August 15, 2011

"A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness." — Robert Frost

Night of the Republic - Alan Shapiro


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was nice enough to lend me a review copy of Night of the Republic by Alan Shapiro for my blog.  
I actually chose this book because Alan Shapiro teaches right down the road at that hellacious puke blue school.  Turns out, majority of the places he’s actually writing about are in Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill (if you’re not aware of the 919 or the RTP, than you’re not on the right maps.  It’s the cool spot.  Can’t you tell?)
I’ve always thought Alan Shapiro was a man of witty, conversation poems that usually said so much, in so few words.  He’s like the silent, balding father who sits on the couch and refuses to ever have any sort of birds-and-the-bees “talk” with his children.
Lucky me, both of my parents are avid “talkers.”  My mother is the self-proclaimed Queen of the Lecture.  Both, my brother and I, had plenty of “talks” on various birth control options, how our bodies worked, why Barbie’s didn’t have vagina’s (that was more me than my brother, just FYI).  I think my favorite question I ever asked my mother was, are these lyrics dirty, and should I not be listening to them?… (“These are things your mama shouldn’t know, These are things I really wanna show” Backstreet Boys circa 2002).  So, that’s a little about me, now back to Alan.
I can’t say that this was my favorite collection ever, but what I like about it is it’s commonality.  Night of the Republic is for the person who always says they don’t read poetry because they don’t understand it.  Shapiro’s collection is almost completely understandable, even when he goes off into the vast blackness of other galaxies, or he’s listening to phone conversations of people in bars, or he’s stuck in a hallway being a harp for the voices who have lived there in the past.  (You know at some point, if your house is not new that you’ve stood in the bathroom, or a closet and thought about the people who hit there journals in the corners there, before you).  With Shapiro though, you’re there with him the whole time.  Believe me, studying creative writing at NCSU has introduced me to a world of complex poetry that goes way beyond my short means.  Or, it’s just plain unintelligible and everyone around you tells you that it’s “smart” or “genius.”  And then, you feel like a complete and utter moron.
Poetry though, is meant to be anything.  It’s a form of writing that really can take on any characters; aliens, fairy tale princesses, or just plain silly, curly-haired girls with minds on outer-space and ex-boyfriends, like me.  Or, you can go off on a tangent about goats, milking, and no one even really questions your audacity.
A few of my favorite poems in the collection are:

Lucky for me, these all came in completely different sections of the book, which just proves every section has something to offer.  Check out Shapiro, he’s reppin’ my home state.   While I’m not always for the poets from my home state, he’s quite good.  To check out one of his poems before buying the book click here.
Here is Alan Shapiro in person, and in a t-shirt.  (Because no one ever thinks about poets wearing t-shirts).

