Book Review

Mark Kraushaar, The Uncertainty Principle [Winner of the 2010 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize], The Waywiser Press, 2011

Richard Taylor, Fading Into Bolivia, Accents Publishing, 2011

Reviewed by Judy Barisonzi

It’s funny—everyone has a voice; our distinctive voice is part of who we are. And yet it seems that one of the hardest things for a poet is conveying this voice in poetry. Perhaps that is because we poets are chameleons, able to take on so many voices, imagine so many selves. Perhaps, because we are so exquisitely conscious of all the imponderable, minute aspects of language that make up a poem, we can’t stop experimenting with new voices, like trying on hats.

Here are two poets, each with a unique voice. You wouldn’t mistake either of them for anyone else.

Fading Into Bolivia by Richard Taylor (Accents Publishing, 2011) is a small gem of a book grounded in the everyday experiences of life as a college professor and homeowner in rural Kentucky—grading papers, mowing the lawn, redesigning a kitchen, growing older. The first-person poems are about communication, isolation, and memory. The language is direct and unpretentious. Taylor describes his hard-to-reach students, the girl who “hobbles [in] like a survivor,” and “melts into her desk, her only/ vital sign a knapsack” or the young man who “scuttles in/cell phone fixed to his ear/like a silver clam” (“A Benediction for Late Arrival in English 211,” p. 3). It’s hard to grade papers: “I trudge an endless trail of print … faltering in brambles of prose” (“Grading,” p. 5). It’s hard to know a loved one: “Like dipping into William Blake/parsing you is never/the same text twice” (“Birthday,” p. 6). It’s hard to write a poem, to come up with words:

            Something will come, I tell myself.
            Still, the mimosa holds its tongue,
            its punker-pink blossoms speechless. (“Writing Slump,” p. 1)

And as we grow older, it’s hard to even remember:

            habit steers us through memory’s
            dilapidated mansion, leads us
            into customary rooms on who knows
            what unintended mission. (“Memory Loss,” p. 15)

Everyday life is filled with small, and great, tragedies. A thunderstorm fells a giant maple tree and wipes out electronic appliances. A farmer mowing hay kills a fawn. A beloved dog dies in a scummy puddle, and

            only then did I remember
            in the underbuzz of those days
            a hoarse barking—plaintive, faint
            its agony never fully surfacing.
           (“For a Newfoundland Drowned in a Farm Pond,” p. 23)

And yet there is no despair, but wry humor at the vagaries of memory—
           Like the ancient, disused privy
           in my backyard, it composts the past
           and turns up bits and fragments
           in altered, sometimes richer form (“Memory,” p. 12)

or at the self-absorption of students

            Stopping, I breathe a blessing
            for all the dozing and undone, for Clam,
            for Backpack, for those for whom
            attention is torment (“A Benediction …,” p. 3)

Taylor’s best poems work through specific details and metaphor. Memory, the disused privy, brings up

            bone buttons, small change, aqua
            bottles with hazed glass, a china
            teacup, a tarnished flask, swirled
            marbles, wire frame without lenses” (“Memory,” p. 12)

Where there is grief, it is a quiet grief: “Like moles burrowing in the backyard, …   the griever must rely on fall/of rain, gentle tamping, small erosions” (“Grief,” p. 26).

Even the death of a child is presented quietly, through metaphor. In the most moving poem of the collection, the child is never mentioned, only the rescue of a bird from the chimney:

            Each flap of its scalloped wings, each
            scissoring stroke as it blends into the treeline,
            drives home the single unspoken text:
            “Let it go. Let it go. Let it go.” (“First Anniversary, April 30, 2004” p. 27)

And the book ends, hopefully, with saving all the year’s broken china

            toward an hour when all that breaks
           is mended, when all the fragments
           that pile in seamless shards
            and little cairns of dust, will,
            like unpaired socks and fractured hearts,
            re-incorporate with perfect wholeness. (“New Year,” p. 28)

It’s somewhat jarring to turn from Taylor’s limpid voice to Mark Kraushaar’s in-your-face Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize Winner for 2010, The Uncertainty Principle (Waywiser Press, 2011). Kraushaar doesn’t go in for metaphor, and his humor is look-at-me cleverness. He plays around with words:

           you couldn’t remember to remember
           that route a little bit, goddamn it,
           your roots because now here you are…
           and there’s the stove clock saying
           2:10 and you’re all
           wound up about nothing again. (“What It’s Like,” p. 62)

