Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reading Novalis in Montana

Reading Novalis in Montana by Melissa Kwasny

Published by Milkweed, 2009

96 pp., U.S.$16.00

Reviewed by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

An Intuitive Measure of Nature

In-between re-reading the last few poems and embarking upon this review, adjectives such as “erudite,” “sensitive,” “distilled” and “deft” keep recurring to me as approximate words for rightfully describing Melissa Kwasny’s third and latest collection of poems, Reading Novalis in Montana. The title poem, which opens the book, is a well-envisioned summation of the experiences that Kwasny will evoke throughout the book. Embedding fictional voices with real thoughts and dialogues, the poet inserts brief quotes in a light yet welcoming manner that directly illuminates her intimate correspondence between scholarly interests, an inner world, and the nature that surrounds her in western Montana:

The dirt road is frozen. I hear the geese first in my lungs.

Faint hieroglyphic against the gray sky.

Then, the brutal intervention of sound.

All that we experience is a message, he wrote.

I would like to know what it means

If first one bird swims the channel

Across the classic V, the line flutters, and the formation dissolves.

In the end, the modernists must have meant,

It is the human world we are weary of,

our arms heavy with love, its ancient failings.

(“Reading Novalis in Montana,” p. 3)


A later poem that echoes this is “Reading a Biography of Ezra Pound in the Garden.” Also inspired by the literature she was engaging in at that point in time, Kwasny keeps her eyes fully attentive on delicate details of life, which spring out spontaneously in her immediate world. Nature’s fragility, coupled with tenacity, touched her as she mused philosophically about her seemingly trivial quotidian life:

Wet, limp, as if just born, the five petals unstick

from each other. I have blundered always,

said Ezra Pound. The hot winds of Venice

blow past my bare ankles, a cat sprawls on its side

across the lawn. I don’t know how humanity stands it,

the heat he might mean, too much going on

and much of it boring. He writes: I am homesick

after mine own kind. The zucchini, everyone

knows, is prolific. While my guests come and go,

pilfering my time, it offers one green fruit a day,

and these flowers like lap cloths unfolded.

(“Reading a Biography of Ezra Pound in the Garden,” p. 24)

Interestingly, after concluding the first part of her book on this note, Kwasny delves into a 12-sectioned long poem entitled, “The Waterfall.” This lends a different weight to the general structure of her work and gives a new color to its entire narrative arc. Mythic metaphors and references from the indigenous culture are many and recurrent; they are subtle but evident. On the other hand, line energy also builds itself up until it reaches the eighth segment (“The giveaway dance”) in which speed and intensity syncopate in a drumming and organic oral appeal:


Here is a jar of wild chokecherry jam

Here is a pouch of Old Red Man Lucky Strike

Here is a dollar bill for each of your fifteen grandchildren

see how they dance with empty hands

Here is the fish tank the rest of the bannock

toilet paper army jacket a Pendleton blanket

Here in the old days grandpa gave away the car and the furniture

and finally he gave away the house

Here in the trailer house on the reservation

Here where the ragged last of the tribe come with ribbons

Here where the medicine man hangs them in the bundle

and sets the bundle swinging with a stick

Now since the black spades of aspen have hit the ground

Now because the drumbeat has not changed and has not stopped

We hold the gifts behind our backs and the snow field darkens

(“From “The Waterfall, VIII: The giveaway dance,” p. 37)

As if to sustain the rhythmic rigor and lyrical density, the poet continues into the third part of the corpus, presenting yet another major work, “The Directions.” Sequenced in a lucid coherence, each of the twelve segments has a straightforward title, which in turn furnishes a direct key to its central landscape or theme: “Creator,” “Soul,” “The Ceremonial,” “The Old Ones,” “Animals,” “Shooting Star,” “The Poles,” “Light,” “Rock,” “Earth,” “Fire,” and “Herbs.” In a similar vein, the book ends on a textured tonality, for Kwasny has chosen yet another sequenced poem, this time, a 9-sectioned prose piece: “The Under World.” Darker, it evokes several losses and contains lingering traces of solitude, isolation as well as uncertainty. Questions and doubts hang in mid-air —

Up in the air. A peculiar phrase. What does it mean that nothing’s landed? (…)

Seed by seed, the working up through the soil. But is time really accomplished

without us? The dark bud unclasping? The stirring of air? The sex-cluck of the

robins at the butter dish?

