WAIFS AND STRAYS by Micah Ballard
(City Lights, San Francisco, 2011)
If it doesn't give pleasure, what's the point? At times, critics (perhaps tired of the bombast in so-called criticism) fall back on such a statement: if not pleasurable, why bother? Yes, of course there are many points to art other than pleasure but I did recall this fall-back position as I read through Micah Ballard's WAIFS AND STRAYS. For the pleasure the poems engendered was simply intense and, at times, sublime. An instance:
We gather in the smoking
& set our escape
over a few restive shots
that veil the architecture
let me demonstrate
"I once lived through all of them
& held their wings
but now they hold me"
There's a tone throughout that made me recall Jean Rhys' adept use of evocation. An instance, a poem in its entirety (that's also a wonderful opening poem to the book):
dozing thru the day
they show up later
from the blotter.
lasts for days
how we fail remember
a determined will
to match the flame
So many luminous moments...touches of the mystic even. An instance, another poem in its entirety (and I'm reluctant to excerpt from short poems as Ballard does them so well):
I see into them
as they see out of me
& dissolve the wattage
to avoid future legends
young pharaohs on Fillmore cracking dutches
it is a lonely frontier by contrast
forgotten game skulking around
big hearts, small temper
thine absence overflows
thine presence undoes
do not attempt to circle the inferno
a tremor in the throne
is a tremor in the throne
These poems bespeak a poet in touch with the world including its light. An instance:
rearrange paintings to feel less trapped
--from "COURT LIFE"
Not just aware--or present in many moments--with the world, this poet also has learned so that his experience comes off as a strong intelligence. An instance:
where we're wanted rather flee
from to find out
where we're not.
Walking up 16th
it's not us nor them
but something else
--from "SLUMP GRIND II"
Or this, specifically worth nota bene-ing if the impression I receive of collaged, borrowed or found lines is correct (and if not correct, still smart):
as a lull in conversation
I slipped quietly into the mist
& woke an assumed name
(the easiest con to date)
--from "HALF A CANYON"
Then I read this one below, and thought it a "perfect poem" -- e.g., great twist with the second-to-last sentence and such such wonderfully inexplicable gap (fill-it-in-yourself-Dear-Reader) between text and title):
THESE VACANCIES FADE OVER TIME
I once awoke in a room in the asylum where the painter X had been confined. I remember reaching it in late afternoon and being admitted by a nun. I was led thru several cellar-like halls, painted yellow, with low cell doors along each side. There were other corridors and cellular rooms but those housed large unrelated groups. I believe paint was peeling everywhere and the floors were of stone. The view from my window allowed me to watch new arrivals and it opened directly onto the kitchen garden. Beyond it stretched open fields and rows of cypresses that stood at the left. It was a low, Netherlands-like country and only the shaven fields have retained their faded color, miles of marsh lit by a brilliant horizontal light. I suffered constantly from dizziness and was dressed in an unbecoming costume of gray cotton. They had my hair cut close but I tried to look different from the rest, leaving the top button of my shirt undone and keeping my sleeves rolled halfway between wrist and elbow--something a little casual and Byronic for the occasion. I hoped to perfect a mechanical neatness, my carriage and facial expression influenced by the same motive. When awake I thought of attracting to myself one intimate friend, whom I could influence deeply. He would be of great assistance in establishing myself an authority, recognized but unofficial.
Distilled hard to diamonds, these poems transcend what one may write as prose about them. To write about these poems is to miss their nature. All I can say is that you read the poems directly -- and I will do you the favor of not mediating your experience with them (beyond the hopefully light sleights-of-hands above). Go and read. Go forth and mate with their their radically-pleasurable shine.
P.S. On a personal note, upon finishing this collection, I wanted some Calvados -- this apple brandy drink is an old favorite of mine but I haven't had a sip for nearly two decades. Again, some strongly evocative power here...including an encouragement that makes you want to pay closer attention to what you've already experienced, what you already thought you knew ("I was told to lay down my song / & make use of my past"...?) That's what highly-effective poems achieve at times: make you look at the world afresh, including what you thought you knew as a revelation to discover.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed by Zvi A. Sesling in Boston Area Poetry Scene; by Michael Leong in Big Other; by Alan Baker in Litter; and by rob mclennan. Stephen Hong Sohn also reviews SILK EGG along with two other books, NOTA BENE EISWEIN and FOOTNOTES TO ALGEBRA: Uncollected Poems 1995-2009 at Asian American Lit Fans.