Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]

By Katharine Whitcomb
Parallel Press, Memorial Library
728 State Street, Madison, WI 53706

The Pocket Poetry Parenting Guide
Edited by Jennifer Bosveld
Pudding House Publications
60 North Main St.
Johnstown, OH 43031

Nobody's Hell
By Douglas Goetsch
Hanging Loose Press
231 Wyckoff Street,
Brooklyn, NY 11217-2208

Natural Superior
Vol. 1, No. 1, Late Summer/Fall 1999
PO Box 3278
Duluth, MN 55803

Reviewed by Matt Welter

What I have to admit about Katharine Whitcomb's book, Hosannas, is that I envy it. Every bit of it. Parallel Press' second publication and once again it's a high-quality presentation. I turn to the credits page and wish I could get into reviews like Spoon River, Kenyon, and Pleides. I turn the page and wish I could get a fellowship. I look at the index and envy Ms. Whitcomb the most: nine poems. How I envy her for being able to bring her chapbook down to nine solid poems.

Each poem is written in the formal academic style. Stanzas break evenly, with the last sentence of each stanza spilling into the first line of the next stanza. Whitcomb uses this like other academics to seed the next stanza's subject. When reading a poem written in this form, I can envision the author covering up prior stanzas, then reading the tidy stanzas as a whole poem to see what has come out of it. The form seems to take you on an abstract journey, one in which you're not sure where you're going to end up. This is especially poignant in her opening poem, "Saints of South Dakota," in which the poem starts "From smoked-soaked hotel rooms," hitting images of tea, cowboy farmers, and snakehandlers like speedbumps and ending up "on the lip of something vast."

The two poems that best embody Whitcomb's abstract journey are "Benediction" and "Truth Has Two Hands." The closing poem, "Benediction," is a poem of severe form in which each stanza has some impression of survival, mixed with prayer chants. The best piece in the book, "Truth Has Two Hands," is about Whitcomb's experience as a jury member for an inner city murder trial. We feel how she feels, not quite knowing how this mishmash of thoughts, feelings, and stories can ever make sense. "I found your picture in the paper this morning, Charles,// found guilty typed under it, right down the page from a story/ on Rwanda about village adults who rounded up orphans/ and clubbed them to death. Those kids hardly making a sound// since they'd known their attackers all their lives..."

* * *

The Pocket Poetry Parenting Guide is an anthology that manages to be accessible without being dull. In fact it is warm and loving. A.E. Swaney's poem, "Beautiful," arrives at the realization that it is primal for a parent to find their child beautiful. It ends on the image, "Her mind a spring brook full of trout." Beautiful image, Ms. Swaney. Claire J. Baker's poem, "Night Story," shows the practical value of taking your child on night walks without flashlights. Richard Waring's "Crib Notes" has some insightful peeks into the fatherly urges to know the mind of his child. "As if to a fabulous cave, trying to fathom/ the language of your painting, the habits of your bats/ secretly reading the same books as you, to find out/ which way you're heading, where to find you on the open horizon."

Still, no poem holds a candle to Peggy Hong's "The Zen of Diapering." This masterpiece should be given to every mother and father the day they bring their first baby home, and placed on the inside of every box of nappies.

Douglas Gray, Frank Van Zant, Thom Ward, Michael Chandler and Kristin Berkey-Abbott also have some helpful and memorable pieces. The book ends with an insightful essay by the editor on whether it is better to say "Yes" or "No" to our children on a regular basis.

Artistic, yet practical, this guide is something I would consider sending my two brothers who are both new parents, but not much into poetry. More guides like this should be made for those who want to appreciate their children rather than falling back on Dr. Spock.

* * *

If I am nervous to review Douglas Goetsch's Nobody's Hell, it is because it is the first book I have reviewed by someone from New York, and being a person from a town of under 700 people, I'm afraid that the author may come to kick my ass. Nevertheless, Goetsch's book has a four-star opening piece, "Counting." The poem encompasses images that the author would count as a kid, from "pine needles on the shoulder of the road/ bubbles in my white summer spit," to breaths and even standing next to God, counting. My favorite image is this end of one stanza:
I dreamed of counting the galaxies
of freckles on Laura MacNally,
touching each one -- she loves me,
she loves me not -- right on up her leg...
Part One has some of the strongest poems in it, two of which face side by side, "The Walls" and the title piece, "Nobody's Hell." The former is a short poem in which every image disintegrates within your mind. The latter work starts off with how physically numb the author could get from winter, but ends on an image of a chilling numbness that freezes you even more: experiencing racism on the receiving end. All of the poems in Part One have a simultaneous young adult and adult perspective. Goetsch does not so much romanticize his youth as he presents it like a film. He has done all of the directing and editing and you the reader are left entertained by what is flickering now before your eyes.

Onto the part he's going to kick my ass over. I don't feel that Part Two is as strong. These poems are the early adult poems and seemed to fizzle towards the end. I don't know if it was the gambling, the booze, or the failed dates, but the title "Love in Las Vegas" seemed to read "Leaving Las Vegas" as I finished this section. The two redeemers in this section are "Urban Poem" and "The Key," the latter of which opens with the line, "I have memorized the coastline/ of your key..."

Still, I feel that if this is the introduction to what Hanging Loose Press has to offer, I am eager to find out the diversity of its other authors. I am also eager to see what Mr. Goetsch will have out in the next five to ten years. Perhaps he can bring his next book to my front door and brain me with it.

* * *

Natural Superior is a godsend for people who love Lake Superior, silent sports, and interesting scientific findings about natural history. Articles include subjects by Lake Superior naturalists. The premier issue includes articles on asters, geology, and sharp-shinned hawks. In the aster article, I learned that asters that grow in shaded areas have larger leaves, while open field asters have thin willowy leaves. The geology article was in-depth, yet easy to understand, focusing on just what makes a beach a beach. Finally, in the sharp-shinned hawk article, I enjoyed the theories on why male sharp-shinned hawks are nearly half the size of the female. The magazine's publishers have put a lot of forethought into their magazine. Their premier issue is only $1.95 to entice readers to pick it up. The phenology features Lake Superior natural history events and breaks them down by different times of the month. The magazine is published five times a year to reflect the actual seasons surrounding Lake Superior: spring, summer, fall, early winter and late winter. Finally, the publishers have an environmental ethic, using soy ink and recycled paper that is non-gloss to make recycling the magazine easier.

Natural Superior's combination of color photos and quality articles make it both a keepsake and an educational tool. Nature centers, book stores and specialty shops throughout the Lake Superior region should stock this easily sellable magazine for tourists and locals alike. Libraries, bed and breakfasts and professional offices will be proud to display this local magazine in their browsing stacks. Professional and amateur naturalists will enjoy its content, while keeping abreast of new natural areas, like Gold Rock Point. Families can learn about new areas around the lake they can leisurely explore (i.e., Hartley Nature Center), and children will enjoy the large colorful pictures of wildlife.


Matt Welter gives out the prestigious Pippistrelle Best of the Small Press Award each year on Feb. 2. He will have two chapbooks of poetry out in 2000: Shadows of a Cloud (Puddinghouse Press) and Our Sainted Lady Esther (Parallel Press). He lives in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

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