Green Hills Literary Lantern

Review: Three More Books You Should Read

 

 

Four Way Stop by Justin Evans.  Main-Traveled Roads Press, Lewiston, Idaho, 28 pp

Discovering Mortality by Bruce Lader.  March Street Press, Greensboro, North Carolina, 80 pp

The Scar Saloon by Sholeh Wolpé.  Red Hen Press, Los Angeles, California, 76 pp

 

     Justin Evans, Bruce Lader and Sholeh Wolpé do not, at first glance, seem to have much in common, beyond the fact that all three poets have been published in Green Hills Literary Lantern.   Evans, born and raised in Utah, is a high school teacher in Nevada; Lader, east coast born and bred, runs a tutoring service "educating students from diverse cultures in North Carolina"; Wolpé, born in Persia, raised in the Caribbean and Europe, and finishing her education at Northwestern and John Hopkins, has done everything from producing documentaries to hosting and directing Poetry at the Loft, "a successful poetry venue in Redlands, CA."   Evans's poetry reflects his pride in his Utah heritage every bit as much as Lader's work celebrates his Jewishness and Wolpe's her Middle Eastern roots.  Yet all three people share in common more than their skills as poets; each of them explores family history, culture and the centralizing poignancy of loss as the primary driving thematics of their poetry.

 

     The youngest of the three poets, Justin Evans is at least as focused on issues of mortality and impermanence as his two counterparts; no fewer than six of the fifteen poems in his chapbook deal explicitly with death, and several others deal with other kinds of loss: lost youth, lost love, lost opportunity.  Yet Four Way Stop is far from being a morbid or unvaried collection.  The mountains and nature of Utah stand as markers of what may endure; the poet's affinity with nature and with family keeps him grounded and far from morose.  The chapbook's opening poem, "Singing Back the River," a memory poem of a time when the poet at fourteen had to help sandbag a flooding river, seems affirming in its plot line.  The whole town cooperates to hold back the threat from nature; the poet does his part well and later gets to talk about it with an older girl who "drew me in like a warm breath."  Yet, working well to avoid pathetic fallacy, Evans refuses to see a break in the rain as a sign of hope.  Instead, "Clouds tore themselves apart/ exposing the stars- helpless watchers."  And the only thing he and the young woman can take from the scene with certainty is "the sound of departure/ working its truth into our wet bones."    

 

     When Evans does deal directly with death, he allows it its usual variations.  "The Way It Goes," deals with the death of the poet's 104 year old grandfather; on the facing page, "These Mountains are Literal," concerns his grandfather's brother, who died at sixteen from a fall in the mountains; "Every Time Stars Shiver" is another poem about the accidental death of a young person.  Perhaps part of Evans's point is that whether someone makes it past one hundred or dies suddenly at sixteen, death and loss are ever the key definers of life, no more threatening than any simple truth.  "Outside My Grandmother's Window" begins as a nature poem, comparing the quiet coming of winter snow, to the landing of "a quiet starling/ on a rough pine fence," but goes on to recall the young poet's habit of pilfering wheat from his grandmother's pantry to feed to the birds.  In doing so, the poet recalls a classmate who lectured his class once on not feeding the birds so they would remain self-sufficent and not starve later when the handouts would stop.  In the final two lines of the poem, Evans recalls, "The next day I throw wheat into the sky/ like a solemn prayer."  He signals to us his need to nurture the birds, even if there are common sense reasons not to; he signals to us the poet's need to note the pervasiveness of loss, even when the most he can do about it is to note it.  He understands that some of us will realize that is all and enough of what we can do. 

 

     The final of the fifteen poems, "Epilogue," does not surprise us then with its bittersweet note of youth gone by, with time that can never be recovered, and its final admission, "Nothing left but the leaving."  We might despair for so young a poet to seem to be so resigned, except for the very last line of that final poem, "Every mile a poem."  The theme of loss may tempt us to despair, but one of its consolations, however ironic, is that it is inexhaustible.

 

     Certainly Bruce Lader finds this to be true in Discovering Mortality.    Since Lader has 80 pages rather than Evans's twenty-eight to work with, he has more room to develop his themes, but he is just as interested as Evans in seeing how the past affects and predicts the present and possible future.  The first of his four sections deals largely with memories from his own childhood, though it begins with a poem about his own young son and himself as a father, "Trespasser."  Most of the rest of the poems in this section contain memories of Lader's family: father, mother, grandfather, and boyhood experiences ranging from getting caught with friends while spying on an old woman in a wheelchair, "Spies," to playing baseball into twilight in "Emperor of Baseball." Especially poignant is "Sabotage," a short but complicated poem about Lader's relationship with his father, framed by Lader's first time leading the Seder ceremony at Passover.  The lessons the father must pass on to his son have less to do with the precise order of actions at the Seder meal than with "teaching me / to value a drop of his sweat, so I would/ understand even bitter roots can yield/ a garden, the hard earned righteousness of study."

