Thursday, October 5, 2017

Holdfast: Progress of a Soul


         by Christian Anton Gerard
         100 pages

         published by C&R Press

         ISBN: 978-1-936196-74-6


        reviewed by Barbara Sabol

Holdfast: Progress of a Soul

     "Muse, say, fool, look in thy heart and write." Such is the impulse that powers the work in Christian Anton Gerard's second book, Holdfast.  The poems are laser-tipped with ache, with longing, and ultimately with personal redemption. They do not flinch from confrontation of poet to self as speaker, who lingers in the dangerous intersection of dependence and deliverance. This collection represents a searing introspective reckoning yet veers from the confessional: the poet opens the door to his soul, reveals the wreckage in the "blue room," and identifies it: "Whiskey's voice." In the poem, "Defense of Poetry; or Prayer in Recovery," he writes, "This is not a plea for redemption. This is not//a plea for restitution, though it is a thought moving/toward such a thought." The collection arcs from alcohol addiction, the misplaced self, to setting right the wreckage and arriving in islands of joy via love, faith and poetry itself.

     The "Christian Anton Gerard"/"the poet" figure (so named in most of the poems titles and lines) moves with deliberate and honest steps out of that blue room, following a map populated by a host of characters, primarily literary (Whitman, Spenser, Sexton, Rilke, Creeley and so on), with whom he identifies―an identification that often crosses into Negative Capability. The poems' speaker merges, or wishes to merge, with another poet, with a mythological figure, with an outlaw cowboy. In "Image," the speaker states, "I wish Whitman's portrait could be my self-portrait,//that Whitman's ghost is real as me." He becomes Spenser's Calidore, the hunter, in the opening poem, "The Poet Making a Scene." In this poem the poet/speaker is split, amoeba-fashion, into three characters: the two boys who "are practice-dancing shirtless/on the lawn. . ." and a videographer who is ". . .turning in circles like a narrator." And then further into myth: Calidore. The ground is perfectly laid, in this poem, for the through themes of personal crisis and fractured identity that haunt this collection. The poem's ending signals the beginning of the collection's larger narrative:

            . . . I have Spenser,

            though, his own allegory, to show me I am
            my own allegory, to help me see the heart's racing in,

            stumbling. How intricate to acknowledge the enough,
            the vigilance required to stay hidden and then admit. 

     The disassociated voice serves as a rhetorical device which enables identification with these various figures, and highlights the diffusion of identity, a necessary prelude to self-discovery. The poet creates an authorial distance between the Christian Anton Gerard of his poems, at a remove from portrayed self: a chorus of I's. Yet an intimate internal dialogue is at the same time established, such that poet/self and speaker move back and forth from confrontation/brokenness to affirmation/healing.   

     While the tone throughout the poems is edged with conflict, the poet, in true Keatsian manner, is "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." This ability, along with a reliable and powerful narrator's voice, draws the reader into similar mysteries and doubts; she travels that rough terrain through the uncertainties, guided by a narrator bent on revelation. In the final three lines of "Irises" the speaker addresses and responds to poet/self:

            . . .
            Where are you, Christian?
            On my knees. In this night.
            How do you know? My Hope is open.

     Through the three parts of the collection a progression toward wholeness is enacted via dialogue with the alcoholic, fractured and guilt-bound self who works to "understand forgiveness' shape" in part one, to the recovering self, wrestling with faith with his sober presence with his family in part two, moving to a more integrated self freed to love in all directions in the final section. This progression is, naturally, non-linear: in the first section, for example, we find a poem titled "[Because there are nights that seem to put one arm first]" which flows into the opening line, "on a ladder toward day." Here is the poet figuratively climbing into daylight/recovery. Perceptions are already shifting, as in the penultimate stanza, the speaker states, "I used to think flowers were fireworks celebrating//the dark not eating me."
     The title poem, "Holdfast: My Alcoholic Head in Recovery," in part two of the book encapsulates the fractured and grasping self in a rush of run-on lines, with double-breath space between each:
            . . .
            so I set down my thoughts on a twig

            and say I am not I over and over

            until I'm more comfortable with not being I

and in the final four lines, the movement toward recovery:

            . . .And still, most nights, I sit in the dark,

            knees drawn to my chest and all the worlds I know

            dangle like ghosts I can't grip, can't stop gripping.

