Summer Reviews: Joudah, Perquin, Gerard

Alight
Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon, May 2013)
ISBN: 978-1556594229
78 pages
Joudah’s second book of poems transforms small moments into profound ruminations. From the daughter who “wouldn’t hurt a spider” because “She said that’s how others / Become refugees isn’t it?” to the joy of making a sibling laugh so hard she pees, this book focuses on, and requires empathy for, the human condition. Here, intense anguish is met with compassion and beauty, “I left the car fuming / stepped out to see the tree was blooming,” and the speaker in these poems brings wisdom, if not clear answers, “Don’t believe the sound of the sea / In a seashell believe the sea.” Longer poems with tight, short lines propel the reader through pages of profound statements structured simply, “you are either prosperous / Or veteran in the field.” The occasional prose poem either captures a short story, as in the profile of a violent student in “Listening” which ends with the speaker nostalgic for baby sounds in his native tongue, or the prose poem creates another kind of world—one replete with the sound play of English with a dream-like quality: “leaves would in their butterfly dance belly-up as they hit the grass and become reservoir for rain or dew or black boots.” While the methods and forms of this collection are constantly changing, the message stays the same: Love one another. Time is short.

Textu
Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon, December 2014)
ISBN: 978-1556594762
118 pages
Prize-winning poet and translator Joudah composes a series of 160 character-long poems in his compact third book. Mythological and literary references abound in these short-lined, fragmentary poems containing mostly couplets: “King Lear’s daughters / wanted him revolving to hospital.” The writing constraint sometimes produces wildly oblique lines like “Whoview bin talking 2? / A fistula is an isthmus // Heavenchew an app for it? / We shed light then leave its husk behind,” and sometimes produces longer chains of 160-character poems that tell a more complete story, like the poem about an aging couple which states, “if he dies before me I won’t go to his funeral / I won’t know his wife // if she dies first / I’d help him hurry waiting // hold his hand again / for longer.” These poems often reflect on relationships between a doctor and patient, or are told from the perspective of a healthcare worker: “When we learn how an infant in the womb / sleeps precisely in a parent’s pose // say with fist closed / pillowing the temple” These touching moments of human suffering and wonder provide a brilliant counterpoint to the more language-heavy play, showing virtuosity in a short space. This is a delightful, quick read.

The Hunger in Plain View: Selected Poems
Ester Naomi Perquin tr. David Colmer (White Pine Press, May 2017)
ISBN: 978-1945680052
74 pages
David Colmer picked poems from Perquin’s first three volumes (and added some new poems) for this debut sampling in English. Ester Naomi Perquin is currently the Poet Laureate of the Netherlands and she worked her way through creative writing school as a prison guard. Her third book, Cell Inspections (2012) documents stories she heard on the job. Most of Hunger’s poems are positioned in a first-person perspective, which gives the sampling from Cell Inspections the feel of persona poems rather than documentary poetry. Titles in this section are often person names: “David H.” “Dennis de K.” “Bart V.” In what Colmer renders as a conversational, almost prose-like tone, Perquin’s speakers reflect on their crimes: “Them catching me; it can’t have been the loot. I didn’t keep a thing / and I definitely didn’t live off it.” There are moments of aestheticized, poetic language, like the last lines of “Michael van W.”, which gave Colmer the title for the English collection: “I’d look like him. Wearing this madness that drives me, / the hunger in plain view.” The original book Cell Inspections won the prestigious VSB prize, and this section is by far the most compelling work in the book. Some of the other poems—like the short monologue of a nosy neighbor who feigns keeping to herself or the two-page long untitled meandering recount of a wrong number call— “What if I said, Yes / yes, it’s me, Richard. Is that you, Mom? / It’s been so long”—might have a stronger resonance in performance than it does on the page.

The Art of Creative Research: A Field Guide for Writers
Philip Gerard (University of Chicago Press, February 2017)
ISBN: 978-0226179803
240 pages
Gerard illustrates the research process through a multitude of vivid examples—gathering data from upwards of 50 writers across three genres about their creative research process—in order to elucidate the paths and possible pitfalls while brainstorming, planning, and completing research-intensive creative writing projects. For example, in “Troubleshooting, Fact-Checking, and Emotional Cost” Gerard points out that while there are mistakes we can avoid with due diligence, making factual errors is inevitable. He gives the example of “a poet portraying a Victorian woman hanging her chemise on a wire coat hanger (not invented until 1903).” He explains that “it’s hard to know what people didn’t know in a given period.” The real-world examples bring the book to life. Because his research for this book so methodically practices what he’s preaching, it’s a compelling, illuminating introduction. For example, the author’s interviews with Nomi Stone provide details about the extent of her anthropological research on war games (four years!), while evidence from his own writing also gives great background for the nonfiction and fiction examples. While his case studies tilt toward prose writing, the general advice applies to poets, too. Poets mentioned in the book include Carolyn Forché (he talks about her recent memoir about The Country Between Us), Rita Dove, Lavonne J. Adams and Nomi Stone. The last chapter, “Breathing Life into Facts and Data on the Page” could be particularly valuable for undergrad classes because it covers how to move from gathering a mess of information to creating a vivid account on the page. Gerard states that the book is “aimed in part at professional researchers and writers,” though writers already researching as a part of their work will not be surprised by most of the advice and guidance in this volume. Each chapter ends with a writing exercise or three, which again makes it a suitable text for students.

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