Poetry Porch: Poetics


Small Books, Big Topics
Three books reviewed by Pat Valdata

Her Skin Phyllo-thin by Lalita Noronha. Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, 2014. ISBN 9781622295653 $12.00 (paper).

       Lalita Noronha’s new chapbook Her Skin Phyllo-thin gives the sense of being in two worlds at once by following a back-and-forth structure between travel and memory. A native of India who lives in Maryland, Noronha is scientific and literary, a fiction writer and a poet. These qualities give her work a unique perspective about her mother’s death.
        The book is printed in stark black and white, but the pages are filled with sunlight and life. Words overflow with color: lime wedges, a teal passport, the yellow of turmeric, a pink sea-tulip, sepia eyes. Scientific training as a microbiologist prepared Noronha with the vocabulary to connect descriptions of diatoms and fruit fly larvae with the mother and daughter. For example, in “Specimen Child,” Noronha’s speaker sees the microscopic creature’s cilia and flagella “deflecting childhood, / propelled inevitably / toward womanhood” (10).
        Many of her details are rooted in place, from the “prayer beads, bamboo flutes, jute bags” carried by immigrants in India (“Forty Years Later: What I Know” 1) to her mother’s hair just steps away, a “silver fluff / of dandelion” (“Sponge Bath” 4). Anyone who has watched an elderly parent decline will appreciate the visual language in these poems, which are tender and heartfelt.
        This volume begins and ends with poems about travel from India to the United States. In the opening poem, “Forty Years Later: What I Know,” Noronha creates a bittersweet recounting of what she left behind—“scorched chimneys, banana leaves”—and what the immigrants “do not say— / We will never be whole again. / We cannot, in truth, uproot” (1). Poems about her mother’s body focus on the elderly woman’s phyllo-thin skin, her bunions and the “widest, round-toed flats” she must endure being stretched for her (“Mother’s Bunions” 5). Other poems address drinking tea together, saying goodbye at the airport, being apart yet being united in a long line of women reaching back through generations. Noronha emphasizes ways to remember as follows:

      I nibble at minutes,
      one peanut at a time,
      each second,
      a grain of rice,
      one raisin.
      I taste each moment without you.
              (“Tasting Time” 14)

        Not all the poems dwell on the past; some of them also look ahead. In “Beyond the Cenezoic Era,” Noronha imagines life “[e]ons from now” when we are all mere fossils, with a “higher species” carbon dating us and sequencing our DNA (17). She considers the nameless woman who fell into a well and died (“Mother’s Stories” 12) as well as nameless strippers with “buttocks like alabaster saucers” who “sink in wells of sorrow…leaving ripples and / a wedge of light glinting” (“Raw Skin” 18). In a sequence of five ekphrastic poems inspired by works in the Baltimore Museum of Art, Noronha describes the paintings and then speaks to the models, seeing them not as art objects but as real women: a lover, a teen-aged wife, a widow who after “the mourners have left and the house is still” might walk into her bedroom, let down her hair, and “look in the mirror, / see a furrowed river delta, silt cheeks, / daybreak-blue eyes, untouched by bitter burning suns” (“The Widow” 22).
        The last poems return to the mother and her funeral in India, closing with the speaker’s continuing quest:
      And still I search between continents,
      between sky and sky,
      between then and now

      for home.
              (“From Bombay to Baltimore” 26)

Copyright © 2015 by Pat Valdata.


un renard roux / a red fox by Maxianne Berger. Montreal: Éditions des petits nuages, 2014. ISBN 9780992109752 $12.00 (paper).

       Canadian poet Maxianne Berger’s third book of poetry offers Japanese tanka in French and English. Editor and co-editor of the online journal Cirrus: tankas de nos jours. and the tanka anthologies L’estuaire entre nos doutes (2012) and Nuages d’octobre (2013), Berger teaches tanka workshops and contributes articles on tanka poetics to the Revue du tanka francophone. Evidence suggests that she is devoting her life’s work to the tanka.
        Readers expecting a strict syllable count across the two versions will be disappointed, because Berger’s graceful poems use 2-3-2-3-3 beat that is more aligned with French and English speech patterns than Japanese syllables. The poems in two versions have a great deal of appeal.
        The front cover of this small, square-format book shows a sleeping red fox, with the title poem printed on the back cover. It is an excellent example of the quality of Berger’s work, which compresses narrative and lyric into five short lines:

va-t-on aimer
me rendre visite ici?
soleil de mars
un renard roux sommeille
sur une pierre tombale

will they enjoy
visiting me here?
March sun
a red fox snoozes
on top of a tombstone (82)

