I cannot claim to understand every poem in this issue of the Columbia Poetry Review, and I will admit some apprehension about writing this review. In spite of my limitations, however, there is much that I want to impart about this issue that is a sizeable collection of important work from poets at the top of their game with so much to offer readers. The poets on these pages have created works like no others, works that poke and prod, push and punch with provocative language in lines and stanzas that are unexpected and invigorating.
Poems in this issue deal with a variety of themes and narratives. Sara Nicholson addresses the vocabulary of poetry in “The Archeology of Private Life.” In it she reveals that “The really perfect poem / has an infinitely large vocabulary, built // With a finite set of letters—a system / Not an ocean, to house our antiquities.” This explanation of poem as archeological site to be mined and explored for treasure is an apt metaphor for this issue in which the reader becomes the archeologist whose work is a challenge but whose reward is all the greater. Numerous nuggets of truth emanate from CAConrad’s poem series “Mars” and “Mercury,” offering two poems under each orb and illuminating what it means to live on a planet in need of saving:
let us admit our planet is a toilet
humming locates undertow
bash our heads for a vision
a fixed moment of our
In these unique poems, CAConrad informs us that “hell isn’t where we’re sent it’s / where we enlist our talents” as the planet sings its “extinction song.”
Further enlisting the language of language, Dobby Gibson’s poem “Idaho” instructs us with a narrative in which people become language:
Through the white pines, the horses
walk single file, in a sentence,
each rider becoming the verb
that aspires to be the verb To Be.
Complementing this theme, C. Violet Eaton’s “How about a Little Soul Music” meets language head on in these lines:
he’s better than us persons,
Who only wish we could bust the head
Of language, who only dream a new
Plan to carve the words in right, Amen.
Lines in all of these works connect thoughts on language, music, death, and history, and these few examples in the issue are worthy of repeated reads and contemplation.
Imagery is a key element in a number of the poems in this issue, narratives revealing relationships among people and often within the self with unexpected description that enriches the stories with sensory language. William Brewer’s two poems, what I might call addiction narratives, use natural imagery to profound effect. In “Naloxone” the speaker, following an event “in a coffee shop bathroom / after I’d overdone it,” and during which someone had “carried me like a feed sack / to the curb,” explains that “As they brought me back // they said, the poppies on my arms / bruised red petals.” And in “Icarus in Oxyana,” the myth and the images of the geese are knit into a story of dependence and compulsion:
Something about angels.
Or geese. Or wings. He warns you
about flying too high. Then helps.
Something about chances, not knowing
it was your second until your third
Sandra Kohler’s “Darkling” also deals with an ominous need, this time to stave off “Cold. Gray. Winter approaches” and that winter signals more darkness as the speaker struggles “In the autumn of my 74th year.” Not knowing and knowing simultaneously “From day / to day, from dark to dark,” the poem ends on an image of “Now gull loft and heron flight / punctuate a gray sky shore that’s beaten / again and again by waves of November.” The sense of a long journey without much change evokes a mood of longing and sorrow.
The center of the magazine presents “Six Images by Cate White” that are captivating and provocative in their media and focus. The paintings “Weekend in the Country” and “Progress” (both acrylic on wood panel) present stories in color and chaos that mix art and social commentary. White’s “Birds on Wires” (acrylic on wood panel) keeps me returning for yet another look. The images are a stimulating supplement to the issue.
In every work in this issue, life is in the foreground and everything matters. From the grass to the sky, the images inform and provoke new ways of understanding human stories and how they are interpreted through art. The use of language sometimes confounds and always challenges readers to meet artists in a place where they might recognize one another. Reading this issue has given me a new perspective on language, poetry, and art, and I hope it will do the same for many more readers.