Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Poetry of Caroline Hagood Reviewed by Nina Tassi

Caroline Hagood, Making Maxine’s Baby. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2015. 70 pages, paper. $18U.S. ISBN 978-1-934909-46-1.

This is a daring book, an odyssey written from within the consciousness of Maxine, a resident of New York City subway tunnels and survivor of repeated sexual abuse from the age of six. In tracing Maxine’s struggles to free herself from the horrors of her own mind, Hagood calls up poetic antecedents from Homer’s Odyssey to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Yet Maxine is very much a contemporary woman, so Hagood’s metaphors are drawn mainly from the world of American pop culture—from horror movies to media accounts of real killers in movie theaters and shopping malls. The mental wanderings of her heroine are marked by punishing setbacks and fresh tries, a journey often as harrowing for the reader as for Maxine.

The challenge Hagood has set herself is to follow a seriously disturbed mind through violent images that mimic its chaos while constructing a compelling poetic structure. She achieves this goal through language which is continuously inventive and cognizant of form. Almost every line startles the reader with complex images conveying the double vision of both Maxine and the poet.

In one sequence of nine poems, “How Mermaids Save the Drowning,a stanza begins, “When she was six, he started to confetti/ her skin, and night after night he found other ways/ of making verbs of nouns, saying/ there’s a new sheriff in town.” And then, in a following poem, the chilling effects of her violation are recorded:  “After he touched it, she wanted to remove her flesh,/ just bulldoze it and build a mall there.”

Maxine careens from near-suicide to matter-of-fact acceptance of her plight to hope for a viable future. Occasional glimpses of connectedness vie with images of splitting, ugly slashes, fragmentation, surgery, dissection, and details of autopsies.

Using one of the vocabularies taken from pop culture, Hagood shows Maxine steeping herself in violent films because she has been told it is a way to work through trauma: “A night without the living dead/ is not a night at all. When she can’t rest, she works on a stolen Slurpee/ in the back row of Rocky Horror.

This is no poetry for the faint of heart or weak of stomach: “Maxine knows she was put here to mother/ even the rats who creep beside her bed at night/ to have their babies. She hears them heaving, reaches out,/ lets her fingers rest on their sweated backs/ as they make their birthing sounds,/ so much like train whistles.”

Along the path toward survival, Maxine tries to analyze her own mind, striving for images of connection and coherence. Memories come into play, good and bad, as she apprehends glimmers of possible recovery: “tangled chords/ someday she will make a rope out of them.”

Healing begins when “Maxine pictures her psyche as a Lower East Side/ tenement,” a wry image of wholeness, even during a period when she is engaged in self-destructive sexual behavior.

Well into her journey, Maxine falls in love with Marvin, a street person and kindred soul: “Marvin fancies himself a piece of city/ sea glass, shaped by the stroke of eyes/ averted, tumbled by all the words/ spoken, but not to him, tinning on his ears.”

With Marvin, Maxine begins to emerge from the morass she lives in. Not that Hagood offers any vision of a return to conventional middle class life. Rather, the poet views Maxine as moving to stable ground, based on love and a will to live, although still on the street. Pregnant with Marvin’s child, she coos to the baby in her womb with these words: “When you start imagining/ absurd things, like giant cockroaches/ dancing behind people who are screaming/ at you, don’t be alarmed, it/ runs in the family.

A notable achievement of this collection is Hagood’s ability to keep the reader steadily engaged with the mind of Maxine and her tortured drive toward freedom. This is a deeply-imagined, credible character who awakens the sympathy of readers as well as admiration for the cool tone and highly poetic language of her creator.

