Collaborations by Bill Kushner, Tom Savage, Susan Maurer and Merry Fortune
Quarter Horse, 2014
Reviewed by George Spencer
To bring home a book of poetry written by very good contemporary poets and not to know who wrote what because the poems are a co-operative (ad)venture is one of life’s biggest treats. So it is with this wonderful chapbook collection, Here Be Dragons, containing collaborative poems jointly written by Bill Kushner, Tom Savage, Susan Maurer and Merry Fortune. These poets are widely published and are confident enough of their abilities to run the obvious risks of joint ventures. And all four are proven right. There is not a bad line, overwritten or flat, to be found.
This new direction, with the risks and rewards of partial anonymity, shows them riffing off each other and the resulting jazz is alternatively zany, sad, erudite and out there. This is particularly the case with the longest and last poem, a fugue-like piece, with extended progressions of repetition and alteration until the reader is completely surrounded by ghosts, Burmese snow lions, giants, snow caps and explosions, all suggesting a world in flux, dangerous and disquieting but with the possibility of fulfillment through immersion in the quotidian minutiae of life. All with hints of Gertrude Stein.
So who’s who? Is this Bill Kushner?
Take this poem with you always
& read it fervently, but don’t do what I do: which is
Weep, don’t weep.
Is this Susan Maurer?
A good way To listen to birds is on your stomach, ears close
To the earth.
Camelot, galloping Camelot,
Sir Lancelot rushed to keep up.
Make of it what you will
And Queen Guinevere does
I lobby words around the object
Of a Burmese snow lion
Rich with politics of snowcap
Free of words smoking to be called
A volcano to be melting
To aficionados it will be fun to try to assign lines to the various authors. Nevertheless the poems must work as poems and this they do.
The short poems, under 12 lines, STONE, Pennywhistle, Lemony Snickey, Little Epic, Two Line Poem and Canzonetta, are pared down to the absolute essentials. Of necessity, the words and images performing multiple tasks at the same time. To me the best example is Two Line Poem
The knife carves the warm butter into a rose.
The forest eats its young and smiles.
where the knife is both weapon and kitchen utensil and the forest both fecundity and murderer. Of course these are not poems of one interpretation. Readers will find other readings. What is a drippy rose?
There are poems of 14 lines, VERSO, Tom, A Party in Pages, that look suspiciously like the modern sonnet with a faint iambic pentameter and a sometimes turn, or volta somewhere near where it is meant to be. Sir Thomas Wyatt would not be happy, but then he is dead. Postmodern readers will find much to enjoy.
Either Susan Maurer and/or Bill Kushner wrote the following at the end of the first poem in this collection.
She hoped he would not become poetry
Divorced from the palace of touch
She wanted the salt spray upon him
She wanted to have it for lunch.
That self-imposed test, writing from inside the palace of touch, was clearly passed by the four poets. In this day of the glorification of selfies and web sites full of instant poems, the ultimate corruption of First Thought, Best Thought, it is with pleasure that we read here writers who know the words they use intimately because they live with them as friends and enemies and know their etymologies, where they come from. And poets who can write about love and tenderness and their opposites without slipping into a sloppy lyricism, a sinkhole poets on occasion like to wallow in.
Originally published in A Gathering of the Tribes