(From “The Under World, VII,” p. 75)

All in all, Reading Novalis in Montana is a positive and delicious read. It represents Melissa Kwasny’s consistency and conscientiousness in creating layered yet intricate lyrical poetry. She dedicates herself to expanding beyond a mere descriptive depiction of episodes and energies to a wider world. Living side by side with nature plays a vital role in molding a quiet, meditative quality in her distinct poetic voice. With this, she thus strikes a balance with robustness by constantly pushing each line breath, experimenting with form and scope.


Born in Indiana, Melissa Kwasny is the author of two previous books of poetry, The Archival Birds and Thistle, winner of the Idaho Prize. She is also the editor of Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950, and has authored two novels, Trees Call For What They Need and Modern Daughters of the Outlaw West. She lives in western Montana.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain ( is an editor at Cerise Press ( Her book of poetry, Water the Moon is forthcoming from Marick Press in Fall 2009. She lives in Paris, France and New York City.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Orpheus on the Red Line

By Theodore Deppe

Tupelo Press, 2009

Dorset, VT

ISBN: 978-1932195750

paperback, 96 pages

Reviewed by Mike Walker

There seems to be something about working in health care that turns people into writers. A number of poets and journalists come to mind who have been nurses, doctors, or researchers in the biomedical sciences, with William Carlos Williams being probably the best-known of those who were poets. For Williams and other poets perhaps being a physician (in William’s case) or other careers in health care offer both the secure paycheck that poetry lacks plus a wellspring of inspiration via seeing people at the crossroads of life and death, the junctures of disease and health. The healing arts, in turn, have noticed the benefits of the literary arts for professionals and patients alike and a number of hopsital-based arts in medicine programs make extensive use of writing as a form of therapy. Moreover, a number of journals exist that cater to publishing the creative writing of health care professionals and patients.

Theodore Deppe has had a long career as both a poet and a nurse, and his new collection of poems, ”Orpheus on the Red Line” speaks to his experience as both. To any cynic who would imagine the poetry of a nurse to only be filled with tales of suffering, Deppe’s work is a refreshing change of mind as he explores the nuances of human experience in a variety of ways. Like all but the youngest of poets, Deppe deals with age and the passing of time in his work, but often in a novel yet very realistic way:


Out-of-date almanacs, boxes

we never unpacked from the last move,

reminders to see a dentist who

died five years ago—


begins his poem, ”On the Natural History of Possessions”, which continues with a variety of historical, literary, and personal references. Yet in that first introduction of unpacked boxes, Deppe has us hooked: the ”dentist who died five years ago” reminds us of the paperchase that connects us in modern society with those insurance agents, doctors and dentists, kid’s teachers, and others who in one way or another play needed roles in our lives. How many notices from the dentist, the veterinarian, the physician have we all found in our mailboxes and how many are packed away or lost for whatever reason? These are communications given to a proper life in a small, finite, span of time but Deppe demonstrates how they take on a further life of their own until finally the silverfish eat away at their paper and they become dusts. Much of Deppe’s writing in ”Orpheus” is along such lines, reminding the reader of the variants of means of communication and connection in our lives. When Deppe writes in the poem above that ”for half a year, I walked around Ireland with a small rucksack” he makes clear the choices involved in living life, the sense of mobility versus the sense of possession.