     The ladder into daylight in these poems is love―of wife and son, of God, of self. And poetry. In the second part of the book, a full dozen poems' titles begin, "In Defense of Poetry;. . ." or are tributes to selected poets or poetry. In "Poetry Can Save the World?" the final couplet, the poet likens poetry to prayer - the impulse is one and the same:

            Prayer is what I do when I don't know, or rather
            in a poem it's the way I ask the sky to sing.
     The love poems in this collection, particularly in the second and third sections, signal a self learning, simply, happiness, and they are beautiful. In "Aubade in Afternoon" the subject of poetry fuses with romantic love in a loosely punctuated, idiosyntactic dialect that needs no parsing:  
            . . .      
            But if it be syntax inverted
            you love, let me
            be that wrangling, that
            reverse sentence full―
            your boots on still jeans
            my hands reach slide
            listen let us be denim

            its working to the floor
            the sound of.

     Perhaps the most beautiful poem, to the poet reader, is "You Poem You" in the final section. The speaker addresses the poem, as beloved:

            . . .
            Leaning your face against the clouds, your poem thinks of her cheek
            against your beard, knows she'll ask why you're crying.

            Your poem's whole life before and behind it.
            Your poem will be standing there holding her, and your heart

            will jump inside your chest's pocket, your fingers on her spine.
            The tears will be quiet, and you,

            you poem you, where everything happens so fast,
            you'll say, I want to read you this story I love.

     Blooms a bud that had been whorled in upon itself in the third section of Holdfast. Poems anchored in love petal in the direction of "her," of God, nature and numerous poets, and of Poetry, capital P. Eros emerges, intense and joyous. One of the many wonderful examples is found the final section of "Christian Anton Gerard to Her Sort of in the Style of a Teenaged Love Poem:"

            I said your name forty-nine times before I fell
            asleep last night―my voice fire-pop and invitation.

            I am all buzz and zing and you
            and yes and you and yes. Yes.

            I dreamt your voice. Breath in my ear.
            I woke a tulip field at sunrise.

or in the final couplet of "Christian Anton Gerard to Her," a contemporary Neruda:

            I want my sweat to taste like good, good labor, and dirt and grass.
            I want my name to taste like that in your mouth.

     Nature and Eros mingle, and of course God cannot but enter into the delicious brew. "Preservation" opens with the line "Christian Anton Gerard's tongue is a wetland.," and closes with
            . . .
            bullfrogs and crickets, ducks running on the water into dusk.
            Once though, Christian Anton Gerard stood in a wetland
            at sunset―a fox howl made his heart beat different.

      The poems in Holdfast are dense with image, allusion, figures from literature, science, popular culture, mythology all in service of a soul in progress: the Christian Anton Gerard of these moving and often breath-taking poems. The poet has laid down a template for a poetry of brave and vulnerable disclosure in a language refreshingly original, surprising and absolutely rewarding. The poet in no wise hesitates to follow the advice in his "Defense Prayer:" "Muse, say, fool, look in thy heart and write.

About the Author:

Christian Anton Gerard is the author of Holdfast (C&R Press, 2017) and Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella (WordTech, 2014). His work appears widely in national and international magazines. Gerard has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Prague Summer Program, Pushcart Prize nominations, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the 2013 Iron Horse Literary Review Discovered Voices Award.

When he’s not working, Gerard can be found fishing (usually just standing next to oceans, lakes, or rivers), learning to work wood (avoiding the ER), or indulging his love for home improvement projects of all kinds (after watching hours of do-it-yourself YouTube videos).

