Wednesday, January 20, 2010

“Crossing the Boundaries, Real and Imagined”: A Review of Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s Water the Moon

(Forthcoming from Marick Press, 2010, http://www.marickpress.com,
Price: $14.95, ISBN 13: 978-1-934851-12-8)


In the past 12 months I have had the opportunity to review several collections written by poets who are producing works stemming from their condition of being a Westerner in the East or vice versa. The time for such catalogued experiences is certainly ripe—with the United States and Asia having no choice but to come to terms with one another economically and otherwise, and the growing realization (from a small but potent population) that the future of our world must exist in a place that honors Uniqueness without fortifying Boundaries, such dichotomy-breaking insights are keys to the doors of New Possibility.

Who better to keep those keys than the modern poet?

From Sze-Lorrain’s bio we learn the following: She was born in Singapore and “grew up in a hybrid of cultures.” She attended school in Britain, the United States, and France. She has performed worldwide as a zheng concertist and released a CD in 2009. She is an editor at Cerise Press and a translator, and writes non-fiction as well as fiction.

With such a varied education, artistic background, and cultural palette, Sze-Lorrain is ideally suited to represent the vanguard in what so many of us hope will be a braver new world. Water the Moon, her first poetry collection, sheds light on what such a world might be.

The book opens with a couplet from Li Po, and proceeds in its opening section, “Biography of Hunger,” to explore the sensual experiences of the author as she watches her grandmother “water the moon,” creating a culinary delight with historical ties to the Emperor Chu Yuan-chang 600 years before.

History, and one’s country-based sense of place within it (and ultimately outside of and beyond it), provides the roads on which she navigates in poems with titles such as “Shoebox Filled with Mao Buttons,” “Tibet,” “A Talk with Mao Tse-tung,” and “Odyssey.” Highlights of this section are the prose-like poems “The Sun Temple” [“I pause at a hermit’s rococo cave, now revamped/as a Bed and Breakfast”] and “The Unrecorded Days” [“In this world, every rendez-vous existed before the very beginning”].

The second section moves westward, and is entitled “Dear Paris.” Here the poet is at first the stranger in a strange land, laying out her prayer:

I come to you for salvation,
old and delicate,
aging yet timeless

The poems progress to a sense of her finding the familiar in the new, again in the culinary arts, as expressed in “Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne,” where the worlds of East and West are clearly connected by the ending lines.

With this newfound footing, the poems gain a surety of self-in-place, as Sze-Lorrain experiences architecture, art, and love (all symbolized through the recurring themes of moon and water), until she can once again look at Geography through the lens of History in “A Brief History of Time.”

The once-stranger is now at home, and her many interests and aspects flow ever more seamlessly together, where the preparation of food is likened to Flaubert’s use of commas and verses are flavored with myriad cultural references from around the world.

It seeming fitting to call the last section of Water the Moon its “third act,” as it is very much a poetic exploration of art, artists, and broader-ranged thinkers. From Albert Einstein to Man Ray, Edith Piaf to Picasso [and his Muse, Dora Maar], Van Gogh, and Chopin, Sze-Lorrain employs her knowledge of history and geography to situate her own artistic sensibilities and sensualities with theirs. The final section, entitled, “The Key Always Opens,” goes on to explore the relationship of Samuel Beckett with his own Muse, Suzanne, after he was stabbed by a pimp in 1938 [“Be My Bride”].

In a bit of fun, the collection offers “A Lot had Happened: A Five Act Play,” an homage to Gertrude Stein’s satire of the rigid form of 5-act plays before visiting the photographs of Steichen and the “ruach” of Romanian poet Paul Celan.

The collection ends with a poem titled “Instructions: No Meeting No World,” which ties all of the themes and artistic forms of the book together, summed up in the sentiment:

“Prefer rivers to regrets. Two of them happen
to meet outside the window.”

The confluence of two rivers is known to be a magical place, full of supernatural occurrences and triumphs and tragedies of equal measure and memory.

Add a shining night-disc above, and you begin to understand the power and meaning of Water the Moon.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Review of This Hungry Spirit: Your Need for Basic Goodness by C. Clinton Sidle (Larson Publications, 2009, www.larsonpublications.com)

In today’s self-help book market, finding something new is becoming harder and harder. In many ways, it’s all been said before, and often times far better, by far wiser people.

It was with this challenge in mind that I began reading C. Clinton Sidle’s This Hungry Spirit. The year was coming to an end, I had thoughts of resolutions and self-betterment for 2010 at the forefront of my mind, and as I shuffled through the stack of books I had to review, it seemed like as good a choice as any.

Sidle’s credentials are impressive. He is director of the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program in the Johnson School of Management at Cornell, as well as being a leading authority on leadership, executive coaching, and developing human potential and author of two other books.

So what was different about This Hungry Spirit?

First and foremost, I found Sidle’s honesty about his personal life and challenges to be genuine to an extent that I have not seen in a long time in books such as this. While most self-help gurus employ anecdote to connect with the reader and illustrate the effectiveness of what they are teaching, there is often a sense of “talking down” or the author being so much farther ahead than the reader.

Sidle seems quite at ease with the fact that he is a “work in progress,” so it was easy to identify with and trust him—and by extension, his advice.

The book is a mix of explicative text, numerous (and genuinely helpful!) exercises, and, in the margins, post-it-like text excerpts that not only serve to review important points but offer the reader the opportunity to go back to This Hungry Spirit over and over again for advice, daily meditations, and reinforcement.

So what is this book all about?

In a nutshell, This Hungry Spirit explores the pursuit of happiness and the fulfillment of need that are the underlying higher motivations for any human being trying to actualize his or her full potential.

