Book Reviews Poetry

S.A. Griffin
Phony Lid Press

In Griffin’s THE BAD THING, one of Unborn Again’s poetic realities, MacArthur Park’s Lim’s Oriental Restaurant becomes as haunting as a scene written by Charles Willeford. Willeford, who has been called “The Pope of Psychopulp,” in the liner notes to THE DIFFERENCE, is comparable to Griffin with one distinct difference: Griffin’s uplifting sliver of humanity, as evoked in the works final piece, “There Is A River,” which he finds present in every situation. In Griffin’s holy naturalism can be found traces of the wonder which is embodied in the final passage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” where the wonder of America must have been when first set forth upon by the eyes of its founders. If you can imagine a character composed of Humphrey Bogart with a trace of Jimmy Stewart, you can approach the consistency of S.A. Griffin’s UNBORN AGAIN. A film noir experience with a palm full of jelly beans in a small town theater on a warm summer’s evening. From S.A.Griffin’s UNBORN AGAIN, there emerges from the dark reminiscent shadows of inhumanity illuminated by writers like Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler, a light of hope, redemption, humanistic salvation, and love…the reality of Bukowski circumvented with a halo of angelic hope.

Keith Hemmerling


Steve Kowit
Heyday Books

First of all, Steve Kowit is the kind of poet I could go out drinking with, or even stay at home drinking with. There are poets that I wouldn’t even presume to go that far with, and I can usually sense that from the tone of their work, the rhythm and space of their heart. Steve Kowit’s heart is

vulnerably large, and takes in all kinds of inclement weather, and the stories of the ongoing road that attempt a living in such weather. After reading only two or three poems in this collection, I knew his bones and skin were compatible with mine, because, frankly, I like to bounce up and down in the hard air streams of now, I don’t like to get stapled to the ground with too much overwhelming stimuli.

Steve Kowit is very much open to stimuli, from the world at large, from the people who live in the world with him, even from his own feelings, moods, and music. His stimuli response in this work has produced accessible explorations in Paradise, women, other men, basic training, waiting for someone to come to your door when you are very, very much alone, and Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus as well show up in this large dance floor of poems. And always, thankfully, the style is open and accessible, without sacrificing metaphor.

Let’s take a brief look at Hell through his eyes… “I died & went to Hell & it was nothing like L.A. The air all shimmering and blue. No windows busted, gutted walk-ups, muggings, rapes. No drooling hoodlums hulking in doorways.” Hell isn’t anything like Ethiopia or Bangladesh or Bogota: but the exploration, of course, continues, without losing any of its irony, and heartfelt empathy. For at the bottom of Steve Kowit’s searching eyes and heart is a vast necessary reserve of empathy, and caring, and yes, perhaps even, faith, of a kind: Faith in writing, faith in singing, faith in yelling, faith in being who you are.

The trick of taking on someone’s vision, is to go places you might not have gone, after sharing that vision. Steve Kowit’s dancing ability takes me to places in the world I have not been, and has, at the same time, reassured me of some of the places within myself, the kind of places that one needs to go to on a daily basis, especially in times such as we are in, well, in times such as we are always somehow in.

Steve Kowit is a human being who is a poet who is a teacher who is a…..

You pick up this book, and you have a friend, to turn to, to walk with, to see things with, to hear and feel things with.

That is what the good books do for you. The Dumbbell Nebula is a damn good book.

Scott Wannberg

Cate Marvin
Sarabande Books

The cover of “World’s Tallest Disaster”, Cate Marvin’s first book of poems, is adorned with a reproduction of Roger Brown’s painting from which the collection takes its title. The image is of a skyscraper, full of people, aflame. Here in November 2001, the image proves more haunting than it would have a few months ago, but that only serves to make it more fitting as the entry point into the world of Marvin’s poetry. The poems inside tackle, predominantly, love lost by fire or storm or other things in the world beyond our control.

Though those themes may seem simple, this is strong, challenging work, and particularly impressive in a first book. In his introduction, Robert Pinsky, who selected this collection for the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, notes that the work has “an urgent as well as an artful voice.” The poems filling this 73-page collection are utter contradictions. Marvin has a singular flare for marrying formal structural elements with intimate subjects in a way that brings out the best in both styles, and serves to downplay the limitations of each as well. This does, however, make the work less easily accessible, and make it considerably more dense with language than most contemporary work that delves into “confessional” themes such as the ones on which Marvin dwells.

With their uniform line-lengths and regular stanzas, the poems look stoic and staid, but they unfold with an intimacy and power that rail against their very appearances. In crafting her chaotic verse, Marvin also uses very formal diction, often disjointed transitions, heaps of metaphors and an incredible amount of internal rhyme. Images that recur throughout the book include, most prominently, sky, as well as buildings and the things we keep within them. The poems grow more focused and intimate as the book progresses.

A lazy reader, and, make no mistake, we have all been programmed by film and television to be lazy readers, may desire more immediate payoffs than these poems have to offer – particularly early in the collection. Work of this nature, however, bears re-reading more than less challenging work, and the myriad intricacies and stunning images, out of which Marvin has woven the whole book, offer more upon each visit.

In an interview excerpt, Marvin references a Wallace Stevens quote regarding some of the more irrational elements of poetry, and there are clear similarities between her work and that of Stevens. This is not work for the introductory reader of poetry, true, but instead this is work for lovers of language to revel in.

These are poems that do not shy away from passion or pain, sexuality, ugliness or utter beauty. This is work that reflects the world around us as it is, through the eyes, and in the fresh voice, of a talent from which we’re sure to hear more. And I, for one, look forward to whatever Cate Marvin offers us next.

Robert Wynne