Last week was occupied with words. I'm going to attempt to write a post that adequately describes my fabulous experience at the Tomales Bay Writers' Workshops, but in the meantime, here are two book reviews that I originally posted on Blog Critics.
The first is a review of a book of collected poems.
Poetry exposes itself to the interpretation of the audience. More than any other written form, the poem turns itself inside out, deriving meaning and value through the reading rather than the writing. Through the specific, the personal, poetry seeks the universal. A successful poem pulls the reader from his own experience into the personal truth of the poet and then expels the reader into the universe to become part of a greater truth. The successful poet, therefore, must write from the intensely personal space of self without a consciousness of that self.
In his New and Selected Poems/ 1975-2005, Robert Ronnow’s greatest successes in the achievement of the universal lie in his most specific details. In “Sub-atomic Particles,” he says it himself: “Mustache, cowboy hat/ horse whisperer, gulag master/ Odysseus, King Lear/ salvation in the details.” Much of Ronnow’s work finds “salvation in the details.”
Reading through New and Selected Poems/ 1975-2005 one gets a sense of the evolution of Ronnow as an artist and as a man. His early poems, while specific and vivid in their imagery, are undermined by the sense that the creator of those pieces is a young man very conscious of himself and his place in the world. The sense of outside influence is also more perceptible early in the book. Stanzas from the first poem “Janie Huzzie Bows” practically scream e.e. cummings.
everybody looks. Janie Huzzie’s dressed in white.
naturally the crowd glowers i pipe up
winking in every direction i slither away
The consciousness of self intrudes upon the more sensual passages in Ronnow’s poetry as well. While his language is frank and earthy, certain passages left me with the sense, not of a celebration of the sexual act, but with the sense of a man bragging of conquest. Though in “The Canopy of Stars,” Ronnow confesses that “Women are not inspired to love me”, he then comments that “This /must be an oversight on the creator’s part./ Even in my beard I’m built handsomely as other men.” The juxtaposition of this commentary on loneliness against the next poem “Absolutely Mustard” in which he “remember[s] passionate nights with some of the women/ I’ve known” jars. Though both poems reveal the writer’s solitude of the time, the sense that the poet feels somehow entitled to the company of multiple women carries through both poems. Yet, the salvation is in the details. “Absolutely Smooth Mustard” begins with the delightful lines “There is absolutely nothing to do. Some people/ fall in love. I go have a cheese sandwich./ with mustard…” The banality of the cheese sandwich as an alternative to love is taken over the top into absurdity as the throwaway “with mustard” is tacked onto the third line.
Ronnow reserves his most lyrical and compelling lines for his descriptions of nature. In these stanzas, he paints with a fine brush, expanding the poems into the universal with minute details.
The crows have been
in conference, again.
A jay, blue, pokes
a hole through reality.
There I find the sumacs
fruiting and the male sex organs
of the Queen Anne’s lace.
These lines from “Under-sky sleeping, bone keeping” ground the reader in place. The specific sense of place – senses of place, rather, the stanzas are rich with sound and texture – allows the reader to feel with the poet that “…these mountains/ are my grave. A good grave/ to go to.”
Details ground the poems in the universal when Ronnow strays into the realm of the general. His explorations of death, love, and politics have the feel of someone striving toward a larger truth, but falling into the trap of general proselytizing. In “The Rwandan dead” the specific wrenching details of the “Rwandan dead/ bobbing naked at the base of waterfall…” are lost in subsequent lines that proclaim “…Peace/ is a great blessing. Fools/ worship war.” He resumes contact with the specific and saves the poem with the stanza
The Rwandan dead
had dalliances and alliances.
It is the indignity of their exposure
and the decay of their former lives.
How disposable, mere mulch, fertilizer
for wild vegetation.
I preferred his exploration of the human condition through the descriptions of the canyon dwelling Anasazi in “Blackbrush.”
then, shallower, dinosaur swamps
now, dry, rock gardens.
Explain the human history with water:
did the Anasazi visit neighbors
along the canyon rims and deep within…
Explaining the human history with water takes a detail seemingly specific to an indigenous, desert-dwelling people, and expands into the much larger reliance of history on basic human needs.
