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

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Mary Biddinger: PRAIRIE FEVER

In recent weeks I’ve found myself reading a number of new poetry books that also are the authors’ first volumes. I have previously mentioned elsewhere that I enjoy encountering these initial offerings, especially by younger poets perhaps still in the exciting process of discovering their voice or more mature individuals whose premiere collections of poetry still display a fresh voice with novel observations on life, love, loss, landscape, lyricism, or any of the other more common topics treated in their works.

As much as one hopes a first book of poetry will present an opening glimpse into the author’s personal perspective and a signature style, a reader also may expect the collection to provide hints at links to past literary figures so that there appears to be a continuation of the poetic tradition. Even the most well known examples of notable or inventive verse—whether Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Whitman, Eliot, Lowell, Ginsberg, Ashbery, or Graham, among many others—exhibit easily apparent bits of predecessors’ influence within their works.

Indeed, one welcomes surprising poetry that repeatedly gives the impression of an original free-floating imagination on display, even though the poet (along with most readers) knows his or her pieces will necessarily be tethered to history and specimens written by those literary icons from earlier eras. Such was the case for me when reading the poems in Prairie Fever, Mary Biddinger’s debut volume from Steel Toe Books. As I moved through the collection, I admired Biddinger’s ability to continually cause a sense of uneasiness even in those pieces where upon first impression the poems’ settings or personae seem rather ordinary.

Images of the Midwest (specific locations in Ohio and Michigan are mentioned in the poems), with descriptive passages mostly heightened by innovative similes or metaphors, fill many of the pieces in Prairie Fever. And with her vivid imagery, Biddinger’s compact poems sometimes evoke recollections of James Wright’s poetry for me, despite differences in the two poets’ stylistic mannerisms. In fact, my initial impulse upon examining Biddinger’s work was to recall sitting at my first poetry reading as an undergraduate in an introduction to creative writing course. My classmates and I had been assigned to attend a presentation by James Wright, someone about whom I knew almost nothing at the time, but for whose poetry I soon fostered a fondness.

James Wright’s lyrically descriptive language frequently focused upon Ohio, particularly the factory town of Martin’s Ferry, the place of his childhood. Although Wright often exhibited an innate ability to render natural images in an expressive fashion, his Midwest poems habitually carried an added level of intensity or suspense, perhaps even supplying indications of a darker tone pointing toward more ominous conditions somewhere beneath the region’s usually quiet and tranquil surface. As Laurence Lieberman once wrote of Wright in his book of essays on contemporary poetry, Beyond the Muse of Memory, the poet composed “lines that, despite their pared-down, wiry tautness, are stained with the irremovable residue of lived terrors as surely as particles of soil cling to tree roots.”

Like Wright, Mary Biddinger writes poetry that explores and exploits local Midwest imagery in a way that regularly alludes to a darker and more mysterious, sometimes almost magical, human existence underneath stereotypically modest scenery. In the first lines of “The Flyers,” a typical piece in Biddinger’s collection, readers see the poet’s skill at turning a routine sight into a vividly imaginative image, usually through original simile or metaphor: “The blue lights of an Ohio airfield / are the hundred eyes of a peacock / tail.” Later in the same poem Biddinger describes “houses the size of my kitchen, white, // leaning as if people lined the walls, / fell backwards until the eaves listed.” Even “a tow truck shudders / into late shift. Its carnival tail lights / are cherries pickled in gin and salt.” The poem closes on a startlingly subtle but effective note as a Cessna crosses the sky, “loops above // mildewed steeples and the backside / of parables, to the crow holes, gnats, / slow drip of a hose left in knots.”

Periodically in Biddinger’s poetry the narrator resembles a Midwestern female version of Bruce Springsteen, whose songs often pertain to a “darkness on the edge of town.” (Appropriately, the first lines of the book’s opening poem, “Salsa at the Belair Lounge,” refer to another singer, Roy Orbison, whose mellow yet unnerving voice could be heard with lyrics concerning individuals or situations one might find similar to those within Prairie Fever.) In fact, one of the most interesting pieces, “The Edge of Town,” perfectly exemplifies the emotional edginess felt when reading a number of the works in this collection, where speakers and personae seem caught in moments bordering between innocence and experience, love and lust, security and danger, or “the lost and the waiting” (“The Old Neighborhood”).

“The Edge of Town” chronicles actions of teenage girls seeking adventure somewhere just outside the social control of their town. The girls walk railroad tracks along the river where freight trains “carried the men south, stalled / at intersections for hours while / the girls smoked Parliaments / under a cloak of citronella.” Some of the girls express themselves rather innocently in graffiti: “tag the rail cars // in spray paint: foxy or wash me / or hearts and daggers.”

