Poets provide good summer reads

By Heather Lee Schroeder
July 27, 2006

Summer's almost finished, but there's still time to sneak some poetry into your book bag. Among my picks are some outstanding choices from a local press and several volumes by Wisconsin poets.

"What Wisconsin Took"
By Paul Dickey
Parallel Press

Parallel Press, an imprint of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, publishes a fine chapbook series that draws on the work of a wide range of poets. Although the series often focuses on Wisconsin writers, it's not meant to only showcase our homegrown poets. Case in point is Paul Dickey's "What Wisconsin Took."

Dickey, who lives in Nebraska, has chosen an evocative title that might mislead the reader into thinking all of the chapbook's poems are about this state. Many are, including the delightful "How Dickeyville, Wisconsin Might Have Got Its Name" in which the poet playfully ruminates on his distant connections to a sleepy Wisconsin town:

I stop at the antique store
across the road from the water tower, and walk in
anonymously. I don't want to say too soon that my name
is Dickey and become an instant celebrity. I try to be nonchalant.

Yet an equal share of these poems speak to deeply personal and, at times, erotically charged topics. Science and scientific observation are interwoven through many of the pieces, and many of them read a little like mathematical equations - precise language forms a nexus around which Dickey builds his careful observations. Through his exploration of the known world and its intersection with critical thought, Dickey manages to uncover compelling human moments of awareness and despair in arresting and heart-piercing imagery.

In the poem "Near the Fox Valley Wildlife Refuge," Dickey writes:

Just this week, the weather has turned.
At the refuge, the few remaining
snow geese scatter at a handclap.
You cannot tell them goodbye.

He follows these opening lines with an observation about farmers' sons who:

drive south to Madison for nails
and girls. Their leaving lets no sound
stay, although some words dawdle,
and always mean to come home soon.

"Encore: More of Parallel Press Poets"
Edited by Elisabeth R. Owens
Parallel Press

At rock concerts, fans hungering for an encore hold their lighters up to the stage and chant for more. Readers are a quieter lot, so it's probably a good thing Parallel Press took matters in hand and published a new chapbook celebrating the first six years of the press' chapbook series. And, indeed, what better way to commemorate the press' achievements than to check back in with the poets who helped build it? This volume features one poem from each of the poets who published chapbooks with the press from 1999 to 2005.

In addition to their work, "Encore" offers a clever twist. The writers were invited to write a small blurb about how their poem came into existence. It's those comments that make this chapbook a stand-out read. From Elizabeth Oness' understated one-liner ("Motherhood is both remarkable and harrowing.") to Karla Huston's description of writing a poem about two missing Oshkosh boys whose bodies were found the same day she finished the poem, the comments add heft and import to what is already a satisfying and diverse collection of work.

Although the press draws on poets nationwide, the first six years tended to skew more heavily toward Wisconsin poets. It's clear that "Encore" gives an accurate representation of the current state of Wisconsin poetry (excellent) and offers a representative selection of Madison poets, including Harriet Brown, Charles Cantrall, Robin Chapman, Heather Dubrow, Gwen Ebert, Susan Elbe, Jean Feraca, Jim Ferris, John D. Niles, Andrea Potos, Eve Robillard, Shoshauna Shy, Judith Strasser, Ronald Wallace and Timothy Walsh.

"Stilt Man"
By Doug Flaherty
Parallel Press

Another recent Parallel Press chapbook by a Wisconsin poet that is worth noting is "Stilt Man" by Doug Flaherty.

Some may remember that in 2001, Flaherty was a finalist for the newly created state poet laureate position. A talented poet with prodigious output, he has published in The New Yorker, The Nation, North American Review and the Harvard Review. "Stilt Man" collects his most recent work, which is in turn intellectual and earthy, comic and tragic.

Flaherty writes with sharp awareness of his poetic antecedents and with a desire to connect with the reader, as in this passage from "Getting Moody":

When the mood kicks in like one of the Pleiades stroking
your cheek with her blowsy wings, the words appear
like the cryptic messages floating up from the 8 ball
that says yes, maybe, no, sometimes, forget it. Sometimes,
but not as often as desired, the words froth-up like verbena
in the troubled interstices between synapses. I intuit that
it is a simulacrum with you, as well. But should you fail
to grasp the internal linkage, I report what a 5 year
old girl from Fond du Lac confessed to me last month:
When I grow up, I want to be hatched from an egg.

By Patricia Monaghan
WorldTech Editions

Patricia Monaghan may teach at DePaul University in Chicago, but she maintains strong ties to Wisconsin through her work with the Black Earth Institute, a literary think tank dedicated to uniting the arts, spirituality and progressive thought that she co-founded with her fiance Michael McDermott. (The institute is housed on McDermott's farm in Black Earth.)

In her latest poetry collection, "Homefront," Monaghan makes good on her interest in the spiritual by melding myth with her own personal narrative. Delving into her father's struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, Monaghan explores how her own life was affected by her father's distress.

From Hiroshima to Iraq, from war to peace, the poet blends the personal with the political with striking results. Some of the poems delve into Monaghan's life, as in "Collateral Damage," in which she writes of idyllic childhood scenes with a doting father and then in the final stanza:

My life.
None of this happened.
It was taken from us.
This is what war does.

Other poems look outward at a world shaped by violence and take stock of the smallest details. In "The Woman of Baghdad," Monaghan spins out the daily life of a woman glimpsed on the nightly news, and then draws the final moments of her life in these lines:

The men
are saying the bombs are coming.
She, hearing nothing, gets up heavily
and picks a single lime from her tree.
She breathes its oily fragrance. These
are the last breaths she will take.

While some readers may find the sections that rely on mythology disorienting and, perhaps, even distancing from modern experience, the more personal poems that book-end this collection will satisfy.

Heather Lee Schroeder recently earned her master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her "Literary Lunch" column appears on the book page twice a month. E-mail: hls@literarylunch.com. Web site: www.literarylunch.com.

©Literary Lunch 2006