T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, “mixing memory and desire.” Having to file taxes adds to the grief; so for comfort April also is Poetry Month.
The Academy of American Poets (poets.org) sponsors a poem-a-day, school projects and Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 30. On that day, people carry a poem to share with others; the academy also encourages people to share poems on Twitter using the hashtag #pocketpoem.
To celebrate, we’re reviewing two new books of verse today, followed by another two next Sunday.
‘Confluence’ by Sandra Marchetti
Sandra Marchetti’s debut book is a perfect way to greet spring. This talented newcomer draws on classical traditions while inventing her own vision of nature.
Percy Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” a 19th-century masterpiece, is an ancestor of Marchetti’s “Never-Ending Birds.” Both have a giddy, spinning quality that mimics flight. In Marchetti’s poem the birds change places continuously, “Swallows/sweep out to swing my heart up with the hawk/who circles the skirmish, weeps, and screams.”
The poet invents imaginative ways to soar. Marchetti uses a contemporary vocabulary to describe swallows, as “Soft bulbs of morpho blue.” This unexpected use of “bulb” and an iridescent butterfly genus renews the storehouse of natural images.
Human-created structures often collide with forces of nature in this poet’s vision. “The Language of Ice” describes a river scene, “Jagged as glass, ice flashes match/memories of church windows.” In “Pastoral,” a snow machine has an “owl-lit eye.” It is no longer an odd contraption, but simply another beast in the Garden of Eden.
Marchetti’s work is a pleasure to read.
‘Streaming’ by Allison Hedge Coke
Allison Hedge Coke adds music to her book, “Streaming,” by providing a downloadable audio file. Song is an essential part of her collection, with repetitive refrains twining throughout the explosions of language.
One of the most intense poems is about the narrator’s life as a foster child on the High Plains near Leoti, Kan. In “Sudden Where,” words tumble one after another, then pick up reflections of one another. A description of subsistence fishing: “Maybe bluegill, maybe crappie, maybe we’d find something magnificent.”
This incantation of hope exists within a narrative of hardship. A repeated theme throughout the book is hunger, spelled out in the same poem: “What was food? Mac ’n’ cheese, plums when one could steal some, peanut butter stirred with a spoon, oily, tasty.”
The third section, “Where We Have Been,” is about the father’s difficult life during the Dust Bowl, when people are so hungry they eat tumbleweeds. The title poem, “Streaming,” has a Wyandot language refrain also about food, “Yah, re, sah Ya, yan, quagh, ke/beans, cornfield/Yat, o, regh, shas, ta/I am hungry.”
Hedge Coke descends from Cherokee and Wyandot families as well as European settlers. All were poor. The layering of Cherokee, Choctaw and Lakota terms adds depth.
Other topics in “Streaming” range from the 1973 American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee to the 2008 Bolivian Pando or El Porvenir Massacre, when indigenous protesters were killed by government militia. Hedge Coke uses a balladeer’s skill to create emotional connections to readers. She personalizes historic tragedies with the counterpoint of her own family’s rough times.
Denise Low, former Kansas poet laureate, lives in Lawrence.
“Confluence” by Sandra Marchetti, (80 pages; Sun Dress; $12.00)
“Streaming” by Allison Hedge Coke, (130 pages; Coffee House Press; $16.95)