Some of you have been following the Celebration of Indie and Small Press Month on the blog for sometime now, and you’ll probably recognize today’s guest reviewer, Sara from Wordy Evidence of the Fact, because she reviewed Confederate Streets by Erin Tocknell earlier in the month.
Title: 200 Nights and One Day
Author: Margaret Rozga
Publisher: Benu Press
Year of Publication: 2009
I received this book from the publisher packaged with the proofs of my friend Erin E. Tocknell’s book Confederate Streets. I was thrilled to get this unsolicited copy because I love to read poetry, especially new voices. This collection also had promise because it was from Benu Press, so the thematic material would likely be something I was interested in. Benu Press is an indie publisher committed to “inspiring and thought-provoking books about the practical dimensions of social justice and equity.” Unfortunately, the one-sentence review of this book is not altogether favorable: I’m glad to have read it, but the poetry was not terribly good.
The life material this collection is based upon is truly inspiring. These poems revolve around the open housing movement in Milwaukee, WI in the 60s, with particular focus on the events of 1967 and 1968. Though I consider myself well-versed in the Civil Rights movement, I was ignorant of this strand of protests and found the collection to be informative and revealing.
The collection opens with a foreword from Dick Gregory, which provides a little background. There is also a chronology of the movement and some fascinating photographs. I was immediately intrigued by the images of Father James Groppi, the white priest who provided much of the visible leadership for this movement. The photos show him in sunglasses, holding a bullhorn on a bus hood, in the back of a police wagon. He is a fascinating character, the very picture of incongruence: rebellion in religious vestments.
The poems tell the story of the movement, fragmented among several voices. We hear from Pam, Shirley, Curley, Lawrence, Mary, and even the US Supreme Court. Rozga (known as Peggy) includes only a few poems from her perspective; the rest attempt to channel the voices of her African-American counterparts in the movement. Let this be said: I do not doubt Rozga’s commitment to the movement, and I admire her willingness to get involved in a difficult fight where she was a member of the racial minority. However, I take some issue with her poetic rendering of these other voices. They simply sound too much the same. Creating memorable characters in a novel or short story is certainly difficult; to do so in a poem is to do the same difficult work on a much smaller scale. She tries to tell their stories, but when the poems don’t distinguish themselves, when you have to look at the titles to identify the narrator, when you finish the poem and realize it doesn’t matter what name is on the top – these things add up to a amalgam of poems that don’t do justice to the people they are intended to honor.
A few of the poems were lovely. “City Limits” does a good job of conveying the conflict while doing the work of rendering vivid details about the neighborhood and the neighbors. I like the image of Mr. Stanisch cutting his grass, “as he did every other day, / alternating with setting out the sprinklers to water the lawn.” The normalcy of tending to the suburban lawn provides a nice contrast to the abnormal conflicts that were broiling in their neighborhoods. I also thought “On the Bridge” was a strong piece. Ironically, this poem is the most tangential to the history. The overlap appears to be merely the celebration to open the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge, so thematically it’s a stretch, but the final two lines carry a thoughtful emotional weight: “I relish this moment there, there, where time / had space, where boys had hope and almost stood still.”
Too many of the other poems read like first drafts, like she was forcing the history into a form, into a collection that didn’t suit it. In fact, in the epilogue, Rozga tells the reader that when she got stuck she would turn to a traditional poetic structure (such as sonnet or ballade) to get things moving. She explains “What the open housing marches did for set territorial boundaries in Milwaukee these poems do with traditional poetic forms. The old boundaries are questioned, rearranged, expanded, and maybe abandoned.” I want to believe her; however, the poems indicate less intention. Doing the hard work of making your efforts sing within the structure is what makes the structure so powerful. When you read a stunning villanelle or sonnet, for example, you are struck by what the form contributes to the poem and how the poem spins within that structure in seemingly effortless fashion. If your construction of the poem is actually effortless, it won’t spin at all.
Only once does Rozga identify the poetic structure in the title, and it is in that poem where the most egregious disregard for structure lies. “Vel’s Villanelle” is not in fact a villanelle. A villanelle is a 19-line poem made up of 5 triplets and 1 quatrain, and there is a beautifully cyclic repetition of line and rhyme that creates a breath-taking effect when done well. This poem is 25 lines long – it has two additional triplets – and it does not adhere to the repetition or rhyme scheme intended in a villanelle. Without the repetition, the poem loses the strength as well as the mystery of how the same words can convey such different meanings. Beyond working within this difficult scheme, the poet must also craft those repeated lines with precision. They have to do more than some 80’s pop song chorus. In Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” (a shining example of villanelle), the opening line is “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” That is no casual dashing off of words; that is craft. And a villanelle demands such a love affair with craft to be successful. “Vel’s Villanelle” begins “Henry issued a proclamation forbidding marches.” A direct statement can certainly have a quiet strength, but in this form, these words were inadequately prepared for the job they needed to do. Rozga’s villanelle indicates to me that her primary purpose was conveying the truth of a history, her secondary purpose was putting together a book, and craft was only a subsidiary to these two goals. A poem cannot breathe within such a hierarchy. Or at least, for this reader, it cannot.
All that said, if telling this story was her purpose, Rozga’s book is a success. I learned about the movement through the book, and I’m glad to have done so. I was informed about a slice of history that I would not otherwise have known of. Thanks to Benu Press for representing these voices; and thanks to Serena for the chance to celebrate Benu and their authors this month. It has been an honor.
Thanks, Sara, for providing a review for the Indie & Small Press Celebration!