April is National Poetry Month, and former Kansas poet laureate Denise Low has reviewed new books of verse (read previous ones online at kansascity.com/entertainment/books), including one gathered by a Kansas City native.
Albert Goldbarth is at the top of his game in “Selfish.” The title refers to a self-centered desire for immortality in the age of selfie photographs. This Wichita State University professor has published 25 volumes of verse, for which he has won two National Book Critics Circle Awards and many other honors.
He is no snob, though. He improvises chatty conversations with his readers, as though over coffee. His voice is intimate but also dazzling.
The delight of Goldbarth’s writing is his mastery of so many dialects of American English. When in doubt, he invents a few, like “a squillion years” in “Dub,” to calculate the nearly infinite course of evolution.
The poet understands the deep-rooted literary culture of English as he appreciates Shakespeare’s “many hundreds of lovely verbal planks.” In “Wings,” he pays homage to Homer’s “Iliad” at a high school soccer game, reflecting on the eternal truths, “None of the ancient stories/disappears; they only slip into/their gangsta and catwalk and NASCAR attire.”
Mortality is at the center of Goldbarth’s diverse discussions. One of the most poignant is the poem “Snow.” He laments the passing of “flabbergasted” and “heebie-jeebies” from American idiom.
The loss makes way for new terms like “carbon footprint.” This reflection on the transience of language shifts to the personal as the narrator examines the names “Fannie” and “Irving.” These turn out to be his parents’ old-fashioned names, engraved on their tombstones, “under a veiling snowfall.”
Goldbarth’s razzle-dazzle writing in “Selfish” charms with snippets of his wife’s life and his parents’ courtship. “The Story of My Life” proposes that the narrator’s autobiography is “told in constellations/starting with My Father Is Proposing/to My Mother.” This mashup of cosmological and personal creates a word-map of a very compelling mind.
In “The Poetry of Resistance,” Kansas City native Fred Whitehead brings together more than 30 poets who write verse “against oppressive social practices and political forces,” according to his editor’s comments. Among them are Kansas City’s Lloyd Daniel, a former member of the Missouri House of Representatives.
Others represent regions from California to Appalachia and the viewpoints of struggle from Chicano workers to factory laborers to American Indian veterans. The scope of the anthology is the “post-World War II generation. ”
Most of the writers use narrative poetry. Daniel’s “On Troost” is about the economic and racial divides in Kansas City, a story told from the point of view of Troost denizen “Terri” and culminating with a protest against nuclear war.
Jared Carter, a well-known Indiana poet, celebrates his working-class father, who constructed houses and bridges, “board by board, nail by nail” in the poem “My Father Does Not Appear When Googled.” In “The Madhouse,” he celebrates pool room ruffians who fought against the Ku Klux Klan during the early 20th century. Their descendants still repeat the stories in local barbershops.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, director of the Red Earth Master of Fine Arts writing program in Oklahoma, writes about her Vietnam veteran brother. She compares his obituary from the newspaper to a personal memory, “what i didn’t write.” This private obituary of the same man details the difficulties of post-traumatic stress disorder and lack of Veterans Administration support.
“The Poetry of Resistance” from Kansas City’s John Brown Press renews the role of poetry as essential social commentary.
Denise Low, former Kansas poet laureate, lives in Lawrence.
“Selfish,” by Albert Goldbarth (184 pages; Graywolf Press; $20)
“The Poetry of Resistance,” edited by Fred Whitehead (146 pages; John Brown Press; $12; Kindle edition $2.95)