Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Friday, March 16, 2007


Joan Houlihan starts “From the Empire of Missing Uncles,” a poem midway through The Mending Worm, with an opening line as typical as any one might find in her collection: “I want to tell something as simple as sky.” Throughout the volume Houlihan consistently shapes her messages within an elegant and lyrical language of landscape or other aspects of nature. She frequently forms eloquent statements with descriptive words one could say approach painterly patterns containing attributes with vivid scenery and careful attention to tone or texture. In addition, Houlihan’s exact and intricate sentences are written using a technique filled with various tactics of lyricism—alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, deliberate rhythm, and delicate echoes of sound from line to line. Consequently, though Houlihan mostly avoids any end rhyme, her pieces are subtly just as musical.

Despite Houlihan’s desire to “tell something as simple as sky,” readers soon discover in this book that the poet’s skillful use of language creates evocative imagery comprised of associations to abstractions and allusions to emotions, often through metaphor or simile, that are far more complicated than expected. Indeed, the usually brief poems with clear connections indicated by the direction of each speaker’s observations seem designed to disguise their complexity. For instance, Houlihan begins “Hydrangeas” with the following alluring and allusive language: “Salt air flutters them, cradles / their heads, lolling and solemn // as babies born slow. The heft / and bend is determined by stem, // by water, genetics, and sleight of wind. / We left what unsettles us to come here . . ..”

Part of the peculiar pleasure derived by reading these poems arises from a sudden understanding that their engaging and graceful surfaces sometimes camouflage less than pleasant circumstances or a presence of darker conditions, including disease and death, longing and loss. In the book’s initial poem, “Squall Line,” as rain falls, the speaker states: “The smell is nickel. I long to replenish, // lean out like a dog, mouth sprung, tongue / loose, lapping the mineral air.” However, this lithesome language leads directly to a more unsettling image: ”In the quick theater of highway, / a low bird sidles to his bleed of meat.” Soon, the speaker discusses having been “struck solemn, as in a parlor // where the hands lie crossed. Clouds bloat / the horizon.”

We admire the speakers in these poems for their ability to recognize natural beauty and depict its rich details even in the midst of difficult or disconsolate situations. Houlihan’s ambiguous poetry often reflects ambivalent feelings and promotes a sense of unease or tension. As the speaker reveals in “Preservation”: “What the snow tells with its first and dirty melt / is leftover gristle, scat. Winter sticks / show through, skinned, almost metal / with an ice we remember.” However, the description continues further toward more specifics: “Night torsion // and a slick force harden our prints / prematurely. The surprise of breaking through, / the crackle—the sound of damage / stays on like a fact.” After its slowly developing tone moves forward, in the poem’s final lines the poet discloses: “There are more dead than living down here— / iced, inside, where the shock is.”

One of the more effectively ambiguous and moving poems in the volume, “In Cancer,” presents a speaker who apparently reports during the early summer days of that zodiac sign, although the ominous presence of the disease lurks as well: “You told me: All dies. / For this, we’re intended.” Quickly, the poem switches to evocative description of nature and the effects caused by summer heat: “Stung then by peonies’ / heft and lush waste / bent-headed / I hid from the day.” Readers are even given an image of a kitchen where “flies pock the table / black as dropped seeds.” The people in the poem are too overwhelmed by the season, if not the disease: “A simple swat exhausts us.” Therefore, the speaker recommends forgetting the flies so that at least they might “flee death.” When the end of the poem comes, readers see additional progression toward the connection between an uneasiness from damage done by heat in the season suggested with the title’s sign and the illness brought about by the disease also implied in the title: “Our summer’s begun / as the iris rises from sword- / shaped leaves, its veiny sac / a purse of grief.” The sound of the language, once again lyrical, nearly screens readers from a darkness hinted by the line-break isolation of “sword” or the mere mention of “veiny,” as well as that last grasp at the reader with “grief.”

Similarly, “The Exhalation of Matty” chronicles a tragic circumstance brought about by dark conduct: “This is what stopped life looks like.” However, in this piece the speaker contributes little ambiguity through the use of natural imagery. In fact, minor criticisms one might level against the body of work in this collection might be for what one may consider its similarity in tone throughout most of the poems and its oftentimes-distanced speakers who do not permit personal identification through private details, since Houlihan is certainly not even close to a confessional poet; therefore, readers may welcome this slight shift in voice. Here, the poet engages in a more direct address that creates an emotional tone, though perhaps harshly colder and more condemning, because Houlihan’s words are obviously straightforward and blunt, even to the point of serving as mere summary, consequently possibly more compelling considering the topic: “When they hoisted him up, / the belt went slack. That was all to be done. / They locked him up in a man-sized box. / We all felt for that, and went home.”

