blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1



Chapbook Omnibus Review Part 2:
Work by Marianne Boruch, Leigh Anne Couch, Allison Titus, and Lesley Wheeler

To traverse extraordinary imaginary landscapes, revisit the Blitz, and sift a singular American wilderness for its magic and surprise, get your hands on the chapbooks reviewed here. The work is accomplished, whether authored by a well-established poet or a relative newcomer, and each of these slender volumes holds many poems worth reading—and rereading. If anything links these chapbooks, it is craft; each poet pays close attention to language and its music. Each is a gifted observer, discovering and delivering rich imagery in service of her chosen material.

Two of these titles are published by the very busy Finishing Line Press of Georgetown, Kentucky; the third by Bateau Press, sponsor of the BOOM chapbook contest; and the fourth from Red Dragonfly Press, a self-described “micro-press” located in Northfield, Minnesota. The chapbook—relatively inexpensive and cunningly portable—makes it easy to discover new poets—or poets who are new to you—and to sample and indulge.

Ghost and Oar by Marianne Boruch (Red Dragonfly Press, 2007)

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   Red Dragonfly Press,  2007

Marianne Boruch’s Ghost and Oar is best likened to a jewel box; it’s small and beautiful—a handset, limited edition chapbook, only twelve pages long—and it contains gems. These poems, written during an artist’s residency at Isle Royale National Park (a remote island in Lake Superior), present to readers, especially those who may not know Boruch, a glimpse of her superb craft: close observation, clear and precise language, and a profound ability to chart the depths.

Ghost and Oar offers a loose narrative structure, beginning with the speaker’s arrival at the island, her subsequent exploration of the island, and, finally, a closure of sorts and departure from the island. Daunting terrain, abundant wildlife, natural history, and the human response to all of it are at the heart of this series of poems. In a sense, Boruch, whose plain diction and quiet voice might seem to contradict this assertion, writes about the sublime, that terrifying and fascinating other in the natural world. Her speaker is a singular presence in a magnificent backcountry.

In Ghost and Oar the speaker is witness to wilderness, providing the perspective of both observer and metaphysician. How can we be in such a place, its splendor and danger equally alluring?

Here the eye takes
the brain walking. The brain
on its leash has no
human speech for this

expanse, the usual amazing—
oh, it widens. Do you believe it?
falls ping! on searing metal
that blinds. Or it loosens.

Boruch’s technique is to examine and convey what is observed and felt, weaving together the human moment with the natural history of Isle Royale. These short poems are peppered with stunning reflections on these connections:

               How to know the woods
is straight violence and sex,

that anything can walk off
a postcard into ruin, that wolves
track an old moose five at a time.
The bloody at it comes quick.

Throughout the chapbook certain images repeat, such as the play of light on water and the passage of animals—foxes, fish, wolves, moose, silkworms and loons—across a landscape which is virtually unpopulated by people. These images and the lucid, wondering voice of the speaker offer a dependable through-thread for the collection. In the penultimate poem, “One island is,” Boruch brings the series to an achingly lovely climax:

The silence out here, its
where and once, its ghost

and its oar. Who wouldn’t
lie back and go under? Water
equals dream, dream equals
any small boat come this far.

And summer. Who can keep
childhood from it?
You throw a rope to someone
who waited on shore.

A master-craftswoman, Marianne Boruch offers an idiosyncratic and gorgeous tribute to Isle Royale and its denizens, probing its mystery and transcendence in her poetry.

Marianne Boruch has received two Pushcart Prizes, and was awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She has published several volumes of poetry including, Poems: New and Selected (Oberlin College Press, 2004). Boruch is also the author of two collections of essays: Poetry’s Old Air (University of Michigan Press, 2005) and In the Blue Pharmacy (Trinity University Press, 2005).


