Baltimore poetry demands attention

March 29, 1998|By David Beaudouin | David Beaudouin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Gertrude Stein, seminal Baltimore poet and post-modern counterweight to this town's Poeish ways, once measured Charm City so: " ... Nothing really can stop any one living and feeling as they do in Baltimore." In doing so, Stein distinctively framed that maverick streak in Baltimore's literary arts which even today blooms as unexpectedly as Bradford pears up Charles Street.

Certainly generations of these poetic "culture workers" (a term popularized by the late and much admired Baltimore poet Joe Cardarelli) have sprung from this city by the sea, including Adrienne Rich, Frank O'Hara, Elliott Coleman, and Josephine Jacobsen. However, knowing the poetry of today's Baltimore means ferreting out its sources, usually little magazines, anthologies, and individual chapbooks.

Thanks to the appearance of such important new local anthologies as Word Up Baltimore and Poetry Baltimore, as well as such literary magazines as The Pearl, The Shattered Wig Review, Wordhouse, and The Maryland Poetry Review, the writings of many local poets are now reaching a broader audience. Still, to tap the deeper core of such efforts, nothing compares to reading an individual poet's work in depth. For starters, the following recent books by four Baltimore-based poets is recommended:

"In The Heartland," (Dolphin-Moon Press, with photographs by Stephen John Phillips, $7), Gary Blankenburg has set to verse a map both literal and mythic, stitched with memory that both horrifies and amuses by sudden turns. As painfully honest evocations of past affairs and betrayals, poems such as "The Good Mother" (Do you think,/ she said/ that my baby girl will grow up & find/ one man to love her for a lifetime?/ Unlikely, I replied,/ we all end up damaged goods/ & find our own cures for all that's missing/ or too much there.) keenly show that love won is more often love lost, pulling away like a car's tail- lights into the night. Overall, in its masterful seizure of the poet's life from uncertain childhood to still uncertain middle age, "The Heartland" is a heartfelt achievement.

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On the howlingly funny cover of Kim Carlin's "A Bestiary"

(Shattered Wig Press, $5), animals in formal wear line up for a buffet of unconcerned human heads. Within its pages, poems are divided between "Predator" and "Prey." For Carlin, her jungle is not so much a place as an unguarded feeling, as in "Hammer & Nail," (He's pounding on the door, begging/ entrance. Now he's circling, closing in./ I'm safe. The wolf's already inside.) Its inhabitants, from street dogs to Plastic Man, each contribute in small raw increments to the poet's search for the grace infusing her own mortality (If it rings today that's it, it's/ over; I can lie down there myself in those/ wet leaves, let the sun climb up, the way/ green ivy covers sins ... - "Be Try All"). "A Bestiary" is powerful stuff. Take care, it can bite.

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"Imagining The World" (Gateway Press, $10) is poet Sandra Evans Falconer's newest effort - a travelogue in which even familiar landscapes reveal unpredictable paths. In the collection's title piece, the poet as part-time telephone solicitor sees her voice ranging across the distances of America, seeking a reply (What aches is/ the empty space left/ by departing sound,/ the corner around which/ I need to see someone I know ... ). And in "Miss Underhill's Chair," a New England folk tale takes on new resonance through Falconer's own retelling of an Ophelia-like woman literally washed away by loneliness (she...sat crying, twisting her ringless hand,/and finally lay down on her ledge,/ motionless, as the water surged forward/ soaking her heavy skirts.) Altogether, the poems in "Imagining The World" offer moving journeys between dark and light.

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"I like to keep things open," writes Bruce Jacobs in his poem, "Lockjaw," "My flesh no longer winces." It is exactly this persistent openness that informs Jacobs' newest book, "Speaking Through My Skin" (Michigan State University Press, $10), giving it a striking degree of sustained power. As the wordplay in its title suggests, this collection, which won the 1996 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, follows the poet's efforts to articulate daily moments of insight - as a human being and as an African-American. While deftly acknowledging the issues of prickly racial politics in such poems as "Thirty Years After Watching 'Johnny Quest' On TV" (I want to come as a cartoon vision/ to baffled, loinclothed Caucasians/ bring fire to blue-eyed forest people/ who cringe like bowling pins), Jacobs also makes clear his discontent of having his art compromised by any limits, including lock-step ethnic allegiances. In the poem "Mentoring," the poet rejects such peer pressure, refusing to "rattle shackles like jewelry." From this personal declaration of poetic independence, "Speaking Through My Skin" reaches out to find the commonality in all our lives, and to share its too-brief sweetness. "Kick in my door," Jacobs asks us, "then report back to me."

David Beaudouin is a Baltimore writer and marketing communications consultant, and the founding editor of one of Baltimore's oldest independent literary presses, Tropos Press. His forthcoming book of selected poems, "Best Loved Poems Of The American People," will be published in 1999.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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