Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sonnets from The Voyage of the Beagle By Rick Mullin

Sonnets from The Voyage of the Beagle
By Rick Mullin
Dos Madres Press
Loveland, Ohio
ISBN: 978-1-939929-22-8
155 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Charles Darwin embarked on the HMS Beagle into the natural world of fauna and flora from a context of faith and wonder. Like other rationalists and scientists who came before him, he armed himself with revelation and the romance of adventure. Whereas Johannes Kepler had his Pythagorean mysticism and astrology, and Isaac Newton his biblical prophecies and secrets of alchemy, Darwin entered the fray of reasoned observation with a Christian missionary’s certainty and an Englishman’s righteous superiority. Yet something extraordinary, miraculous if you will, seemed to take shape, something which changed the very way we look at the world around us and each other. Darwin’s five years of exploration and growth he chronicled in his journal and subsequently in his book The Voyage of the Beagle. Here begins poet Rick Mullin’s masterpiece of poetic reinterpretation.

Taking with him his painter’s skillset for critical observation and his magnificent formalist writing style, Mullin in his Sonnets from The Voyage of the Beagle conjures up a persona that both captures Darwin’s notebook cadence and blends in his own contemporary sensibilities.  Mullen’s Petrarchan sonnet variations carry the expedition’s narrative amazingly well, while at the same time lending themselves to detailed detections and measurements. The results bring to mind grand interpretive creations of poetic art, Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad being one.  Mullin’s perceptive powers are so attuned to specificities that he examines his own metaphor in his opening piece (after the invocation) entitled Launch of a 10-Gun Brig. The poet explains,

Our journey fronts on an incessant volley.
Heavy southwest headwinds sent us back
a second time to Devonport, unto that black
embankment of commercial blight. The trolley
at the warehouse hadn’t moved an inch. My heart
lay heavy as a gun, an iron gun
in line to fire—an apt comparison,
for on the third day we would make a start,
exploding on the sea through open light…

Non-readers of the “Voyage” often think of Darwin island-hopping from research site to research site. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of Darwin’s time was spent on land—three years and three months to be exact. His coastal and inland studies included the native populations. On this subject his perceptions clearly matured over time.  Mullin’s persona relates the circumstances of an Indian attack in a matter-of-fact and somewhat self-satisfying way. He says,

My informant recollected with some horror
the sound of quivering chuzos in the hour
the estancia faced the naked entourage.
He saved the souls of many Christians there,
he claimed, by simply locking the corral
and courtyard. As the horrifying sound
intensified, a Frenchman on the wall
commenced with grapeshot, sputtering a prayer,
and putting 40 spearman on the ground.

Later on in the poem Indian Wars Darwin sees things a bit differently. Noting the genocidal deeds of Argentinian dictator and warlord Juan Manual de Rosas, Mullin’s Darwin tersely clarifies,

General Rosas and his cohorts justify
the government’s campaign in simple terms:
The Christian versus the Barbarian—
one more distinction lost on morning worms
and meaningless to certain birds that fly
in circles.  Carrion is carrion.

One of my favorite pieces, The Plain of Port Desire, prompts sadness and a passion for knowledge beyond the sensory and obvious. Darwin stands alone on the edge of a lifeless field of chalk and gravel. Forced to wait out the tides of life, he seeks words to flesh out descending loneliness and a wavering disquiet. Not much happens. Or does it? The poet puts it this way,

…I walk about
in a virgin forest, noting as I go
the tree line falling to a plain of gravel
mixed with soil resembling chalk, a level
lifeless  field except for one guanaco.
The one suggests a coterie. A herd.
But none is visible. The loner trots
and leaves me on the near edge with a journal
open to the hollow, doubtful thoughts
that fly into a landscape wanting words,
a permanence that speaks to the eternal.

The oddness of that camel-like guanaco and its complex evolutionary history stops one in mid-read and provokes awe, an awe which I’m sure Darwin felt as he captured the moment in his notes.

Although most of Mullin’s sonnets replicate the same rhyme scheme, he does, at least in a couple of instances, vary the initial octave from abba cddc to abab cdcd. One of those poems he entitles Jackass Penguin and it’s quite funny.  The poet details a showdown between man and beast, between Englishman and penguin, a veritable High Noon scenario in the Falkland Islands. In the actual journal entry Darwin noted his amusement triggered by the penguin’s demeanor and its strange jackass-like braying. I must say again that I am amazed how closely Mullin comes to capturing the voice and verbal mannerisms of Darwin. Here is the heart of the sonnet,

…Shall he best me?
We pose at loggerheads, two flightless birds.
But certainly my crude experiment
will show the world (or is it visa versa?)
common traits in nature evident
between Englishman and A. demersal.
Brave as Heracles, he holds every inch
he gains with vehemence, his head thrown back
and rolling side to side, a braying golem

Mullin’s persona considers the human species in the same conclusive matrix as he does finches or lizards. He is at his anthropological best in his journal entry set in Sydney entitled Silent Thoughts at Dinner. He imagines the penal colony mindset of his waiter at a dinner party and delves into this society’s hidden and rancorous undercurrents. The sonnet opens with Darwin speculating on the waiter’s crimes,

The servant’s shirt is snowy white and stiff
with starch. One wonders what he’s done.
One eyes his hand, imagining a gun,
the butcher’s knife. Yet here we dine as if
the man were serving of his own volition
in a London home, but on a wider street.
Remarkable, considering the heat
and given our antipodal position.

