Deborah Ager’s Midnight Voices

Midnight Voices by Deborah AgerMidnight Voices by Deborah Ager is a book of poems grappling with identity on many fronts. As the cross-dressing revolutionary war soldier Deborah Sampson says, in the opening poem by the same name, “I do not remember / the men I’ve killed. I do not remember / which of my names is my true name.” It is also a collection that grapples with place — naming the Atlantic, Florida, Spain, Iowa, San Francisco, and Santa Fe in its titles, and taking us through hospitals, museums, lakes, and parks as these poems seek, line-by-line, to understand what they so keenly observe — both outwardly as scenes and events, and inwardly, as a panoply of sensitive, intelligent speakers seek their way as strangers in their own lands.

The “X” (as in “‘X’ marks the spot”) recurs in several poems, as indeed each speaker seems to be longing for the certainty and guidance of a map. But the poems themselves are the treasure — of spare, delicious ambiguity. Few comforts issue from these midnight voices. Few pleasures emerge any less fleeting or terrible than the man in the holocaust museum embracing an unknown woman, as he explains to her, “What’s strange: how long you stay / with me before you turn and say / you must have the wrong girl.” There’s nothing mistaken about Ager’s poems — elegant and haunting, with a cultivated coolness reminiscent of W.S. Merwin‘s The Lice, these voices have learned to speak, like Ager’s “good wife” studying her 1950s guidebook, with a terribly “soothing voice.”

American Fractal by Timothy Green

American Fractal by Timothy GreenTimothy Green recently sent me an advance copy of his debut book of poems, American Fractal. I helped him out a bit when the Rattle website was having some technical trouble, and he, in turn, sent me what I discovered, by the inscription, was only the third copy of this book he has signed so far. What follows, therefore, is one-part public thank-you-note, one part book review.

One of the things I love about this book is that Green is not afraid to rhyme — both internally, and at the ends of lines. Heeding the ominous warning at the front of the book not to reproduce any part of its contents without permission from both author and publisher, I will have to leave it at this: the rhymes work. Green is not afraid, like Ashbery or Stevens, to follow a line with something wild and unexpected. Rhyme, repetition, and stanzaic integrity (à la Doty) all work to counterbalance this wildness, giving a sense of cohesion and satisfaction to his by turns whimsical and serious assemblage of disparate perceptions.

This is a book, after all, about chaos and order — as is boldly announced in the opening quote by Douglas Hofstadter — the Feynman-like cognitive scientist after whom several recursive geometric sequences have been named. Hence, the fractal, present in form as a wild kind of order. But although the other word in the title — “American” — provides the content for this fractal-scape, Green is not a pop-culture poet. Though unafraid to reference the modern world, his work does not cash in on the currency of the currently-well-known. Instead, these poems find their source in a meditative place, even if that meditation is upon a man who dies during a video-game binge, or auctions his forehead for advertising space.

It is upon Green’s keen perception — both internally and externally — that the success of his best poems rests. Here is a first book by a poet younger than me that is confident and sage, but hardly predictable. These poems work together and alone to pull us deeper into the saturnalian possibilities of the well-observed mundane, giving us, in the end, as he says in “Hiking Alone” — my favorite poem of the collection — “all we / ever wanted: a little darkness to climb out of.” (OK, I couldn’t resist quoting just a little bit.) Preorder your copy from one of the author’s preferred retailers, and let that special contemporary-poetry-loving someone know that Santa is bringing them a tardy present that is sure to be worth the wait.

Good Friday Kiss by Michelle Bitting

Good Friday Kiss by Michelle BittingIn her debut full-length collection, Good Friday Kiss, Michelle Bitting delivers a ferocious and nuanced experience of womanhood. These are poems of the sister reflecting on her brother’s suicide, of the mother squirting meds into her autistic son’s cran-apple juice and nursing her daughter in a vampiric pre-dawn delirium, the uniformed schoolgirl in a tryst with her married teacher, the wife offering her body like bread to her husband before his long journey, the middle-aged left-coast mom facing cancer, plastic surgery, and taking up the guitar again.

The collection builds upon the success of her chapbook, Blue Laws, offering deeper reflection, sharper perception, and an expanded range of poems. Bittings work is not so much confessional as it is unflinching in its observation, including in its self-reflective moments. In the poem “Strange Flesh,” she thanks a nameless donor for, “inking the little O / on your DMV form, / for prettying up my smile.”

Keenly attuned to both biting irony and expansive tenderness, this collection addresses the question all poetry addresses — “what does it feel like to be human?” — and addresses it head-on.

In “The Annals of Suicide,” the speaker turns from momentary thoughts of self-harm to a noisy bird on the patio:

His crimson chest and pate teased up,
he reminded me of a clown
on a circus night gone south — rain
and the generator blows,
lights fritzing, the tent half-caved.
Still, under a spot’s drained glow
with one perfect trick
he murders the crowd,
the masses staggering to their feet,
in fits of senseless laughter
as his painted lips unhinge
and he gulps the flaming sword — 
swallows it down without burning.

Though Bitting’s impulse is narrative, she resists easy moves and shock value, probing the seemingly mundane, not so much for big answers, as worthy questions. In the end, through moments of bold perception and astonishing honesty, we share with Bitting in the bittersweet “education in love / we didn’t know we needed / and never asked for.”