Two new books by Indianapolis poets have recently crossed my desk.
The first, Cooling Board
, by Mitchell L. H. Douglas, is called "a long-playing poem." It's actually an epic in verse, posing as a series of recently discovered album tracks and outtakes by the late, great ‘70s soul and r&b artist Donny Hathaway.
Douglas' book represents a great leap of the poet's imagination, an attempt to lose himself in the life, times and work of another artist. At root, this feels like what any of us would wish for regarding those artists that have moved us and changed our lives. There is a shared intimacy, even though we are strangers and a certain knowledge that reaches beyond scholarship.
Douglas assembles Hathaway's inner (or secret?) life through an extended series of brief, elliptical poems written in an elegantly spare, plain-spoken style. Here are a few lines from "What Stars Are For:'
My hand is an anchor
Linked to each slip of her finger,
A weight at her side, the heft
To keep her here. I grip tighter,
Gathering the links, no slack,
No room to run.
Since Hathaway is little more than a distant voice on a long gone greatest hits album to me, I have to admit that it's hard for me, as reader, to fill in the blanks, the connecting tissue, that Mitchell leaves as a kind of humming negative space between poems.
But it must also be said that the pieces that comprise Mitchell's imaginary reconstruction of Hathaway maintain their integrity as individual pieces to an admirable degree and that the whole of his project rewards repeated reading/listening.
Bonnie Maurer's new collection, Reconfigured
, takes a different tack. Rather than project herself across the life of another, Maurer uses her voice as an instrument for sounding the depths of her particular experience.
For Maurer, this means finding ways to come to terms with her own mortality, a process that underscores how finally alone each of us turns out to be.
Fortunately, we have poetry like Maurer's to also make it clear that while we may feel like islands, we have language and art to, if nothing else, share the profundity of our ultimate separateness. From "Swimming Alone:"
You pick up the soft piece
Of rotting wood, unloosening
Its layers of gold.
You cannot love enough
What is seen and unseen.
Calm wind at your shoulders,
Dust lifts into a swirl the djinn
Offers a wish and disappears.
Maurer's tone throughout this collection is deeply affecting. She has looked down to the bottom of things and found a peace there. There is nothing in these poems that seems not to have been earned. Her collection is both humble and rigorous a gift.
Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem
By Mitchell L.H. Douglas
Red Hen Press, $19.95
By Bonnie Maurer
Finishing Line Press, $14.00