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

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Kathrine Varnes: THE PARAGON

Unlike a number of first books of poetry, Katherine Varnes’s The Paragon does not lend toward simple categorization or seem easily predictable in its presentation. Although Varnes appears most comfortable when writing in some variation of a traditional form, particularly the sonnet, her voice also projects well in free verse, even when the format becomes somewhat experimental, as in “The Great Refusal,” a series of poems described by the poet as being “in conversation with Herbert Marcuse’s Essays on Liberation,” interspersing quoted phrases from Marcuse’s writing with Varnes’s own innovative lines. In one example, the poet writes: “In my vague because repressed memories of our bed / Technique would then tend to become art / apart from me.”

Moreover, the tone in Varnes’s poetry may shift quickly from quirky and filled with wit to meditative and heartbreaking. For instance, in “Lakota Coffee House” Varnes offers the restrained portrait of a lonely woman whose “tremor in her fingers spells betrayal, / the way she cups the mug’s wide mouth for warmth.” This piece follows a marvelously mischievous poem, “On Modesty,” containing a playfully unrestrained persona: “The more she said fuck / the more I said Heavens to Betsy, having no / idea what that meant . . ..”

On the other hand, despite the variations in presentation and tone, there appears to be a consistency of theme throughout The Paragon—one that examines love and marriage, loss and betrayal. Such a unifying focus serves well to knit together the three sections of the book, each quite different from the other two in its physical presence on the page. From the opening stanza of the book’s initial poem, “Like It Is,” Varnes establishes an attitude toward love, commitment, and deception: “Here is the fool / who said I do.” By the poem’s closing line, its speaker reveals an evident weakness: “Our love was ever indigent.” In this first piece, Varnes also displays her clever ability to create fresh lines within the formal use of rhyme by pairing “heliotrope” with “grope,” “granule” with “cruel,” “elegant” with “indigent,” and the most surprising “antique” with “sweet geek.”

In addition to her mixture of traditional formal presentation with often-colloquial language and contemporary situations or props, Varnes shrewdly uses mythical allusions in innovative ways, whether it be “The Apprentice Siren” who is seen singing in “smoky bars” and, after “whistled catcalls and slurred compliments,” lugging her equipment to the trunk of her car, or in “Leda and the Poet,” a sonnet partially about writing a sonnet, in which “he pulls two quatrains straight from the air— / his sestet unfurls from the small of her back, her power.” Even in “When I Loved Milton,” the poet’s lighter side is shown: “So I read Cleanth Brooks who told me / about knowledge, about Eve, silly / silly Eve.”

Nevertheless, the centerpiece of this collection consists of an extended crown of forty-two sonnets (plus a coda) titled “His Next Ex-Wife.” Through an astute blend of informal language, narrative movement, and excerpted dialogue arranged within the formal sonnet sequence, Varnes presents a scenario in which an ex-wife engages in a telephone conversation with her former husband’s current wife who, as the title suggests, is soon to be his next ex-wife, since her husband, Paul, has already moved out of their house. During the phone dialogue both women compare notes, recognizing similarities in Paul’s behavior toward them and gradually beginning to empathize with one another, as the plural pronoun indicates when one of them wonders: “How could we marry this guy?” By the final lines of the crown the new wife even comments: “Did you know that sometimes people thought I was you?”

The growing connection between the two women as they start to identify with one another’s situation, mirroring each other’s emotional reactions, can be discerned in the crown’s tactical repetitive pattern of restating the last line of one sonnet in the first line of the following piece. Indeed, Varnes handles well the difficult task of setting up lines that could be doubled in such a way as to be effective first and last lines while still appearing fresh or different in each use, and she manages to do so without taking too many liberties, though selecting imaginative substitutions when necessary. For instance, one such inventive stretch occurs when a sonnet’s closing line reads: “'I paid for that!' Talk about billets-doux.” Yet, in the following poem’s first line the language undergoes transition: “'I paid for that talk.' As for bills come due . . ..” By the time the sonnet sequence nears its end, the first wife becomes an understanding figure who extends helping words of advice to her successor: “Her voice is soft, so I tell Nancy / recovery takes a while.“

Often in this collection characters appear to be in a process of recovery or transition, and Varnes seems to supply in her poetry opportunities for them to express their progression through confusion to a state of personal recognition or awareness and self-discovery. She also provides many instances of poetic ambiguities that contribute to a sense of mystery—even in apparently innocent moments, as in “One Devil,” a poem about a childhood backyard experience that is replete with dark sexual connotations—or to a more humorous response from readers, as in the initial lines of “Swearing”: “Do you swear to take this man? / He asked and I said yes, I can— / I do.”

The title of the book implies a perfect example or an ideal, and in “His Next Ex-Wife” the speaker avows: “There’s nothing worse than being an ideal.” She later reveals: “It took sacrifice to make a perfect fit.” Finally, she asks: “Must vanity insist on love’s perfection . . .?” However, the speaker of “On Modesty” recognizes the false choice of perfection, as she reveals: “I paragoned / by day. By night, the Kmart / parking lot’s dark corner: red hatchback carpet and / the hands of Angelo.”

The biographical note for the book cover artist—Ilya Zomb, whose Pleasure of Twisting seems precisely right for this collection—proposes that in his art “a humorous sense of irony underscores his slightly askew symbolism.” One might make the same claim for Kathrine Varnes’s poetic lines, which sometimes seem contrary to readers’ expectations, resulting in poems one can enjoy for the surprisingly risky twists they take and one can appreciate for the astonishing discoveries they make of what may or may not exist, as in the book’s concluding image where the speaker tears through silk scarves in a drawer to find a ring box and “look inside.” With the many examples of worthy poetry in The Paragon, Kathrine Varnes gives readers numerous reasons to look inside this volume.

Varnes, Kathrine. The Paragon. WordTech Editions, 2005.

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