Café Crazy, by Francine Witte
We Became Summer, by Amy Barone
Blue Lyre, by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
On Wednesday, June 13, three well-known Downtown New York poets read together from their new books, published within the past few months. Francine Witte, Amy Barone, and Jeffrey Cyphers Wright read at the Jefferson Market Library, in Greenwich Village, in a high-ceilinged assembly room with windows onto summer greenery. The room had great acoustics that required no microphone. About thirty poets and friends attended. The event was sponsored – with generous refreshments – by Live! Magazine, Jeff Wright, publisher.
Café Crazy, by Francine Wright, Kelsay Books
Francine Witte read first, from her new collection, Café Crazy. The book covers a wide range of family themes, including poignant perceptions of mother and father and her recently deceased sister. Francine’s reading drew especially from the poems exploring an intimate, perhaps marital relation between the speaker and a man named Charley. She told us Charley is composite and may refer to more than one man.
Francine also writes flash fiction, and many of her poems have a strong narrative drive. She tells stories with sudden turns and devastating revelation in the moment. She elaborates themes and imagery beautifully, drawing out further implications, and often concluding with a memorable final image. For example, in “Not All Fires Burn the Same,” we see distant forest fires on TV, recall playing with matches as a child, muse on the passion of a husband’s affair with another woman, lie in a lukewarm bed alone, and are finally joined by the husband returning with “hands full of dead smoke and regret,” and a kiss of “ashes still in his mouth.”
In “Charley Says Give Me Your Heart,” in a “next morning” after reaching out to Charley,
…light tears me up
Like a canine tooth.
I am alone,
Although Charley is here.
He turns to me
and simply says, give me your heart.
It is mine now,
In “Other Charlies,” Charley compares himself to “a long line of Charlies…Like Chaplin and Parker.” The speaker points out that their names are spelled differently and reflects that she has her own list of other “Charlies” with different spellings – other men.
There’s a DNA that passes down from love to love, it shows up in the pulling apart of my heart.
She realizes that Charley’s chosen lineage
… Just spun around
like an old LP, vinyl and ancient. Like a silent movie reel,
twirling around in the flickering dark.
In “Roses,” Charley buys her three flowers, and gives them each a woman’s old-fashioned name.
I tell him flowers don’t live long enough
for names, and he just winks and says,
Later that week, when the roses droop, Charley says she depressed them,
… and couldn’t I
please be happy for once? I promise
to try harder, and when the girls finally die,
turn into rosecrumble scattered on the floor.
I sweep it up so quick no one has to see
the mess. Like love, I want to tell Charley,
almost exactly like love.
I love that the speaker herself has turned to “rosecrumble” under Charley’s criticism, a mess that she quickly sweeps away.
For another effort to adapt and please, see what happens in response to Charley’s absurd demand in “Charley Gives Me an Either/Or”
as in, I either buy him a horse,
or he’s outta here.
The speaker reflects,
… he orders a horse he won’t even ride. I think
he likes the sound of it – hoof clop and stall muck.
I like the sound of that line too, and the surprising turn in conclusion of the poem:
… I’ll watch the days
sand dribble away, until I see him pouring oats
in a bucket and waiting for me to snuffle and neigh
my own self, if that’s what it comes down to.
There is a hard-won melancholy, conveyed with wry humor, in these poems of love and loss. ”Daughter in the Kitchen” traces the losses over generations:
… The daughter doesn’t
know yet how she will be sniffing the necks
of men her entire life for her father’s cologne,
the starch of a crisp white shirt….
As Francine puts it in other poems in this book, we hardly feel the receding pull of ocean waters and we never check our watches. These stories are painfully real, and they are brought alive with crisp details, insight into complex emotions, and artistry.
We Became Summer, by Amy Barone, NYQ Books
Amy Barone’s We Became Summer reflects on the author’s roots in her family and Italian heritage, her cosmopolitan life and travels, and her love of music and associated romance. We learn in “Amelia” what Amy’s full name is, named for her grandmother,
A lady from Puglia landed
In East Harlem in the early 1900’s.
She bore eight children, including my father.
My father adored her.
My mother thought she was crazy,
I bear her name and want to be
nothing and everything like her.
At an early age, the speaker in these poems found, as she says, “Safety” in her parents’ driveway,
… cycling in circles watching the world,
especially handsome males, unwittingly writing poetry.
Those handsome males recur, riding red motorcycles themselves in Italy, where Amy worked for several years, or writing songs of her in Chelsea, New York, or sometimes in missed connections elsewhere.
