Review: Alice Teeter’s Elephant Girls 

At a recent gathering of the newly formed Atlanta Women’s Poetry  Collective, I had the pleasure of meeting Alice Teeter, an Atlanta poet I had known of for quite some time.

Teeter hosts a monthly poetry reading series, a salon that has a reputation for attracting some of the best poets who pass through or live in our city.

Elephant Girls (Aldrich Press, 2015), is Alice Teeter’s third collection of poetry. Didivded into three sections, Elephant Girls explores the myriad facets of the life of the mind and the body, with subjects such as love, desire, imagination, dreams, identity, history, and nature.

The speaker in the poems is fluid, changing from one poem to the next. In “The Sage,” the speaker explores meeting a woman at a conference and the feelings of lust this woman inspires. The speaker states,  “her hot hand grasps your thigh,” but later in the poem the woman disappears and the speaker is left with “the person you were born to desire most of all/ the one you have been looking for/spread your hand   she is always with you.” 

In other poems, such as “The cat didn’t know which she liked best,” the speaker is an animal. In this poem, the cat contemplates which creature pleases her most, the bear or the man.

In this poem and many others, Teeter enters the world of imagination, where possums and skunks enter her car through an open window, a dog paces, alone and afraid, on the Day of the Dead, and big fish “swim like shadows” in dark water.

Teeter delves into the world of carnal pleasure, taking sensual delight in glazed donuts that she compares to “sendal thighs,” thus rendering an indulgence of food into an indulgence of the sensual pleasures of the body.

The stuff of everyday life appears in this collection; even toilet paper makes an appearance.  In “Two-Ply,” three rhyming quartets

remember the speaker’s father and his “three-sheet rule.”

The poems in Elephant Girls range from playful to surreal and mythic. The wellspring of this book, full of free verse, sonnets, and other forms, is love-love of family, of the beloved, of lakes, vegetation, of all facets of life that emphasize the joy of being alive. 

Poetry of Epiphany

Call it luck or synchronicity, either way I was happy to have run into Dan Veach at the Decatur Book Festival, because I returned home with a signed copy of his collection of poetry, Elephant Water.

Veach chronicles Elephant Water’s genesis within the structure of the book. He introduces each section with a biographical note about where he was when the poems were written, and at the back of the book he has a geographical list for easy reference.

Place plays a strong part in how these poems unfold, because the energy of the people, the land, the flora, and the fauna of each location inform the poems. Jane Hirschfield writes about Elephant Water, “The joy of these pages is a rare note in American poetry. Awareness infuses every page, as does close observation.” These poems are intimate with the spiritual pulse of life.

Chinese poetry and ink drawings have also added their touch to Veach’s palette. Each page includes one or more of Veach’s whimsical, delicate line drawings done in the Chinese style. Elephants, seals, moths, fish, birds, and dogs are not only the subjects of some of the poems, but they also lilt across the pages alongside the text in the form of drawings. The book cover, Veach’s own design, blends sky blues to watery indigos, providing an ethereal backdrop for his animalia.

It is rare pleasure to hold and read a book of poems for adult readers that includes original artwork by the author. Although Veach’s drawings come out of a time-honored tradition, it is one that has been somewhat neglected in recent times, at least in American verse.

William Blake is known primarily as a poet, but those who love his poetry also revel in his transcendental paintings and drawings. English poet Smith worked by drawing, and often the poems came out of the images that appeared first. And Richard Wilbur made line drawings to accompany his light verse. It is gratifying to see Veach continuing this poetic collaboration with visual art.

Another influence on Elephant Water is Veach’s love of music. He is a clarinetist, and I have heard him perform by reciting his poetry and playing the clarinet, a real treat. His love of music is evident in both the themes of some of the pieces and the attention he gives to the verse, with unobtrusive rhymes appearing here and there, a feathery, song-like punctuation.

The poet invites us to read the poems aloud. In his introductory lyric essay Veach writes, “For this is poetry with body as well as mind, poetry that invites you, like “My Long Thigh Bone,” to dance.

