Baltimore thrives, a garden of verse

March 25, 2001|By Rosemary Klein | Rosemary Klein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Earlier this month in Newsweek, David Gates closed a piece on James Merrill with the provocation "the estimates vary on how much longer it will be" that people will care about poetry. Regionally, there is no shortage of poetry being written and published. By and large there are very good reasons for people to read and care about it.

Much of this year's regional oeuvre is award-winning work. Poet (and fiction writer) Lucille Clifton should be a household name in these parts and not just because the National Book Award was bestowed on her volume "Blessing the Boats: New and Selected 1988-2000" (BOA Editions, 132 pages, $15).

Clifton's poems are tightly crafted; her wording sure and adjective sparse yet lushly descriptive. In "dialysis" she confronts truth head-on: "after the cancer, the kidneys / refused to continue. / they closed their thousand eyes." She does the same in her homage to James Byrd, "jasper texas 1998": "i am a man's head hunched in the road. / i was chosen to speak by the members / of my body. the arm as it pulled away / pointed toward me, the hand opened once / and was gone."

Readers are invited into Clifton's poems on the points of questions that command and demand: "the photograph: a lynching" opens "is it the cut glass / of their eyes / looking up toward / the new gnarled branch / of the black man / hanging from the tree?" and "alabama 9/15/63" asks "Have you heard the one about / the four little birds / shattered into skylarks in the white / light of Birmingham?"

"Stone Sky Lifting" (Ohio University Press, 86 pages, $17) is the second volume by Lia Purpura and winner of the 2000 Ohio State University Press / The Journal Award In Poetry. Purpura's poetry, like Josephine Jacobsen's, is an intricate dance of words, simply laid out yet twisting and ripe with wisdom. The first poem, "Bee," opens: "For once I was not bent / on denying the worst scenario / but listened to the bee / get louder as it came closer. / I was still as the rumble moved / into my chest and the machinery / of its wings passed over."

Purpura's poetic gifts also shine in "Increase" (University of Georgia Press, 141 pages, $25.50), a chronicle of her pregnancy and the birth and first year of her son Joseph's life that won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction. With painterly perfection she describes September, "Perfectly, cruelly, the sunflower jackknifed in heavy rain. The stalk of its spine snapped under the pelting. The cement walk to our house began to lift from its bed, floated up from its solid hold, broke from the mainland, and moved in chunks toward the street. The drain, a hell for the smallest of us: beetles and spiders with ingles in their bodies for holding air, skeletons as delicate as the dry spines of leaves, overcome by the filthy waves."

Jane Satterfield, like Purpura a teacher at Maryland's Loyola College, garnered the Towson University 2000 Prize for Literature for her first volume "Shepherdess with an Automatic" (Washington Writers' Publishing House, 66 pages, $12). The wryness of the book's title persists in the poems: "In the realm of the hero, the soul / struggles, never at fault, always provoked, / pushed to the path in shadow, / the trees twisted and shrunken in groves / - let them burn. It will take everything to envision / another history in the absence of troubadours, / every romantic device."

If anthologies are more to your taste, there are "When Divas Laugh: The Diva Squad Poetry Collective" (Inprinte Books / Black Classic Press, 117 pages) and "Weavings 2000: The Maryland Millennial Anthology" (Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000, 290 pages, $14.95) to peruse.

"Divas" showcases the work of Lenett Nefertiti Allen, Linda Joy Burke, Jacki-Terri, and Chezia Thompson Cager. Ferocious consciousness burns with clarity as in "i move through this life / with child-like faith / & a machete between my teeth / cuttin' through these critical times" from Jaki-Terri's "Untitled #1002." Or in "The fires this time / leveled the cement jungle / and forced open the eyes of the weary / and hardened the hearts of the wary / and sent out a clear and decisive warning / of more days of sitting in mourning / of more children born without a good home / of more boys determined to roam / through snow white streets of plenty" from Burke's "Warnings: Los Angeles Riots."

Loving consciousness soothes as in "You see, my mother gave me music, / initially the drum, / her heart to which I cling now / listening for her breathing me a wind song / 'Sweetie, don't cry' / as the doctor stands with extended hands / waiting to weight me in at birth" from Allen's "My Mother Gave Me Music" or in "I sing a world to come as / I walk a world unfathomed / negotiating the rise of Jesus from the dead" in Cager's "The Eye of Carl Clark: A Photopoem."

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