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



Woodnote by Christine Deavel


            “How big was the town?” asks Christine Deavel in her debut collection, Woodnote (Bear Star Press). No miles, blocks, lots. It is “One crockery bowl filled with red leaves” [“Home Town (Over and Over)”]. We can lift, fill, create, and know it. One bowl + red leaves = an assay, a familiar weight and measure, an image. A fey specificity. The leafy town in Indiana, a repository of family, is one the poet has returned to year after year, proving that in going home again she can illuminate life's macrocosm which hovers, as if to please a neo-Platonist cosmic vision, in the microcosm where there is rootedness and wisdom—“Knowledge not as comfort but as shelter” [“Drawn”].

            Christine Deavel is co-owner of a poetry-only bookstore in Seattle. I should disclose: the bookstore was a few blocks from my apartment when I lived the great Pacific Northwest (I left in '95) and that some jolly conversations were had by Deavel & co. & myself, but I review Woodnote because its voice is distinct, its inventive delicacy deliberate and determined. The poems' quiet precision disarms yet delivers a cosmic vision (not Sagan- but Whitman-cosmic). Woodnote won Bear Star Press' Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and the 2012 Washington State Book Award for Poetry.

            Some poems replicate the question and answer of old American song (and the countries from which they migrated). The style offers an anticipatory sway and tease between an asking and answering which feels right in a collection artfully documenting origin, a genealogy more telling than a chart. While reading “Home Town (Over and Over),” for instance, I found myself mind-humming “Billy Boy” (“Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy. . .?” And he says, “I have been to seek my wife, she's the joy of my life...”). In Deavel's poem, some of which I quote below, the “What,” the “Why,” each create a demanding vortex between a reader's lips sucking her into the question's implicit demand, whereas the answers require a canny dance, a sort of two-step enjambment of explanation, an equation (“time the sag”) or direction (“through the chute”).

What was its density?
The weight of a bee on a bridal-wreath branch
times the sag of a clothesline.

What were your increments?
The beats of the luna-moth's wings and the pieces of coal
through the chute to the basement.

Who charted these things?
It's not too late to have noticed, it's not to late
to see.

More of the measure, the weight, the equation of the daily to its thrumming, moving, changing environment. I'm reminded of Emily Dickinson and not just because of the bee, though Emily's claim on bees and prairies defies metaphysical copyright law. It's simplicity as a choice which serves as echo of America's Belle. Both Dickinson and Deavel have their respective worlds of literature to draw on, which they do, but also the everyday and at-hand, the clothesline, the coal chute, pebbles, a cloud, a small town. A post-industrial fear that the ordinary is disappearing does not seem to leave us, and a poet's fear that the poet herself will disappear from the planet (she will) equally informs. But Deavel suggests, “It's not too late...” Her invention and the poems' look—some gambol over ten or more pages and are variously stanzed—suggest that changing perspectives can save us.

            For all Deavel's creation of form, I'm reminded of the directness of Richard Wright's brilliant and unexpected haiku, most written in France. “#11 You moths must leave now; / I am turning out the light / And going to sleep. #191 Little boys tossing / Stones at a guilty scarecrow / In a snowy field.” [This Other World, Richard Wright, Arcade Publishing, 1998]. Simplicity under the microscope, a skilled directness of purpose, an investigation into life by framing its details—all also are hallmarks of Woodnote which contains nary a haiku but maintains the form's confluence of precision, the visual, the palpable: “Pop the stone out of its setting / and suck on it, suck on it / Now you are the sea” [“Button Box”].

            And now for chrysanthemums, the Russian dolls of flowers, thick with petals, petals hugging petals, each and all a bit stout and self-proclaiming, and at the golden flower's head and anthers, a petal emptiness that forces the beholder to turn inward with a frisson of bitterness, a focus of contemplation not sinister but rife with too many possibilities for blind surety. Chrysanthemums, first nurtured in China, neither toil nor spin but I bet they preen, awaiting yet another painter or poet to exploit their explosive being. Deavel's exploitation of the chrysanthemum comes “In Piece by Piece,” in which she asserts we can “believe in the chrysanthemum.” And why not! She speaks of more than one thing, or speaks out of both sides of her lines or stanzas. For instance: “In a thunderstorm / do not talk on the telephone. // The lightning will find you / talking // to someone not here. // Listen / you better listen // to what's happening // over at your house.” I've heard, more than once, that a person should keep her own house in order and life will then fall into place. True but not false, and more to the point, a directive. Deavel's statement telegraphs a voice-over in a creepy teen horror movie, the mood ominous—but without tricks, and as a consolation of understanding, and perhaps of a philosophy. “It is possible to / believe in the chrysanthemum . . .” It's not a scripture or Messiah, that flower, but a presence. We can't “...follow its will // for it has none...” So why bother with a flower that lives at the whim of the Fates and watering cans (as we do with hurricanes convivially named “Katrina” and “Sandy”)? Because, like Hillary's Everest, it's there? I think so. For the very reason that it knows nothing of us, cares not for us, but “glows under the window / sips the dark / not for you / but catches you all the same.” For the possibility of joining with the natural world. ”Come unhumbly / and lower yourself / to be drawn into the straw of its fragrance / peeled by a button of yellow / out of your days.”

