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Wednesday, 05 April 2006 00:00

Recommended diversions

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National Poetry Month

April may have been “the cruelest month” for poet T.S. Eliot, but for me it is truly a gift, a time of budding flowers and warming weather. April is also National Poetry Month, a time to honor what Percy Shelley once called “the best and happiest moments by the happiest and best minds.”

North Carolina is blessed with some wonderful poets — Fred Chappell, Jim Applewhite, Robert Morgan, Reynolds Price, Betty Adcock, Gerald Barrax, Ron Rash (just to name a few) — so if you’re interested in some fine new poetry collections, I strongly suggest Kay Byer’s Coming to Rest, Michael McFee’s Shinemaster and Mark Smith-Soto’s Any Second Now. (Check your local independent bookstore for these treasures and many others.)

In Kay Byer’s Coming to Rest, the North Carolina Poet Laureate is a master of verse crafting complex forms such as the sestina, villanelle and ghazal — even the paradelle (a parody of the villanelle). Byer speaks of travels all over the United States and the world, the journeys we take through a daunting emotional landscape, the still moments we capture in the viewfinder of our mind’s eye. Byer sends the reader lyrical postcards of the American West (“Zuni”), poignant perspectives as a mother (“Pneumonia”), a tribute to her college days at UNC-Greensboro (“The Exotics”), and clues into her new role as laureate — “I’ve already answered my e-mail, my voice / mail, my snail mail. My real work? To take hold.” I love the way she’s able to weave a reference from Edith Piaf in with Wal-Mart sunglasses. There’s a balance between the sublime and the mundane, a reverence for languages of different cultures, an insatiable curiosity wherever she goes, a vulnerability that she wrestles with and embraces.

Michael McFee, an Asheville native and professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill, has worked as a poet and anthologizer, compiling North Carolina poets and short story writers in wonderful collections. McFee’s latest poetry book, Shinemaster, is a tribute to bygone days, childhood memories of baseball and Bible School, recollections of going to the old gas station, swimming at Lake Junaluska, and going through the cafeteria line at the S & W in downtown Asheville. But McFee does not intend to squeeze a sentimental tear out of every page. On the contrary, he uses his playful gift of language to wax on the subjects of belching, spitting, sneezing, making spitwads, kissing and having sex. There are odes to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and meteor showers, a lost Valentine’s Day balloon and a fascinating history lesson on sweet potatoes. McFee is a delight to read, graceful, witty and wise.

Finally, there’s Mark Smith-Soto’s new collection, Any Second Now. Smith-Soto is a professor of Romance languages and director of the Center for Creative Writing in the Arts at UNC-Greensboro. As a Costa Rican-American, Smith-Soto carries the lush landscape of Central America into breathtaking imagery. Many of the poems in Any Second Now are sonnets, but he takes the form and softens the rhymes so you may not at first recognize these poems as sonnets. In a modern world full of paradox and bizarre juxtaposition, Smith-Soto is able to capture beauty in seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life — channel-surfing, grocery shopping, someone taking off a sweater in a café. In “Ambulance,” he writes, “I’ve just cut the mower off, and now / a siren uncoils in the still air ... The wail deepens, and I am then afraid / as if I could be hurt / without knowing it. ...And still I stand in my yard, watching / color pool into the orange tulips, thinking: / nothing is wrong, not here, not now.” Particularly appealing are his political poems — “President In My Heart” (a satirical twist on a fairy tale and a smart bomb war), “See It On Video” (a tribute to Rodney King) and “Manhattan Buddha” (a tribute to 9/11).

Enjoy National Poetry Month this year by curling up with some of “the happiest and best minds” this earth has to offer.

— By Michael Beadle

April may have been “the cruelest month” for poet T.S. Eliot, but for me it is truly a gift, a time of budding flowers and warming weather. April is also National Poetry Month, a time to honor what Percy Shelley once called “the best and happiest moments by the happiest and best minds.”

North Carolina is blessed with some wonderful poets — Fred Chappell, Jim Applewhite, Robert Morgan, Reynolds Price, Betty Adcock, Gerald Barrax, Ron Rash (just to name a few) — so if you’re interested in some fine new poetry collections, I strongly suggest Kay Byer’s Coming to Rest, Michael McFee’s Shinemaster and Mark Smith-Soto’s Any Second Now. (Check your local independent bookstore for these treasures and many others.)

In Kay Byer’s Coming to Rest, the North Carolina Poet Laureate is a master of verse crafting complex forms such as the sestina, villanelle and ghazal — even the paradelle (a parody of the villanelle). Byer speaks of travels all over the United States and the world, the journeys we take through a daunting emotional landscape, the still moments we capture in the viewfinder of our mind’s eye. Byer sends the reader lyrical postcards of the American West (“Zuni”), poignant perspectives as a mother (“Pneumonia”), a tribute to her college days at UNC-Greensboro (“The Exotics”), and clues into her new role as laureate — “I’ve already answered my e-mail, my voice / mail, my snail mail. My real work? To take hold.” I love the way she’s able to weave a reference from Edith Piaf in with Wal-Mart sunglasses. There’s a balance between the sublime and the mundane, a reverence for languages of different cultures, an insatiable curiosity wherever she goes, a vulnerability that she wrestles with and embraces.

Michael McFee, an Asheville native and professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill, has worked as a poet and anthologizer, compiling North Carolina poets and short story writers in wonderful collections. McFee’s latest poetry book, Shinemaster, is a tribute to bygone days, childhood memories of baseball and Bible School, recollections of going to the old gas station, swimming at Lake Junaluska, and going through the cafeteria line at the S & W in downtown Asheville. But McFee does not intend to squeeze a sentimental tear out of every page. On the contrary, he uses his playful gift of language to wax on the subjects of belching, spitting, sneezing, making spitwads, kissing and having sex. There are odes to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and meteor showers, a lost Valentine’s Day balloon and a fascinating history lesson on sweet potatoes. McFee is a delight to read, graceful, witty and wise.

Finally, there’s Mark Smith-Soto’s new collection, Any Second Now. Smith-Soto is a professor of Romance languages and director of the Center for Creative Writing in the Arts at UNC-Greensboro. As a Costa Rican-American, Smith-Soto carries the lush landscape of Central America into breathtaking imagery. Many of the poems in Any Second Now are sonnets, but he takes the form and softens the rhymes so you may not at first recognize these poems as sonnets. In a modern world full of paradox and bizarre juxtaposition, Smith-Soto is able to capture beauty in seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life — channel-surfing, grocery shopping, someone taking off a sweater in a café. In “Ambulance,” he writes, “I’ve just cut the mower off, and now / a siren uncoils in the still air ... The wail deepens, and I am then afraid / as if I could be hurt / without knowing it. ...And still I stand in my yard, watching / color pool into the orange tulips, thinking: / nothing is wrong, not here, not now.” Particularly appealing are his political poems — “President In My Heart” (a satirical twist on a fairy tale and a smart bomb war), “See It On Video” (a tribute to Rodney King) and “Manhattan Buddha” (a tribute to 9/11).

Enjoy National Poetry Month this year by curling up with some of “the happiest and best minds” this earth has to offer.

— By Michael Beadle

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