Christian holds a B.A. from Miami University (OH), an M.F.A from Old Dominion University and a Ph.D in English from the University of Tennessee. He lives in Fort Smith, AR, where he’s an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith


Friday, August 25, 2017

An Introduction to Shara McCallum's Madwoman

    Madwoman by Shara McCallum

     Alice James Books, 2017

    ISBN: 978-1-938584-28-2

Shara McCallum

Let me confess: I had never heard of Shara McCallum. At AWP Conference 2017, mid Friday morning, I listened, rapt, in a session called, “Written on a Woman’s Body: A cross-genre reading of bold writings about women and their bodies.” The presenters were prepared and impressive. The last presenter on the panel was Shara McCallum. A tough spot to be in, last. She opened, not with her own work, as the other four presenters had, but by reading Lucille Clifton’s “leda 1,” “leda 2,” and “leda 3.” McCallum’s commanding voice pulled off this reading and, in the process, put her own work in a vulnerable position. Then the strength of her own words followed—outstanding. She read from her newest publication, Madwoman, the following poems: “Madwoman a Rasta Medusa,” “Oh Abuse,” “Insomnia,” “Grief,” “To Red,” and “The Parable of Shit and Flowers,” in that order. Wow. The book was available at the Alice James booth in the book fair; I read it as I flew home from D.C. And this served as my introduction to Shara McCallum.  —Melva Sue Priddy

Shara McCallum was born in Jamaica to an African Jamaican father and a Venezuelan mother and moved to the United States with her family when she was nine. She earned a BA from the University of Miami, an MFA from the University of Maryland, and a PhD from Binghamton University. McCallum is the author of four previously published poetry books: The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, UK, 2011); This Strange Land (Alice James Books, US, 2011), a finalist for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature; Song of Thieves (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 2003); and The Water Between Us (University of Pittsburgh Press, US, 1999), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry.

 Recognition for her poetry includes a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, a Cave Canem Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series, and other awards. Her poems and personal essays have been published in literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks in the US, the UK, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Israel and have been translated into Spanish, French, and Romanian.

McCallum’s dramatic reading drew me in. But the strength of her own words are admirable, at times lapsing into her Jamaican patois. As if this weren’t magical enough, her poems slip in and out of time, yet remain timeless. She includes the mystical and commonplace. She writes of all life’s maddening contradictions matter-of-factly, without explanations, reflecting real life. Madwoman does not step neatly from one age or stage to the next; her contradictions and paradoxes are often stirred in with rewritten myths, life challenges demanding one’s need to adapt and push through living, doing what has to be done, especially for a woman of color.  

One can, of course, make a search of all the wonderful reviews and interviews available on the internet (Consider reviews listed at the bottom of .) and so I intend only to introduce McCallum to readers unfamiliar with her work.  

The persona, Madwoman, marginalized, sane, insane, and, more likely, multiple beings at once, reoccurs, scattered throughout the book, and remains an engaging thread that confounds with her many anomalies. At one point, she is “the madwoman now being all women” (27). She is addressed by various voices from multiple intersections: “Madwoman as Salome”(8), “Madwoman in Middle Age” (24), “Why Madwomen Shouldn’t Read the News” (41), “Lot’s Wife to Madwoman” (51). 

One theme that binds this book concerns the various stages of womanhood. In response to a question about those stages and whether madness was an inevitable trait, McCallum states: 

I suspect some forms of ‘madness’ are an inevitable byproduct of aging. As we go along in life, if we are fortunate to live long enough, we will all accumulate losses—of people we love to death or to the changing nature of relationships over time, or of parts of ourselves as we are forced to confront the fact that versions of who we thought we might be or a life we imagined we would live will simply not [be] coming into being. The poems in the collection address various feelings of ‘madness’ roiling below the surface—among others, rage and sadness and dislocation of the self but also defiance, a wanting to say or actually saying ‘fuck you’ to societal norms and expectations. The vantage points through which I look closely at or dwell in these poems in anger, despair, fear, moments of coming unhinged, etc. are those of womanhood and girlhood and the stages in-between, as you note. But I am sure the gamut of emotions the Madwoman confronts exists in men and women alike, in anyone who has eyes to see and does not close them. (Introduction to the Madwoman: An Interview with Shara McCallum”, interview by Alice James Books)

A recurring motif is memory; what gets remembered, by whom, and why. In fact, McCallum’s prologue poem, “Little Soul” after Hadrian, opens the possibilities of memory’s role in, or lack of, influence. 