The Zoo in Winter - Polina Barskova

The Zoo in Winter
  • Polina Barskova
This book was lent to me by Melville House Books. Let’s give them a round of applause for introducing me to my first Russian poet.  
I know, that’s a sad fact, hm?  I’m a sad person.  But, now I have been introduced back into the world of vodka and snow/fur hats and am happy to be here, I must say.
Let’s just start with the very first poem.  It’s to: Lewis Carroll.  I needn’t explain it again how OBSESSED I am with Alice in Wonderland (although after reading Alice I have Been by Melanie Benjamin, I’ve been quite wary of Mr. Carroll, who wasn’t even actually named that – it’s a pen name.  UGH, the lies!)  But, any poetry book that starts here, has already peaked my interest to its highest and fluffiest petticoat.
Unfortunately, after this poem, I feel I am at a loss to completely understand this book, due to my lack of knowledge on Russian people in general.   I can’t even think of one Russian (other than horrible, nasty dictators, and one child I met, adopted every summer to a neighborhood family, for fresh air purposes).  (Chernobyl).  And this, makes me quite a bad reviewer for this particular book.   Also, these poems are translations (Russian to English).  Translations aren’t always correct.  Normally it’s always missing something.  A lot of the times with poetry translations, the sounds are not translated over, or the rhyme and rhythm.  The Bible is a fantastic example, but I won’t even go there right now.
Let’s get back to the poems though, right?  I’m going to try my best now to review what I have in front of me.  Please take it with a grain of salt.
The first few poems…well the entire first section I believe, are poems entitled “Fairwell to…” and what follows are the names of many-a Shakespeare character.  Even Hamlet, with his skull and his mother all come into play.  However, they aren’t tired the way everything written about Shakespeare today is completely exhaustive/ing.  The one thing I remember about Shakespeare class is that my professor looked like Dr. Feiney from Boy Meets World and apart from that, the book was mighty thick, and I’d rather hear about  Shakespeare’s’ personal life and sonnets than his must-be-dissected-upon-reading, plays.  I can’t possibly be the only person that feels this way, but I’m most definitely one of the few who will admit it.
Barskova writes her poems fantastically well though.   There are some damn good lines in these few poems which I wish I had thought of instead of Barskova – but that’s poetry for ya.  She knows her characters, their existence within their plays, or their actual lives, and writes them well on a page.  Sometimes she uses their voice in the poem, and sometimes her own omniscient voice that we can’t assume is her own “I.”
I think what I gather the most from this book is that Barskova KNOWS her writing.  I’m always ranting and harping about the writer who doesn’t read, but Barskova has clearly read.  For instance, if you want to write magical realism, I expect you’ve read Borges and Marquez.  If you haven’t, and you have no idea what I’m talking about, feel free to read one of my favorite short stories of all time:  A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.
I’m particularly amazed at the sound play in these poems because normally translations lose sound play within the mix.  I really commend whoever did these translations because they remain beautiful.  If I spoke Russian, or read it, I’m sure I could agree that they are beautiful in Russian as well.
I’m just saying that I HIGHLY respect Barskova because she’s pushed through major volumes of Shakespeare and is on to Russian poets in the second section (Pantheon) of this book.  It’s easier (dare I say) or maybe it’s just smarter, to write a good poem when you’ve 1. read what you’re up against, 2. know the historical climate and what people have written before you, and 3. you know other poets and their work.  Not only that, but if you want to write poetry, READ poetry.  If you want to write romantic vampire stories filled with blood and guts for the teenage boys, then READ those kinds of books.  I can’t respect writers who haven’t read a single thing of their fellow poets, and are just strictly language-thief’s-and-chimney-sweeps.  Not only has she read the poems of these mostly-men that have come before her, but she knows the history.
Here are a few of my favorite lines:
  • “Through ages, through the needle’s eye/comes the black thread of metaphor” – (41) Anaximines, Barskova
  • “And in my depths it’s roomy, but not light” – (30) On the Eve of my Birthday, Barskova
  • “And that the camel keeps a store of hope within his hump” – (11) Farewell to Polonius, Barskova
A few of my favorite poems in the collection:
  • Second Letter to Ekaterina Dmitrieva
  • The Poet Pershkin
  • She Will Never Come in from the Cold (for Nina Samus)
  • A Trip to Hoboken
  • The New Iliad
  • Memisis
  • Winter Observations
Here is Barskova reading:
8 comments so far.

8 responses to “"A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness." — Robert Frost”

  1. Seth says:

    ooo…Russian? will def have to read. Im reading a book called “Please look after mother” by Kyung-Sook Shin. It’s written in a 1st person perspective. I think you’d love it. I’ll send it when Im done. and a surprise! Have you written any poems lately? I got your letter! A response is coming soon!

    • Cassie says:

      It’s really fabulous, check it out. She writes in Russian, but this is the first translated work in English. And yes, please send me that other book. YAY!

  2. Seth says:

    that was a whole lot of exclamation points…….I need variety

  3. Oh, I love poetry! And these both sound intriguing :-).
    I found you on Book Blogs and thought I’d come introduce myself. It’s nice to blog-meet you! I’m now a subscribed follower :-). Feel free to visit my place anytime!

    • Cassie says:

      Well great! That’s awesome. Nice to meet you as well, I’m going to check out your blog right now. 🙂

    • Cassie says:

      Your blog is gorgeous. And I checked out a few websites from your recommend section – they were awesome as well. I subscribed solely because of your “about” section though. I love witty women with mermaid hair. Can’t help it.

  4. I love poetry. Among the favorites are Robert Frost, Stanley Kunitz, and of course, Sylvia PLath. I just don’t understand how anyone who loves reading doesn’t make it a practice to read poetry as well…

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Hi, I’m Cass

I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.

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