Poet Lore was established in 1889 as a brilliant exploration of literature. It expanded through inspired conversation and has grown over a century into a repertoire of well-known and new authors, each issue a beautiful collection of work that deserves the reputation. The spring/summer issue is no exception.
“Read With Dick and Jane” by Josh Rathkamp starts the issue with a blast of Americana and a breath-taking twist of nostalgia. The poem opens as, “My daughter bends / her head close to the cover” of a very American-dream children’s book. As he guides his daughter through the story, the narrator’s tone is as bare as the empty roles his narration lays out. He comments on the illustrated, smiling faces in the picture book as parents and children play their parts in the American dream. Though a poem like this provides the opportunity for bitterness, the narrator’s tone is one of acceptance. Though he can see what stories like Dick and Jane mean for his culture, the scripted parts and expectations that burden every generation, he still guides his daughter through them “to land in the arms of a man / no better than her father.”
The editors of Poet Lore laid out this issue as a sort-of unconscious stream of thought. Each poem relates to the next, resulting in groups of themes that weave together into a very complete experience. All of them share a tangible contemplation of lives in motion, from the left-behind to the lying-ahead. John Bargowski’s “Strip Poker” is a clear memory, read as if spoken and simplified in a way that provides an entire experience in a few choice details. It’s a coming-of-age story, a matured look-back on a moment that stilled a room of almost-teens as they beheld a symbol of themselves amongst “the table’s sticky stains tugging at [their] sleeves.” “Those lovely empty cups” were the result of a bold game, of pushing and daring and curiosity, and they were all in it together, would all leave it and move on to bolder things and lives. It was the symbol that stopped the game, and that moment became a tangible starting point for the new life of awareness and searching that is characteristic of coming-of-age.
This issue of Poet Lore is consistent, providing a concise and contemplative experience with each piece. Though some are more obscure than others, no poem lacks the possibility of interpretation, and each prompts a quiet moment of absorption after reading. “The Great Wall” by Vuong Quoc Vu reads deceptively as a stream-of-consciousness, flowing from a conversation, to an experience, to a through-the-walls connection. Though each thought stems from and leaves the last like a stream-of-consciousness piece, they are still connected subtly to “The Great Wall” of the beginning conversation. There is an intentional metaphor in each scene, contemplating the nature and consequences of the literal and figurative walls we build. The poem ends with a touch of irony. The narrator has spent this time contemplating and building walls, but she still felt the pain of her neighbor through them—“the walls between us were so thin.”
Famously, Poet Lore includes more than poems for the pleasure of the reader. As mentioned in the editor’s note, the publication has been an activist in shaping the literary community throughout the years, including its “groundbreaking contribution to translation early in its history.” For the active reader, Poet Lore includes essays and reviews. In this issue, a special showcase titled “World Poets in Translation” is included, in which Thomas E. Kennedy not only translates the poet Dan Turèll of Denmark, but also provides a short article about the author. Turèll is a pivotal figure for Danish poetry, and Kennedy undertook the serious task of translating his beloved works into a language they had seldom seen: English. Five pieces are included.
Translated work naturally reads with a unique camber, and the subject matter is engaging in its similarities and enthralling in its nuances to the reader’s native language and culture. Turèll’s poems are almost unsettling in their bluntness. In the way they boldly lay bare the nature of life and of single lives and do so in a way that is a bit nostalgic and a bit sad but bluntly true and somehow persevering. “It Isn’t Easy” captures glimpses of interconnected lives, and, though the picture isn’t pretty, it’s real and moving. All of the pieces in this small collection grasp the same idea.
Poet Lore provides a few solid hours of intelligent poems and lively, relevant articles with each issue that’s published. The Spring/Summer 2012 issue is wonderfully pertinent, providing a reading experience that prompts looking backwards and forwards, as well as a sweet relishing of the present.