 

      Section II starts off with an interesting trio of poems about a love triangle, one each from the woman "Vibes," the married lover,"Liar," and the would be boyfriend who can't compete with the womanizer he despises, "In Between."  All three are effective, but perhaps the most interesting is the one from the two-timer's point of view, which gives a real insight into what it must be like to know you're in the wrong but still want to do things without cruelty, "didn't know what to say/ that was true and wouldn't hurt her."  Much of section two is devoted to relationships, even as much of the third section of the book looks into teen street culture, which one guesses Lader gleans from his time with "students from diverse cultures," through his work running Bridges Tutoring Services.  Also in this section is the title poem, "Discovering Mortality," an almost surrealistic look at a personified death's attack on a young man.  Death's decision about the boy, "Your head is dust, nobody lives forever," seems to be countermanded by the mother calling the boy into a party, but as he walks back into the house, "blood leaks from the ceiling,/ snakes over walls, he follows a trail of red footprints."  In the work of all three of these poets, death is never absent, the discovery of mortality comes early and stays late.  And youth cannot stay innocent with such telling knowledge.

 

     In the final section Lader returns inside too, to more poems about family, though more about the present than what he had brought to us from memory earlier in the book.  And the volume ends with the same son mentioned in the first poem, again, as in the beginning, bringing his father news of snowfall.  Though far distant from Justin Evans's Utah, it is the same snow, which landed softly outside his grandmother's window, the same peaceful harbinger of winter, nature's clearest nod to loss.  For Lader it begins and ends his book; in the brief final piece, "The Claim," the son, the grandchild of Lader's father, is planting his own footsteps, even as Lader awakens to another day closer to his own mortality, a mortality made poigant and often bearable by family.

 

     Sholeh Wolpé also personifies death in one of the poems in The Scar Saloon, and her characterization aids a reader in seeing both her alignment with and differences from the first two poets reviewed.  If there is more overt violence in Wolpé's book, there is also more humor and sensuality.  Those latter two qualities appear in her poem entitled, "Death," which presents a personification far less bloody than in Lader's poem, but rather one who amuses himself by trying on the poet's "bras/ silk underwear/ long black stockings."  He's a personalized death, one ready to sit beside the writer and she is always ready to accept him: "I never say a word. I always/ let him hold my hand."  So many of Wolpé's poems deal with the violent situation in the Middle East, yet she is ready to both bravely and playfully refuse to let death be too proud, even as the statue of the Virgin in her opening poem, "Statue Atop a Hospital in Bethelem," "stands / unfazed, unblinking," though riddled with bullets.  But in the very next poem, "Butcher Shop," a young  woman, Aisha, "a virgin" of twenty-four is gunned down by "the boys in black bandanas" who were seeking to kill the young woman's brother.  Her blood spills with an irony at least as great as the previous poems bullet-ridden statue, in a butcher shop where blood is already ubiquitous, "it already covers/ the counters, stains the white aprons, is sold in long red sausages."  In these two poems, then, Wolpé begins to press her theme, how the violence that mostly comes from men so affects and defines the women who must live with them, who can't help but "hold death's hand."  In the title poem, "The Scar Saloon," admittance to the saloon is for "Women only- Show scar to the attendant."  Even though many of the scars, like the poet's own, are from a "C-section," there is the certain implication that it is men who ever scar women, whether through the legal path of obstetrics or masectomy, or the overtly illicit violence suffered by the woman in the poem, with "A razor cut, deep from hairline to a/ down-slanted eye."  

 

     What makes Wolpé's volume far more than a tirade against men's violence is its balance and sometime sense of humor.  In a prose poem "My Brother at the Canadian Border" it is a man who is the hero and a humorless female border guard who plays the straight-man villian, suspicious of Wolpé's family's rich ethnic heritage.  In "Two Women at the Zurich Railway Station," Wolpé pokes fun at two Muslim women who follow only the letter of Islamic law by hiding their hair in "thick black scarves," while otherwise dressing very provocatively.  And in "If I make it to 80," the final poem of the book, the persona of the poem promises to dress and act outrageously as an octogenerian, even meeting Death in a "sexy purple gown," as she invites the Grim Reaper to, "take off his cape/ Have a glass of Cabernet/ Sit closer, not be shy."     

 

     Perhaps what each of these fine collections have most in common is a willingness to face life as it is, while still hoping against hope that writing can and will matter.  Though nature and perhaps mankind's nature are both inevitable, and though "The yellow daffodils so bright and cheery/ last week in the garden/ are wilting in the narrow blue vase," in Wolpé's "The Writer," she carries on, "fiercely... / tenderly" trying to "recreate the world."  After experiencing the poetry of Justin Evans, Bruce Lader, and Sholeh Wolpé, readers will be encouraged to believe that such honest and artful work has not been in vain.

 

 

 

Joe Benevento serves as poetry editor for GHLL.  His latest book of poems, My Puerto Rican Past, is out with Ginninderra Press.  His novel, The Odd Squad, (Behler Publications, 2005) was recently named a finalist for the John Gardner Award,  presented by Binghamton University.