Presenting engagements (including reviews) of poetry books & projects. Some issues also offer Featured Poets, a "The Critic Writes Poems" series, and/or Feature Articles.

Saturday, May 2, 2015



Justified Sonnets by James McLaughlin
(The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, Newton-Le-Willows, United Kingdom, 2013)

Here is “Sonnet Seventeen,” from James McLaughlin’s Justified Sonnets. 

             Sonnet Seventeen

/          when                              the
tower                                         fell
did                                             tiny
petals               turning              from
to                             blue           begin
to                                                form
|                                  in                    |
an                              instant         did
all                                                 look
up                                                 and
gaze                     \                          at
salvation                                            /

This poem is a striking example of McLaughlin’s radical structural methods in this collection. On the literal page, in two dimensions, each of the seventy two poems is 14 lines, precisely the same overall size as its seventy one companions, and perfectly proportioned or balanced  --  justified not only left and right but also top and bottom.  Thus, a set of seventy two identical rectangles.  However, McLaughlin’s most remarkable formal accomplishment  --  thanks to his use of vertical lines and forward and backward slashes (his “punctuation”), as well as spaces, gaps, whitenesses within the text  --  is transforming each two dimensional rectangle into a three dimensional entity, a cabinet of thought and emotion.  Each sonnet expands outward, toward the reader, or  --  perhaps more accurately  --  pulls the reader into its surprising depths.  Especially in the first half of the sequence, this effect is profound, indeed.  And one can find no clearer illustration than “Sonnet Seventeen”:  26 words scattered into the frame; spare and gorgeous, a poem that draws the reader into its bare, ruined, but possibly redemptive landscape.

Yet, among the ruins, where is redemption, consolation, and how to reach them?  For that matter, how to justify the creation of sonnets or any poems?  What good reasons exist for such an endeavor?  In an absolute sense, there are none, especially if a writer’s intent is to convey the rightness, the good sense of the world around us.

                        ...I frame knowledge to
the               point of ignorance \       (Three, 7-8)
                                              ...let me
have     little     knowledge     of    this
particular subject      /     let me make
many   basic   errors  in  the  use   of
language       /     goad    this    prose|      (Three, 10-14)

                                ...intellect worms
  almost           grasps for            life|      (Seven, 13-14)

deliberation                              fails the
ability                        to attain…                  (Ten, 11-12)

                                           ...more than
ever   the  sun   fades  too  fast   on    a
memory              |             from nowhere
comes                      illusion             then
justification            /         wide ranging in
its landscape             |       is it always so
important to be right…                                  (Nineteen, 2-8)

can    we    ever    reshape    design     
model    pieces    of    air    into    boxes |      (Nineteen, 13-14)

Since these poems so explicitly acknowledge the limits of language, McLaughlin (especially, again, in the collection’s first half) more than earns the right to argue that, in an absolute sense, there is every good reason for launching sincere, courageous poetic explorations out into the mess and glittering swirl of the world.

studious                                 observation
compelled to form                         images
\ and   ideas   in   the   mind                    /
wonderful      things…                                     (Twenty Five, 8-11)

                                                     we try to
grasp           daggers           before    us   |
tiny                               dots of light dart as
images                     forming a circle   |  or
close        in                    |       many things
remain incompletely   /                  present      (Thirty One, 9-14)

|   a          desire          seems          to
hold    the eye    |                    much is
much      /                    of so much    /
extraordinary        |   listen can I         |                (Thirty Three, 11-14)

Given the inevitable inadequacies of any medium, including language, any artist may feel tempted not even to make an attempt, at all.

...resurrected            under leaves and
branches    \    or rejoice       in       this
broken lime           ray and           font  |
luxuriating                   on dust             /
wondering      at      nothing      at      all               (Eleven, 10-14)

                                           corpse like I
slide         into         the         estuary    /
become part of           nothing              |               (Twenty Three, 9-11)

|  to      withdraw                  reason and
make        notice        of        nothing    /
nothing    in     particular     along     the
river  bank    /    nothing   of    note    by
the        forest floor…                                            (Twenty Five, 1-5)

But this poet resists such temptations.  For he understands that artistic failure never results from not solving the world, but that such failure comes from not confronting the mysteries around and within us.

Needless to say, such great mysteries include memory and loss.  In McLaughlin’s sequence, along with the particularities of the surrounding natural world  --  flowers, birds, streams, sky  -- a “lost one,” a particular person, now gone, haunts the speaker.

me      a frigid look…                                            (Four, 5-6)

                            love is such a gambler
|    I   saw   that                 in your eyes   |              (Four, 13-14)

                                                    was I
that      broken      crow      you      took
home               and cried            over  |               (Twenty, 12-14)

                                     perhaps one of
several       actions       or       courses
/                         a toss coin                 |                (Twenty Six, 12-14)

                                             I was       /
we were      -      too irregular,          too
slippery        over                used        |                (Thirty, 8-10)

                                             once more
take        my                  arm    and    die                (Thirty Six, 13-14)

Time and its assassins stun us with losses.  And for remedy?  --  time, of course, and ever unreliable memory.

I                                            look    back
there                                  are uncertain
lines                                                                         (Ten, 6-9)

                                                a thought
signifies             memory    again    and
again         |        all seems at variance \
knowledge               ceases               to
understand                                                                (Thirteen, 2-6)

                                        from nowhere
comes                       illusion          then
justification                                                                 (Nineteen, 4-6)


Time, memory, and words can console, but not enough.


Joel Chace has published work in print and electronic magazines such as The Tip of the Knife, Counterexample Poetics, OR, Country Music, Infinity's Kitchen, and Jacket.  Most recent collections include Sharpsburg, from Cy Gist Press, Blake's Tree, from Blue & Yellow Dog Press, Whole Cloth, from Avantacular Press, Red Power, from Quarter After Press, Kansoz, from Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press, and Web Too, from Tonerworks.

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