But what do we do? More often than not, once the lower needs are met, we pursue societal notions of “success”—an important job, high pay, awards and accolades, the accumulation of Things. But it is clear that many people (most?) with these items checked off their list are still not happy; still not fulfilled.

Similar to Ram Dass’s writings and lectures about seva (service) and Deepak Chopra’s advice to give, and give freely, of yourself, Sidle implores the reader to live in service to others in order to better meet the needs of service to self. This is an important idea and as the co-founder of a non-profit service organization, I can say without hesitation that it works.

As I mentioned earlier, the book mixes instructional text with practical exercises that rival anything that you would experience working with a therapist. There are a total of 39 of these exercises throughout the book and a “Leadership Wheel Assessment” in the Appendix. Each is designed to help deconstruct old mental models and build new ones, and the reader is often encouraged to go back and look at old exercises, which makes it easy to mark your progress.

The book is user-friendly and filled with upbeat and motivational section headings such as “Reap the lessons of adversity” and “When in doubt, return to your purpose.”

Besides the personal anecdotes, I found the selection of parables and bits of Eastern wisdom to be a delight to read. Sidle has done a masterful job of choosing them.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that there were a large amount of typos in the book, which is unusual for Larson Publications. I hope that these will be corrected in a future edition, as the book is simply too good to be bogged down by missing or misspelled words.

In the final assessment, This Hungry Spirit truly is a well-balanced, well-written, and very practical guide to feeding our souls and increasing our happiness. Its benefits to the reader are considerable.

Monday, January 4, 2010

“Far from the Fool”: A Review of John Gartland’s Gravity’s Fool (2009, Assumption University Press, ISBN: 974-615-242-4)

“Far from the Fool”: A Review of John Gartland’s Gravity’s Fool (2009, Assumption University Press, ISBN: 974-615-242-4)

by Joey Madia

Many a modern poet has stacks of unsold books filling the corners of his or her writing room. This is a matter of both competition as well as the lamentable lack of interest in poetry in today’s reader. Perhaps as condensed forms of Communication continue to emerge, based on the requirements of Social Networking sites, poetry will re-take its place in readers’ daily lives.

In the meantime, it is good to know that some poets, such as John Gartland, are putting out additional editions of their titles. This fourth edition, published by Assumption University Press, features a new final poem and a few words by Steve Conlon, Dean of the Graduate school, about Gartland’s collaboration with Tom Hodgins (Poetry Universe 1: Poetry without Frontiers, which I will be reviewing later this year).

Gartland is a novelist, playwright, and poet, and a founding member of the Poetry ID writers’ workshop in England. He is a teacher of writing who has taught in Bagkok, Thailand and now in Chungbuk, Korea.

His poetry resonates with the self-sure voice of the man from the West who has journeyed to the East and is working to assimilate where he has been and where he now is into adjoining and at times overlapping landscapes. His breadth of travel is complemented by his breadth of knowledge. His poems are full of literary and geographical references that ground and gird his ideas and visions, creating a tension of Concrete and Abstract that sings sharply in the modern poetic form.

He begins the collection with the following haiku:

Those headlights in the
mirror are your death, so keep
your foot on the gas

The Death theme, that elder companion of the poet from Keats to Corso, abounds in Gravity’s Fool, tied to landscapes and relationships, to love and the relentless pursuit of life. One gets the sense that Gartland, having participated in loss in so many of its forms, is seeing with new eyes, drinking up and cataloging images the young and ignorant rarely note, much less process. To read “Nothing but the River (the Thames at Wandsworth Bridge)” is to witness the flotsam and jetsam of time’s running waters in all of their intermixed ugliness and light.

“Poetry ID” illuminates for the reader some of Gartland’s raw material on his journey to the condition of Poet, after having heard the familiar words put upon all (good) young poets by their mentors: “It’s all right, but live some more./You need to go out and live some more.”

And so he did.

Being a teacher of the craft, Gartland explores the condition of the writing outside of his own experience as writer, most notably in the poems “Poetry Escapes during Questioning” (a nice companion piece to Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” should you be a poetry teacher looking for perspectives on the craft to give your students), “Chez Parnassus,” and “The Company of Poets.”

Gartland’s experience as playwright informs the poem “Letter to John Wilson,” which is a worthy challenge to the well-trained actor looking for less-traveled, multi-leveled monologues. This poem leads a section devoted in great part to Death. Death of love and death of family. Death of epoch and of edifice. All woven together with a subtle similarity in phrase that begs pointing out:

“the plumes of rising steam” (“Letter to John Wilson”)

“we drift away, like smoke” (“Retrospective [for Lyall Watson]”)

“turf smoke rising like incense” (“Gatestown”)

“haze/that drifts upon the Partry Mountains” (“Song of the Undertaker’s Men”)

All of these poems set up the series of the next three poems, dealing with Gartland’s daughter Laura. As the father of a ten-year-old girl, I found these poems in all of their simple beauty, enviable connection, fine art, and lingering ghosts to be some of the best of this collection.

As I mentioned earlier, this fourth edition ends with a new poem, called “The Market in Cheongju. Night.” What was most striking with the placement of this new piece is the sea-change it signals for the book.

The previous final poem, “Jesting Twilight,” ended with the phrase “I am waiting.” “The Market…,” by contrast, ends with “crash the iron bolts,” bringing to mind Whitman’s “Unscrew the locks from the doors/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs” that serves as an epigram to Ginsberg’s Howl.

Gartland is no longer content to wait, and we, as his fellow travelers on this road of poems, mustn’t either.

Gravity’s Fool reaffirms for the long-time practitioner of the poet’s art just what good poetry really is and the life-work that all worthy craftsmen must put in; therefore it is also essential reading for the young poet first embarking on his or her path of words and their inevitable wounds and wonders.