' and 'crystallized minerals.'” Most of us can relate. For me, it was spelling. Laux's persona
loved saying subduction as I hit
the tetherball on the playground,
magma as I kicked the ball
out of bounds, tectonic when
the boy with sun-blond hair
peered at me over his glasses.
Our school days were a jumble of conflicting experiences and frightening emotions. Laux gives us a sensibility for survival, the germ of a child's possible career. The poem made me want to know more about this girl, perhaps elaborated upon in a short story. “Pacific Rim,” being a poem, doesn't have to concern itself with plot. Its unique and memorable characterization is plenty.
Naomi Mulvihill, “Order”:
Some of the best poems play with language in an overt way. Heather McHugh and Gregory Orr are two of our best examples of artists painting with words as words. The voice in “Order” is taken with words, their sounds and correlations, almost to a compulsive degree. “Between nap and nape is napalm, / between the flutter of eyelids and back / of the neck, a wall of gelatinous flame.” The poem presents a short series of such relationships. It would be a good poem to present to a Creative Writing 101 class as an incentive for inspiration. It would get students thinking about the words they use, how they relate, how they differ. “HIV and hive collapse / and disappear, letter by letter, reeled / back to an aspirate.” Good stuff.
Chad Davidson, “A Brief History of Religion”:
This is a deceptively simple poem with the setup in its opening lines: “The game was simple: a god for every letter / in the alphabet—Allah, Bacchus, / and so on.” Friends around a campfire, the fire as much an important part of the poem as the game itself. “Q for Quetzalcoatl, / R for Ra, until we grew agitated / not from the heat we built or the cold / we built it from.” The players/campers “doused the fire, climbed into silences,” yet are awakened not by a crackle of flames but a mocking “cackle.” “It took all our water to put the flames finally out.” What, beyond the game, is the meaning of the obstinate fire? The poem and its enigmatic title would be great fodder for a workshop discussion.
Casey Thayer, “Self-Portrait as Cattle Brand”:
This has to be one of the more original ideas for a poem about identity:
What do you take me for: fire-hot fool,
iron tattoo, a permanent smooch lipped
on leather? I'm nothing but a trademark,
little more than sting & puckering of skin.
The poem is exactly what the title indicates. Thayer himself, in the Contributors' Notes, confesses that “With this poem, I can hide behind the excuse that it's the cattle brand talking, not me.” Nine out of ten poets would have written from the cattle's point of view. It takes a keen and vivid imagination to assume the identity of an inanimate brand.
Austin Allen, “Maris*”:
This is a first-person piece told from Roger Maris' point of view. Maris broke the Babe's record for most home runs in a single season, but, as the poem's epigraph explains, Maris' season was longer, and so controversy ensued. The commissioner of baseball agreed with a sportswriter who said the record books should show an asterisk after his name, “but the mark was never added.” Nevertheless, Austin Allen's Roger Maris is haunted by the symbol:
Asterisk, dark kiss, sign I was born under,
little appendix flaring in the gut,
making its subtle point, its “well, yes, but. ...”
Will someone mark it on my grave, I wonder?
Maris' complaint morphs into a reverie, a meditation on his life (“I couldn't tell you how much I was loved”), and yet we are unable to forget for a moment that the asterisk even hovers after his name in the title of his poem. Ultimately, Maris doesn't forget the asterisk, either:
Although it comes late, I hit that final blast.
The asterisk needs an asterisk of its own.
It's high praise to say that this poem compares favorably with another first-person baseball poem, the classic “Ty Cobb Poem” by the late William Packard, included in his First Selected Poems. I recommend you investigate both.
Carrie Fountain, “Nostalgia Says No”:
Two of Fountain's featured poems are included here because they are both excellent and difficult to choose between. “Nostalgia Says No” is a meditation on death and the passing of time. The persona is, it seems, examining an old home movie taken at a birthday party, taken so long ago that the participants are the “now-dead” guests of the persona's lover's father,
sitting on his haunches
in the sunlight, unhooking warm cans of beer
from a six-pack and forcing each
with an easy shove into the white heart
of the ice chest. But no, that was
There's a touching innocence to the guests' presence in the past—”when did they / stand and walk out of the yard, oblivious, / saying, Save me a piece of cake, saying, No, / I'll be back, save me a piece of cake.” It's that word, “oblivious,” that captures us and which Fountain dwells on at the poem's end. Oblivious to their own mortality. It's hard to be nostalgic in the face not of the lives lived, but of the deaths foretold.
Carrie Fountain, “Insomnia During the Winter Olympics”:
A clever poem, a clever idea, a successful and original conceit. It plays with the idea of time, of watching the Olympics in the middle of the night and imagining a fallen athlete (Apolo Ohno, clear from the context and from Fountain's notes) interviewed in the middle of the afternoon when the persona wakes up in the early morning. The televised world is a global village, and beyond that fact, there is nothing too deep here. Fountain is a master of language and observation, and I had to smile at the end, when Ohno
will have been roused from sleep knowing that he lost, and the big, bad day,
which I will just then be entering, for him will have already passed.
So many good poets are represented here, including Jason Gebhardt, Tyehimba Jess, Brad Clompus, and Andrew Kozma. Check them out with your own copy from http://www.ironhorsereview.com.