Yes, Rick Mullin astonishes with his formalist artistry and his narrative versatility. But more than that Mullin has fashioned a poetic voice that easily ascends, in this book and his previous collections, to the very top tier of all contemporary poetry—whatever the stylistic preferences. If you haven’t read him by now, you’re missing a lot.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sun Stigmata (Sculpture Poems) by Eileen R. Tabios

Sun Stigmata (Sculpture Poems)
by Eileen R. Tabios
Marsh Hawk Press
Copyright © Eileen R. Tabios, 2014
ISBN (hardcover): 978-0-9882356-6-3
Hardbound, 131 pages, NPG

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Sometimes I have to read a poem by Eileen R. Tabios two or three times to truly receive the impact of her words and beauty of the poetry.  Sometimes the effort is not so great, but whatever time I put into a Tabios poem the reward is many times the effort.  Perhaps the following poem will help explain is it the story of her life, lover, husband, past and future fused together in an amalgam of memories or the story of an affair, a disappointing one, perhaps or a memory never to be shed.   These are my thoughts, you may have a different view that may also be correct or incorrect:

       Holes in maps look through to nowhere
       –Laura Riding Jackson

                                    … fled

to an alien land
whose history has become
like you—impossible to be grasped

…to feel the white-haired woman           
I will become
(looking through a window and seeing glass)

I never entered a dark building
fraught upon the high heels you love
             feeling the embrace of leers

             a ripped hole in space
                           where you I felt you sculpting
                           a dispassionate embrace

How has she become
a shadow where there is no light

An interesting aspect of these poems is that each of them has a title which begins with a (  at the beginning, but not the end leaving the reader to (a) accept it as is, (b) wonder what is missing, (c) add their own words or (d) just wonder what should be there.

The poems themselves can be as enigmatic as the title or not. 


The vagaries of memory—
you’d considered a prior sighting
                        :”an insouciant Sancerre”

Now you feel his touch leap
across a room, the weight
of his fingertips tracing the edges
of your publicly sanguine lips

Dust motes dance in the beams
thrown by a sconce clamped
onto a peacock’s florid tail
flowing across silk wallpaper

Why are you stubborn? He asked
just as you said, I am not stubborn
Both of you were supposed to sense
the presence of a B-movie camera
then smile after this overlap

We were promised a sunset, he said
when you would have walked away
He nodded towards a waiting
window framed in violet velvet

I didn’t lost that badly in poker
you replied but moved towards his
request. Unblinking stare. He should
have spanned your writs with one hand

He watched you as you watched
a sun die by painting its rubicund
departure across your tender face

Ripeness—against this memory
you take your first sip of a golden wine
nicknamed by commerce as “God’s nectar”
It coldness then warmth
down your throat brings you
forward to the future

where he would take the folds
of a hovering drape and swaddle
it around you as if you were
an infant. Even violet can

be gentle, he would whisper
Unexpectedly, you would feel
his fingers tremble
behind velvet camouflage

To spark your heart finally
into breathing. When you
finally would lay your lips
against his, offering a door
he would know can be keyed

it would be the appropriate decision
so that civilization aborts
its potential
as an endangered species

What I have found in Tabios’ poetry are overtones and undertones of sensual/sexual images requiring active thought to accept the image, which is another way saying think while you read her poetry or you will be lost.  Think at the end and you will feel wonderment at her talent.

In a biography of Tabios published in the Poetry Foundation it is noted that she came to the United States from the Philippines at the age of ten.  My guess is that she probably spoke Tagalog, the native language until she came here and to read her poetry is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad who learned English around the age of twenty-nine and then wrote some of the great stories of the English language.  I dare say there are few poets who can use the English language as well, as mysteriously, as excitingly as Tabios does in all her books and especially in this one.

In other reviews I have done of her poetry I have always had good things to say and this book is no exception. (Disclosure:  I am credited with a back cover blurb on this book from a review of a previous book.  Also note that I have published her in my online journal Muddy River Poetry Review at a featured poet.)  Nonetheless, I still find her on our most unique and enlightening poets, both for the subject matter and the style.

I only give two examples of her creativeness in this volume because I believe you should the entire volume and judge for yourself as to the talent she is. 

Here is an abbreviated version of what the Poetry Foundation has to say about her (note I have edited to make it fit my review):

Tabios was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States when she was 10. She earned a BA in political science from Barnard College and an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Founder and editor of the online poetry review journal GALATEA RESURRECTS (A POETRY ENGAGEMENT).

Tabios invented a poetic form called the “hay(na)ku,” a tercet in syllabics and is often considered an experimental writer.  She described her “abstract poetry” as follows: “In poetry, I try to create an emotion that transcends the dictionary sense of what words mean or what they typically evoke in the current cultural context. There are words that are beautiful outside their meaning, like azure or jasmine or cobalt.… For me, this is partly the place of abstract poetry, in addition to what’s happening in that space between, words, lines, sentences and paragraphs.”

Tabios has received many awards and commendations for her work, including the PEN Open Book Award, the Potrero Nuevo Fund Prize, the PEN Oakland–Josephine Miles National Literary Award, the Philippines’ Manila Critics Circle National Book Award for Poetry, and a Witter Bynner Poetry Grant. 

Finally, I should note book is separated into sections that include a Preface, My Greece and Returning the Borrowed Tongue. There is an Afterword as well as sections entitled About the Source Material, About the Cover, Humming a Crituque, Selected Notes To Poems, Acknowledgements and finally About The Author.   In other words, you get your money’s worth.

In Tagalog the word maganda means good.  Her poetry is certainly maganda.


Zvi A. Sesling is author of King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Street, 2010), Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva, 2011) and the soon to be published Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva). He is Editor of Muddy River Poetry Review and edited Bagel Bards Anthologies #7 and #8.