Saturday, January 1, 2022

Poetry Letter No. 4, 2021 - Reviews of Books by Moomey, Pero & Campion, Lohrum Cotton, and Escoubas

Wine Country by Vera Campion from a dialogue with Alice Pero

Laura Schulkind’s Review 

of Make For Higher Ground by Diane Lee Moomey

Make For Higher Ground by Diane Lee Moomey. Barefoot Muse Press, 2021.  ISBN 9798509619205; 63 pp. $10.95.

Diane Lee Moomey is one of those masterful form poets who uses structure to challenge boundaries. Her new collection, Make for Higher Ground (Barefoot Muse Press, 2021), does just that. Throughout, it is evident she has drawn on I Ching #57, Penetrating Influence, which she speaks of in the introduction and riffs on in the opening poem, as the collection both offers us a path to higher ground, and persistently urges us to take it.  

Her path begins with “Small Wild Things”, a group of poems that leads us into the “tall red grasses” that lie just beyond the road. She finds sleek snakes in “the long stems my father’s mower doesn’t/reach” (Wearing Snakes); and imagines wild cats in the forest abutting the golf green (Time Share at the Country Club). In juxtaposing human activity and wildness, she urges that we not forget our connection to the wild—even as we mow and drive and golf and stay indoors with the radio blaring. As she concludes in Chaparral, just knowing “. . .the wild/ is out there. Sometimes/that’s all you need.”

From there, she takes us to our beginnings in a section titled “Tap Roots”— suggesting we can’t get much of anywhere without understanding our origins.  “I’d open trunks and boxes, pry;/so certain that I’d found the place/where all the family secrets lie.” (The Other Attic). The intimate details of these poems (the “wicker chair with yellow chintz/ that curved to her fit”—Her Screen Porch) also convey a loving eye—reminding us that we can cherish where we came from without getting trapped there.  In her exquisite poem, Carousel, she considers her own mother’s choices, and in so doing perhaps explains her own: “You could get off. You may have wanted something/else: the purple unicorn . . .”  

Now grounded, the book offers us Fractals, a series of poems on how to navigate a dangerous world. Here we find perfectly placed at the middle of the book, Water Above Water Below, (a riff on I Ching #29—Danger), which gives us these final lines: “The lamps are going out, dear/one by precious one and it’s for us/to choose to live in darkness or, blind/and trembling, make for higher ground/and set ourselves alight.” 

Then, in the last two sections she shows the way out of the darkness. In Coming Up For Air, the poems remind us to find delight in the world we have—embrace dear friends (“I’ll squeeze Purell into my right/palm and gently stroke your left cheek”); arrange pandemic picnics; rescue “former treasures left behind” from the dollar bins.  

In Lights Above the Poles she adds, and ends with, love. A gorgeous collection full of sky and light, these poems tell stories that remember, long for, miss and sustain love. Importantly, there is nothing saccharin here. Indeed, the last poem ends ominously, “Making coffee, breaking camp—/we do this well together,/but whitecaps, winds and lowered skies; promise heavy weather.” And that’s the point. Higher ground is not a panacea; it isn’t even a place. It is a way of being in the world that Moomey gently urges in this compelling collection.

~ Laura Schulkind

Kathy Lohrum Cotton’s Common Ground reviewed by Michael Escoubas 

Common Ground by Kathy Lohrum Cotton, Deep Well Poetry, 75 Poems, 103 Pages,  $12.00,  ISBN: 97986111359884

As I write this review (late April 2021) President Biden has just completed his first address to a joint session of Congress. Senator Tim Scott has given the Republican rejoinder. Listening to both men recalled poet Kathy Lohrum Cotton’s latest collection, Common Ground. Whether you believe in Providence, Fate, Coincidence, or just plain Randomness, you must admit these ducks fell nicely into a neat row.

