Buddha in a Birdcage and Other Poems by Betty Oliver

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 64 pgs.
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Buddha in a Birdcage and Other Poems by Betty Oliver is a collection of poems and photos of her mixed media art, which was published posthumously by the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts where she once taught.  The executor of her estate Billy Bernstein indicated that she performed her poems, sometimes “fighting her way out of a giant paper bag.”  In the Foreword, Stuart Kestenbaum says, “Reading these poems you may not be able to see Betty fighting her way out to begin to speak, but you will feel the power — and the need to speak — that she brought to this work.” (pg. 1) In many cases, this is true. You can imagine her up on a stage struggling through a paper bag, trying to get those words out. Some of these poems have lines that repeat, and it is almost like there is so much passion behind them that the voice of the poem stutters.

Untitled (pg. 11)

The bear’s purple gutted chest
gave off steam suggesting life
he looked stunned not dead
the men still high from his blood
pranced and preened by the pick up truck
I went closer to look
the heat from his cooling heart
met my gaze.

Her artwork often involves the use of paper in unusual ways, and like her art, these poems are unusual. Her verse is at times playful, but also stern in its criticism of how the world operates or is expected to operate. She’s interested in providing readers with a new perspective on the ordinary, and she holds nature as sacred and tangible. Living on a dairy farm, she had a very close knowledge of milking cows, and what jobs men were expected to do every day. In “Fenceposts,” she talks about how men use posthole diggers and women do not, and how in her family, she has held onto her father’s posthole digger as her mother held onto her father’s twenty-two pistol.

From her time on a dairy farm to her moments in New York City, Oliver’s poems are moments in time that recall things from her past and remind her about the ephemeral nature life, especially when she falls ill. Buddha in a Birdcage and Other Poems by Betty Oliver offers readers just a little of Oliver’s work, and what’s here can seem unfinished at times, but overall, her work is about our moments in time and the thought we do or don’t give them as we live them.

Rating: Tercet

About the Poet:

Betty was truly a multi-media artist. Her visual art was focused on sculpture incorporating paper, paper pulp, and found objects. Though born, raised and perhaps haunted by her childhood in Eastern Virginia, she eventually elected to make New York her home, establishing a home and studio in upper Manhattan and channeling the vibrant texture and rhythms of the city and her neighborhood into her life and work. In a sense, the city became her pallet. She incorporated all manner of discarded and found objects into her art. Old phone books, calendars, Chinatown boxes, newspapers and jigsaw puzzles all were processed into her creative output of sculpture, paintings and photos.

Around 1990 she began to write and perform poetry, and created a powerful body of written work. As a poet, Betty was an engaging and compelling performer, often beginning readings by fighting her way out of a giant paper bag. As in her visual work, her writing echoes the many voices of her experience. A scream from the sidewalk on 110th Street, an impassioned plea to a lover, a strident declaration from the pulpit all resonate with truth, soul, and authenticity.

Betty was a very effective and sought after teacher and led many classes and workshops primarily at Penland School of Craft in the mountains of North Carolina, and Haystack Mountain School of Craft on the Maine coast. The book will be marketed by these schools and any profits will be given to the scholarship funds of these two schools.







Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson

Source: Milkweed Editions
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, 2013 Winner of National Poetry Series, is visceral and raw, filled with a great deal of tactile and violent imagery as well as traumatic moments that meld into regenerative water-based forces.  These poems reflect the most basic human needs for shelter, nourishment, and survival, and in these dark images, Johnson reveals a stunning beauty in that underbelly, which many often ignore or avoid.

The collection opens with “Fable,” allowing Johnson to establish the readers expectations that her verse will not be straightforward, but subtle and more instinctual.  “In the forest, the owl releases a boneless cry,” the narrator begins, hearing “your bones/singing into mine.”  A father is observed with his son in the square of a city before a war begins, and he is blissfully unaware of “what his hands will be made to do/to other men.”  However, the boy is the final comment from the narrator, a symbol of innocence and hope that can change the future.

The collection’s title demonstrates how detailed the poems will be, creating a bone map (a visual representation of an excavation site) to understand what has come before.  Like in “Deer Rub” when “the rain scratches at the deer’s coat//as if trying to get inside,” Johnson’s lines bore into the reader’s mind to create vivid and unsettling images.  Readers are forced to watch, to wash “their antlers of blood,” forcing themselves to recognize their transformation into a less “innocent” man or woman and accept those base natures that have children carrying knives.  More than once, Johnson calls the readers attention to a foreignness entering something untouched, like the “tender-rooted flowers/inside the belly of the horse” in “As the Sickle Moon Guts a Cloud.”