Routinely, this poet displays a Romantic preference for situations that include crafty transitions from scenic nature to personal commentary, almost as though one validates the other. Houlihan’s gift for natural description contributes to the effectiveness of such a tactic. In “Preparing Migration” readers witness this technique at play: “Inched into moth-hammered sleeves, / autumn feeds its hundred / as they mince along the branch / unstable in their need to lift, then // all wing and hinge, they rise.” The specifics in this description allow the poet some freedom of analysis or observation, and readers see how the speaker seems to earn her closing comment: “This is the way I want you— / as long-awaited, as sudden.”

“Rationing, 1945” could be regarded as a historical poem of recollection that appears nearly out of character for Houlihan. Although it contains elements exhibited elsewhere in her poems, particularly the expected distinctive imagery written in lyrical lines, this piece seems a bit more narrative and appropriately plain in its presentation: “We went together at midday, at dusk, / to seize the fuel, the flour.” Nevertheless, Houlihan’s approach remains spare and suggestive rather than slipping into a strict chronicling with more expansive language or intimate detail, still more Emily Dickinson than Walt Whitman. As a result, readers may respond with empathy even while the emotional attachment is indirect, narrated by the speaker about another: “as some mother went weeping / against the wall.”

Throughout the collection Houlihan’s references to nature and her links with landscape imply an interconnection between our environment and everything we experience, including events eliciting suffering or sorrow: “every day will be stilled by sorrow” (“Held”). Despite her recurring descriptions of harsh winter weather, we’re aware spring will bring renewal and life, a thought that supplies some solace. Even when “we revel in what’s gone,” as the speaker reports her memories in “Easter,” with its own associations of rebirth, we must face the future with hope. The title poem offers the following during its mentioning of a new morning and seasonal revival, perhaps in ceremonial or celebratory mood: “Morning breathes steamy shapes on the car. / Magnolia skins litter the yard. // Easter comes early— / cups and cutouts, pinwheels and horns— // toy beauty so long in the ground. / This is what I want: to return / the same way I came.”

Thus, Joan Houlihan’s The Mending Worm seems to complete its circle. As the poet declared in the opening poem: “I long to replenish.” By the final poems in this collection, speakers appear to discover a bit of hope, ways to restore their desire for faith in a fresh existence, or find a type of restitution in an act of reconciliation: “A downing of air, then finger to lip pronounced you // gone. What’s best kept close is this you, tiny— / your bed a fold, a night-shell. Your modest need // for rest and food. Your school of injury and song. / Now we can talk anywhere” (“Incarnate”).

Still, despite its delicate descriptive language, Houlihan’s poetry shows toughness and courage throughout. She knows she needs to first face pain or adversity, that place “where our fears are privately boxed” (“The Mending Worm”), in order to move beyond. As she states in the powerful poem, “The Way I Give It To You”: “Spotted with shade, daylilies lean / close at the roadside, deep in their fret / of weed. Let go, they will prosper. // Anything not stopped does that.” Again relating natural terrain to the inner physical and emotional landscape of humans, Houlihan reports that “in twenty-four years, fetal cells flush / from the mother’s blood. As in purge. / As in waste. As in water from a ditch.” The speaker regards her information to be so difficult it compares to “a death / of something not loved”; nevertheless, she wants it “stark,” concludes the news must be given that way, so that the upsetting feelings and the coping with them can be shared: “Something we can do together.” Perhaps this provides a manner of managing one’s emotions, a way of mending as well.

Those who know Joan Houlihan only for her honestly stated and thought provoking critical commentary filled with opinions some might consider controversial and contentious, will not be surprised by the characteristics of diligent description and expressive lyricism in her poetry, qualities she esteems in her essays. Human nature urges us sometimes that we seek to conceal unpleasant aspects of existence. As Houlihan demonstrates in “Enter the Time of Toil,” where the white layering of snow cover offers a “cloak / of not knowing,” we might wish to smooth over the darker and troubled parts of our lives as well: “We hide this / the way snow hides the world— / with deliberate cold, built slow.” In her poetry Joan Houlihan examines efforts to conceal hurtful happenings, then she reveals the need to confront our fears and, if we are able, to handle our most painful moments with grace and dignity.

In “Somnambulist” Houlihan’s speaker concludes: “I was so charmed / by the damaged. So difficult to reach. / Whatever it was that struck me came from beneath.” Certainly, throughout the frank language of The Mending Worm, the poet gives readers a forthright glimpse beneath the surface, linking external and internal evidence of damage. Joan Houlihan conveys images and acts that evoke profound emotions, and she does so with an obvious flourish of fine poetic skill readers will admire, frequently seeking a steadying of self with an uneasy sense of resolution or at least a temporary settlement between those keen observations of the outer landscape and the perceived sentiments of one’s inner spirit we all may want to see united for better understanding of our own positions in the difficult world around us.

Houlihan, Joan. The Mending Worm. New Issues, 2006.

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