Book Review

Stephen Anderson, Chris Austin, Paul Enea, Elliot O. Lipchik and Steve Pump, Portals and Piers, Sunday Morning Press, 2012

Reviewed by Kathleen Serley

Stephen Anderson, Chris Austin, Paul Enea, Elliot O. Lipchik and Steve Pump, poets from diverse backgrounds, meet on Sunday mornings to discuss and read their poetry.  Portals and Piers, a collection of their poems, is the result of those discussions. It is interesting to read the short biography of each poet, then read the collection and imagine them connecting over their poetry during these Sunday morning discussions. 

Many of the poems in Portals and Piers are first person narratives. “The Signal” by Stephen Anderson, for example, begins as a straightforward account of a father moving his daughter to college, an activity which has left him feeling like “a refuge in a downtown Minneapolis hotel.” Even so, he “feels obligated to call an elderly aunt.”  With the aunt’s insistence that he visit and his persistent refusal, the poem shifts to a discussion of the loneliness of aging, which Anderson relates with heartfelt clarity: 

…she [his aunt] obsessively repeats her wish with her former urgency now turned to a tone of sheer desperation.  A captive of exhaustion, I do not take the hint, nor can I hear her real message, the one vibrating up from her heart like a call from the other world to which only she knows she will soon go.

Another narrative, "The Ladder," by Chris Austin (13-14) creates a lighthearted picture of a man contemplating a ladder while his wife expects him to use the ladder to complete a household project:

My wife watches from her post
on the porch as I disappear
into the garage, emerging
a few minutes later, after
some clanging, and banging,
carrying a ladder.

A satisfied look settles
on her face, thinking
I am finally getting
to the honey-do list
left magnetized
to the refrigerator. 

As was evident in Anderson’s “The Signal,” Austin’s poem also shifts to a more serious image near the end, giving the reader much to ponder:

…how apparent it would be to any observer
As to which way is up and
Which way is down and where
One would be going anyways
That such a conveyance would be needed.

The third poet in the collection, Paul Enea, also offers a narrative poem, but a more surreal one.  “Ward Clerk From Tuonela” (20-22) is a three-part poem; the imagery in the third part caught my attention:

Waiting rooms are for those
without a spare heart
who cannot wait long for love
yet they admit me.

“May I help?” says the ward clerk.
“Nurse, please,” I say.
He tells me she’s in my room.
Do not believe him.
Remember false memories.
Forget three wishes.

Images such as “Waiting rooms are for those without a spare heart,” and “Forget three wishes” build to the serious conclusion of this narration:

a volunteer in the image of my first love
enters only to apologize
for bringing flowers
meant for a new mother
then exits like a thief
when I code,
rehearsing for a scene
I’d rather not play
despite being picked for the role.
I have to admit
the attention is a thrill;
a nurse pounding my chest
with a wink in her eye.

Just as the poems of Anderson and Austin shift tone near their endings, Enea’s narration also changes near the end.  However, he shifts from a serious tone to a more upbeat ending with the image of “a nurse pounding my chest with a wink in her eye.”

Imagery is also central to Lipchick’s “Self Portrait” (34) and his subject, the challenges of aging, form a connection to Anderson’s poem.  Lipchick’s opening stanza,

            I am painting you
Not as you are
But from memory
Of seasons past
And storms to come

alerts the reader to the tensions he develops in the poem. 

There is no safety behind
closed eyes as my brush
twists and twirls

We are trapped
You on the canvas
Me in my spotted skin
Both in this constructed

I wonder if one of the poets’ Sunday morning discussions focused on the definition of  “constructed wilderness.”

Steven Pump also writes first person poems as in how we end up where we are, (41-2) a poem with seven responses to that statement. In the second response, he writes:

i followed
            an army of elephants,
            discovered chicago
            in the raindrops of etc.

But it is Pump’s poem (38) that caught my attention: 

morning’s wings
stuck in the branches
above the poet’s treehouse.

the sun rises,
a cry, untranscribable.

wake up!  It’s time
to make the light shine,
to put words in the open
mouths of those crazy birds.

I like the concise language and the image of those early morning birds shattering the stillness with their summer songs.

Reading this collection of 34 poems, I was impressed by the way in which poetry connects us.  I have noted some of those connections of style and subject which may have evolved from the workshop nature of their development.  But I think Portals and Piers speaks to a stronger bond.  Poetry captures those vivid images and intense emotions that slip fleetingly through our days; so fleetingly, in fact, that we might miss them except for the work of poets and the discussions their poems encourage.

After reading the collection, I wondered how the poets decided on the title “Portals and Piers,” and I looked for, but did not find, a signature poem developing that image.  Perhaps writing such a poem will be the subject of a future Sunday morning discussion.

A lifelong resident of Wisconsin, Kathleen Serley enjoys all of our seasons: spring gardening, summer beach combing, fall hiking, and winter snow shoeing. She teaches English.