Green and Helpless, Leigh Anne Couch (Finishing Line Press, 2007)

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   Finishing Line Press, 2007

“Take my hand from my mouth and I might start singing,” writes Leigh Anne Couch in “Reach” the last poem in Green and Helpless. The chapbook comprises eighteen poems and draws from a palette that is deep-hued and lush, finding its material in both the everyday and the otherworldly. Characterized by imaginative and linguistic leaps, striking images, and an emphasis on the natural world as a foil and for reflection, these poems are rich and exact.

The poems in Green and Helpless are intimate lyrics, taking on such subjects as a dissolving relationship, the pain and rage of singer Janis Joplin (“angel of fame, sex, excess”), and a quirky portrait of a woman biding the last days of an over-long pregnancy. It’s been said that a strong lyric poem stops time, allowing the reader to examine experience through the precise language, imagery, and musical integrity of poetry. Simply put, the lyric opens our eyes. I believe one poem in particular, “Auricle,” captures the essence of Couch’s lyric strategy as it explores the spirit-in-the-animal, naming the corollaries of body and spirit, flesh and mind in a sumptuous and vivid world.

“Auricle” surprises the reader, incorporating footnotes that augment and ground the poem’s metaphors. This is a risky tactic, asking the reader to step out of the poem and consider for a moment some startling fact about the body. But I believe it is a risk that delivers. Consider this stanza and its attendant footnote:

A heart is the oracle.
My vigilance is primordial.
Your each blessed day
an image on a print.
I try to be the photographer
who loves the dodge and burn. 4

4 The inner lens cells of the eye, which form in the embryo and lapse
   into permanent inertness, is one of only three parts on the human
   body to endure unchanged for a lifetime.

Intimate and sensual, Green and Helpless is inventive, occasionally whimsical and often wise. The book opens: “She’s driving her bed through an illustrated town / and the road snaps off like a pencil in her hands”—happily, the pencil does not break in the poet’s hands, and from West Virginia to Tennessee to Northern California, Couch offers her riders a seat with a view.

Leigh Anne Couch’s full-length collection, Houses Fly Away (Zone 3 Press, 2007), also reviewed here, was named co-winner of the Zone 3 Press First Book Award. She lives in Tennessee where she serves as managing editor for the Sewanee Review.


Instructions from the Narwhal by Allison Titus (Bateau Press, 2007)

Intimate and idiosyncratic, Allison Titus’s Instructions from the Narwhal is set in a grim and wintry place where little ease or relief can be brought to bear on the difficulties at hand—grief, environmental degradation, and abandonment. These landscapes of loss are irretrievably sad. Yet, these poems work the reader’s imagination and ear in unexpected ways: 

And when the wind changes.

When you suspect you are close to port.

When the charcoal sky. And the iceberg calved.

                                                                    Dear landlord,

                   you are still the shortest summer from arrival.

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   Bateau Press, 2007

Titus’s work is frugal and spare, depending on juxtaposition and tone rather than lyric language or unified narrative to deliver its punch. Winner of the 2006-07 BOOM Chapbook Contest, Instructions from the Narwhal elegizes a fragile natural order that is under assault.

Taking its title from the long poem that makes up the first half of the book, Instructions from the Narwhal is characterized by quirky syntax and intimation. Titus frames the first nine poems as a series of directives from the “invented” speaker, the narwhal, to an indeterminate audience. These poems are tender and sad: “How to Address the Ukrainian Giant,” “How to Make of Your Heart a Souvenir,” and “How to Dress a Wound.” Titus invites her readers to cross into a place that is familiar but off-kilter, a place that is suffused with melancholy and mystery. Titus achieves these effects through deliberate blurring of the boundaries—what is real, what is not—while writing in language which is accessible and tightly crafted. Especially interesting is Titus’s preoccupation with imminent ecological disaster. In “iv: How to Ruin the Ending,” Titus’s concise, uncluttered style does not spare the reader from the speaker’s premonitions:

When all the trees go missing. Yonder a power plant.
Forest one more shorthand for isn’t that a shame.

