Poetry Porch: Poetics


The Powow River Poets Anthology II. Paulette Demers Turco, Ed. San Jose: Able Muse Press, 2020. ISBN 9781773490755 (paper).

Reviewed by Joyce Wilson

The Powow River Poets meet regularly in Newburyport, Massachusetts, although many of them live an hour’s drive away or more, and their influence extends far beyond the region. Hailed for their technical skill, these poets keep literary traditions alive through the practice of meter and rhyme and the stanzaic forms. Fourteen years after the first anthology was published, a second anthology has appeared, featuring many of the same poets who, having continued to write, publish, and win prizes, show an increase in confidence and expertise.

The collection opens with a preface poem, “The Effect of Hearing the Sublime,” by the late David Berman, to whom the anthology is dedicated. Focusing on Odysseus’ encounter with a music he would have died for, Berman articulates the notion that in order to appreciate the keener sounds, one must question the comfort of the familiar and look beyond the reach of the ordinary.

Another longtime member David Davis continues this pursuit in his poem “The Waterfall,” with opening lines that describe a wretched workplace, an unremarkable gray cubicle infused with the frustration of things left unfinished. He decides to take some time off and drives to Poncha Springs (Colorado), where he can hike on well-mapped trails to clear his mind. When he leaves the path to follow a stream, he stumbles upon a hidden waterfall.

    I do not know how long I stood in mist
    and sound and memory with my mind caught
    on something that, somehow, my life had missed
    with no awareness of the loss — the thought

    that earthbound streams can leap into the air,
    turn into rainbows falling like bouquets,
    in roaring coruscated land, prepare
    for normal life, grow calm, and flow away. (30-31)
Like Wordsworth, Davis is jolted by surprise at the beauty of this natural phenomenon, in which earthbound water leaps skyward, and vibrations of light glisten and transform, only to collect in a pool and disperse. In the falling water’s sequential expressions of exertion and calm, he sees patterns of harmony and renewal. (Sadly, Davis died in 2020, a week before review copies became available.)

Deborah Warren dramatizes the process of entering the imagination in her poem “The Swimmer,” as she investigates what happens when an observer confronts the unknown. Staring into a puddle, he regards the images of trees and sky in reflections that once served, to some, as evidence that the world was flat. He leaves this illusion, however, and dives into the depths, where everything seems to sink into fathoms,

    down, deeper, toward whatever breeze
    stirs the branches and ruffles the buried sky,
    flutter-kicking his way among the limbs
    below: but the water won’t give up the trees,
    and he shakes himself and returns to the surface, dry. (122)
The sudden turn in the penultimate line signals the limits he can go and when, once he comes to his senses, he must exit. Even though the water will not give up its secrets, the key to its fluidity, hinted at by the echo of “sky” and “dry,” and he emerges unscathed, the experience has changed him. He internalizes the visions that compelled him. This triumph is achieved in two six-line stanzas.

José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes investigates the world of commerce as a place of unreconcilable loss in his poem “Portrait of Chichikov as a Mortgage Trader.” Reyes creates a caricature, after Gogol, of a dead soul who becomes so narrowed in his involvement with buying and selling that he cannot be distracted. The problem is his obsession with acquisition. Reyes presents this sketch in the octet of his Petrarchan sonnet and offers a reprieve after the turn, in the sestet, with the appearance of the waitress Tatiana, who might save him, whom he might save, if she can hold his attention.

    Today a single name catches his eye:
    Tatiana, waitress, sole support of four . . . .
    But the next trade cuts short his reverie. (99)
His salvation by Tatiana is a complex one, given that she is a working mother of four, bound by her own circumstances. The possibility of their romantic union raises our sympathy, even when the depiction of the commercial world resists it.

Alfred Nicol also addresses human complexity as he unrolls an argument in a domestic setting with his poem “October 1962.” The description of the mother giving her children a bath seems ordinary enough, yet the three-line form (after Dante) warns of danger. Nicol employs a sly irony here by following the perspective of a child, who remembers the mother’s strict regime at home as perhaps too regimented.

    Russia was gearing up for Word War III

    with JFK. Nobody’d shot him yet.
    She spent the afternoon preparing us.
    I guess we were prepared as we could get.
What would explain a mother’s urgency? Was she clairvoyant? Could she foresee the approach of another war, the atom bomb, assassinations before they happened? The poem ends on an historical note:
    [She] tried to get us ready, in her way,
    for when someone unburied our Pompeii. (90)
With this rhyming couplet, a grownup knowledge supplants the child’s fears. Worries are summed up and diffused by a single symbolic word, a place name from an ancient time. The verb “unburied” even suggests a rebirth. It seems that the mother was concerned about the way her life would be perceived by survivors. She was efficient, industrious, dedicated, her children bathed and ready for bed, and her house was clean. This juxtaposition of domesticity and world events, man-made and natural threats, a mother’s energy and a son’s appreciation, overflow with warmth and humor.

In her poem “Just Stopping,” Rhina Espaillat satirizes Frost’s famous verse, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” While Frost’s poem suggests an encounter with mortality, Espaillat describes a visitation, in which the divine comes to her for a talk, like an old friend.

    The god in whom I once believed
    showed up last night beside my bed,
    and sat down at the foot. I said,
    “What a surprise! Lord, I’m relieved
    that you’re not dead!” (38)
Through dialogue, the two banter like old compadres, female and male, lamenting the loss of the past. The narrator observes that the Lord is showing his human qualities, that he looks tired. His face is lined “like that of some old Mafia don/ whose turf is gone.” In the single word “turf,” she can refer to the loss of land, power, and hair in one sweep, and in the rhyme of “don” and “gone,” can also dig at male patterns of aging without flinching. She offers to make him breakfast if he’ll stay.
    But mumbling “ . . . promises to keep . . . ,”
    he paled away. (39)
With this famous phrase from Frost, “promises to keep,” Espaillat chides us with her good humor and control. Her reliance on the characterization of male and female counterparts, the example of give and take in conversation, resonate with theatrical appeal. When the last lines raise the suspicion that an opportunity to settle accounts has been lost, the poem ends on a poignant note of wisdom.

The strength of this anthology of poems is in each author’s finding the most suitable vehicle for the subject. The lines do not push but carry; the surprises unfold, releasing nuggets of pleasure. In their dedication to the traditional forms of poetry, the Powow River Poets write with confidence that they are relying on structures that have been tested by the masters. Their dedication to formal methods enables them, helps them control what happens underneath, through diligent attention to the demands of craft.

Copyright © 2021 by Joyce Wilson.