Elephant Water is published by Finishing Line Press, and can be purchased directly from the author at his website. Dan includes sample poems on the site for you to enjoy. You can also buy the book on Amazon.

If you’re in Atlanta October 8, you can hear Dan Veach recite his poems at Callenwolde Fine Arts Center.

Elephant Water, Book Cover Art by Dan Veach

Tears Ran like Animals

“Tears ran like animals” comes from a line in Henri Cole’s collection Touch. The metaphor works well to describe the effect this collection has made on me.

I am filled with up with the suffering expressed through the words. And lines like this one only make the loss and pain more penetrating:

“We only have a little time, darling. Let’s read
swim, and sleep in each other’s arms.”

Cole begins with poems about the life, illness and death of his mother, but he also explores, as if in solitary thought, suicide, sexuality, failure, family expectations, war, and capital punishment, not in the abstract, but rather through the observation of specific lives, events, and nature.

Most of the poems are blank verse sonnets that flow as if the reader had gained access to the thoughts of a passerby. Meditative, touching, Cole reveals the secret histories that drive our lives.

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Poetry as Survival

In an interview with Terry Kennedy at Story South,
poet Christine Garren states that

most poets, whether they catch a publishing break or not, are writing because they must–because the poem’s creation answers an emotional or spiritual need that they associate with survival

These words speak to me, not only because they give me courage to continue writing, but also because they aptly express the kind of poetry I most love to read: poetry that must be written.

This sense of urgency or need is an ideal, of course. Some poems end up being exercises. Lately I’ve been writing formal sonnets, and I’m not at all sure anyone will want to publish them. But I write them because I feel drawn to this almost 700-year-old form. Writing in form, or attempting to, is my way of connecting to those who have gone before me. Why not follow Shakespeare’s steps for a time, even if my boots are clunky compared to his handmade calfskin slippers?

After reading Christine Garren’s collection Among the Monarchs, it is apparent that she has created her own, organic form that has grown from the stirrings of her lyric mind.

The speaker tells nothing, but rather implies moods, scenarios, and events as though we were listening to her thoughts and memories as they occur to her while she is sitting in a field, her back against an apple tree.

There is implied abuse, rape, abortion, break ups, illness, death, but nothing is pinned down in exact narratives. We are not voyeurs of suffering as we read these poems–we are companions or even a part of the speaker’s own psyche. Reading this collection enveloped me in a world that required me to sit in a room by myself and re-read. I felt compelled to enter and re-enter this tender, imaginative mind.

In the Story South interview Garren goes on to say, “When I care less about what an audience may think, I am able, it seems, to write a stronger poem.”

Part of what lends the poems in Among the Monarchs their lightness and airiness is the form in which they are written. Many of the poems consist of a mere eight or nine lines, but the lines are long, many containing eight or more beats per line, as well as sentence fragments and more than one sentence in a single line.

These strategies work in the poems’ favor. Garren’s unique, free verse style displays her gifts as a writer–she has her finger on the pulse of inner rhythms. She is listening to the poem that must be written, not the poem she thinks someone else wants her to write.

And therein lies the mean trick of being in a formal writing program. As a student, I need to remember that learning from my teachers and studying the old masters will help me hone my craft, but in the end, if I want to write in my own voice, I need to lie in a field, or at least pretend to, and let the imagery float past me, reaching up a hand from time to time and brushing the thoughts across the page.

In the meantime, I am going to hole up in an air conditioned room and dive again into Among the Monarchs. With triple digit high temperatures in Atlanta, it’s too hot to lie in a field.

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Things That Are Silent

Things That Are Silent, Rethabile Masilo’s first full-length poetry collection, is published by Pindrop Press in the UK. The result is a stunning work of art edited by poet and publisher Jo Hemmant

Voted poet laureate of the Internet, Masilo is a poet, writer, and human rights advocate well known to those of us who have ventured into the world of online poetry.

Though I found Masilo’s work via a virtual community, there is nothing virtual or second hand about the way he communicates in verse.