Instead of branches thick cables strung over cities
will collect our small gestures. Will carry them to the margins.

Every valentine to the water tower will echo echo echo.
Where will all the pencils go.

For Titus, what is unspoken is more valuable than what is explicitly named, and the emotive qualities of language and image are key to her poetry’s power. Inventive and at times heart-sore and weary, Instructions from the Narwhal is unusual and memorable work, distinguished by its melancholic voice and highly compressed style.

Allison Titus received her MFA in fiction from VCU in 2003 and her MFA in poetry from Vermont College in 2005. Her first full-length book of poems, Sum of Every Lost Ship, will be published by CSU Press in 2009. Her chapbook, Instructions from the Narwhal, won the 2006 Bateau Press BOOM Chapbook Prize. Recently her poems have appeared in absent magazine, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, and Octopus Magazine, and one of her stories is forthcoming in Ninth Letter.


Scholarship Girl by Lesley Wheeler (Finishing Line Press, 2007)

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   Finihsing Line Press, 2007

In Scholarship Girl, Lesley Wheeler offers us her mother’s girlhood. A risky proposition. How will the poet avoid simple anecdote or mawkishness? How will she elevate this account above mere nostalgia? Scholarship Girl transcends all of these concerns. Wonderfully complicated by its setting in Liverpool of the 1940s and 1950s, the framing device serves as a point of departure. This is the mother’s story and the speaker’s. This is also the story of a nation recovering from war, and it is one girl’s imagined journey through that scarred landscape: “I invent this blitzed, hungry, smoke-thin world / because it invented me . . .” Like smoke, an image that recurs throughout Scholarship Girl, the materials of memory are evanescent, but language gives us one kind of scaffolding upon which to work with these materials.

 Robert Pinsky writes that “memory is what gives works of art and political discourse alike the virtues of depth and reality.” Wheeler depends upon her mother’s memories of working-class Liverpool as the resonant echo for the poems in this chapbook. The places, things, and speech summoned up in the poems are essential to Wheeler’s work.  The “soot-blackened maw” of the fireplace, the “thyme in the cake, caraway in the bread, / tiny mouse turds of poppy everywhere” and Scouse, the distinctive dialect of the Liverpudlian, ground this work in a world that feels quite real. But the heart of this collection is surely its sonnet crown, “The Calderstones.”

Finding its driving metaphor in the ancient megaliths of Liverpool’s Calderstone Park, the sonnets are musically and formally rich. Imagining a post-war setting that is darkened by hunger and want, the sonnets move forward in time to the present-day as the speaker travels through Liverpool, seeing the city with her own eyes. The sequence offers a beautifully compressed history of the city and its citizens. The sonnet seems to be precisely the right form for this material. Compressed and expressive of hard-earned love for a difficult beloved, these sonnets shape a personal history into rich public utterance:

Lately the water is diamond-hatched, home again
to salmon, that once was the foulest river in Europe,
or near enough. Conceived in the peaks, it ends
in a salty bay. The silt constricts its hopes—
its girth keeps shrinking and now it cannot float
great ships. Ferries, though, have troubled
it for nearly a thousand years: monks who rowed
by hand, sailing ships, paddle steamers. Rabble
in thousands crossed from Liverpool for stunted
holidays on New Brighton Beach. Most could not
afford swimsuits, and it was cold. They huddled
on the strand in their shifts and sleeves, brewing pots
of tea on smoking coals. The wind had no mercy.
Grand liners puffed by on the hard-working Mersey.

The speaker’s voice, lucid and self-aware, assures us, “this place and time / was noisy once, and has a sound still. No elegies here.”  

Lesley Wheeler’s poems appear in AGNI, Prairie Schooner, Barrow Street, Witness, Poetry, and other journals. She recently published her second scholarly work, Voicing American Poetry (Cornell University Press, 2008). She is a professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. 

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