Hagood, a teaching fellow and Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University, published her first poetry collection, Lunatic Speaks, in 2012. She has also written on film and literature for the Guardian and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

- Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions; she is completing a new collection of poems, Spirit Ascending.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Kevin Brown's Liturgical Days by Nina Tassi

Kevin Brown, Liturgical Calendar. Eugene, OR: RESOURCE Publications (An Imprint of Wipf and Stock ), 2014. 100 pages, paper. $14U.S.  ISBN 13: 978-1-4982-0375-3.
In his new book, Kevin Brown does not write overtly religious poems, as the title of the collection, Liturgical Calendar, and of many individual poems would suggest. His strategy is more cagey—subversive even. He situates his poems squarely in the everyday world of the present, his lines and stanzas short, images focused largely on the commonplace. Most of the pieces are written in the first person in a tone of wry or ironic humor. The language is colloquial, matter-of-fact, occasionally meditative. Thus the voice of the poet flows along in an easy rhythm, like a conversation with oneself, mulling over mundane worries, wounds suffered in childhood, or embarrassing personality flaws not usually confided to friends and relatives.
But there is more to it. Each poem, either by title or subtitle, references a sacred event or a saint, leading the reader to suppose that the poem will be literally about Ash Wednesday or St. Hilarion. But no, the poem concerns people down the street. And yet, while taking a stroll in Brown’s neighborhood, the reader is surprised into an encounter with the Christian universe—where one’s own moral life is implicated. A married couple’s ordinary supper of spaghetti, bread and wine suggests comparison with the Last Supper and the Eucharist. Brown reminds the reader that the sacred lurks just beyond the kitchen—or within it.
He invites the reader to consider the ways in which a betrayal at the supper table, seemingly confined to such a tiny space and moment, might have universal significance. It might have to do with Judas and the reason why Jesus died, something the poet wants the reader to question rather than saying it himself.
The loss of love is a major subject of Liturgical Calendar. One striking sequence considers the Easter cycle, opening with “Palm Sunday,when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem a week before his death. In this poem, a man describes retrospectively a young married couple’s happiness,  “celebrating successes/we have not yet had,” while foretelling disappointment: “ahead of us, only dusk.”  In  “Maundy Thursday,”  Jesus’s foreknowledge of betrayal is implicitly compared to a more mundane betrayal, when a husband realizes his wife will betray him,  “a future only I could foresee.”  At the end of this revelatory supper, the husband sees nothing left “but a pile of plates/in the sink, pieces/of pasta clinging/to them tenaciously.”
Is the difference in betrayals so vast as to not yield a valid comparison, or does the poet wish us to realize that betrayal is a monumental human experience?
“Good Friday” implicitly connects Christ’s crucifixion to the death of a marriage:  “Nothing left but the suffering”—small words for a large reality. “Holy Saturday” offers a poignant image of loss in a husband’s cry to his wife who has abandoned him:  “I sit in your study, the emptiness echoing like a tomb.”  Finally, “Easter Sunday” raises hope for the estranged couple, comparing  reconciliation to resurrection, in that both “are made out to be miracles.” 
In his “Notes” at the end of the book, Brown provides a liturgical or Gospel reference to every poem. Some of these notes require a little extra effort on the reader’s part—well worth it—to understand exactly what Brown was thinking as regards a Biblical passage or saintly anecdote. One such poem, “Dry Mouth,” is about loss from a “what if” perspective. A man reflects on all the times he found himself unable to communicate verbally with his wife as she wanted; the marriage might have endured if he had found the words. The Gospel reference is to Jesus curing the deaf mute, a sad admission that no miracle occurred in this case.
Brown can be openly passionate. “People Said It Was the Best Show They Had Ever Seen,” which takes place on the Fourth of July, addresses a woman who finds freedom from her husband’s  abuse only in his death. Here Brown reveals deep empathy with the woman and her suffering.
Liturgical Calendar is an accomplished work which can be enjoyed as lightly or as deeply as the reader wishes to take it.
Brown, a professor at Lee University, has published two previous books of poetry, A Lexicon of Lost Words and Exit Lines, as well as a memoir, Another Way, and a scholarly study, They Love to Tell the Stories.
Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions; she is completing a new collection of poems, Spirit Ascending.