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 their influence extends far beyond the region, and many of them live an hour’s drive away or more. Hailed for their technical skill, these poets stand on solid ground as they invent new ways to keep literary traditions alive. Fourteen years after the first anthology was published, a second anthology has appeared.

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 boredom of things left unfinished. He decides to take some time off and drives to Poncha Springs (Colorado), where he can hike on trails chosen at random. One day he wanders off the path and 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, gown calm, and float away. (30-31)
Like Wordsworth, Davis finds inspiration in the beauty of the natural world. Earthbound water leaps skyward, vibrations of light glisten and transform. Observing the sequential energies of exertion and calm in the everyday occurrence of falling water, he sees patterns of harmony and renewal. (Sadly, Davis died in 2020, a week before review copies became available.)

Deborah Warren dramatizes feats of the imagination in her poem “The Swimmer,” as she investigates what happens when the observer enters the scene. A figure staring into a puddle, regarding images in the reflection, leaves his quotidian existence and dives into the depths, where the trees and sky seem to sink into literal fathoms.

    . . . diving into the two dimensions, [he] swims
    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 he comes to his senses; he must exit. Even though the water will not give up its secrets, the key to its fluidity, and he has emerged unscathed (dry), the experience has changed him. He has internalized the visions that compelled him, that he will remember. This triumph is achieved in two six-line stanzas.

A poem by José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes leaves beauty and nature behind as he investigates the world of commerce and loss. In this poem “Portrait of Chichikov as a Mortgage Trader,” Reyes creates a portrait, 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. Even the waitress Tatiana, who might save him, whom he might save, cannot hold his attention.

    Today a single name catches his eye:
    Tatiana, waitress, sole support of four . . . .
    But the next trade cuts short his reverie,
    denying him a glimpse into her war — (99)
The poem judges Chichikov’s world as a challenge to human benevolence, yet in the music of this Petrarchan sonnet, its subtle meter and rhyme offer a vision of his salvation, which raises our sympathy even if the commercial world resists it.

Alfred Nicol raises an argument in a domestic setting with his poem “October 1962.” The depiction of the mother giving her children a bath seems ordinary enough, yet the three-line form (after Dante) warns of danger. There is a sly irony here in the child’s mind, remembering 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 in order and cleanliness? Was she clairvoyant? Could she foresee the approach of another war, the atom bomb, assassination before they happened? Did she harbor fear that Mt. Vesuvius would erupt again? The poem ends on an historical note:
    [She] tried to get us ready, in her way,
    for when someone unburied our Pompeii. (90)
With these lines, a grownup knowledge supplants the child’s fears. It seems that the mother was concerned about, come what may, how 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.

    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 familiar 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 determination to keep the traditions of poetry vibrant. The lines do not jar but carry; the surprises unfold, releasing nuggets of pleasure. It is interesting to note the balance of reverence and irreverence in underlying dramas. Many of the poems stand with their feet on American soil and look to the cultural centers of Europe. Many tell the stories of immigrants. In these respects, this is an anthology of, by, and for Americans.

Copyright © 20201 by Joyce Wilson.