A review of Meowku by Patricia Carragon and Flight by Robert Anthony Gibbons.

Reviewed by Michael Young

Meowku
by Patricia Carragon
Poets Wear Prada
Aug 2019, 46 pages, ISBN: 978-946116-21-5

Flight

by Robert Anthony Gibbons
Poets Wear Prada
Aug 2019, 36 pages, ISBN: 978-1-946116-07-9

Haiku traditionally focuses on nature, providing a moment rendered in images that spur an unexpected insight. Over time the form in English has evolved. Flexibility has infused the well-known 5-7-5 form, and, while remaining compressed and largely imagistic, the form can touch on everything from the personal to the political. The poems in Patricia Carragon’s newest collection of haiku, Meowku, spring out of this more diverse range. 

As the witticism that is this collection’s title suggests, the haiku comprising it center around cats. But it’s not just haiku about them, rather these poems explore a variety of topics with a feline twist. They include simple admiration and observation, but also engage social questions and current politics. They move with wit and grit, from non-traditional to traditional to innovative. Although haiku is known for language that is simple and direct, these poems take advantage of clever ambiguities, and cultural resonances. As in one of the first poems we are told:

the maneki-neko
waves her calico paw
“meowzel tov.”

Bringing together 2 cultural forms of good luck exemplifies some of the more fun poems in the collection. Various puns and cross-stitchings of image and implication make the collection surprisingly wide-ranging. While the collection starts with simple observations of cats and their interactions with each other, humans, and the world around them, it moves into symbolic cats, imaginary regions as well as political and even the meditative. One can’t ignore the social criticism in a poem like

litterary cats:
Kindle subscribers
in Amazon’s litter box
or

calicoes resist
the macho tom’s persistence
ovaries on strike!

There are moments of imprecision that it would have been well and easy to have corrected. For instance, the opening poem alludes to the 17 syllables of the traditional haiku while itself missing one of those syllables or another poem depicts an image of pigeons in V formation, when pigeons, in fact, don’t fly in that formation. But these moments are few and left behind in the general lightness of the collection that skips along like stones tossed along the surface of a lake. 

The central portion of the collection dips into the tradition of mentioning the season in which many of the poems occur and, for a bit, progresses from spring to summer, into autumn and winter. It is a pleasant transition that brings us to the poems in the end that are political and then, finally meditative. Those toward the end seem strongest, either for their political satire:

keep your pussy
rodent free
kick him in the ballot!

Or for their quiet return to the inner spaces traditional haiku often conjure:

the singing bowl
cannot compete
with the purring cat

Though perhaps tongue-in-cheek, I can’t resist agreement, as I am a cat lover who finds the purring of a cat one of the most pleasant sounds nature offers. So, while every poem may not hit the mark, a majority of them delight with playfulness or tickle with humor or invigorate with clarity, the latter quality surfacing particularly toward the end of the collection. So, wide-ranging as this collection is, it offers something for every reader to delight in.

In a wholly different sphere, Poets Wear Prada also recently published the collection Flight by Robert Anthony Gibbons. It is a collection that starts us off with the voice of the eternal feminine, a voice that follows through the collection acting as part muse, part critic, part desire for embodiment and justice. Many threads weave through the collection, from mystical to social.

Every poem in the collection is titled “flight” and modified with a subtitle, mostly geographical. This results in the poems acting as a kind of geography of the psyche or soul, mapping certain terrain, certain wounds, fragmentations, certain hopes and efforts toward unity.

One can’t help but consider the voice of the eternal feminine that opens the collection as a contrast against the emergence in the final poem of the figure José Bonifácio de Andrada, who was not only a Brazilian poet, but an abolitionist and a prime mover in Brazilian independence from Portugal. That closing poem declares, “If I had my choice, you would be Mnemosyne,/the goddess of memory.” History and memory thread through the collection as both the plague of what is imposed and the possibility of recreation or reimagining. It is in this way that, while it is never explicitly stated whether we are in flight toward or away from something, it seems largely that we are both. But such efforts are hard to make and hard to sustain.

This is enough to frame my thought, enough
To say I have gained memory—only a moment.
(Flight: Antioch, Tennessee)

It is why the distances in this collection are traveled and recited as a right of passage, a claim on the speaker who is trying to locate themselves in a world that is not always inviting:

Bring me through this winter. Through this bitter
Distance. I have traveled for you.
(Flight: Helena)

The opening poem of the collection, from the height of a plane, concludes,

I want to see God’s vision:
Creation from this distance.

And yet, in spite of that longing for a perspective that verges on the transcendent, there is the equal tug to “want to know the local/time of origin” to “be stone and Borglum rock.” That allusion to the sculptor of Mount Rushmore insinuates, as other subtleties do in the collection, to the inescapable embodiment of spirit and the reckonings that must ensue.

While Gibbons’ sensibility is able to tap into sources both literary and historical, he is also able to make his poems sing. There is a pleasure in the abundance of internal rhyme that carries one along. Even moments where it piles on top of itself, there is in it a playfulness that never undercuts the seriousness of his undertaking. And this is quite a stylistic accomplishment.

The face parcels off for miles.
There are long roads in Upper
Sioux land, and
Mandans and buffalos, so I will
Take it slow, discover the forest,
Get lost in the witness. 
(Flight: Minnesota)

Or

. . . No land, just
Storms.
The color, sand, and want
Fall into the neck and nape.
Check for the sex in others.

The collection seems to migrate from the creative eternal feminine voice to the local voice of the poet in the geography of his past and an effort to remake his future. Sitting in Bryant Park among “Oppen Skyscrapers”—a wonderful conjuring by allusion—addressing the statue of Andrada who has 

. . . only fifteen minutes,
Andrada, to give me just
what I need.

Such a short time, but this poetry, as poetry does, dwells in time, like music. It slows time, pooling it, providing refreshment. It gives us, its readers, perhaps a bit of what the speaker waits for from Adranda, the words of which comprise this impressive collection.

About the reviewer: Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. His previous collections are The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award for his collection Living in the Counterpoint. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous journals including The Los Angeles Review, One, The Smart Set, Quiddity, and Rattle. His poetry has also been featured on Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac.

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