Thursday, June 23, 2011

Landscape and Journey by William Virgil Davis

William Virgil Davis is a Professor of English and Writer in Residence at Baylor University. He has written several volumes of poetry, and his latest is Landscape and Journey, which was the ninth winner of the prestigious New Criterion Poetry Prize and the 2010 Helen C. Smith Memorial Award for Poetry.

While a graduate student at Baylor, I never took Dr. Davis for any of his poetry classes, primarily because I had no interest in poetry beyond Shakespeare, with the exception of a few poems from my grammar school days, such as “The Owl and the Pussycat.” by Edward Lear. The reason for my ability to recite this poem from memory some 40 years later is the cause of that lack of interest. The nuns made us memorize a poem every week, and I HATED that assignment!

But gradually, I came to understand the beauty and magic of poetry. Believe it or not, my Master’s Thesis for my MFA completed last July is on poetry! I had to construct a personal aesthetic theory of my poetry, and then write about 50 pages of original poetry.

So, I approached Landscape and Journey with quite a bit of trepidation. I was not at all familiar with Dr. Davis’ poetry, so I had no idea what to expect. I was thoroughly and completely delighted with this collection. It is my kind of poetry: simple, beautiful images, lots of memories culled from his youth, reflections of travels, and even some wrangling with memories less than bright and happy. In short, I liked almost every single poem in this collection. No wonder it has won the prizes it has!

One of my favorites is an ekphrastic poem (a poem inspired by a work of art), “Tapestry”:

“Veins and arteries carry the blood from corner
to corner. The interpretation is easy once you find
the right place to begin. The Duke, on his white
stallion, has killed a knight from the invading
army near the center of the scene. Three of his
own followers lie in a heap at his feet. There are
too many corpses to count. A small stream winds
through the valleys, the rolling hills of the
background, done in a flourish of autumnal color.
In the lower left-hand corner, worked intricately
into the dense undergrowth, is the small signature
of one of the women who worked her life away
on the other side of this scene, in the cold tower
where the tapestry, for centuries, has hung.” (23)

I have never scene this tapestry. I have no idea where it is, yet I have a clear and pleasant image in my mind of what it must look like.

Another favorite, based on an etching by a 16th century German artist, Hanns Lautensack, matches exactly the image I had built up in my mind. This one I was able to find on Google images. The original is in the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. I see a trip to Austin in my near future. The poem is titled “Landscape with a Pollard Willow”:

“The telescoped view
forces focus through
the foliage, the fingering
limbs, leaving the gaze to linger

on the church, its tower and steeple,
fixed in the center of the scene.
There are no people to be seen,
no animals. There is simply

this scope of the land, etched
as it might have been sketched
on an afternoon walk by one
on his long way home alone.” (29)

This collection has a peacefulness and majesty about it. I highly recommend this slim volume of poetry – even and especially if you do not read poems at all. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/23/11

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Handler

I stumbled on the E! show, Chelsea Lately, a couple of months ago, and found it quite funny. The show is a combination comedy and talk show. She usually has three comics on a panel, and they all skewer celebrities. Chelsea ends the show with a guest featured in a new movie. For a while, a “realty” show aired called After Lately, which was about Chelsea and her crew preparing for her nightly show.

Her humor is not for everyone – it largely revolves around sex, drugs, alcohol, and little people, whom she refers to as “nuggets.” I decided to try one of her best-selling comedy books, which is more of the same and definitely rated NC-17.

Quoting from the book would require either taking things out of context or bowdlerizing them so much the humor would be lost. She does have her moments, many of them, in fact. She is not hard to look at – quite cute, really. Try the show first – if you find yourself laughing, you will most definitely enjoy this book. I might get another for some light reading. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 6/15/11

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Stop-Time by Frank Conroy

This book came to my shelves after I read Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes, reviewed here in March of this year. Frank Conroy was Tom’s Mentor, and Stop-Time was Conroy’s best known work at the time.

The story reminds me of a cross between Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Daedalus of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Young Frank Conroy has quite an interesting childhood, getting himself into a whole assortment of scrapes. He even ends up in Paris – as did Joyce when he graduated from college.

Even the episodes when Frank was a toddler were so absorbing. He was also brutally detailed in telling some of his experiences – his first kiss and his first sexual encounter. He did enough work to get by, but in the end he was accepted at Haverford College on the Philadelphia Main Line. Haverford was, and still is, a quite prestigious school.

At one point he ran away from his home in New York City with only a few dollars. He managed to make it all the way to Baltimore before his money ran out with his resolve to leave home.

One incident sounded right out of the mouth of Jean Shepherd, the great story-teller of Middle America. With a friend, he tries to peep into the window of a girl in the neighborhood. Conroy writes,

“Alone with the scent of flowers trickling down my throat like syrup, I watched the windows. Was that a pair of arms moving behind the blinds? Legs perhaps? An immense stone rolled over in my chest. Good Gog! Was that a thigh? Was that a bare shoulder? Lust exploded inside me, pure, hot lust bathing me like internal sunshine” (127)

Frank was about 12, and they never did a see anything. Illicit cigarettes, skipping school, fooling around with his friends, are all here in wonderful prose. His years at a boarding school, moving back and forth from Florida to New York with his mother, sister, and step-father are all woven together to make an interesting tapestry of life in the late 50s and early 60s.

Stop-Time will have to be ordered, but you will not regret the effort. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/8/11