Enter Kathy Cotton, stage left. With quiet assurance and ripened poetic skills, Cotton offers a collection of poems which bear directly on what many are seeking. Remarkably, these poems were written “prior” to the advent of Covid-19. Which is to say that her theme is timeless and does not need a worldwide pandemic to justify its existence.

An epigraph by no less a luminary than Walt Whitman, sets the tone: “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” It is the gift of language that humans alone possess and share. Appropriately, the poem “Finding Common Ground,” opens the door to Cotton’s quest:

Before the extravagant feast,

the flowing wine of words,

let me break bread

at the table of

a neighbor starving

on broth-thin bromides,

elders who chew

old shibboleth scraps,

the child choking down

force-fed fear.

I got the feeling early-on that this poem represents the poet’s life. Helping a person in need is more important that just setting words down on a page. Only then:

let my pen touch

the waiting page,

who stands in rain-spattered pajamas,

breathing, just slow-breathing

in the middle of his wire-fenced yard—

. . .

This cloudburst soaking

his drought-brown garden brought

him from his bed, quick like a child,

wordless with wonder at the scent of rain.

While Cotton writes primarily in verse libre, her skill in formal verse is evident in the villanelle, “Words of Peace”:

There is sweet symmetry in words of peace,

as both the mind and heart communicate—

a balance of withholding and release

through conversation shared: the centerpiece

of knowing when to speak and when to wait.

There is sweet symmetry in words of peace,

not toppled into dogma or caprice.

It chooses not to flatter or berate,

but balances withholding and release

to find a common ground where conflicts cease

to rage alone, a place where pain abates.

There is sweet symmetry in words of peace:

both hope and understanding can increase

when empathy is speaking’s gentle mate.

It balances withholding and release:

a spoken and unspoken masterpiece—

consideration, rather than debate.

There is sweet symmetry in words of peace,

a balance of withholding and release.

Titles in Part I, entice me to reconsider my life perspectives, titles such as: “Quiet Friend,” “Gift of Your Silence-Keeping, “Inner Balance,” and “Slow Thaw,” hang like medals on a service-member’s coat; commendations won on the battlefield of life.

Vera Campion's image from Beyond Birds and Answers dialogue with Alice Pero

Moving into Part II, “Shared Words,” I found myself focused on “The Sweetness of Doing Nothing.” This poem explores the tension between “busyness” as a virtue and Dolce far niente. (Translated in the title). This shared word is one your reviewer needs to hear. 

let the ink’s dark nectar

spill out

every ripened syllable

of words worth sharing.

Stylistically, Cotton does something I’ve never seen before. At the end of many of her poems, she adds key words in a delicate light-face font; subtly  highlight-ing a theme she wants readers to consider.

The volume is organized in three sections: “Quiet Words,” “Shared Words,” and “Last Words.” In an age of loud talk, street and gun violence, and folks insisting that it’s My way or the highway, Cotton’s wisdom is like a warm cup of Chamomile tea slowly sipped.

In my youth I recall how the evenings took on a unique fragrance after a soft rain, Cotton took me back in her poem “The Scent of Rain,” where her old Lithuanian neighbor:

Perhaps I  should emulate the poem’s protagonist and, “stretch full length on a Montana stone.” In this section shared words become “strands of simple kindness, a treasure to pass down.” 

I recall special evenings tiptoeing into my children’s rooms to read stories and say their prayers. The ease of those moments, the quietude of being with them, things we shared before clicking off the lights, returned to me as I entered Part III, “Last Words.” 

I lingered long with “Sweet Cluster” where:

I fell asleep to the lullaby

of a family’s last words

of the day, to soft sounds

of Mother and Father kissing.

Impressive tenderness and restraint. Many of these poems could be read as testimonies to loved ones who have passed on. While platitudes often accompany loss and death, the poet’s treatment is fresh and original. She remembers her brother, the “only shaved face in a little house crammed with petticoats.”  Ed was, “the last of all who knew me from my beginning.”

In “The Last of Life,” death is compared to:

Winter’s longing to shed

the weight of every last leaf,

to stand proudly stripped,

wind-whipped to the marrow,

baring misshapen limb and scar.