In the darkness and uncertainty of the forest, Johnson reveals the devastation of man, but also the unmovable force of nature to encroach where it isn’t wanted.  Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, 2013 Winner of National Poetry Series, is a journey that readers will want to repeat to fully perceive all of Johnson’s subtleties.

Rating: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Sara Eliza Johnson‘s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Ninth Letter, New England Review, Best New Poets 2009, Crab Orchard Review, Pleiades, Meridian, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Winter Fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a work-study scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and an Academy of American Poets Prize from the University of Utah, where she is PhD student in the Literature & Creative Writing program. Her first book, Bone Map (Milkweed Editions, 2014), was selected for the 2013 National Poetry Series.







Guest Review: The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

Today’s guest review is from H.C. Newton at The Irresponsible Reader

Mixed Rating:
Did I Like It?
★ ★
Did I think it was well-done? (lost a 1/2 star in the last 50 pages or so)
★ ★ ★ 1/2

The story of the Wingos is one of humor, grotesquerie, and tragedy. Tragedy predominates.

So warns Tom Wingo before beginning to relate that story to Dr. Susan Lowenstein. Lowenstein is Tom’s sister’s therapist and needs his help to understand Savannah, who recently tried to kill herself for at least the third time. Savannah’s now institutionalized until she gets back to a place where she can handle her PTSD (my diagnosis, not Lowenstein’s), psychosis, and whatever else they diagnose her with.

As he has done before, Tom has dropped everything and rushed to New York City (from the tiny community of Colleton, South Carolina) to help his sister. The best way to do that, Lowenstein says, is to fill in the large blanks of memory that Savannah demonstrates. Then, she’ll be able to help Savannah remember and move on from whatever trauma has brought her to this stage. Tom agrees — not only has he come to help his sister, he’s also taking a break from home: he’s been unemployed for a year, he just learned his wife is having an affair and might leave him — maybe by helping his sister’s therapist help her, he might get help in the process.

Before he gets the call about his sister and finds out about his wife, Tom’s spending time with his three daughters and jokes with them:

. . .parents were put on earth for the sole purpose of making their children miserable. It’s one of God’s most important laws. Now listen to me. Your job is to make me and Mama believe that you’re doing and thinking everything we want you to. But you’re really not. You’re thinking you own thoughts and going out on secret missions. Because Mama and I are screwing you up. . . I know we’re screwing you up a little bit every day. If we knew how we were doing it, we’d stop. We wouldn’t do it ever again because we adore you. But we’re parents and we can’t help it. It’s our job to screw you up.

That’s not the last time Tom will joke about this, but he’ll spend far more time showing and telling the reader about how parents go about screwing up their kids — he, Savannah and their older brother, Luke, are proof of that (there are four exceptions to this in the novel — but I can’t help but think that with some more investigation, they’d be shown as screwed up, too).

The seeds of this parental function are planted on the night of the twin’s birth, and soon flower while the children are (at least) toddlers — and it doesn’t stop, ever. To detail it would be to give too much away, but Tom, Savannah, and Luke have horrible childhoods and the proof of that is writ large all over their adulthood. Which doesn’t mean that the book is entirely grim — their father has bouts of generosity, of letting his imagination get away from him and getting the family involved in an escapade; they have loving grandparents; they’re successful at school (in differing ways); they adore their mother (rightly or wrongly); they have adventures — they’re actually happy frequently. But then the reality of their poverty, their abusive father, their (I’ll let you fill in the blank if you read it) mother, will revisit them and things will be grim again. Early on, we’re told that something horrible happens to Luke just a couple of years before this most recent suicide attempt, their father is in jail, and that his mother has remarried (to someone Tom hates more than his father). Slowly but inexorably, we march toward those ends. Alternating with the tales of their past, we see Tom in New York, trying to help and understand his sister, as well as the growing friendship between Tom and Lowenstein.

At the end of the day, Lowenstein’s son is the only character that I liked (and maybe Tom’s daughters — but we spend less than ten pages with them, so it’s hard to say). Which doesn’t say a whole lot for the rest of this motley collection of scofflaws, narcissists, manipulators, bullies and gulls. Thankfully, you don’t have to like all the characters to appreciate a well-written, well-structured novel. Which this largely is.

I’m not entirely convinced it’s as good as it thinks it is, however (it, and most readers, it appears). It frequently seems over-written — too much squeezed into a sentence; sentences filled with sesquipedalian words (after paragraphs without any); the humor seems forced sometimes; the dialogue is frequently stilted. The flashback segments appear to be what Tom’s relating to Lowenstein — but I have to wonder if they’re more detailed for the reader than they are for Lowenstein. She complains that Tom’s not forthcoming about the mother (unless maybe his version conflicts with what Savannah has been telling her), because I think I get a pretty clear picture of her from that.

