Joseph Zaccardi's review of New Poets of the American West edited by Lowell Jaeger
New Poets of the American West,
When I received my review copy of New Poets of the American West, I thought of the book as an anthology. I mean the thing weighs in at three pounds plus (I weighed it on my bathroom scale); it has the heft of a volume published by Norton; get hit on the head by this and we’re talking concussion.
But after reading through some of the sections it seemed to me more than an anthology, something suggesting bodies of work, something that is made up of many parts to form a cohesive whole.
In Chinese tradition, the object of compiling poems in a single volume was to preserve the best of a form, to cull the rest, but here we have a collection of many forms. What is it then? At last I thought to go back to the origin of the word anthology, from the Greek, anthologia, which means, literally, flower gathering (for a garland). So then this is a gathering. Add to that the publisher’s imprint, Many Voices Press, and we have something definitive, a gathering of many voices, where despite demarcations of place (the poems come from eleven western America states), they blend to make up a bouquet of flowers. The poetry therein flows like water; moves from mountain to river to lake to sea, as the poets themselves have moved from place to place, adapting their own language and form, from their origins, to be where they are now: the high desert, coastal village and cities, the unspoiled wilderness, sprawling suburbia, the small town, the backwater. Because what they are writing about is an ongoing migration of disparate peoples. People trying to live together.
“How can I live in Pleasanton, / Where money rules the emperor of ice cream?” (p.101)
You will find in this volume a diversity of poetic voices: Lois Red Elk, CB Follett, Melissa Kwasny, Jane Miller, Kay Ryan, David Wagoner and Robert Wrigley to name a few. To these poets of the American West, and to all the poets in this collection, to be a freethinker seems as natural as breathing. They believe that if a poem can show what is wrong and what is right, that change is possible and above all else that the poems have done their job. That even the most recalcitrant and the most law-abiding readers must rethink their assumptions, prejudices, and predispositions.
“…piled on lawns
caked with dying birds cooing at them
remains landlocked inside the naming of:
them, those, not like us…” (p.21)
They even believe a single poet, working alone in a cabin in the woods or on a houseboat in Venice, California, or on top of a mountain, like a modern day Lao Tsu, can move the immovable. Words for them have immeasurable power; these are the tools of civilization, the way a come-along can pull taut the wire on a range fence, and yet one snip of a wire cutter will release the tension, free the self-enslaved.
“ …He was tied, naked to a fence, / then beaten. They stood on a ridge, some barefoot…” (p.144)
Conventionally, an anthology of this size, this gathering of flowers, has such breadth, that it would be organized from the eldest poet to the youngest. This would have the advantage of drawing clear boundaries, a progression of poetics; because the poets have been drawn from the Continental Divide to the Pacific coast. This West, I think, is more a state of mind than a geographical boundary, and the growth of poetry must always be on the move. And this division would perhaps leave some of the lesser known, younger and middle-aged poets, in a sort of marginalized territory. Birthdates, for me, have no gravitas when it comes to creativity. Lowell Jaeger, the editor, has hit upon a rather unique solution: he has arranged the poets and the states where they live, alphabetically. This is democratic and it makes for a fine juxtaposition of poems. This organization encourages readers, poets and non-poets, to explore this West, a region of arbitrary borders, and allows them to discover for themselves that it is essentially borderless. There are paths to follow, for sure, but the paths are endless, meandering, and in an unexplainable way, they all connect up to form not a maze of knots, but a subconscious interlocking of ideas.
The high quality of the poems in New Poets of the American West is the result in no small part of the poets’ writing as individuals. Rather than wear masks, the poets unmask. Rather than use ornate language, they turn to the lean. They are challenging conformity, the reigning philosophies of our day; because from at least the time of Thomas Jefferson our media has been telling us what to think; our religions, what to believe; our politicians, whom to hate. These poets are saying in their poems that it does matter what one believes. No longer should anyone have to go along to get along.
By just flipping through this volume (there are passport size photos of each poet, and a bio that runs vertically and sideways alongside their poems) you’ll find a diversity of people; almost half of the poets herein are women; the ethnicities, sexual identities cross all lines.
“The dam proposed for China’s Yanghtze River / will be a mile wide… // a weight so great it will / literally tilt the earth,” (p. 371)
The connective tissue binding these poems, like the perfect bound spine of this book, holds things together. Again, this is a gathering. And though the poets live in the places where they write and compose, some originally hailed from somewhere else: a man who “grew up in England...” moves to Phoenix; a woman from Huerfano, NM, “grew up in the eastern region of the Navajo Nation.” And then there are those who are rooted in the place where they were born. What all share is that their poems go everywhere. Their writing is fearless.
“…Exhausted, / they lie down between rails, safe from / the hazards of snakes and scorpions. // … But a train / not expected is sometimes the one that arrives.” (p.40)
There’s a commonly used phrase that goes, There must be something in the water. A conundrum that immediately says it is something that is inexplicable but at the same time everyone knows what it means. An example: About once a year I speak with my brother on the phone (we email maybe a hundred times more than that in the same year). He has lived all his life in New Jersey. Somewhere in the middle of our conversation he’ll say, “You talk funny, like a Californian.” My brother pronounces our as are, oranges as aringes and say youse when he means you; but I know what it is that he means. I should mention that I’ve lived in Northern California for forty years, but when I return to New Jersey for a visit, within a few days, I switch back to sounding like a Jersyite. And that’s the way I feel about the poets and their poems when they write about their place, even though many of them are not originally from the place where they now live. I find it fascinating because the outsiders have become insiders. The way poetry finds its way into our lives. The way water touches all of us, as in the Continental Divide, where the eastern-flowing waters and western-flowing waters separate, the way language, many different languages, different accents, cross the imaginary lines on maps as well as the real geographic borders of mountains, coastlines, rivers, washes, arroyos, etc., that have become a part our shared makeup.
There have been so many shifts in movements of different peoples in this place we call the West; there’s a mixing and remixing, not always without hostility, that goes on here. The poetry in New Poets of the West evokes images of the past; the reality of the present, the hope for the future; the poems bear witness to hardships, injustices, without holding back. They tell true stories and tall tales; they plumb for the truth, to find the underlying frustrations, and they speak to us of the goodness and of the kindness that is possible. This will be the inheritance of all of us.
I’m reminded of the great Chinese poet Li Po; he would dip his brush into the inkpot and compose a poem on the spot, throw sand on it to help it dry, then fold the poem into a little paper boat and set it gently in the delta waters; let it find its own path to perhaps a fisherman or to women washing clothes or to bathers or pass into the irrigated rice fields, where men, women and children bow to their tasks.
I have quoted lines and phrases from the poems that you’ll find in this fine book, in the hope that this will entice readers to visit the 261 poets, and peruse the 430 poems in this gathering of poetry. They have let loose onto the tributaries of the West their poems, perhaps to find their way to those in need of such a thing called poetry.
“When the song drums pound, they will listen.” (p.186)
Notes to lines poetry quoted in the review: p.21, (excerpted from: Flood Song) by Sherwin Bitsui; p.40, The Sleepers by David Ray; p.101, Pleasanton Villanelle by Samuel Maio; p.144, Shoes by Mark Irwin; p.186, My Indian Relatives by Sunk Pa (Minerva Allen); p.371, Vertiginous by Halina Duraj.
From Spillway / Tebot Bach 2010
Copyright ©2015 Joseph Zaccardi