“An Infinite Number of Things”: Older Poets and Their Considerable Legacies
Charles Rammelkamp, Mata Hari: Eye of the Day, Apprentice House Press, Loyola University of Maryland, Baltimore, MD, ISBN: 978-1-62720-076-9, 106pp
Lee Slonimsky, Red-Tailed Hawk on Wall Street, Spuyten Duyvil, New York, NY, ISBN: 978194155-0571, 89pp
Matthew Brennan, One Life, Lamar University Literary Press, Lamar, TX, ISBN: 978-1-942956-13-6, 102pp
Larry D. Thomas, As If Light Actually Matters: New & Selected Poems, Texas Review Press, Huntsville, TX, ISBN: 978-1-68003-024-2, 194pp
Louis Phillips, The Domain of Silence: The Domain of Absence: New And Selected Poems: 1963-2015, Pleasure Boat Studio, New York, NY, ISBN: 978-0-912887-19-7, 230 pp
I never have a pre-conceived plan
on how I will organize the book reviews I do each year
for Green Hills
I agree, during the course of the year, to review
several books offered to me from poets who have
published at least once before in our journal.
I always manage, though, to write one review
encompassing three or four books, and somehow connect
those works under a common theme or treatment.
This year, purely by coincidence, all five of the
poets whose books I now bring before you
are men sixty years of age or older, all of whom have
been published more than once in
Among the five they have published over one
hundred books of poetry, fiction and drama. Each of them
has been offering his work to the reading public for
several decades at least.
When I think about contemporary poetry, when I
think about the honesty, accessibility, skill, wit and
wisdom I seek in that poetry and have always sought to
publish in GHLL,
these are five of the dozen or so poets, male or
female, that most readily come to mind.
I take the first part of my title, “An Infinite Number of Things,” from a short, brilliant essay by Jorge Luis Borges, translated in English as “The Witness,” a one page piece which considers what we lose with the passing of any person. Anyone who has never read poetry by Charles Rammelkamp, Lee Slonimsky, Matthew Brennan, Larry D. Thomas and Louis Phillips has lost much in terms of opportunity. Happily, all these poets are still living and writing as well as ever; fortunately we will never lose their talents or insights if readers are wise enough to open the pages of their books.
Among the five books to consider there are two volumes of“selected” poems (Louis Phillips, Larry D. Thomas) one very specialized book dealing with the life and times of Mata Hari (Charles Rammelkamp) and then two books that are volumes of new poetry (Matthew Brennan, Lee Slonimsky). Two of these poets have spent much of their lives in New York, one is a former Texas Poet Laureate, and two grew up in the Midwest. All but one grew up working class, two of the five have spent most of their adult lives as university professors, three of the five employ rhyme and meter in more than a few of their poems. Still, these writers are not most connected by geography, employment history nor even aesthetic, but rather by their commitment to accessible poetry that seeks more to communicate than to impress, and to seek the truth, in so far as it is discoverable, in unpretentious and ultimately hopeful language. These writers have done their part to help define what Green Hills Literary Lantern has been about for over a quarter of a century, and so it is for me a kind of privilege to talk of them together now.
One thing people over sixty
naturally have in common is a point of reference that
cannot help but be more expansive than that of a twenty
or thirty- something . Though most information is now at
the average American’s fingertips there is still
something to be said for the power of memory; for
example a name like Mata Hari has to resonate more with
people my age than it can for my children’s generation.
The beautiful World War I spy, the face and
infamy that defined the femme fatale, Mata Hari is a
woman whose name
serves for more than the answer to a trivia question to
those of us born in the fifties, forties or earlier.
That’s why the back cover of Charles Rammelkamp’s
Mata Hari Eye of
the Day, invokes the name of lesser lights from the
present or nearer past to try to drum up interest in a
book of poems all about an early 20th Century
figure: “Think of Lady Gaga; think of Cher.
Now multiply their audacity by a thousand.”