            Like Russian dolls or chrysanthemums, poetry delivers on its evocations simply because it is so enjoyable. Not that it could all be a lie and we wouldn't care. We do care. We all long for wisdom and that longing keeps us reading Borges, Szymborska, Brooks. We long for spirit, divinity, meaning—or revel in an anti-meaning which must live up to its opposite. Deavel blends spirits and spirit. One spirit that was searching the shrubs “...sat up and swatted // the lilac.” Reading that I saw a sleepy monster, like the amphibian (and the woman who him) in Rachel Ingall's Mrs. Caliban (a novel that charmed an audience diverse as David Lynch, John Updike, Sarah Sarai). Obviously Updike is in no position to chime in, and I have no access to Lynch, but the third leg of this triumvirate, me, loves Deavel's spirit's “humming in an exasperated way, / a growling, puffy hum before a sentence,” like Larry, the aforementioned amphibian runaway from a scientific experiment with his nature.

            Further sections of the poem find a young girl, her mother, a doctor, “He in the dark / I in the dark / Mother in the dark /. . .” Deavel successfully marries the everyday tragic (“I a person of interest in her terror”) with a girl's sense of whimsy when writing of a walnut tree in the family's yard and the mother's diminishment. “The walnut is a dangerous beauty” with its inevitable, cyclically relinquishing nuts falling to ground. The girl's mother defended the tree's messiness and held out against eager buyers of walnut bark. “Straight as light, unmarred, // rivulet-perfect brown bark...”. The description and brief episode is lovely in itself but more so when the poem takes another hop, as these poems do.

In a leafy fury
   spin the takings of you up
   into a tree
So, be a bird

Quillous, beak-sure,
hooked feathers in a color
the color of a color

Tell! “Bird-be-here!

Like the chrysanthemum, the bird is all about being itself. For the joy of it and to keep us leafy, rooted and yet aerial. Not losing sight of the winged, Deavel does a neat turn by sonically translating Theodore Roetke's “The Bird.” It's a charming exercise, and an object lesson in translation. Ten sonic translators would produce ten versions. When Roetke writes, “But in this forest of the dead” Deavel gives a diaphanous probe, translating-to-reinterpreting with, “What listens for us, us of thread?” For easy consultation I copied out both: Roetke's “No Bird,” followed by Deavel's “Median Coverts.”

No Bird
by Theodore Roetke

Now here is peace for one who knew
The secret heart of sound.
The ear so delicate and true
Is pressed to noiseless ground.

Slow swings the breeze above her head,
The grasses whitely stir;
But in this forest of the dead
No bird awakens her.

Median Coverts
by Christine Deavel

How clear this space. Sore want to do,
a seed left dark or drowned.
Leafed fear, sewn pelt, a cut that flew.
Risk rest—whose voice is bound?

Low wings from trees, a love pure red.
Redness is nightly turned.
What listens for us, us of thread?
Snow word, a gate in earth.

Deavel sometimes references others' poets, playfully, with great reverence, to good effect. Though I mentioned Dickinson, previously, I caution you that Deavel doesn't have a gossamer twin with whom she's invented an eerie language none of us can hope to emulate or grasp. Words are words, poems are poems, there is nothing new—though—we have been told to make it new. We do our best when we make it and make it ours. Poets who offer a collection that is theirs, who hone an original voice—it takes work and lots of making—are poets worth reading. And thus I recommend Christine Deavel's Woodnote.

Sarah Sarai’s poems have been published in Ascent, Yew, Thrush, The Wallace Stevens Journal, Boston Review, Fifth Wednesday, and other journals. Her collection, The Future Is Happy, was published by BlazeVOX; her chapbooks include I Feel Good, Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Face, O You of the Cotton Pajamas, and The Risen Barbie. She also writes fiction. Long ago she was a freelance book reviewer for The Seattle Times. She has taught high school English; also its older offspring (composition and lit) at CUNY, Fordham, Pace, among other colleges. A native of New York State, she lives in New York City, but grew up in Los Angeles. She always longs for California and the Southwest. Please visit her at My 3,000Loving Arms

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