Connie Jordan Green

Varied Philosophies:

A Review of Three Poetry Collections

Brown, Bill. Late Winter. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Iris Press, 2008.
138 pages. $16.00 paper. ISBN 978-1-60454-207-3

Chess, Richard. Third Temple. Tampa, Florida: University of Tampa
Press, 2007. 95 pages. $12.00 paper. ISBN 978-159732024-5

Lawrence, David. Lane Changes. New York: Four Way Books,
2007. 53 pages. $15.95 paper. ISBN-13: 978-1-884800-79-5;
ISBN-10: 1-884800-79-3

Bill Brown opens Section II, “Breaking,” of his new collection with
an epigraph from Stanley Kunitz: “In a murderous time, the heart
breaks / and breaks, and lives by breaking.” The quote serves well
as an introduction to the three poetry collections to be discussed
here. Brown, Richard Chess, and David Lawrence, through their
poems, disclose individual and diverse philosophies of life, but all
are bound together by the theme of breaking—the breaking of
lives, of cultures, of spirits. It is the poet’s job, finally, to put back
together that which has been broken. These three collections
achieve that goal admirably.

Brown’s collection, Late Winter, lives within a frame of two poems,
the opening “Late Winter Longing,” and the closing “Winter Wind
Song.” In the former, the poet remembers “homesick Yeats” and is
further sunk into melancholy by the sound of crows and an owl.
The dead and “the living who wait to die” increase the sense of
brokenness. In a poem within the body of the book, “Prayer for
Filling the Emptiness,” crows are again evoked, this time in a
darker mode as they “inspect a road kill.” The longing is “a space
inside / …like the old sycamore / that survives despite the hollow /
in the base of its trunk.” The theme of longing is further developed
when the poet writes “so much of life is reaching for / what looks
better than we’ve got.” But there is a way out of the loneliness by
“mak[ing] the smallest / acts sacred” (48).

Mending, for Brown, is a matter of looking and listening, of paying
attention to the smaller aspects of life, of discovering language
within nature. The idea that language leads to wholeness is emphasized
in the epigraph to Section III: “I need the words that are left
to go on searching for the ones I’ve lost” (Chana Bloch).

In “Prayer for Filling the Emptiness,” the poet urges “sit[ting] on
the porch long enough / to learn the language of maples.” The
poem “The Language of Rain” explores beech trees and their translation
of sound into a language that speaks, not of war and death
and destruction, but of “the birth / of my neighbor’s foal and the
reflection / of the mare’s eyes in the watering trough.” The poet
tells us, “If you live among beech, / you keep something inside that
listens / for that sound” (55).

The ultimate signal of healing, of transcendence above the pain the
world inflicts, comes midway through the book in the poem “With
the Help of Birds.” The poem begins with death but moves immediately
to love, a “mother’s love / for birds,” a depth of interest in
and concern for something outside oneself that lifts one above “the
daily minutia / of the great mundane.” The poem tells the story of
the speaker’s wife finding an injured hummingbird while they are in
the mountains. When the ranger consoles the woman by telling her
hummingbirds have very short lives, the poet thinks that a strange
reply. However, when he reconsiders, he realizes that “any time /
being a hummingbird / is enough” (62–63).

Not all of Brown’s poems are filled with the epiphany of a moment
of mending. He is overall a narrative poet, and telling a story seems
his greatest delight. Whether it is a simple recounting of a journey
in “Driving Through Kansas,” the more poignant tale of the death
of his favorite cat in “Soliloquy,” or the legend of a man who finds
a cave filled with the skeletal remains of children, Brown’s is the
voice of summer evenings on the porch, relatives telling and
retelling a lifetime of stories.

Nor are all the poems in Late Winter somber considerations of the
world’s cruelties and the transforming experiences of the world’s
beauties. Brown has, also, a sly, sardonic voice that finds its way
into the work. The biting sarcasm in the concluding lines of “To
An Editor”

          somewhere a child coughs
          in a dark room and contemplates
          her life, the lives of others,
          their sorrows and joys, tries
          to find words to fit them
          before she is taught to hate
          poetry           (64)

melds into the more humorous language of “Last Rite to the Queen
of Grammar,” a paean to a woman who “would correct God” and
for whom “the mechanic at the ESSO / buttoned his shirt to fill /
her tank once a week.” The poet concludes

          It is true that we have been unthankful,
          that we have been known
          to drink white wine with beef,
          waste food, curse machines,
          and covet our neighbors,
          but we don’t enjoy it.           (99)


Richard Chess opens Third Temple with an epigraph from Yehuda
Amichai: “In a man’s life his first temple is destroyed / and sometimes
the second.” It is in the building of the third temple that man
finds redemption, and Chess knows what he will do: “when they
build it, I will bring Leon, unblemished / chocolate lab, as my offering
to the Lord,” a melodic echo of Christopher Smart’s ode to his
cat Jeoffrey. This poet, however, is teaching his dog to accept the
smell of burnt offerings:

          …grill[ing] meat every day,
          greeting first light with lamb and throwing
          ribs and sirloins onto the grill well into the night,
          thickening the air with smoke
          so that he will grow accustomed to the aroma
          which will be magnified, when the Temple goes on-line again.          (4)

The poet offers evidence that the third temple is yet to be built in a
world where “heaven is an armed compound at the end / of a private
road” (7) and “human / ingenuity turns skin to soap.” In an
especially accurate and piercing image, the poet suggests asking an
artist, who perished during the Holocaust, about her painting,
“though we know / ash has no lips” (20).