But this isn’t a book pandering to
Essentially Rammelkamp makes Mata Hari a sympathetic character. He doesn’t do this by trying to pretend she was not a courtesan or outrageously provocative dancer-performer. The persona poems are sometimes in her voice, sometimes from the viewpoints of those who knew her. In her own voice In “Margaretha Zelle Decides to Marry” Mata Hari readily admits her role in a scandal at a boarding school, where, aged sixteen, she had an affair with the headmaster, who she describes as a “horny old goat,” but concludes: “Not that I didn’t encourage him.” And for her strip tease dancing camouflaged as far eastern art, or her money earned from sleeping with various men she has nothing close to regret, instead bragging about how she is the toast of Paris, making people forget Isadora Duncan (“The Myth”.) In Rammelkamp’s enactment she even brags about her conquests in bed as in “The Lovers”: “I received the protection/ from the richest of strangers,/ and I did not lack the skill/ to profit from that/ let me assure you.”
Mata Hari is most famous of all for having been convicted of being a “double agent” and executed by the French for her supposed spying for Germany during World War I. There is some debate, however, over whether Mata Hari actually did any spying for the Germans or instead just took their offered money without actually having passed them any secret information. Rammelkamp sides with the idea that she did not spy, as evidenced in the poem “Ever in 1915” where Mata Hari tells us she “tossed out the invisible ink, / kept the francs: repayment from Germany/ for confiscating my furs and assets.” The truth on this issue is ultimately unknowable, but Rammelkamp offers more compelling evidence for Margaretha Zelle as victim of the blatant misogyny of her accusers. In “Pierre Bouchardon, Investigative Magistrate: She Was a Born Spy,” said magistrate equates someone who can be identified as a “whore” as a certain spy. In other words, any woman who uses her attractiveness to men for profit cannot be trusted. And in still other words, beautiful women who flaunt that beauty and even their sexuality may have power over men, and that power is always dangerous, and in times of war cannot be tolerated. If Mata Hari did any spying it was not by cleverly figuring out secret codes or breaking into highly guarded files. Her method would have been to get men to reveal state secrets to her during sexual encounters. Any such indiscretions should have been blamed on the men involved; instead only Mata Hari would be made to suffer for its possibility. And indeed, her execution could have been an anticipatory strike against a woman who could wield such power. And this is what Rammelkamp leaves us with, a very contemporary take on an outcome one hundred years past. Mata Hari was killed because men fear women’s possible power, and in 1915 just as in 2016 too many men blame and curse women for having that power. Rammelkamp thereby creates a narrative that reifies the centrality of the Mata Hari tale, while also modernizing it to appreciate how timeless a warning it really is of the double standard applied to this “double agent,” which still seems difficult to shake in 2016.
Lee Slonimsky’s Red Tailed Hawk on Wall Street, as its title implies, mixes big city settings with not only more naturerich ones, but also with a constant eye on the very nature of things, though more Pythagorean than Lucretian in its emphasis. The math and physics of the world underlie Slonimsky’s poems, thereby, from the stock trader’s attention to rises and falls to the very molecules at their inevitable work in all of us. The math of his many sonnets or near sonnets is also much in play here; one of my favorites is the first poem in the collection, a fifteen line affair mostly in iambic pentameter and rich with near and internal rhyme, that perfectly captures a New York subway scene. Humor is one possible response to the inevitability of our daily movements, controlled as they are by both nature and nurture, as in this poem where a subway rider picks up on a lover reinventing language to tell the object of his affection “you happy me,” only to rediscover his invention in a disgruntled older woman, who yells in response to a long delay “Train, happy us and move!” with the poet’s simple conclusion “so language spreads.”
Humor is also evident in the sonnet
“Soup” wherein Slonimsky finds a one hundred dollar bill
rather than a fly in his restaurant soup, and his
persona keeps the money and applauds himself for his
lack of ethics.
This bemusement is evident in many of the other
poems, which seem to laugh at those people who lack
sufficient awareness of the underlying causes of things.
In “Notice Me” he lets a molecule have a voice:
“And then you notice me, though unaware/ of my
transcendent spirit – in that tree,” or in “About What
Soar Delivers” where he reminds us: “Appearances
deceive: it’s that we’re small, / too small to fathom
much, if any at all/ of endlessness around us.”
Slonimsky’s speaker, attracted to the order in
numbers even as
frequent reference point in his poetry,
looks for a harmony in nature and never fails to find
it, but what this harmony can mean to those of us who
live in contemporary culture is less certain.
The red-tailed hawk, which lends its name to the
book’s title, makes its first appearance in the second
poem of the volume, “Red-Tailed Hawk on Wall Street,”
but keeps reappearing throughout the collection.