The “welcome home”

rivers sing to scattered streams

and oceans whisper

to heavy rainclouds.

The ripple

of a zephyr’s soft breath

across ripened fields.

So, this

is how it feels

to love the last of life.

Indeed, Kathy Lohrum Cotton’s Common Ground, closes with a blessing I wish for everyone who buys this superb volume:

Leave something

of sweetness and substance

in the mouth of the world.

--Anna Belle Kaufman, “Cold Solace”

~ Michael Escoubas

Reprinted from Quill and Parchment

Toti O’Brien’s Review of Beyond Birds and Answers

by Alice Pero & Vera Campion

Beyond Birds & Answers: a Dialogue by Alice Pero and Vera Campion, Elyssar Press, 2021; 78 pages, ISBN:‎ 978-1733452991

Beyond Birds and Answers is a symphony of questions in three movements, varied in color and rhythm, yet unified by thematic elements echoing throughout. Musical in its essence, masterly harmonized, as tightly interlaced as a great jazz impro, this small gem of a book is the joint effort of a poet and an artist so flexible, they evade the confines of their disciplines and create a unique esthetic experience. Words sing, colors and shapes leap and dance, poems spill from the page and create a fluid narrative, single artworks melt into a moving kaleidoscope. 

Artist Vera Campion’s imagery is deceptively simple. At a closer look, her scenes are brimming with mystery. The improbable shape, the daring combination of colors, the hidden, puzzling detail, the curious overlapping. Alice Pero, the poet, doesn’t miss a bit of such complexity. She explores and fully enjoys the labyrinth, unafraid to ask both pertinent and, more importantly, “impertinent” questions—the clear-eyed ones born by a keen, fierce imagination. The art promptly responds.

Guides are there through the journey, different for part one, two and three: birds, flowers, and stars. They are brave, and elusive. As the title imply, they don’t provide answers, only point at new possibilities. Children will feel at ease into the vibrant universe woven by Pero and Campion, but theirs isn’t a children book. For the visual part, we can think of Chagall, Matisse, Klee. The poetry has a surrealist flavor. Verse and figures unfold like a game of Exquisite Corpse, delightful in its sheer unpredictability, yet magically endowed with coherence and meaning.

~ Toti O’Brien

Image by Vera Campion from Beyond Birds and Answers dialogue with Alice Pero

Neil Leadbeater’s Review of Beyond Birds and Answers

by Alice Pero & Vera Campion

Beyond Birds & Answers: a Dialogue  by Alice Pero and Vera Campion, Elyssar Press, 2021; 78 pp, ISBN:‎ 978-1733452991 

The first thing to notice about this book is that it is a collaboration between two people. It is subtitled ‘a dialogue’ and that is precisely what it is. The book is dedicated to the memory of Bob Hart (1931-2014), a New York poet whose work on dialoguing has been an inspiration to Pero and Campion down the years.

Alice Pero has been creating dialogue poems with more than 20 poets over the years. She started dialoguing with other poets as a dancer in the 1980s and these continuing exchanges have resulted in thousands of pages of poetry. Her work with New York City artist Vera Campion is her first conversation with works of art. Pero is a teacher of poetry and a member of the California Poets in Schools, where she has developed a unique style of teaching children poetry based on rhythm and other art forms. She is also a classically trained flutist and formed the Windsong Players Ensemble in 2015 which performs regularly in the Los Angeles area. 

Of Czech parentage, Vera Campion moved to New York in 1970. She studied watercolour with Theo  is and later studied at the Arts Student League with leading New York artist Knox Martin. In the early nineties, she studied Intaglio printing with Veejay Kumar at the Manhattan Graphic Center, New York City.