Ultimately, New and Selected Poems/ 1975-2005 deepens and grows more interestingly rich as it progresses, and one is left with the feeling that Ronnow’s development as both a poet and a man is ongoing. May this be said of all of us.
The second review is of Pop, a young adult novel by one of my favorite kids authors, Gordon Korman.
Bodies collide on a green field. Even in a still photograph, the impact is audible; the mind fills in the shock waves. Marketers have used it for decades – the primal lure of the full body impact of dueling males – American football. The compulsive lure of combat appeals to something deep within even the most passive or intellectual. Despite mounting evidence pointing toward the long-term physical and mental damage caused by football injuries, despite the voices that decry the violence and culture of machismo, the popularity of football is undeniable. What drives us to support a sport so destructive of its participants? What drives players to overcome the pain of impact, to ignore the possibility of an infirm future? How does the culture of combat affect the boys and young men whose worth becomes synonymous with a game?
In his new young adult novel, Pop, Gordan Korman explores the culture of football from within the framework of a small town high school team. Wrapped in the story of a young man’s transition into a new town and new football team lies the darker tale of a middle aged athlete’s decline into premature dementia and the toll his past takes upon his family.
If Marcus Jordan had to move to a new town in the dead of summer, at least he was moving to a high school with a first class football team. However, he hadn’t counted on the insular team’s reluctance to accept a newcomer even to tryouts or on the outright hostility of Troy Popovich, the starring quarterback. Marcus’ transition into his new home is further complicated by the advances of Troy’s on-and-off girlfriend Alyssa and by his hard hitting practice sessions with an enigmatic middle-aged man named Charlie. Charlie may be the most incredible athlete Marcus has ever known, yet there is something odd about a grown man who runs away from a broken windshield, and who can never show up when he is expected.
Marcus soon discovers that Charlie is Charlie Popovich, former NFL linebacker and Troy’s father. The disparate jigsaw pieces of the puzzle that is Charlie fall into place as Marcus begins to realize the extent of the damage Charlie sustained during his football career. In his depiction of the three athletes: Marcus, Charlie, and Troy, Korman unravels the dangers, fears, and lure of football. Charlie, “The King of Pop,” pays for his fearless career on the gridiron with the loss of his present. Unable to distinguish between his past as a high school prankster and his present as a middle-aged father, Charlie hangs in the limbo of Alzheimer’s. Gifted with a brilliant throwing arm, but hampered by a fear of contact, Marcus must confront his demons in order to pursue his football dreams. Will Charlie’s lessons in accepting and even loving the “pop” override the evidence of damage caused by the sport they both love? In many ways, Troy, though a minor character, has the most compelling story. His conflicts between his love for his father and the sport and his loathing for and fear of what his father has become drive Troy’s actions.
Having grown up with Gordon Korman’s lighthearted MacDonald Hall series, I found myself drawn in and taken aback by Pop. While the voice is vintage Korman: casual with a hint of smart-aleck, the characters of Pop are confronted with the very real consequences of their actions in a way that his early characters never were. Wisps of Korman’s early creations mingle in the characters of Pop. The pranks played by Marcus and Charlie evoked memories of Bruno and Boots, Alyssa’s voice could be that of a post-adolescent Cathy. Like those of us who remember Gordon Korman’s early books, and like Korman himself, his characters have grown up and entered the real world.
The plot of Pop never lags. Korman transitions from one entertaining or tense twist to the next without letting up. A fast, compelling read, Pop kept even this non football fan engrossed from start to finish.
Pop is suggested for ages 12 and up. While the book contained nothing that I would be uncomfortable having my 10 year old daughter read, its focus on high school sports and adolescent dilemmas would likely be beyond the interest of a younger child. Personally, I look forward to handing Pop to my son when he is a few years older. Pre-teen and teenage boys seem to be largely overlooked by the marketers of young adult fiction; Pop fills this gap with gusto.
Both of these books were enjoyable in very different ways. Stay tuned for more words!