The poems are, typically, narrative snapshots of one or another blue-collar character who’s physically unattractive, inarticulate and down on his luck. There’s the “fat man [who] pads slowly through the side door/followed by his ample wife and acned, adolescent son” at the fitness club (“Fit Club Family Plan,” p. 20), the deli clerk “whose tiny, terrible teeth also seem/tossed into her mouth like so many dice” (“Recent Cosmological Observations,” p. 25), the “pudgy-fingered/flakey-bearded man, too shy to date,/who kept six cats” (“Super Glide,” p. 30), or Alice Beatty:

            she could say only that it
            wasn’t working, her life, not really,
            not quite, and if it were wishing and worry
            could lead her to heaven she‘d be living large even now.
            (“Alice Beatty,” p. 34)

The voice of the poems veers between that of the angry and unhappy soul he is presenting to us:

            See this?
            Well, it’s a .38 but I call it a piece
            I call it heat and I like to clean it in the kitchen
            while I’m eating (“Poetry Noir,“ p. 52)

and that of Kraushaar himself, the dispassionate observer:

            someone like you with a book in his lap,
            someone trying to get at the meaning of things,
            taking a note now and then, leaning over
            and looking up, and leaning over again. (“Poetry Noir,” p 52)

But even in the unhappy lives that fill these pages, there are moments of glory. The deli clerk, for example:

            and just as I’m wishing this world’s version
            better, straighter teeth and love and long life too,
            as I’m thinking how God on the Earth we know
            seems absent or careless or cruel …
            three flies resettle on a split plastic spoon,
            and as this Earth’s girl scoops the last of the tuna
            from a stainless tray she looks up and winks once
            like we’re perfectly grand. (p. 25)

Or the flakey-bearded man in “Super Glide,” who quits his job at Janet’s Friendly Grill and who

           had overnight become so
           hip and happy that standing there
           and grinning like that, grinning and grinning
           as he stood there in these new black leather chaps
           and studded jacket, he’d found out some huge secret secret. (p. 30)

Or the fat family at the fitness club, of whom Kraushaar tells us
            they’re just
            so pleased to be together here, not doing much
            of anything, or, anyway, not working out
            at least, but there’s this easy,
            intermittent laughter, a sort of mild,
            unaccountable calm (p. 20)

How, Kraushaar seems to be asking, can people like a “squat, bald boss” or a woman “plain as a pigeon” (“Stranger,“ p. 23) be so happy, with such miserable lives, in such a lousy world? “Where, in God’s name/is God in this life” (“Stranger,” p. 24), he wants to know, yet, as the book begins to build on the early snapshots, there is a sense of wonder to life, of how lucky we are to be here at all:

            Hopeful or angry or afraid, it’s
            being here, living here, and going along
            at the center of a perfect, unattainable present
            as if some bruised and tumbling private sky were
            moving in, the soft, random patter of rain. (“Arthur,” p. 68)

At his best, Kraushaar has a sense of the complexity, the indeterminacy of life. Perhaps poetry is not merely narrative, a simple, knowable reality, Kraushaar suggests to us:

            now, here’s what we’ve got: approximate,
            nearly, somewhat, and almost, similar
            and resembling. (“Hat,” p. 69)

What he’s wearing as a poet, he tells us, is “my figurative hat, the hat/with the feather and the phony jewel” (p. 69):
            It’s like there is no This is what happened
            and there is no This is what would have happened
            if you hadn’t stuck your big schnoz in (“The Uncertainty Principle,” p. 72)

This dual aspect of reality—the tawdry and the luminescent, the angry and the liberated—appears most movingly in  poems scattered through the book dealing with the dysfunctional marriage of Kraushaar’s parents and his tumultuous relationship with his father. We see his mom crying in the kitchen, feel the tension in the family car:

            my father lit a cigarette,
            and I said, Quit it,
            it’s making me sick, and he said he wouldn’t,
            it wasn’t, and I said something else, and he said
            something back and we were shouting by now which
            is how it always was (“Visit Wyoming,” p. 55)

But we also see the father as someone

           who loved
           birds for being so alert, I think, though I’d never
           have asked and he wouldn’t have said
           (“Bike Routes of Jefferson County,” p. 55)

and who, in a family argument over what neighbors, and pets, could be allowed into their fallout shelter, keeps repeating only

           We would let them in …
           We would let them in. (“The Fallout Shelter Handbook,” p. 49)

I’ve only touched on the richness, both in narrative and in philosophy, of The Uncertainty Principle. My favorite poem is the last one, which is less dazzling, more understated, than Kraushaar’s usual voice; as in Taylor’s book, it’s a memorial poem. It describes all the small occurrences in the street outside a funeral home before the start of the service for a family member, who is mentioned—after observing kids playing soccer, two robins, litter on the street, and a woman searching for a lost cat—only in the last line:

            It was just spring, and it was Wednesday
            and you were gone. (p. 79)

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. That’s a poet’s voice.

Judy Barisonzi has been a Wisconsin resident since 1966, and she now lives among the lakes and woods of northwest Wisconsin. Semi-retired from teaching English at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, she gives workshops in creative writing and memoir writing, participates in several local writing groups, and publishes poems in local and national magazines.