The poet’s role as speaker for those who have no voice is explored
in “Loose Tongue,” introduced by an epigraph from Whitman: “I
act as the tongue of you, / tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to
be loosen’d.” The poem addresses “you who gave only your back
to Moses,” but “gave him a brother for a tongue.” This apostrophe—
a blend of rage and prayer—exhibits Chess’s ability to effectively
juxtapose today’s culture of “mangled-bus-security-fence”
and “three-trailers-with-/antennae-on-a-hilltop-outpost” against a
deep spiritual belief in a higher power. Chess acknowledges his
Jewish history as an asset in his work:

          if you’ve given me
          anything it is
          this lobby and coin
          of my personal rich diaspora. (11)

Despite the brokenness of today—“Apache helicopter and daily /
dead”—something spiritual still prevails in the world:

          your light strikes petal and stem of me
          in my ear your breath
          in my mortal fear your hymn
          in my pulse your bass
          in my hour the sixty
          faces of
          your minutes….

The same poem expresses gratitude for

          readers who need to be punched
          awake over fruit every morning
          lest their days be merely
          milk and roses.          (12)

Elsewhere, the poet affirms he wants “to write a steep poem / that
will break / and rebuild you…with new / strength and / speed” (47).

The subject of peace, especially its elusiveness, is closely intertwined
in the poems. In “Who Needs History,” peace becomes an
angel that delivers its message to parents who pass it on to their
children and then to the next generation, for

          …what is history
          If not a limp toward a finish line, and will peace
          Be there, ready to reward us with a ribbon,
          Or, because we’re Jews and it’s our history, will peace
          Elude us even there?           (43)

Peace, the supreme mender of brokenness, is not to be attained.

Although the poet deals with images of persecution—the Holocaust,
war, exile—a self-deprecating humor flavors many of the poems.
After all, the poet tell us, “if I weren’t a Jew, I could be / comic without
being tragic” (14). In “Tevye’s Horse,” the animal is the rational
being, the owner “only human [and] inconsolable.” The horse knows
there are better ways to communicate than his owner’s words:

          You can talk to a wise
          horse with a wink, so why
          does he drone on like a rabbi?
          man, he must be talked to
          with a hoof.           (78–79)

Ultimately, despite the sentiment expressed by the horse, grief is
assuaged, terror is tempered, exile is ended through language, the
subject of all six poems in the book’s last section. The final poem,
“Language Lesson,” plays with the Hebrew words for grief, dance,
strength, beauty, and land, permuting them in three stanzas that
conclude “the beauty of dance / is in how it expresses / the strength
and grief of this land” (94). The poem moves on to darker language—
explosion, terror, curse, exile—redeemed finally through
revelation by blessing and love. Here, too, the poet plays words
like the notes on a lyre, reminding the reader, “I am your Hebrew
teacher. / My job? / To give you lessons in strength and grief” (95),
a mission the entire book sees through to the end.


For David Lawrence, brokenness is a boxing match in which the
speaker is “hit so hard in the head” that the world becomes a snow
storm. There is no purity in this whiteness, just an uppercut delivered
with a frozen hand. But there is skill in the hand, a facility
with language—much of it brutal, earthy—that carries the reader
through the poems, sometimes in the depths of prison, at other
times soaring “on a raft above Niagara Falls” (43), always with the
knowledge the guidance is sure.

In other poems, brokenness is depicted with dark imagery. In
“Nighty,” the speaker declares he is “the inner tube / in blackness’s
tire” (9). Or, he is

          …the binocular unhappiness that stalks
          The tarmac beneath the airplane wheels,
          Slicking up,
          Hoping the plane doesn’t make it off the runway.           (25)

Despair springs from various experiences for Lawrence. In “The
Business of Dying,” he draws upon his background as a businessman
to declare

          When I lose an account
          I am loss.
          This life is about loss
          And the lessons
          I learn from being broke
          Prepare me
          For death.           (16)

In prison, the poet, witness to a beating, grows nostalgic for his
former boxing days when “the ring in Gleason’s Boxing Gym was
always spattered with red dots like a Jackson Pollock painting.”
His comment that “an artist paints with a palette in his veins” (36)
leads the reader to the thought that a poet writes with images in his
veins. In Lawrence’s poems, the poet slits those veins in order to
release the images.

Even though the poet believes “loneliness / is a chronic / condition”
(27) and life is about “how good it feels to get hit / up the side of
the head” (22), he offers a way out of despair. The process of healing
begins paradoxically with a poem titled “The Correctness of
Mistakes,” in which the speaker advises that

          To read the marginalia of your life
          You must wander outside
          Of the text
          And pluck truths from the holes punched
          In your blue lines,           (34)

a statement that joins Lawrence’s reverence for the written word
with his love for the sport of boxing.

Boxing imagery, though often dark, can be a part of mending. The
uppercut that at times causes brokenness can also be “as beautiful /
as the air around the Matterhorn” (39). In “Four Round Fighter,”
the poet declares, “Boxing is my life preserver” (43).

Redemption is found, too, through family. “Cavalry Hospital,”
dedicated to the poet’s mother, is rich in similes for the suffering
brought about by disease, but pain is mitigated by what the
speaker keeps: “I will listen for your advice in my chest. / There
will be somebody sitting in your absence” (29). In a prose poem,
“Son,” the speaker acknowledges “there is something going down
a bloodline in a genetic canoe” and he, the father, expects to “be
the dead man bobbing to the lake’s surface in [the son’s] face” (44).

Through all the darkness, the despair, the lows and the occasional
highs, Lawrence knows “it’s not about winning or losing. / It’s
about how much you can take / while still going forward.” The
real gift to the reader is that the poet is willing to “give you [his]
candle to light your way home” (43).

Bill Brown, Richard Chess, David Lawrence—three diverse outlooks
on life, three voices plummeting to the depths and rising to
the heights, three skilled writers taking the reader along for an
exhilarating ride.