Little soul—kind, wandering—
body’s host and guest,
look how you’ve lowered yourself,
moving in a word of ice,
washed of color.  My girl, 
what compelled you once
is no more. 
Such a small, unassuming poem, and yet there it is: How are our lives shaped by memory, “what compelled you once”? Which begs of Madwoman, what role has memory played in your development? These questions will not be answered in this book. No neat little strings. McCallum doesn’t try to tell us what the meaning of her life is, what the meaning of our lives are, woman or man, madwoman or sane. And she reinforces this in the book’s second poem,“Memory” (quoted in full): 

I bruise the way the most secreted,most tender part of a thigh exposedpurples then blues.  No spit-shine shoes,I’m dirt you can’t wash from your feet.Wherever you go, know I’m the windaccosting the trees, the howling nightof your sea.  Try to leave me, I’ll pin you between a rock and a hard place; will hunt you,even as you erase your trackswith the tail ends of your skirt.  You thinkI’m gristle, begging to be chewed?No, my love: I’m bone.  Rather: the sound
bone makes when it snaps.  That ditty
lingering in you, like ruin. (5)

Nothing sentimental here, no, rather bruises, dirt, howling, bone and ruin that linger. At best, the truth will confront: “Friends,/do you remember when we were young?/Life plump with promise and dreams?/Me neither” (41). Memories can “become unbearable” (12). But answer our life’s questions?  One voice asks midway through “Madwoman Apocrypha,” “Shouldn’t the death of ten thousand matter/more to you than that of just one person?” and another answers, “Yes. But I’m afraid grief isn’t math” (75). “Insomnia” speaks: “Dear one, why do you assume/there are lessons?” (64).

Yet even in the grittiness of life, McCallum gives us some beauty and innocence, but not much. “How else chart/a course than the way a child//plucks flowers from a field—/the eye compelling the hand to reach” (11). Even “Death” waxes poetic, if absolute: “…for I am in you/as the river is inside the stone”(56). 

In McCallum’s last poem, and the longest covering nine pages, “Madwoman Apocrypha,” several voices are speaking at once. Interlaced are those who will question and those who will tell Madwoman something, each with his/her own agenda. “Apocrypha” is a biblical term referring to texts of largely unknown authorship. When asked how this word defines the poem, McCallum responds: 

It speaks to it very well. But there’s another part of the definition of the word that is important to me to add to the mix. Apocryphal texts are those omitted from the ‘canon’ and are therefore not accepted as doctrine. Aspersions are often cast upon apocryphal narratives—due to their supposed lack of authenticity or truthfulness or sufficient evidence to back them up—in order to qualify and rationalize their exclusion. (“Introduction to the Madwoman: An Interview with Shara McCallum”, interview by Alice James Books)

An excerpt from this poem is difficult to layout, the page is broader than the regular page, but let me try, in order to show these voices intertwining.   

          Q: Why do you make the past a fiction?
          A: Everything is a wager.

                                                                                              Duppy know who to frighten
                                                               I heard this as admonishment 
                                                                           when a child.  But now
I think she is, I will be,
                                                                                        we have always been
                                                                                                             the duppy we fear.

          Q: What do you mean “a wager”?
          A: I needed to enact a search, but something happened
          I didn’t mean to have happen. I’ve become
          a sifter and a counter of grains.  

                                                                                     When as a child I couldn't sleep,
                                                                                                  stroking my arm,
                                                            she would sit with me, repeating,  …

                                                            nursery rhymes, song, nothing making sense

  but her voice and the dark.

          A: I don’t know where she ends and I begin. (77)

This last answer, above, has no question before it. The poem attempts to imitate the many voices each of us may have to confront within ourselves, even when there are no easy reassurances. 

Madwoman may be semi-autobiographical (most poems are), but, certainly, it reflects those voices living on the margins of society, voices full of authenticity, truth and lived experience but which are often unheard. Shara McCallum reminds us they are worth hearing by bringing us into their complex world. Find her work and read. And so I give McCallum the last word.

Q: Why do you keep referring to this woman
in third person? She is you after all, isn’t she
A: I’ve come to believe all stories
are self referential. Or else none of them are. 

When comes the night of your unmaking? (78)

Melva Sue Priddy lives near Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband. In addition to reading and writing, she enjoys gardening, sewing, and grandmaw-ing. She holds an MFA from Spalding University and has published work recently with Still: the Journal, Friends Journal, Poet Lore, and LexPoMo.