Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chapbook Spotlight: No Blues This Raucous Song

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It is no surprise that Lynn Wagner's No Blues This Raucous Song won the 2009 Slapering Hol chapbook competition. The collection has the unity we hope to find in a chapbook as well as consistently outstanding poems, each full of its own treasures. Slapering Hol always produces exquisite chapbooks, but this one goes beyond exquisite. It is a thing of beauty and the perfect model of the art of book-making. Each chapbook in this limited edition is hand-sewn and hand-numbered. The title's gold lettering is elegantly displayed against a burgundy cover which looks and feels like suede. The sheer gold end papers have the delicacy of the dried petals of a money plant while the fourteen poems shimmer on silver-hued paper.

The collection achieves its unity from the recurring idea of music—jazz and blues and the bone-deep sorrow of such music. The poems come alive with songs, horns and thin reeds, whispers and hums. In "Can I Get An Amen?" we hear a chorus of "hallelujahs," "the sound- / box of a soul," and a body that “goes choirlike, then rumbles / from a low engine . . .” The speaker claims that "the blues / is a cathedral too . . ." and asserts that the "song burns real." In "Rough Song" we have a "jazz of quilts" and a woman who will "sew another song tinged in fresh rhythm . . ." Wagner captures the rhythms of jazz and blues in poems that beg to be read aloud, to have their music released. She also captures the passion. There is, for example, something essentially sexy about the "flutter-tongue" of the musician when “he blow that ten-hole” in "What the Blues Harpy Said” and in the "piano fingered / soft . . . playing // around the woman's thigh / or lips" in "So What."

In "Can I Get An Amen?" the speaker claims, "Believe me, / ain't no such thing // as speaking in tongues," yet speaking in voices is one of Wagner’s poetic virtues. In "What the Angel Wants to Tell Me," a stone angel converses with the speaker and imparts life lessons. The angel says, “Go down / to God’s Little Acre . . . / and dig your own homey ditch. / Lie down in its damp outline / and breathe in. Then look to the sky / and tell me your name.”  By the end of the poem, the speaker hears, “Get up,”  and tells us, “it’s then I want to kiss her / full on her concrete lips, forgetting / some future day when strangers will come / cover me in the red-checkered blankets / of Sunday picnics.” In "About the Only Thing That Will Save Us," the collection’s closing poem, Wagner convincingly assumes the voice of another angel, Angel Wallenda, a deceased member of the Flying Wallendas. In spite of having lost a leg to cancer, Wallenda, from the grave, tells us, in lines that jolt us with their irony, “What is essential, my father always told me, / is to place each foot firmly on the wire. / No matter how high.”

Other characters are resurrected, either to speak or be spoken to. In "Neruda" the poet is addressed as that "marvelous maker of music," that “wooer of wonder,” for whom "a cache of love is kept in common things." And then there's "Fishing with Elizabeth Bishop." Here the speaker and the poet share a few drinks while Bishop gives fishing instructions which sound suspiciously like instructions for something more significant: "But you, you must / believe, then give it all to the fish." In “My ex-lover comes back into my life” the speaker’s inadequate former lover slinks back, now metaphorically transformed into a dog. Here Wagner skillfully balances contrary emotions, making us laugh while simultaneously breaking our hearts. The speaker lets him in and pities him but ultimately takes him on a car ride, opens the door, and, once again, releases him, acknowledging, “I wasn’t savior enough.” 

No Blues This Raucous Song is a wonderful chapbook. It has everything a chapbook ought to have—attractive design, unity, and terrific poems. Let’s hope that Lynn Wagner won’t keep us waiting too long for her first full-length collection.

Unjust Spring

The skunk cabbage have already upstaged the winter woods—
their hungry innards create a solitary heat, enough
to burn a hole in this season's dolor while

my green desire remains underground, the earth so compacted
it seems the bulbs will never breathe. The irises
in the flower man's white plastic bucket

shrivel and frill. They miss Costa Rica and are all bruised tongue.
Even the daffodils disappoint—their deep trumpets
soundless, fingery stigma and anthers

pining for honeybees. There is never enough. And though I buy
a clutch of tulips, it hardly consoles. They remind me
of my loneliness. I strip off

their broad, imploring leaves and cram them
into a vase so tall they knock heads
and dare not open.

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