Unlike the Graveyard Poets and many contemporary poets also, Deppe is not concerned simply with mortality and tangible humanity, but is more concerned with the ways that human experience demonstrates itself in memories, dreams, and communication. He spices his poems with references to communication via song, birds also singing their songs, random distant sounds, letters and conversations. In my mind though, his greatest poem about communication and probably of the whole book is ”Misremembering the Classics” where Deppe details his efforts to calm down a violent adolescent patient in a psychiatric ward. I won’t quote this poem here, for it’s best served to read it in full, and however powerful a quote might seem it would only slight the depth of Deppe’s work in this instance. While it is not surprising that Deppe brings his combative young patient to try writing poetry himself over the course of the day following his outburst, the details of this journey and the honesty found therein are what make the poem powerful. No complete ending nor promise that this patient will make better of himself, but the thread of hope that he in fact may is all Deppe provides. In one poem we are given a rare glimpse into both what it must be to work with the mentally ill and what it must be like to actually be such a pateint. The poem is not all-emcompassing nor pretends towards such, but it carries a gravitas often missing in even the best writing about clinical experiences with patients.

Having worked myself in both lab-based and clinical medical research, I know that we encounter in health care things seldom seen elsewhere in life and many of these experiences can translate to powerful writing, however, too often such writing comes across as trite due to the same emotions and even the same situations being brought up time and again. Deppe has masterfully avoided this when he writes of patients, as in the poem ”Misremembering the Classics” and brings us instead writing so fresh it made me feel, even as someone who has experienced similar things in real life and then tried to write of them, that I was ecountering something truly novel and unique. Never does Deppe write lugubriously or in a way that tries to ground the poem in emotion alone: in his poem ”Sebald” we travel from Poland to China and then back to California all while following the leitmotif of the sparrow, but in this case sparrow not as metaphor but as real bird affected by the whims of human thought and human action. Deppe tells us of a man feeding sparrows and another, Chairman Mao, determined to kill them (Mao mistakenly thought that sparrows were consuming a great deal of grain and thus ruining the crop of wheat for starving Chinese). The tales of humans and their actions, for better or worse, are obviously enough fuel for writing and Deppe allows the human to be human and the sparrow to be sparrow.

In his poem ”Orla”, Deppe addresses head-on his topic of a woman who is in the hospital, without overtones or metaphor. This stark approach tempered with touching details provides a portrait as clear as a good photograph. What is most essential in writing about a patient and their plight? To make them seem human (which they of course are), to make them seem ill (which they are, also)? Or to allow latent details and masterfully-crafted words turn these moments of their lives into real and honest views? I would take the latter, and the latter Deppe provides. Like his previous book of poems, ”Cape Clear”, Deppe works with human emotions in a manner that is both deep and refreshing. His poems, while short in length, read long: The sheer amount of detail and the feeling of true travel comes across as he shares even simple narratives. It is rare to see such a strong ”narrative” approach in poetry that neither aspires to be epic nor bending towards the arena of fiction.

Of books of poetry I’ve read thus far this year (and I’ve read my share) Deppe’s ”Orpheus” is one of the most original and his voice is clearly unique. I suggest it highly to all interested in contemporary American poetry and poets and also to those interested in writing by health care professionals. While the lion’s share of the book is not directly concerned with health care, those poems that thus enter Deppe’s other career are to be valued for their voice and insight. A truly impressive book.




Ted Deppe was born in Minnesota, and grew up in Indiana. He worked for many years as a coronary-care and psychiatric nurse and has taught creative writing in high schools, universities, and graduate programs in the United States, England, and Ireland. His previous books include Children of the Air and The Wanderer King (Alice James, 1990 and 1996), and Cape Clear: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, 2003). He currently teaches in the Stonecoast M.F.A. Program and directs Stonecoast in Ireland, where he now lives with his wife, poet Annie Deppe.




Mike Walker is a writer, journalist, and poet. His original research and other academic work has been published in: AirMed, Goldenseal, EcoFlorida, BrightLights Quarterly, the ATA Chronicle, Multilingual Computing and Technology and other journals. His journalism in: The Florida Times-Union, The North Florida News Daily, Satellite Magazine, Twisted Ear, and other publications. His poetry in: Meanie, the Church Wellesley Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and other publications. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.