Saturday, December 19, 2009

Review: A Walk Through the Memory Palace

Poetry is something, I think, that just happens.

(and this isn't properly a review... more just some personal reactions to a bunch of poems)

A moment that moves or inspires; a shared experience or perception gifted between poet and reader.

I'm always slightly on my guard whenever reading a new poet... sizing up the words before me to assess what, exactly, I'm getting myself into.

Do you approach poetry that way, too?  Still?  Like a poem is something you need to puzzle over in order to pass 8th-grade English?


A certain amount of ambiguity will lure me into the poet's hand, but I've no need of sitting for a half hour sweating over the meaning of any particular poem to try and understand it or enjoy it.

If a poem works for me, I'll know it pretty quickly.

On my first reading of the ten poems in Pamela Johnson Parker's A Walk Through the Memory Palace, I was most taken by the first:

-- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - --

78 RPM

Dusk and three minutes
Of fading light,
Pale as moonflowers,

Muted trumpets now,
Drawn up tight as those
Parasols propped in

The corner of your aunt’s
Screened-in side porch, which
She calls veranda, where

White wicker bites
Through your white cotton
Shift, as she lifts a disk

Of black scratchy “wax,”
Places it on the Victrola,
Says, I’ll be back in

A shake, you two, and
Disappears inside.
As the heavy arm angles

From left to right, as
The stylus traces
Its sapphire finger

Down the record’s groove,
As he skates a single
Finger along the sun-

Bleached down of your
Arm, and as you
Start to shake,

Heart rising and
Falling like Billie’s
Song, cool water poured

To the top, brimming,
Then spilling silver
Notes, and his lips

On yours for —
The stylus bumps
Its paste-paper

Center; you hear
The screen door’s
Thump against its

Frame, hear Aunt’s
High heels tick
Across the porch.

Here’s something
For this heat
She says, handing you

Each iced tea: beaded
Glass, mint and a
Paper umbrella

Blooming, a drink he
Grasps quickly and gulps.
You’ll have to keep your

Knees pressed tight together.
As the light dims.
As the record changes.

-- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - --

I loved the way those opening lines invited me in and left me waiting for whatever might happen... waiting for the knowing smile I came to by the poem's end.

Did you smile there too, at the very end?

There are other poems in the chapbook that touched me, through subsequent readings, but I don't want to give them all away. I would suggest only that you find a friend who's willing to read them aloud to you... poems are better shared that way.

(That's how I best enjoyed them anyway.)

Incongruous as it is, this poem will always recall for me a sweet chili set at a slow simmer, a practised voice pausing in all the right places while I cooked, and the *necessary* translation of the German phrases (cause, you know, my mother's maiden name wasn't Von Oesen or anything similar.)


-- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - --

Some Yellow Tulips

Old Mrs. Sonnenkratz, there in her yard
Bent over like a bulb herself, works hard

To edge her sidewalks, salt the slugs, and spray
The aphids from her roses. Every day

She’s pruning, pulling, plucking, weeding out
The strays that might be festering. No doubt

She loves her lawn, loves order, symmetry
Of seedlings, herbal borders; she would be

Ruthless to seeds gone volunteer, to Queen
Anne’s livid bruise, half-hidden in its green-

White froth of lace. Today, her turban slants
Askew over her blue-rinsed hair; her plants,

Once straight as soldiers on her patio,
Are blitzkrieged out of order, the yellow

Tulips (three days blossoming in a vase
Atop her wrought-iron table) don’t erase

Her frown, her sloppy slippers, or the brown
Age spots (about the size of dimes around)

She often hides with gloves. A jagged scar
Runs up her forearm, where the numbers are.

The tulips, like her, blowsy, need to go;
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’s on her radio.

She thinks, Acht nicht, acht nicht, nacht musik…
Their leaves are lances, and they slant, oblique.

The tulips stems outlast their showy flowers;
For years she plants by day and, at night, cowers.

The yellow of the petals starts to burn;
Perhaps the worst of absence is return.

She smokes and shakes and smokes. Each flowerbed’s
As neat as graves. She stubs out ash. The heads

Of these tulips wore bright turbans, tight-wrapped
And now unwrapping. In Berlin, she was slapped:

Sie ist ein Jude… Dry-eyed in Dachau, how
She’s crying over bulbs bloomed too far now.

In a world of absence, presence leaves a scar.
Each tulip’s ravelled to a six-point star.

(for Lilo Mueller)

-- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - --

"Now that's a good poem!"


Many thanks to Dave and qarrtsiluni for the opportunity to review this, their first-ever, chapbook contest winner.  The book is available for purchase at the Walk Through the Memory Palace website, but you can also read the poems or hear them read by the author at that link. Do have a listen... especially to this one... Engendering: For Two Voices... another favorite read by the poet and her husband.

Let me know what you think? Any *work* for you, too?


Rabbits' Guy said...

Beyond Limmericks, I generally don't get them! It's good that many do.

But - we had a wind-up 78 when I was a little tyke! And I remember my sister getting an electric phonograph - played one 78 at a time - she got one record with it - Dean Martin - "That's Amore" - we never heard of Pizza before!

Keep shoveling ... gads- what a storm!

LauraHinNJ said...

Rabbit's Guy: I think the not getting them's ok...

Sometimes the sound of the words... the sense of *something* that's evoked...

That can be enough.

I'm wonderin' if it'll ever stop snowing...

bobbie said...

I have always loved poetry. Used to be very annoyed at my 5th grade teacher because I was sure that she did not "get it" as I did. Especially Evangeline.

These are wonderful poems you have posted. The first immediately sent me back to my Aunt Emmy and her old Victrola and sitting in the window seat at her home. I will explore the site later with great pleasure I'm sure. Thank you.

Anonymous said...
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LauraHinNJ said...

Bobbie: That sort of imagery is part of what I like so much about this poem... the shape of the moonflowers echoing the shape of the victrola... echoing the shape of the aunt's parasols in the corner... echoing the shape of the paper umbrellas in the iced tea. A great play with words, I think.

Dave said...

Thanks for blogging the book, Laura. I also really like "Some Yellow Tulips," but it really inspires strong feelings in people -- some just hate it and think the end-rhyme was a poor fit for the subject matter. After we nominated it for a Pushcart Prize, Pamela said that it had been rejected for publication in journals 47 times! Gotta admire her persistence in sending it out.

webtoad said...

I am blown away by "Some Yellow Tulips." I am curious as to why you think that it is a good poem.

Oddly, I think the rhyming somehow matches the seriousness of the sadness, the memory, the 8-0. The bittersweetness of old age and having survived Dachau.

Also, since the rhyming often happens in the middle of sentences, it seems to soften the flippant feeling that rhyming often gives me.

The rhyming also reflects the absurdity of the simile. Comparing gardening to Dachau, comparing orderliness to the Nazis.

So... I was very moved by this poem, it somehow is serious while not being too serious, absurd and profound at the same time.

Thanks for sharing.