April is National Poetry Month, celebrating that literary genre far and wide. Around Tampa Bay we’re lucky enough to have a multitude of talented poets writing and publishing all the time.
Here are reviews of new books by two of them.
Steve Kistulentz is director of the graduate creative writing program at Saint Leo University and lives in Safety Harbor, where he is the town’s poet laureate. He has published two previous poetry collections, The Luckless Age and Little Black Daydream, and a novel, Panorama.
His latest collection is The Mating Calls of the Dead. Much of it was written during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, and the poems reflect a turning inward. They’re personal, sometimes confessional; many of them reflect on family history and relationships, others on lost love. Regret and anger power some of these moving poems, but there is redemption to be found as well.
There’s also mordant humor, as in An Explication of the Poem I Have Yet to Write: “The ‘I’ of the poem — though it shares certain identifiable characteristics with me — should never be construed as me. It is a far more reliable version of myself....”
For Every Woman Who’s Made a Fool Out of a Man, There’s One Who Made a Man Out of a Fool is, as its title hints, a take on the tropes of country music, starting with “the working-girl bartender / who speaks only in the slant rhymes of a heavy metal jukebox. / She will be the object of an hours-long obsession since she pours / with a heavy hand and offers sympathies so rehearsed they seem animatronic.” But it goes someplace most country songs don’t.
The second of the book’s five sections consists of three longer poems, all set in the past and among the most impressive in the collection. The Rosenstiel Cycle narrates the life of a real-life New Yorker, Fred Rosenstiel, who spent his life planting and tending gardens in unused slivers of land in Queens. It’s a vivid portrait of post-WWII New York that blooms into a meditation on meaning.
The Mule is a tersely written poem about a family of coal miners who, generation by generation, succumb to the brutal nature of their work. It focuses, though, on those whose lives are even harsher: the miner’s wife and the family mule.
The title poem evokes a memory of the poet’s father in Germany “in the last days of the last just war” as his unit comes upon a group of displaced persons:
To be a displaced person meant you were an upstanding citizen sandwiched between the chaos of advancing armies. To be a displaced person meant you were a peasant, another man whose family history is a history of terror, as peasant histories often are. Another word for peasant is victim. My father came from a long line of peasants, and took his place alongside the other peasants of this man’s Army.
It’s war from a viewpoint not often seen, and a scene that will haunt the father and, in turn, his son.
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Tampa writer Enid Shomer has published a novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, two short story collections and four books of poetry, as well as editing the anthology All We Know of Pleasure: Poetic Erotica by Women.
Her latest collection of poetry, Shoreless, is the winner of the Lexi Ruditsky Editor’s Choice Award.
The book’s first section features poems about Florida: beach and wave, heron and ibis. The poet clearly loves the natural Florida but recognizes the illusions of the postcard version. The Pink Light is about that sunset shade “I imagine the Impressionists / would have liked,” she writes:
“The pink light suffuses everything: natural / rose-colored glasses, a visual blessing.” But the poem veers surprisingly into something else that pink light might embody.
The title poem begins with water: “I want to be like water, go low where there / is least resistance....” But that fancy turns toward the subject of many of the poems in the rest of the book; the wish to be water is the desire to not be “caught in the trap / of a body, that abyss of bone and blood.”
Some of Shomer’s poems about the body celebrate it, like Sonnet for the Changeable Body, in which a young girl, “bookish, shy, too tall,” goes to summer camp and discovers a secret self and “the silk / skin beneath our clothes, hand like velvet rakes.”
But many works reflect on the physical pain of enduring cancer and spinal surgeries. The poems about spinal surgery are as blunt as the title of one of them: Three Disks, Two Rods, and a Dozen Screws. In Villanelle for My Two Spines, her backbone becomes a snake that has poisoned her life with pain. Around it, the surgeons “implanted a cage / around the chain of bones. Now the venomous snake / lives within this scaffold, its bionic / twin.” The result: “a zero-sum pleasure: the slackening / of pain.”
In Gowned Waiting, the speaker of the poem sympathizes with another woman in a medical waiting room who has just heard “the words / that struck like fangs — malignant, invasive...”
“She wants to run the day backwards / as I did last year. To walk back / out through the clinic door to the subway stop,” to reverse time to the happy state of not knowing.
The book’s last section does walk back, to the past and family memories. Those poems strike the balance between warm nostalgia for childhood and the adult’s knowledge that those golden days had dark edges. In the Cave, about her father’s death and her complex relationship with him, ends with “I want, I want / what I had, no matter how bad it was.”
The Mating Calls of the Dead
By Steve Kistulentz
Black Lawrence Press, 100 pages, $16.95
Meet the author
Steve Kistulentz will read from his work and emcee Poetry by the Pier, a free open mic celebration of National Poetry Month, at 6 p.m. April 29 at Safety Harbor Waterfront Park, 110 Veterans Memorial Lane.
By Enid Shomer
Persea Books, 85 pages, $15.95