Thursday, March 25, 2010

“Meditations on Death”: A Review of Bobbi Lurie’s Grief Suite

(forthcoming from CW Books, May 2010)

Bobbi Lurie writes poetry that hurts.

Grief Suite follows the decline and deaths of its subjects with unflinching honesty. From the sterile hospitals rooms and invasive procedures that fill them to the exposure of decaying family dynamics through the course of illness and its aftermath, Lurie takes the reader on a journey through guilt, anger, denial, accusation—aspects of the “five stages” so many counselors talk about. But after reading this collection of free-verse and prose poetry, the truth seems to be that when it comes to Grief, nothing is cut and dry enough to be categorized.

It must be simply lived. Or, truer still—survived.

The collection begins with “Traveling North,” a prose poem that uses strings of image-phrases that call to mind Kerouac’s Mexico City works and Burroughs’s cut-up style. The punctuation works like a drum beating the battle-rhythm before the carnage. (In a later poem she writes: “I fragment short prayers, picking at the worded wounds.”)

The poem as prayer is most clearly present in “This Amputated Place is My Soul, Lord,” operating more as a mantra-meditation than a traditional Christian invocation.

Death, as it is so often, is tangled up in an essence of Love that is dark, dangerous, and unromantic, as best represented in the poem “Codependent Nation.” The speaker is represented by the small “i” as she speaks of how she “met my first love/at the vending machine/in the mental hospital.” The poem, which runs half a dozen pages, keeps the reader off-kilter and engaged with its varying rhythms, line breaks, and use and absence of punctuation. The imagery is unencumbered by typical mechanisms that might clutter it up or make it more palatable.

There are stories here that Lurie needs to tell, and we need to hear (“In print she says every/thing/In life she’s contrite”).

I was particularly intrigued by the subtle senses at work in all of the darkness of the poems. Purple and yellow are often mentioned, as well as scents like perfume.

The title poem, “Grief Suite,” begs numerous readings due to its length and complexity. The reader gets a clear sense of the Process grief entails. Like the earlier poems, it again felt as though there is a crushing weight that only these words can lift.

The poem details the dying and death of a mother, an event which brings to Light and Life the childhood memories and present contentions in the mother–daughter, mother–sons, sons–daughter relationships. It reads like a diary, and the reader is very much Voyeur, invited or not. There is much here that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced a similar death event in their family, especially if one sibling stayed behind to care for the parent while the rest went off into the world.

Two of the poems, “Once My Heart was Wide and Loved the World” and “Tossed Out Box of Treasured Possessions” function like sutras in the form of two-line meditations and dialogues:

“Black spots of cancer.

Like a small boy pointing a magnifying glass to an insect.
Interested in the way the body burns.” (from “Once My Heart”)

“And what will you do with the rest of your possessions?
I will never collect possessions again.” (from “Tossed Out Box”)

The final three poems, “Rasa,” “Waking in Old Age,” and “Soft Fibers Adorn the Diminishing Landscape” are beautiful, disturbing poems with stark language resulting in a power of imagery that recalls the lone swinging bulb in an otherwise darkened room. Nurses bring their “crude humor” as they joke about the patient’s incontinence… Although we know they are searching for self-defense, it is disturbing nonetheless.

Grief Suite is beautiful and light in all of its ugliness and dark.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Review of Dr. Bud Harris’s Resurrecting the Unicorn: Masculinity in the 21st Century

(Fisher King Press, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-981034-40-9)

By Joey Madia

There is little doubt that in the nearly 20 years between the publication of Robert Bly’s Iron John and the re-publication/re-vision of Resurrecting the Unicorn by Fisher King Press (it was previously published under the title Emasculation of the Unicorn: The Loss and Rebuilding of Masculinity in America) that the dilemmas faced by the postmodern man have only grown more complex.

Notice the change from “Emasculation” to “Resurrecting” in the title. It certainly makes the book more PC and less potentially off-putting, and this bears out in the text. This is not a radical manifesto on the loss of the masculine but a thought-provoking examination of just where the true essence of Manhood went off the rails. There is an excellent case made for journeying through the Feminine Principle in order to arrive at the Masculine, an idea championed by Carl Jung and countless Eastern mystics. This is about Balance and Inclusion, not machismo and misogyny.

Working in a way very similar to Bly, Dr. Harris has substituted Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Tinder Box” for the Grimm tale “Iron John” used in the book by the same title. Far from being a mere “knock-off” or homage of someone else’s way of exploring this subject, there is a strong case here for more exercises where Masculinity/Manhood are deconstructed and dialogued through the use of fairy tales.

Mythologists and critical thinkers from Bruno Bettelheim to Joseph Campbell have made a compelling case for the relevance of fairy tales to all of us, male or female, and Dr. Harris makes a substantial contribution to this field of study by illuminating many symbols and rendering readings through his deconstruction of “The Tinder Box” that were new to this reader.

Although the bulk of the book is devoted to in-depth work with “The Tinder Box,” there is much more going on. It is appropriate in this time of questionable wars and the mis-use of the masculine around the globe that Dr. Harris raises the ghost of John Wayne (the quintessential male for my grandfathers’ generation) and dispels many of the misunderstandings about this complex model of manhood.

Picking up from the fairy tale thread established in the first three-thirds of the book, the ending chapters look closely at the symbolism of the Unicorn and Lion and what men must do to make the most of these totem powers living within us. The section on Eros and Logos is thought-provoking and situates the text squarely in the realm of science rather than pure emotion. Rites of passage and the necessity of mothers and fathers better fulfilling their complementary roles when raising their sons (and daughters) bring to mind another of Bly’s books, The Sibling Society.

In closing, Resurrecting the Unicorn is essential reading for college-age young men and fathers. It’s an excellent companion to Iron John and a renewed call to revisit the Men’s Movement that rose up suddenly and died just as quickly in the 1990s. This time, perhaps, armed with both books and twenty more years of experience, we will do a little better.