Poetry, Review, Spring

Review: On Hours by Mark Rahe

On Hours Front Cover

Reviewed by Kenji Liu

On Hours by Mark Rahe is like the poetry memoir of a religious hermit, but one who doesn’t mind living a little closer to town than usual.

There’s a focused, contemplative quality to the narrator’s general orientation to the world, observing what’s directly in front of his face and never straying too far from that starting point. Each poem is complete in its capture of a particular moment, often ending with a quirky tangent that lands the narrative in a surprising place.

Many of the poems feature gentle yet remarkable shifts in relationship between observer and observed—a turn where an object is lightly animated, personifying a desire. For example, “The Cloud of Promise” seems to describe a plateaued period in the narrator’s life, for example by using a negation (“The door is closed. There is / no door”). But then the poem turns in the final line, declaring “This cloud is promising[,]” introducing an inanimate object that offers a way out of the preceding tension.

Like “The Cloud of Promise,” the poem “Down” interjects an unexpected quality that retroactively evokes new meaning. “Down” takes us down a tub drain with a visual and descriptive swoop, carrying the reader through a compost-pastoral to deposit us into “While my fan oscillates. // While my sweaty chest is bare of you.” — suddenly casting the previous stanzas in an erotic light.

For me, the highlight in this collection is “Man at Baseball Game, Alone.” It’s a great study in how the environment in a story is its own character, with peanut shells, wax paper, popcorn, setting the stage of what for many people is a day of relaxation. Then, with a single observation, the poem shifts:

The cuffs

of the father
are the return of a hand to your face.
The ballpark is the place

where he never bruised you.

After this painful turn, the preceding pleasantness of baseball game sounds are reframed as if a mute button has been released—suddenly “Everyone yells, everyone spills / trash.” The final sentence, “You came here to find / something gentle” becomes a plea.

The attention On Hours brings to the minutiae of life is basically gentle and non-judgmental, and many of the poems in the first two sections are almost a Bashō-like travelogue, though not because a lot of physical movement happens.

Still, these poems are not without want or need. The third section shifts into a few harder topics, such as death or alienation from a loved one—though it doesn’t stray too far from the quirk of the previous sections. Here, the collection’s matter-of-fact tone works by serving as a scaffold on top of which feelings unfold. The emotion of it is contained, but a kind of passion still radiates from underneath, demonstrating how affect can be evoked without being too obvious.

On Hours is relaxing, like following the familiar wanderings of your own mind during a warm afternoon. It’s low in drama, but high in interesting turns and shifts, making it a quick but rewarding read.

The characters animating Rahe’s poetry become interlocutors and sounding boards for the narrator’s tangential musings, all of which eventually return to land in just the right place.

***

KenjiCLiu

Kenji C. Liu is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey, now in Southern California. His writing and art arises from his work as an activist, educator, artist, and cultural worker. A Pushcart Prize nominee and first runner-up finalist for the Poets & Writers 2013 California Writers Exchange Award, his writing is forthcoming or published in The Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, Barrow Street Journal, CURA, The Baltimore Review, RHINO Poetry, and others, including the anthologies Dismantle and Orangelandia. His poetry chapbookYou Left Without Your Shoeswas nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. A three-time VONA alum and recipient of a Djerassi Resident Artist Program fellowship, he is completing a full-length poetry book. He is the poetry editor emeritus of Kartika Review.

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Fall, Poetry, Review

“A Riot of Surface”: Hannah Brooks-Motl’s The New Years

 

hannahbrooks-motl

Review by Leah Silvieus

Hannah Brooks-Motl’s debut collection of poetry, The New Years, deals with the tension between skating well on surfaces (to borrow a phrase from Emerson, whom Brooks-Motl references frequently throughout the book) and pressing through surface into the meaning-making of memory. Brooks-Motl divides the book into three sections: “Winter Then,” “Properly Speaking” and “Village & Sea.” None of the poems have titles, and the scarcity of end-stops throughout the collection conjures a dreamlike world that drifts from one thought or moment to the next, from seaside hotel to prairie to snowed-in car. The melancholy that suffuses the book is not merely the result of the speaker’s being alone but of acknowledging the distance that the act of remembering necessitates:

We love the new year like an object
Or decide to, filling our hands with the unpleasant snow
To type a thing we must be cold (39)

To remember, in some ways, is to relinquish one’s possession of the past. Allusion is not the original text itself. In fact, allusion emphasizes the reader’s distance from the original. Likewise, memory cannot be the past moment itself. The memories we have today will become ghosts, surface, perhaps even nonsensical:

Ahead of me, there are ghosts
Do I know them
Their names, particular looks, and a certain
Singing nature
It’s possible I have spoken
Nonsense […] (82)

At times, The New Years risks skating away from the reader on its own surfaces. The book generally resists, however, by grounding itself in literary allusion (e.g. “My dear wild boar,” a phrase culled from a letter from Jenny to Karl Marx) and striking images that unite elevated diction with colloquial speech: “What good to speak now to love’s endlessness—like litter over the / prairie.” (74) Perhaps what grounds the book foremost, however, are the candid moments from the speaker’s past that sear through the winding discourse about memory:

The embarrassment once of not knowing what “counterpane” meant
A word a lover used in an email
I wrote back a description of the hotel where I was (14)

Celebrating a new year, in theory, is about specificity: the glowing countdown to the year in Times Square, the televised countdowns of the 100 best music videos of the year, the news highlights. But when viewed in the plural, how quickly the new years blur. What was the top song of 1991? What did the hosts serve at the New Year’s party I attended in 2005? Did I even go to a party that year?  What we remember, we remember in incomplete or sometimes even mistaken glimpses, Brooks-Motl points out. The New Years gains its footing precisely by admitting there is no footing, and in the end, skates away, but not without a haunting final address and inquiry to readers about where we are going, which in some ways, is also a question of where we’ve come from:

The head is your spring and being walked
Through the hills, a black field—
Where is your soft, suburban grotto
To go to, again
Is it handsome (83)

***

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her at http://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

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