One of my favorite poems in this book relates the speaker’s “Music Lessons” over the years. She starts with piano lessons at four, with a teacher who would slap her. For ten years, she sits in stiff chairs for high-brow teachers, “but none can foster a passion.” Then radio hits and records engage her, and then
musicians like Dan, who lays aside his bass and joins her
on the bed, plays her lithe body as if it were a rare guitar
as he peels away layers of waiting. Now she understands
the music, revels in it, prefers this position, the role of muse.
Muse and music lover, the author recollects nights of transforming music and passion, from which she is “Ready to dance again” and “It’s all the juice I need tonight” and “…His music revives me, has me smiling.” Lively beats on bass and blazing saxophone suffuse this book with their rhythm and energy.
Music is revelatory too in “The Soundtrack to My Mother’s Life,” as mother’s favorite songs evolve tellingly over the years from Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” to include “The Shadow of your Smile.” The poem includes the devastating line, “She deserved a better shot at love,” yet still, “…her smile sparkled. It follows me everywhere.”
In “The Soundtrack to My Life,” the music carries into cosmopolitan adventures and the recurring sensualism that in her poems:
I make homes wherever I lay my bag.
‘I Got a Line on You,’ New York, no longer him.
It’s a place that brings me to climax.
There are darker moments, including a fiance’s destructive drug habit, those slaps that followed a young child’s missed notes in piano lessons, and the shocking recollection an author struggles to acknowledge from facing a “Blank Page” so long. In “Poetry on Demand,” the speaker believes she already knew at “the tender age of six” that poetry is not an innocent reminiscence, but may require,
… the test of mining tales
from the soul?
Reliving death and resurrection,
unmasking loved ones?
In “Lessons Learned from Moths,” she’s been taught from her mother’s ruined finery “the art of detachment” and “to let go of longing.”
Moths cunningly coached me to occupy now,
not dwell in closets lined with past lives
nor focus on nostalgia
tarnished by death and deceit.
In the now, Amy paints colors into Italian landscapes (“Poet Painting”) and emerges from a writer’s kitchen table “Chrysalis” in blazing technicolor, as in “Orange is the New Black,”
I’m tossing black from my world –
Black clothes, black cars, black moods.
Now I’m occupying orange-hued vibes,
Loosening the shackles to darker tones.
I’m deporting colorless lingerie and sex.
When I sleep, instead of jumping into black puddles,
I’m going to emerge from tangerine dreams. Glowing.
Amy Barone skillfully draws life in vivid colors and sounds, a splash of lasting summer.
Blue Lyre, by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, Dos Madres Press
Blue Lyre is the 15th collection by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright. The reference to a lyre is appropriate to the lyrical joy and freedom that pervades his poetry. Playful, witty, the words dance and laugh, beguiling.
My words pour out, jewels
owned by air, joining raindrops
to be stranded like a necklace
in an old spider’s web.
Sky in puddle looks up to itself.
When I was a poet
I juggled glowing worlds.
Death, I lived to cheat.
(“The Seer, or How to Write”)
These are sonnets, 14-line reflections. They are often an affectionate address to a friend, loved one or community, sometimes supercharged with exhortations to live faster and do still more, right away! “You” appears more often than “I.” It is a shared life in these poems. “Here’s to you.” (“Full of Bad Ideas”)
… I look up
from my book of flickering wicks:
and see you – gold inside of amber.
This poem is a fiery testament of deep affection:
You are burning in the key
of B Major, full out,
You’re unable to contain
the conflagration eating time.
No one cries so beautifully
as they are consumed,
my stand-alone action figure.
Smoke gets in my eyes
watching you ruthlessly shine.
Affection embraces a community:
…I have to go out soon
to an opening in Williamsburg
to help my friends defeat death.
My umbrella is doomed.
We are all in this together alone.
It reaches, in a touching poem, to deceased parents:
… He was
a quarter leprechaun. She was half elf.
I caused them both a lot of grief.
Had I shown more love, I’d be less bereft.
I walk in ghost shoes, my words
A threnody belonging to the throng.
My folks stay closer now they’re “gone.
That compressed rhyme and then half-rhyme in the last two lines is a relatively rare nod to a classic (but not usually post-modern) aspect of sonnets. Jeff’s poetry is rich with assonance and alliteration (“threnody” and “the throng”) and words that become surprisingly related, as meanings dart ahead:
I used to love a banshee,
but now I love the banished.
Lighting the wick in wicked.
(“Dare to Be Fun”)
The trees on South Mountain all
know your name. They say it
only when you come around.
At last it is almost now again.
You herd cries of the unheard.
(“Training the Wind”)
Puppets licking the wasteland.
In a race with the East,
eat the wind, leave light behind.
At this point, I’m just pointing to lines, but pointedly, because they’re so beautiful and fun. They race ahead of transience. Here’s to you, Jeff.
I wish we had more time, is all,
to find our way back across
the bridge of crying snowmen
to say goodbye to the last bee.