In the title poem the raptor’s nest in the middle
of lower Manhattan menaces not only the city’s pigeons,
sparrows and squirrels, but a poodle whose owner “filed
suit in state court/ to have the nest removed.”
Yet the hawk seems to think “that Wall Street is
where she belongs” and of course the parallel with the
daily predations that take place among traders makes the
hawk seem quite innocent by comparison.
The hawk, after all, is in natural rhythm with
its being even as Slonimsky is with his poetic power, so
well encapsulated in his masterful lines about that
the sonnet entitled “Pause in a Climb” there are two
hawks, “whose wingbeats rhyme.”
And in one of the last poems of the book, “A Walk
Long After Class,” Slonimsky concludes: “there’s truth/
in rising hawk that scythes this purple night.”
The answer is in nature, but that answer isn’t
specifically about being more eco-friendly
rather being more aware of the biology and physics
which, if they don’t rule, at least inform and quantify
One Life has
elements in common with the work of Lee Slonimsky.
Like Slonimsky he is fond of the sonnet or near
sonnet form, though his are often in blank verse
about relatively obscure historical figures (a
series of poems concerning William Hazlitt, for
example), and he is comfortable and astute writing about
nature and finding miraculous, saving elements in the
For example, the second poem in the book,
starts by complaining about “The end of summer, on the
Wabash River,” with that river looking “stagnant as a
sewer” and the speaker only out at a picnic, “as a point
of duty;/ Potluck, chitchat- we’d leave by six.”
This tired, boring, even cynical afternoon isn’t
transformed by a sudden tornado or unexpected
declaration of love or hate, but rather by a poet’s
skill in discovering the power in a combination of
smaller things: the blue sky, “turning to maroon/Above
the willows and sycamores”;
a heron, “hurling its wings outward and whisking/
Past the last landing and into the wild woods”; and a
“blur of ghost-white Asian carp” which “cartwheeled
into the air, their arc/ A spotlight in the coming
One Life is sub-divided into five sections: “One Life,” “Liber Amoris,” (a title taken from Hazlitt) “Still Life,” (mostly ekphrasic poetry), “Elegiac” and “One World,” (poems of travel through Europe). All the poems are characterized by a tight attention to form, careful focus on place and a veteran poetic voice that takes life very seriously without losing the ability to be playful. Though the “Liber Amoris” section begins with poems about Hazlitt, which hearken back to the subject of his Liber Amoris, his infatuation with a young servant girl that ends badly, Brennan brings an even sharper edge and honesty in lamenting his own broken marriage in a series of poems connecting each time to the idea of a physical home undone. “Termites” swarm his house after his wife departs for good, and seem to represent what was being destroyed below the surface, though the bugs end up not being so much a menace as a symbol of the speaker’s own inability to escape: “like fallen/ angels, they drop their diaphanous wings,/ as if they no longer have the heart to fly.” “From Below” hearkens eerily to Poe’s “The Black Cat”; the speaker has accidentally walled in a cat in the crawl space of his new home; its initial croon causing the poet to “dream of our old home,” but its sudden yowl waking him up to the at least short term horrors of his life alone. Finally, “The Madwoman in the Attic,” another sonnet, compares the vestiges of his marriage to Gothic novel horror due to how he “moved you out of mind, mothballed upstairs.” In each poem Brennan worries less about his particular woe and more about connecting it to our shared living spaces, our own concerns and sorrow, our inevitable connection to this sense of loss.
Brennan’s empathy is at least as strong in his “Elegiac” section, where he considers the dead or soon to die with the clearer eye an older poet more likely brings to any such discussion. In “Oblivion,” a poem that very much reminds me of Borges’s “The Witness,” Brennan considers what we lose when someone dies. As Borges notes, we do not lose the person as much as we lose what he or she remembered or knew that no one remaining would. Considering his own grandfather Brennan knows that, “Even the names/ Of his parents’ parents, like lettering/ On kindled papers, are inked in darkness.” And in “A Woman Fishing” he takes a sympathetic but not sentimental look at an old widow who is out fishing at sunset on a lake in Minnesota, somehow conjuring her dead husband “Whose life she loved for fifty years, whose pole/ She now holds like a blind woman’s cane,/ casting into that cold, endless darkness.”