Campion views her art as ‘Reality in Metaphor’ and is particularly interested in collage as an art form. She likes to see a picture grow organically from cut-up shapes so that the final image comes as a surprise. Her work has been shown in Prague, the USA and Canada. The intense use of colour in her work has prompted comparisons with Henri Matisse, a comparison that she is very happy with. The artwork in this collaboration is full of movement and colour. Her collages of people, animals, birds, flowers and stars evoke a sense of childlike wonder about the amazing world in which we live. Taken as a whole they convey a rich visual vocabulary that is matched with equal force by Pero’s poetic vision. 

The book is divided into three distinct chapters. Each chapter contains 10 poems. The layout of the book differs from the conventional format insofar as there is no contents page, none of the poems have titles and the works of art, which have titles assigned to them outside of the book, are not titled either. The poems and paintings are placed opposite each other so that the reader does not have to turn the page. In the first chapter, the reader is invited to look at the artwork first and then to read the poem. All the poems in this chapter are justified to the left. In the second and third chapters the reader is invited to read the poem first and then to look at the artwork. All the poems in this chapter are justified to the right. This prompts the question: which came first, the poem or the artwork? Intriguingly, we are never told. 

The three chapters are quite distinct. In the first chapter the reader is introduced to the simple image of birds, especially the crow. The second chapter focusses on some of the darker aspects of life including the concept of evil. The last chapter moves towards a spiritual perspective. Here, the image of the star is very much in evidence. Despite the differences, there are common threads that weave their way through the book, giving it a sense of unity and purpose. Magic, movement and colour combined with a childlike innocence and sense of awe, keep the poems anchored while at the same time allowing the reader to use his or her own imagination as well. It is as if Pero is holding her poems as one would hold a kite giving the reader enough free reign to watch the kite fly freely in the wind. 

In a review like this, offering the reader an extract is tantamount to offering only one half of the story because the poem should really be seen in conjunction with the artwork. I should therefore explain that this poem is one that is positioned alongside an artwork showing five pink and red flowering tulips standing at different heights against a dark sloping background and clear blue sky. 

So tall and straight

meeting the sunlight

in colors we take in

like whiskey, straight

no chaser

There is no escape

You announce your beauty

with no apology, no safe distancing

We must breathe your air

without complaint

We are not afraid

of beauty

Originally a dancer and a musician before she became a writer, Pero’s poems have a musicality and a rhythm all of their own. This may be one of the reasons why the punctuation is sparse. Only commas and question marks are used. There are no full stops. For Pero, rhythm and the positioning of the line break provide all that is necessary to convey meaning. Some poems begin with a question or a series of questions while others end with a question. All the questions are rhetorical. We do not expect them to be answered. 

Like Campion’s artwork, Pero’s poems are full of birds, flowers and colours. Crows are mentioned five times, the word ‘flower’ is mentioned 18 times and the word ‘colour’ and /or  the mention of a specific colour appears frequently throughout all three chapters of the book. Campion’s predominant colour is blue and that is the colour that is mentioned the most by Pero.

The idea of collage that is portrayed in Campion’s artwork is captured in Pero’s poems in a number of different ways: ‘daisies’ are ‘divided in so many parts,’ somebody falls ‘into a dozen pieces,’ ‘flower heads fall / as though beheaded,’ ‘stars’ fly from someone’s eyes and doves explode, ‘leaping into the sky’. Pero’s phrase ‘an explosion of doves’ is particularly arresting since doves are traditionally viewed as symbols of peace. Like collage, Pero holds these fragments together with her carefully chosen words.

The following stanza is taken from the final chapter. The first two lines reminded me of Holman Hunt’s allegorical painting, ‘The Light of the World’. In direct contrast to that painting, the final two lines startle us with their image. They evoke a real sense of frustration that some people just cannot ‘see’ that there is so much beauty in the world and more to life than meets the eye.

I will knock at his door

of disbelief

and throw a brick

into his consciousness

Tis collaboration is a testament to the power of the imagination. It shows us how art and poetry have the capacity to inspire us. One of the many beautiful things about this book is that it will appeal to all ages. Fully recommended.