The book is organized into ten thematic sections, and the scope of each is wide. These tiny poems cover huge topics: desire, regret, memory and its loss, aging, dying, each presented with a sensory image to anchor theme to object: lapsang souchong tea, a toothbrush, a white glove, a red tulip, and, as below, a field iris and a telephone book:

iris des champs
leur brève saison fleurie
avant de se flétrir
parmi les longues herbes
ma fille jamais née

field iris
blossom in their brief season
before fading
among the tall grasses
the daughter I never had (11)

tout écorné
le petit bottin noir
il téléphone
aux amies de sa grand-mère
celles pas déjà rayées

all dog-eared
the little black book
he phones
his grandmother’s friends
those not yet crossed out (33)

        Although many of these exquisite tanka are focused on loss, especially of a spouse or parent, there is also much joy in this book. That grandmother lived to be 106 and “the night she died / she went to bed singing” (32). Lovers caress one another, take walks at sunset, kiss. Each poem is a snapshot of a deceptively simple moment in everyday life, a thought-provoking reminder of relationships too often taken for granted until it is too late. un renard roux / a red fox is a volume that will appeal to caregivers and anyone who is currently coping with loss. But it can also be read, often, by those of us in any stage of life who get too caught up in minutia and forget how lucky we are to love and be loved, however briefly.

Copyright © 2015 by Pat Valdata.


Kulchur Girl by Rachel Loden. Vagabond Press, 2014. ISBN 97816922181213 $12.00 (paper).

        Rachel Loden’s Kulchur Girl is a 5.5-inch-square poetry book as time capsule. The free verse poems reproduce notes Loden took in July 1965 when she attended the Berkeley Poetry Conference a few days after she turned seventeen. With her babysitting money, she bought a plane ticket and flew from the East Coast to California just in time to begin seminars with Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. Loden took copious notes, some in passages of long lines, some in lines made of a single word.
        Engaging memoir and autobiography, Loden describes how, once she arrives in Berkeley, she immerses herself in the conference. “Happinesses [sic] run the spectrum. / I fell in love the first day. / I saw Allen Ginsberg./ I heard Robert Duncan” (12). Some of her notes are underlined: “To have Creeley Talking and reacting to me?!”(28). Some are all caps, like “GINSBERG JUST BORROWED 2 PIECES OF PAPER FROM HERE —>” (35), from a page of notes taken during Olson’s lecture. The page is reproduced on page 36 of this book, showing the lined page, the perforated edge, and Loden’s remarkably clear and mature handwriting, when one might expect to see a childlike scrawl.
        A savvy integrity reigns in the observations of this young participant. Loden captures the pre-Woodstock days of music by the Ronettes “in tight white sweaters and baseball caps” (7), Martha and the Vandellas “singing in a Mustang assembly plant”(7), and Elvis (8). On television, disk jockey Murray the K made public service announcements. Peyton Place was a hit show. Everyone listened to the New York AM radio station WMCA (9). But Loden is not always snowed by what she sees. She comments, “The whole world is teenage. 50-year-olds in baby dresses” (8). She wonders “How does anyone survive it?” and frets, before she has even attended the first seminar, that “All the talk about writing has been vanity” (7).
        As enjoyable as it is to read Kulchur Girl, especially for those of us who lived through the 1960s, the book is also a stark reminder of the sexism and racism of the day. All of the poets mentioned are male. Only one is African-American, LeRoi Jones, noted because he was not expected to attend. The only woman Loden mentions by name is Creeley’s second wife, Bobbie, “moving around among her friends … / How does she feel? / SO EXTREMELY AMAZING — that in this world there are even 2 like that —” (83). However, this effusive example of Loden’s youthful hero worship—which goes on a bit longer—is followed by her wry assessment of the craft of poetry popular in that era: “The long, thin, stripped-down mocking line —” (83).
        By the time Loden is back on an airplane heading home to Connecticut, she has filled two notebooks with material, and in the space of a few days has embraced the vocation to be a poet. She makes astute observations about the poets as separate from the poetry. “The poets were always real to me but now I’ve seen them,” she concludes toward the end of the book. “Strangely there are no further realities after that first one of knowing and believing the poems themselves. The poems are what I care about always” (72-73).
        Kulchur Girl is remarkable in many respects. It presents the early evidence of Loden’s talent for the social commentary that would come into fruition in her award-winning books Dick of the Dead, 2009, and Hotel Imperium, 2008, which address the culture of the Nixon era. Kulchur Girl allows readers of a certain age to bask in nostalgia for cultural icons of the mid-1960s and to wince at our collective naïveté. And it reminds us of that golden age when a girl is on the cusp between childhood and maturity.

Copyright © 2015 by Pat Valdata.