I recall reading “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant and understanding why it was appreciated but also not being surprised to discover Bryant wrote his poem about how to welcome death when he was very young and thereby unable to understand how unlike taking a nap on one’s couch the approach of death is to most people actually near it. Older poets have more actual commerce with death, both in their loss of parents and other loved ones, and in their own closer approach to its realities. Larry D. Thomas uncovers his sharp understanding of our finite natures in numerous poems featuring unforgiving landscapes, vultures, crows and other carrion eaters, and even an entire volume entitled Where Skulls Speak Wind. Having spent his first twenty years and his most recent years on the West Texas plains, (with a career in between in Houston in social service and criminal justice) he can speak with authority about the Great Chihuahuan desert, and other landscapes to which Naturalism seems most natural.
Thomas’s As If Light Actually Matters: New and Selected Poems starts with his newer work but then selects from no fewer than twelve of his other books and chapbooks, mining each for the best poems. Throughout his work, Thomas evinces a clear insight into what makes our mortality so tenuous and thereby precious. He describes a world where men dream of luscious things like “Cantaloupes,” knowing, though, that their “heart-shaped leaves” are “vying for the cool, / black shade/ with diamondbacks.” It’s a world where knowledge of a cougar sighted on his property makes Thomas feel, a tightening of “the noose of wilderness/ around the dewy-eyed throat of our sleep,” (“Puma, Cougar, Panther, Mountain Lion”) or where wolves “promise” a “spring/ profuse with the silent/ yellow howls of their blooming” (“Wolf In The Rain”).
Thomas again and again looks at crows and vultures, even entitling one of his books A Murder of Crows. For Thomas the crow is less trickster figure and more a grim acknowledger of our inevitable demise. “Both the Proposition and the Proof” begins: “The carrion/ the crow relishes/ is his mockery/of death.” He is a being who doesn’t mind turning “on a nephew for a meal,” and who “distinguishes/ his every roost/ like a venerable/ family Bible.” And in “Were I a Crow” Thomas paints a darker picture still, one that suggests our kinship with this animal who regards its very offspring “as meat/ put away in the freezer.” Still, Thomas has a wider range in viewing the way nature accepts what we ourselves so often rail against or fail to understand. In “Mayflies” he imagines, “a day/ so holy with light/ its hours are years.” Thinking of these insects who live but a single day he sees them as accepting, even glorying in “their first/ and only sunrise, /their daylong lives/ satiate with a single/ act of love,” beautifully realized creatures who even in their deaths leave, “the rivers scintillant/ with the gossamer/ of wings of light.”
Overall, Larry D. Thomas reveals a deep understanding of the benefits of stoicism, which, when properly applied need not be somber, but instead at one with the acceptance of what is and must be. His power is in his ability to make the simplest things genuinely holy, agreeing with Walt Whitman that “all truths wait in all things.” One of the best lines of poetry I’ve read in some time appears in his “Antique Shop, After Closing,” where he admires the still life inherent in old items, all of them “beyond the selfish reach/ of usefulness.” They are “like poems/ deconstructed into the bleached, / wooden blocks/ of an alphabet.” They take us to a primordial place where “nothing moves/ but light, shadow, / and dust drifting/ downward through the darkness/ like the laying on/ of hands.”
Another “selected” poems volume, Louis Phillips’ The Domain of Silence, The Domain of Absence, New and Selected Poems 1963-2015 presents the best of a writer who has been publishing in both poetry and fiction for over half a century, in which he has produced no fewer than fifty-five books for both children and adults. Louis Phillips then has averaged a little more than a book a year for over fifty years. His poems relate in some basic regard to the work of the four other poets in this review: like Lee Slonimsky he has spent much of his adult life in and around New York City; like Brennan and Slonimsky both, he knows h way around the sonnet. Like Rammelkamp and Brennan he is fascinated by figures from history and popular culture, with poems devoted to Ted Williams, Bob Hope, and the Marx Brothers, among others. And like the others he is unafraid to face loss, though never pretending that it is easy. None of these poets glib, though all of them, and especially Phillips, have a sense of humor.