~ Neil Leadbeater, 

published in Quill & Parchment and

 reprinted with kind permission.

Karla Linn Merrifield’s Review of Images by Michael Escoubas

Images: A Collection of Ekphrastic Poems by Michael Escoubas, 29 Poems ~ 29 Paintings & Photographs ~  58 Pages, $15. ISBN 978-81-8253-761-3.

Readers of Quill & Parchment know about ekphrastic poetry which has long been publishing a section dedicated to ekphrasis. The journal is not alone in its spotlighting of the art of poetry written in response to a work of art (which is what ekphrasis is—that simple).  The online quarterly Visual Verse: An Anthology of Art and Words has been solely devoted to ekphrastic poetry for eight years. For each edition, the editors select an image and invite poets to respond to it in much the same way as does Quill & Parchment.

You might even call ekphrastic poetry a rage! In September, my local poets organization, Just Poets of Greater Rochester, offered at its monthly meeting, an ekphrastic workshop conducted by poet Kitty Jospé, whom I’ve longed deemed the guru of ekphrasis. Her many years as a docent at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery has inspired Kitty to write dozens of stellar ekphrastic poems. It was Kitty who first introduced me to the genre.

With all that may be said about history, background, and resources of the genre, one can do no better than dive into Michael Escoubas’ Images: A Collection of Ekphrastic Poetry. This work is destined to become a handbook for both beginners and experienced poets who embrace this poetic approach. 

Michael is an accomplished poet of ekphrasis, right up there with Kitty. His new collection (which follows his 2018 ekphrastic journey with Monet, Monet in Poetry and Paint, and his 2019 collection, Steve Henderson in Poetry and Paint) in that wildly popular genre is a stunner. 

Here are twenty-nine poems paired with beautifully reproduced full-color paintings, photographs, a quilt, and even a swatch of embroidery that lead us from image into words woven with flashes of wisdom. In “Sea and Shadow,” based on a watercolor by Blanca Alvarez, Michael observes, “We live in the/ continuous mystery of now.” In “Village by the Sea,” he reminds us to listen to ocean music: “…absorbed in each other/ the caressing of the sea/ is like a song…” And, al-though the poem is based on an amazingly evocative photograph by Victor Riehl, you will see no lovers in the image. That, too, is part of Michael’s ekphrastic genius—he brings something greater to the original work of art! All the while wisely inviting us to experience anew the soothing voice of Earth’s great waters.

The book also offers us welcomed moments of tenderness. Tears nearly sprang into my eyes reading “Ingrid loves white orchids,” after a photograph by Sharmagne Leland-St. John (editor of Quill & Parchment). In the poem a shy teenage boy marks an important passage in his budding love life. About to head off on an important date with a girl, “… he takes a moment to tie/ the orchid around her wrist …” Remember those days? Your first prom? That slender boy who brought you flowers? Or your own boyhood and that significant evening that began with a rose or carnation? Almost impossible not to scan your memories in search of a similar scene, such is the evocative power of Michael’s lines.

What a joy it is to turn the page and be treated to a brief lesson in art history, too! Take the poem “Vibrations of Color,” which reflects on Paul Cezanne’s 1897 painting “Pines and Rocks.” We learn about Cezanne’s realism, and how he “never fit in / with the Impressionists” as well as how he “became the bridge / between Monet and Picasso….”

You needn’t be a denizen of the world’s art museums nor even a reader of poetry to appreciate this collection. There’s something for everyone in Michael’s handsome book. It’s accessible, immediate, absorbing—and delightfully quiet. Art, and the poetry of art, enables healing. Thanks to Michael, a seer and teacher, we may emerge from his pages having come to “love the austerity of ice-blue trees,” as he writes in “The Empty View.” With poet Michael Escoubas in our lives, we need never fear an empty view on life, love, art, and poetry.

~ Karla  Linn Merrifield. Reprinted from Quill & Parchment

Image by Vera Campion from Beyond Birds and Answers dialogue with Alice Pero

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