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Confronting Words: Poetry Reviews

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The three books reviewed here are by women writers who confront the world in uncompromised fashion. The first poet here is the late Reetika Vazirani and she is the most difficult to write about, not only because the poems are posthumous, and assembled and edited by editor/friends, (Leslie McGrath & Ravi Shankar) -- much like Jason Shinder's new book -- but also because Reetika Vazirani left this world in a most tragic way. In July of 2003, she killed herself and her small son, Jehan. The fact that she had been the longtime companion of the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, who was her child's father, unfortunately sets up the book, Radha Says, Last Poems (Drunken Boat Books) to be read within the context of their relationship, in the inevitable uneasy shadow of the Plath/Hughes struggle.

This is particularly unfortunate, as these poems deserve to be read separately from any biographical event, like all poems -- but the facts of Reetika's death seem inescapably part of the book's publication. This tragic story is well-known among poets -- and to avoid acknowledging it seems as pointless as over-stating its influence on the work.

I have been a fan of Reetika Vazirani's poems for some time. Her first collection of poems, White Elephants was amazingly self-assured and collected for a first book and her second World Hotel gave readers a mature voice. Both books won prizes -- I was one of the judges for the Discovery/Nation award, which she handily won.

Now, six years after her death, we have Radha Says -- a hermetic, meandering book lifting off into moments of harrowing inspiration. Much here, as with Jason Shinder's book, has depended on the insight and instincts of her editors. (The entire manuscript, left in her handwriting, with notes, can be viewed, when it is released, in the Special Collections at the College of William and Mary.)

It would be most helpful, in reading these poems, to have a working knowledge of Hindu mythology and, in particular, of Radha, of the Hindu epic, who becomes contemporary in her poems. Reetika Vazirani, who was East Indian, has always written elegantly in the voices of multiple cultures and their gods and heroes -- this book is no exception.

Her tone here is trance-like, as if the poet has slipped the bonds of gravity and is floating free -- speaking out of a dream.

one face you undress me
one face you see the other
you render former lovers
one face you enter
one face you want three
"Shiva by His Wife Parvati"

The poems challenge the reader to follow where the anguished sensibility becomes greater than its life story -- the gods and goddesses take over and embody, as they do, psychological states -- trauma and joy. These complicated, brooding, darkly elated poems, crafted in their own fire -- do not deserve to be read with a sense of false portentousness -- rather with steady admiration for an accomplished poet's last poems.

Molly Bendall's new book, (her fourth), Under the Quick, is out from Parlor Press. Mystery guides Molly Bendall's work -- the poems can be elusive, even opaque. But here is an ironic intelligence focusing its lens on language, a little in the manner of Gertrude Stein, a little in the manner of Susan Wheeler -- yet her own particular sense of what's supple in syntax:

She'd tick, she'd part
like the sum of it all
"If on a Boat You Might Find Clytemestra"

The poem "Farm Days" has a touching cadence and its language unencumbered by a need to make conventional sense, nearly does -- in an emotional turn:

No waves, so spread your blanket
on the grass.
Leave my fondness
to its own devices.

There's an inscrutable, willowy, linguistic élan to the poems -- they come from the world below consciousness -- language released at pure Ophelia-speed from formality and sequence -- their surefootedness and grace is something remarkable.

Cecilia Woloch's poetic voice has grown more lyrically confident with each new book. Now with Carpathia, she attempts to lyricize each aspect of her narrated life and succeeds with fine breathtaking abandon. The book is zany with music -- from Le Jazz Hot to bluegrass to gypsy violins. These are poems full of wind, light and whistle-stops -- though she takes on weighty subjects: family and European history -- much in the style of an old-fashioned Continental romantic. Yet the plight of Eastern Europe (in the beautiful far mountains where her father's people rose up) is at the heart of the book. These are the poems of a wild girl, a gypsy, a young lover -- she finds a new version of herself in the most written-about (a bridge over the Seine) and also remote and obscure places -- yet never fails to include the reader, whom she posits, also in romantic style, as "beside her" on her far-flung journeys.

The poems try for differing levels of the exhortative -- in these "dark times" she calls on us to "shine" -- if this seems too easy, then easiness is her hard task. There is something in Cecilia Woloch that does not love a wall or a fence or border checkpoint -- her bounteous, vivid, whip-like scintillations carry us with her. Like poets traveling to Ithaca -- Carpathia is that place where we begin to know our own unfamiliarity with what is most present -- and long to love, like these poems, our own stories of passion and journeys home.

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