Phillips first poem of this over two-hundred page volume “On Varicose Veins My Grandmother Stood,” is a marvelous construction, a poem in quatrains, the first two lines in each not rhyming, followed by a rhyming couplet. This poem introduces us to a poet who is consistently playful- with style, with language, with life- though always offering the reader more than a punchline, while still valuing the power and range of what one can do with a good punch. It is in this very first poem of the collection that we get a hint of the heritage that allowed Phillips the leeway to laugh at himself as well: “With arthritic hands my grandmother touched/ Our lives most wondrously / Rummaged through sales looking for clothes. / & scattered my poetry as if it were prose.”
Phillips’ poems grab the reader right from the beginning, with striking titles such as “The Act of Seeing Is A Moral Choice,” “Try This Poem Before You Read Any Others,” “I Do Not Understand French,” “The Marx Brothers In ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’” (I wonder if Phillips is aware that Groucho and T.S. became friends in Eliot’s last years; I’m betting he is) “Giant Caterpillars Devour A Major City On The East Coast,” and, my favorite, “Reading Philip Larkin Fucks You Up.” There is no top-heaviness to his work, though; each title ends up delivering a poem worthy of it, including the absolute tour de force that is his re-rendering of Eliot’s masterpiece within the framework of the Marx Brothers best movies: “In movie lobbies, men, some balding,’ /Come & go like Captain Spaulding.”
Louis Phillips is also a social critic, as in his “Our Poets Are Haunted By Dead Deer,” where he undercuts poems by “Cummings, Stafford & McGrath” by reminding us that in the big city “our headlights/ fall on darker game, one/ we cannot dispose of/ by tossing down/ a mountain side.” The very next poem, “Death in the Country” suggests that only in a world of dreams can we take death from its natural place, which he makes us see through the absurd vision of “Placing my arms around the neck/ Of a twelve point buck,/Hugging him,/ His melancholy face/ Against my face/ & no one dies ever.” Yet these poems are never cynical or glib, just accepting of what is. “The End of Summer” finds Phillips enjoying the flowers as much as the next fellow, maybe more, but still understanding that Nature “Tomorrow … will send cold rain./When I turn to her again, she will say,/Don’t come whining to me.”
There are no whiners among the five poets in this review. And it isn’t because they have led especially charmed lives. Saddest of all are the few poems that share with us Phillips’ loss of a son, poems particularly poignant in a “selected poems” volume that inevitably includes happier times with that son. In a close to perfect poem about this loss, “The Dowager,” readers can understand some measure of what the poet has suffered, while still appreciating the brave life that tries to live on and the characteristic heart and depth that will make Louis Phillips always one of my favorite writers. I feel the poem also can stand as a testament to all five poets in this review, none of whom is ready or willing to give in to the darkness, who acknowledge and try to understand life’s inevitable pain and loss but who never choose to befriend it. With a brilliant surprise attack on an iconic song, Louis Phillips articulates the deepest loss without seeking to embrace it:
Darkness never will be my old friend.
Darkness took my son from me
& left me with half a heart to love with.
Anyone who takes darkness as an old friend
Will never be my friend….
I listen for comes from a long way off,
From a mouth that can never kiss.
Many believe poetry is best served by the young:
its passion, its fire, perhaps best left to those who
take every unrequited love, every cause, every quatrain
very much as an intensely personal thing.
Still, I don’t know if the majority of poets
being raised today in MFA and Ph.D. programs in creative
writing are encouraged enough to avoid glibness,
obscurity for its own sake, and efforts to make us think
them brilliant and gifted rather than people we’d like
to talk to. Certainly some of them write excellent poems
in spite of that
occasional emphasis, and I’ve been happy to
publish many of those poems over the years in
Even so, the
five poets featured here are all men who are a joy to
speak with, are poets you feel like you can have a
connection to because they are sharing the best truth
they can uncover, in the best words they can find.
They seek to communicate, not to dazzle, or
better, if they dazzle it is because they have uncovered
some golden truth that they bring to us without
pretense. They aren’t afraid to laugh, particularly at
themselves; they never take on easy, politically correct
targets, but rather are open to seeing the whole scope
of life. When
“The Witness” wonders about what
frail” things we will
lose upon his death, his Spanish
fiction, poetry and essays in over three hundred places.
Poetry editor of GHLL since 1995, with numerous
collections of verse and several novels to his credit,
he teaches literature and creative writing at Truman
State University. The second in the Cupelli Brothers
mystery series, Saving St. Teresa, appeared
this year. Expecting Songbirds: Selected Poems:
1983-2015 is just out from Purple Flag Press.