However, an incident shatters their remaining innocence when they come upon the bodies of three men drifting in the river: “A grackle // landed on one man’s naked / stomach, began preening. Trout / churned in the shallows as he / pinwheeled through the cattails // like a windmill with white eyes.” As horrifying as the experience may be, more shocking are the reactions of the girls, who simply “used branches to push / him until the river took over.” Finally, though, the speaker confides the image persists, as she has been haunted by that figure ever since, imagining she sees him everywhere she travels: “I saw him for years after that day: / behind the wheel of an ice truck, // in a conductor’s hat and coveralls. / Lurking in the stalls of the farmer’s / market, iridescent behind corn silk.”

Occasionally, the younger females depicted in Biddinger’s poetry appear to be like the goldfish circling inside plastic bags in the final lines of “Show Pony.” The girls, caught in the isolation and apparent safety of their small-town lives, longingly look out at a perplexing world just beyond the city’s limits. Sometimes a poem’s narrator seems so desperate for change that she is willing to accept any new identity for escape. “Anklebone” begins: “Some towns have the story / of a man gone mad. / Our town had the dead girl. / How I wanted to be her.” This disconcerting poem concludes with one of Biddinger’s characteristically unsettling images in language that almost echoes those disturbing lines in “The Edge of Town”: “I learned to be her / the day I floated downstream / on my back. The river / filled my mouth and ears / and I drifted out of town.”

Because of Biddinger’s gift for scripting poems with a sequence of authentic yet evocative scenes, where her poetry mimics the visual narratives of movies, she is most successful, as in the outstanding “Housewarming,” when the speaker relates a detailed and dramatic series of actions: “you wake in a truck driver’s / house downriver, next to his son. / An all-night poker game outside / the room. First glass you lift / is tapwater, whiskey, fingernail // slivers of ice left from the night / before. Mascara smudged / from eye to hand, cocktail dress / hiked, stockings missing. Slink / to the toilet, a blanket drawn / over your shoulders . . ..”

The book’s cover carries a pleasant yet chilling photograph of railroad tracks discontinued and disappearing in a rural landscape, the end of the line marked by the circle of a red reflector, almost as if it were a stop sign. On the picture’s side, intersecting lines of a utility pole rise above a mound to stab the air and fade into the horizon’s glare like a cross over a newly dug grave, while here and there in the foreground some scattered wildflowers struggle to survive. Green grass and full trees, along with an absence of humans at this edge of town, preserve a placid atmosphere that still continues to contribute to the nearly palpable sense of foreboding accompanying many of the scenes the poems’ personae also will explore.

When I was an undergraduate, Robert Bly once advised me that Harmonium by Wallace Stevens represented the rare first book worth emulating. Although first books of poetry commonly contain a number of questionable entries, perhaps early poems with less developed language or other patchy pieces chosen to complete the collection before ripening had been accomplished, Prairie Fever continually demonstrates a comprehension of craft and a self-confidence through its more mature and satisfying voice.

Nonetheless, in a couple of poems the private connections or personal allusions may seem too elusive, even cryptic, for some readers to follow fully and appreciate completely. Also, the shorter line lengths and sentences, as well as a few sentence fragments—even though normally effective in this collection, like puzzle pieces or separate brush strokes and dabs of dye accumulated to totally paint the poems’ pictures—at times play against the flow of the whole work, creating an unneeded hesitation or stagger in the rhythm. On the other hand, the pair of prose poems in this collection appears admirably experimental, but both lack some of the tension, suspense, and energy Biddinger’s poetry so often excels at generating.

Notwithstanding these perhaps minor quibbles, I find Prairie Fever an intriguing initial collection of poems containing innovative and sometimes twisted images of Midwest living filled with implications of danger for their personae, as well as insinuations of a darker spirit hidden within the seemingly serene facades of their settings. Mary Biddinger’s poetry sometimes reveals characters emerging from a somewhat insular lifestyle to be confronted by incidents that cause anxiety and discomfit—in some cases like the best suspense stories—as much for readers as for the poems’ personae. Like curious chapters in a mystery novel or episodes in a serial drama, Biddinger’s poems often effectively transfer their uncertainty and apprehensiveness to readers in a thrilling manner that presents unexpected pleasures in page after page, poem after poem.

Biddinger, Mary. Prairie Fever. Steel Toe Books, 2007.

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