Much like summer tomatoes, new books by poets with homegrown roots should be relished, slice by slice, page by page, by literature locavores.
Missouri Poet Laureate William Trowbridge crowns his distinguished career with a volume of selected and new poems. Patricia Lockwood of Lawrence is wowing critics with her social media-influenced work. Kansas Citian Alarie Tennille’s first full-length collection showcases a full-color portfolio. Nationally known poet Kevin Young, schooled in Topeka, has a stunning collection worthy of national recognition.
Trowbridge is a master of comedy. Deadpan delivery is this poet’s trademark technique, as in this seriocomic Frog Prince confession: “In the old days, I was pink-colored/ And taller than the whooping crane.” This character describes his unglamorous destiny: “And so they sent me to this fetid swamp,/ Where the sole frog, I blort and leap/ About in the tepid bacterial ooze.” The words “blort” and “ooze” show the laughable nature of royalty in “Memoirs of the Frog Prince.”
Trowbridge’s books “The Complete Book of Kong,” about King Kong’s further adventures, and “Ship of Fool” are among recent works represented in the collection “Put This On, Please: New and Selected Poems.”
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“Kong Meets Godzilla” pits two icons against each other, but Kong notices the Japanese reptile “looked a lot smaller than he does in films” and finally walks away.
These poems are great fun, and they also have a serious side. “Ship of Fool” includes “a bathtub toy of Chance, who loves to play / Torpedo, Typhoon, Big Silent Iceberg,” as the “body count” rises. Chance, also known as the Grim Reaper, is the shadow behind Trowbridge’s humor. The title poem, “Put This On, Please,” addresses mortality directly. The garment to “put on” is the universally hated hospital gown, “plain as winding sheets.” Nearly stripped patients are one step from the mortuary slab.
Trowbridge’s selected and new poems show off his skills as a writer — timing, clarity, brevity and rich layering. He sums up Missouri in “Unofficial Missouri Poem,” and he also examines how movie characters represent aspects of the human experience. Trowbridge is, nonetheless, a serious poet. Humor is the doughnut-glaze veneer.
Patricia Lockwood lives in Plato’s shadow world of media, as well as being a Lawrence resident. She is a queen of Twitter, with over 10,000 entries. She sharpens her humor with 140-character (or fewer) comments like: “What even IS a turtle. A rock that can think and English people make soup out of it?”
Most others are not suitable for family media. Lockwood’s platform is the Internet. Her “Rape Joke” poem went viral after posting on The Awl, an online magazine, with a clamor of responses from The New York Times (which recently profiled her in its Sunday magazine) to the Poetry Foundation, for whom she blogs.
Lockwood is a fluent speaker of Tweetese, but her poetry has more characteristics of performance. Her long, rhythmic lines have an orator’s cadence, spiked with points of interest.
In “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals,” we find loose, whimsical narratives about Bambi, along with poems such as “The Fake Tears of Shirley Temple” and “List of Cross-Dressing Soldiers,” to name a couple. This last is a tribute to women warriors “Helen of Sparta,” “Maggie of England” and “Rose of the deepest South.” Rose “stood up in her father’s/ Clothes and walked out of the house and herself.” The poem then veers into a discussion of categories: “Together with men they were blown from their pronouns.” It later zags, again, to discuss the narrator’s soldier-brother and his time in Mideastern war zones.
Lockwood is among a handful of poets to discuss the impact of recent wars. She is developing a media-laced language to tell serious tales. She draws from sexting, blogging and other lexicons to translate the babel of contemporary times.
Some of the strongest poems in Alarie Tennille’s “Running Counterclockwise” are portrayals of paintings, or what the Greeks called “ekphrasis.” Descriptions are amplified by familiar works of art, such as Claude Monet’s “Railway Bridge, Argenteuil” and “Water Lilies.”
The poet writes, “Among the splashes of blue/ And purple I see grey faces,/ But can’t tell if they’re Monet’s/ Ghosts or my own.” Making such scenes her own, Tennille illustrates how identities merge when sharing art. Her descriptions of Salvador Dali’s “melting” clock are reflections on time, “dripping ever so slowly — / An IV refusing to kill pain.”
Sequence is measured not only by ticks, but also by fluid, organic elements. Tennille’s frozen snapshots emphasize the meandering experience of time’s arrow. All the poems have strong images.
Some, such as “Mammogram Callback” and “Insomnia,” are charged moments. Some celebrate beauty, as in “Wine Tasting,” which begins, “You know what to expect/ From cola, milk, and tomato juice,/ But wine holds mystery.” She describes the vintner’s terms “Leather, tobacco, cherry,” and contrasts these to ordinary whiffs during the day: “pencil shavings, brief case, doorknobs.” Finally, taste triggers leap into larger realms of “sunset on Chesapeake Bay” and “Chagall blue.” With this sequence of poems, Tennille creates yet another kind of chronometer.
Kevin Young was a remarkable youngster in Topeka when I first met him as a student in my summer writing workshop. By the time he graduated from high school, author Thomas Fox Averill had mentored his interest in writing. He now is the Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory University.
Young’s latest collection, “Book of Hours: Poems,” has been noted in The Star earlier this year. In my opinion, his verse — which braids death and birth into one strand — should win a major award. The powerful opening section, about his father’s death, is composed of breathtaking elegies.
In the first poem, “Elegy, Father’s Day,” he writes, “Ladies & Gentlemen, we are flying/ Just above turbulence.” From this height, farmland’s “parcels & acres blur” into “family plots” of a cemetery. In “Rue,” the unfinished course of grief is expressed: “Strange how you keep on/ Dying.”
Another loss is his wife’s miscarriage, a sad echo to the successful birth of a son. Young mixes joy and grief as he survives, with “white hairs I earned/ All that hollowed year.”
Somber tones give way to vivacious lines about his son. The ultrasound is “grainy newsreel footage,” whereas the baby is a “shadow boxer.” The happy father declares, “You are even better/ Than fruit/ Floating in Jell-O!”
Homages to classic Kansas foods and scenes, such as neighbors bringing cookies to the bereaved and the “World’s Largest Prairie Dog,” color these poems. Land is a backdrop, but the true drama is that of the body. The book narrates how generations usher one another from birth to death. “Dream the Day After Easter” is a mortality poem that shows life intermingled with death: “He said being dead was a little/ Like living, only longer.”
These poets with local ties demonstrate the variety of experience within a few miles of the Kansas and Missouri rivers’ confluence. All have generous knowledge of history, and all show ways to survive storms and droughts with verve.
Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-09, published her sixth volume of poetry, “Mélange Block,” from Red Mountain Press this spring.