Rethabile Masilo connects directly and honestly with the reader through poems that stand on the courage of their own convictions.

The book begins with “Letter to Country,” a love song to the speaker’s homeland of Lesotho.

Lesotho is a mountainous land that is surrounded, as if it were an island, by South Africa. In his introduction, Masilo remembers his many family members who were killed during the political troubles in Lesotho.

These are poems with a social conscience, not only for the grief over the loss of the speaker’s father, but also for others throughout history who have endured oppression and brutality.

In spite of the suffering the speaker witnesses, the poems also express the joy of life, the beauty of the seasons, the mountains, sensuality, and physical love.

The lines are musical, written with precision, care, and tenderness, displaying a deep sense of awareness of lyric language. As a US speaker of English, I enjoyed reading a smattering of African expressions, such as “bakkies” and the board game shax.

The bright red and blue cover art is by Lesotho artist Meshu Mokitimi, whose biographical notes are provided at the end of the collection. Mokitimi describes his style as being influenced by African Expressionists. The vibrant, strong lines of a woman sitting as if in contemplation sets the stage for these strong, contemplative poems.

These poems exist, not because they wanted to be, but because they had to be.

Rethabile (“Ret” to those who know him) writes about Africa-inspired literature at his blog, Poefrika

His book can be purchased directly from the publisher, Pindrop Press,

at Amazon,

or Barnes and Noble.

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Sylvia Plath Biography

Halfway through Bitter Fame, a Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson, I can say that although she does not paint as sympathetic a portrait of Plath as does Alexander in Rough Magic, she does get to the inner struggles Plath experienced that led to her poetic apotheosis in a more acute way.

Alexander had access to Sylvia’s mother while writing his biography, but he was writing blindly, because Ted Hughes did not allow him to view Sylvia’s letters or journals.

Hughes’s sister, Olwyn Hughes, worked with Stevenson and allowed her to quote extensively from Plath’s journals and letters.

Plath’s letters to her mother, as one might expect, give an optimistic report of Plath’s active social life and hard work at Smith and later at Cambridge, while her journal entries show she had an active, healthy sex life that unfortunately plagued her.

Part of Plath’s problem lay in her inability to reconcile her “swing from violent vampire to virtuous nun,” as Anne Stevenson writes (28).

The controversy around Plath’s life and death centers around her relationship with Ted Hughes. Obviously, she had an artistic temperament and was ambitious to the extreme. At the same time she was conformist and wanted to raise a family like her mother did.

Even though I was born three decades after Plath, I understand her ambivalence about motherhood, art, sexuality, and a career.

But her angst and passion led her to explore or flirt with death. She was too impatient to find out what lay beyond the moon at night.

Of course the shock of losing Hughes would have brought about a despair she couldn’t find a way to exit, but reading her Ariel poems, one realizes she was in the throes of a Dionysian fury that went beyond Hughes.

In the end, casting the blame for her death on Hughes means nothing. There are only the poems, which are as grand and sharp as polished steel.

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Evening Poetry

In his latest collection, We Almost Disappear, David Bottoms expresses stoic tenderness toward the passing of our human lives.

The poems focus on the speaker’s memories of childhood and family, with many of the poems lingering on the narrator’s relationship with his father, his “old man.”

Toward the end of the book we see the declining father shuffling on his walker against a backdrop of the Chattahoochee hill country, while the speaker contemplates the under currents running through existence.

This collection narrates life with a reverential tone punctuated with the concrete imagery of everyday reality: a rusted truck, afternoon traffic,  a telephone that “shrieks in the middle of the night.”

The tender attention to the details of light and objects reminds me of a Vermeer painting.

The poems are shorter in length–only two are longer than a page. The verses lilt across the page in long lines that are often dropped or indented, inviting the reader to pause and savor the images and feelings.

What will stay with me for a long while is the strong sense of abiding love that emanates from these poems–a cherishing of family, nature, words and even dreams.

This love reveals itself through the inner monologues of an introspective soul who does not take himself too seriously.