There are some reveals promised early that Conroy doesn’t deliver until towards the end — and he mostly delivers well. However, one of the big reveals (at least Conroy played it as one), was telegraphed so clearly hundreds of pages before I didn’t think it even needed to be mentioned — it could just be assumed. Like he didn’t need to mention that the football coach from South Carolina had an accent. Telegraphing it the way he did made it seem like an authorial or editorial failure. There was one reveal that was promised only a chapter or so before we got it — I’m glad I didn’t have to wait long for it, because of all the things he teased, this was the most vital (and most disturbing) — setting up Savannah’s first suicide attempt and the rest of her life (it seems).

I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I think the book tries to do too much — especially by the time it gets to the end, where Tom is beginning to tell us the dark thing it’s been hinting at about Luke, the set-up for what happens to Luke was just too much. Conroy covers race, regionalism, psychiatry, feminism, theories of masculinity, how sports can be noble, spousal/parental abuse, marital fidelity, marital love, marital betrayal, sexual assault, school integration post Brown vs. Board of Ed, Vietnam, property rights, the drug war, quixotic faceoffs against the federal government . . . and other things I’m forgetting. It’s just too much — especially to befall one family (even if three generations are in view).

So as part of this United States of Books series, one thing I want to look at is why the book was chosen, what did the novel teach me about the state, why did EW pick it as “the one work of fiction that best defines” South Carolina? It’s definitely not because it paints the residents in the kindest light — the constant contrast between small-town SC versus a fairly idealized New York City (or at least affluent NYC) doesn’t do the state any favors. There’s a sense of a mix of pride and shame about the people, the history, and legacy of the state. The sharp class distinction — not just racial — drove so much of the characters actions and desires that it seems to be part of their DNA (although it can be overcome with the right strategy and dedication). It’s not the best part of the country to live in, the book seems to say, but those who embrace the life, the state, develop a great love that transcends all sorts of regional, intellectual or philosophical chauvinism. Also, I should’ve realized, but didn’t, that there was more to SC coastal industry than tourism, never occurred to me that there might be shrimpers, lobster trappers, etc.

“There’s a difference between life and art, Savannah,” I said as we moved out into the Charleston Harbor.

“You’re wrong,” she said. “You’ve always been wrong about that.”

I knew very little about this book going in. I remembered when I was in college shortly after the movie came out that everyone talked about Conroy as if he were a genius. I knew that the movie (and therefore, probably the book) involved some rough-and-tumble guy and a classy psychologist in therapy (and in bed, based on the movie poster). I’ve seen Conroy interviewed and in documentaries, I knew he considered himself a “Southern Writer” in the tradition of Faulkner, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor and James Dickey (his influence is clearly seen). But beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect. I think maybe more than this. I have to give this a mixed review — there’s a lot to admire here, scope, character, the way he told a multi-layered story about very familiar subjects in a way that (mostly) didn’t seem to tired or cliché. But, oh, I spent a lot of time hating this book. There were at least two times, maybe three, that I almost walked away from this — and I probably would have if it wasn’t part of this series. I’m not entirely sure that I’m glad I finished.


Mailbox Monday #361

Mailbox Monday, created by Marcia at To Be Continued, formerly The Printed Page, has a permanent home at its own blog. To check out what everyone has received over the last week, visit the blog and check out the links.  Leave yours too. Also, each week, Leslie, Vicki, and I will share the Books that […]

343rd Virtual Poetry Circle

Welcome to the 343rd Virtual Poetry Circle! Remember, this is just for fun and is not meant to be stressful. Keep in mind what Molly Peacock’s book suggested. Look at a line, a stanza, sentences, and images; describe what you like or don’t like; and offer an opinion. If you missed my review of her […]

Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Source: Public Library Hardcover, 48 pgs I am an Amazon Affiliate Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, is a book I picked up to read with my daughter because I love finding new poetry books to read with her.  I want her to at least appreciate […]

Levitation for Agnostics by Arne Weingart

Source: Book Savvy Public Relations Paperback, 122 pgs. I am an Amazon Affiliate Levitation for Agnostics by Arne Weingart, 2014 winner of the New American Poetry Prize, questions our faith, which oftentimes is passed down through families as a foregone conclusion.  In “Chopping Roots,” Weingart’s narrator is digging to move water away from the base […]

Jane Austen Lives Again by Jane Odiwe

Source: Author Jane Odiwe ebook, 275 pgs. I am an Amazon Affiliate Jane Austen Lives Again by Jane Odiwe requires readers to suspend disbelief, and those fans of Jane Austen who wish she had written more than her 6 novels will surely have no problem doing that.  Her death is averted by her physician, who […]