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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

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


In the closing poem (“Keet Seel”) of Greg Pape’s latest collection, American Flamingo, the speaker treks through an Arizona canyon and across a creek accompanied by another, Jake, who relates how the last time he’d hiked this area he had witnessed an unusual event when he’d suddenly come upon “a half acre / of flowers and bees idling like an engine.” The companion’s description appears vivid as he remembers “the pleasure and peace” he’d felt seeing such a sight. But just as much of a surprise arises as the speaker reveals that at the very moment when Jake recalls the scene, “we round a bend and there it is, / as if his memory has set the place before us.”

That final line of this poem might just as easily serve also as a commentary on much of Greg Pape’s poetry contained throughout the rest of the collection. One of Pape’s greater strengths as a poet comes from his ability to create a setting and an atmosphere based upon remembered events, especially when their activities are intimately linked to a specific time and place. Indeed, Pape repeatedly indicates locations in the titles or sub-titles of his poems (“Moundville, Alabama,” “Bitterroot Mountains, Montana,” “Miami Beach, Florida,” etc.). These geographical tags appear almost as if they were labels attached to old photographs or videotapes chronicling past travels and memorable occasions. Like his companion in “Keet Seel,” Pape often describes incidents with enough intensity of detail that the images seem to suddenly “set the place before us.”

With every successful attempt to evoke atmosphere in his poems, Greg Pape brings readers closer to the emotional underpinnings that matter to the speaker in each piece. Pape provides direction to his readers as if he were leading tourists through new territory. Offering guidance, he colors our observations with his running commentary, all the time subtly supplying a developing portrait of the poet’s personality, or at least a glimpse at some important moments from his private history, and frequently acknowledging carefully considered thoughts about autobiographical instances or hinting at passions he shares with his fictional personae.

Usually, Pape’s poetry describes life and its intricacies with less complex language than one might expect. In fact, listening to Pape’s speakers, we easily could be convinced we’re in the presence of someone familiar—a close friend with an amiable voice, though sometimes wry, privately confiding personal opinions and observations, privileging us with his sense of trust. In “Blossom” Pape discloses an early infatuation with a fourteen-year-old girl. Appropriately, the girl and this poem share the same name, as a blossoming boy relates watching the girl ride a palomino: “I watched her grow smaller as she headed hard // for the barbed wire fence.” When Blossom turns toward the young Pape, “like a barrel racer, dirt splashing / from the hooves,” he recalls how he “stood still as a post, // stirred by her power.” The speaker divulges the state of his innocence at the time: “It would be years before / I made any sort of sense of those stirrings.” Sexual connotations continue through to the close of the poem: “when she smiled down on me, / muddy sweat dripping from her chin, her breasts // rising and falling, her heart visibly pounding, / and offered me her strong hand, I aspired / to mount the mare and ride with Blossom wherever.”

In a poem simply titled “We Are,” Pape presents a more mature moment of love. A couple walks the streets of a worn down town: “We bump our hips together // as we walk.” As he does elsewhere in the volume, the poet develops a sense of authenticity with his accumulation of descriptive details creating an atmosphere into which readers might be drawn: “The town is lit with brilliant / mid-morning winter sun, the sky a soft // accepting blue. Old cars and battered trucks / move slowly up and down the streets. // A blaze of sun on chrome or glass, half / a line of impassioned song, a woman’s voice, // stone grin of a man with a tower of caged / songbirds—we are swept and swayed.” As the couple strolls onward, the speaker feels “the street / is more and more ours.” We are told that others observe the pair: “Young men stare / in envy and lust.” Even an old woman notices the two of them: “calls us her dear ones, as if the desire aglow / in our bodies were already making a family.”

More often, Pape focuses on particulars of nature, item by item, assembling aspects of a scene in the manner a landscape painter may have done, even paying special attention to color: “The cattle / were fat and standing in grass so green // and tall you couldn’t see their legs. / The cottonwoods arched over the road / in places and their leaves clattered, / leaves like small mittened hands, / pale green on one side, paler green // on the other, flicking back and forth / in the breeze with a sound like riffles / in the river” (“Green”). One comes to believe Pape saves these images of nature the way a collage artist collects objects or bits of material, believing they are valuable but never quite knowing when they will be needed. In “Remember the Moose” the speaker confides: “A moose grazing among the graves on Sunset Hill is an image one might hold / for years, turning it over and over, working it into a story or finding it, / strangely lit, inverted in a dream.”

Those lines also show Greg Pape’s interest in poetry that tells “a story.” Among the more powerful poems of this collection that come to mind, narratives designed with plot and characters seem to fit easily with the poet’s informal voice or, at times, his desire to deliver a dramatic closing to the poem, even when he borrows content from others. In “Unfinished Story” Pape reveals: “I am trying to put / together the story my mother never finished telling me.” Gradually, scene after scene, as if slipping through pages of a film script, Pape uncovers dark parts of an uncle’s biography, eventually discovering an apparent explanation for the uncle’s lifetime slide toward a tragic demise: “I knew my uncle Laurence as a kind man who drank / and smiled and drank and went away . . . he ended up / in Bellevue with delirium tremens.”

Pape embraces his mother’s manner of telling the tale, “always / in fragments, always arising from some other context.” However, he allows the story to unfold slowly until those fragments become a whole, as readers are alerted to an accidental shooting when the uncle and his brother were quite young and playing with a rifle they thought unloaded, imitating a scene from the movie they’d just seen: “The boys sat at the foot of the bed passing the gun back / and forth, showing off, talking about the movie. Laurence / aimed the shotgun at Ralph’s face and pulled the trigger.” By the poem’s final lines, the incident perhaps also explains a distancing between the speaker’s mother and her mother (who never could recover from the shock), as well as the closeness between the poet and his mother, as the poem ends during a chance meeting with Albert Einstein “aboard a ship docked / in Miami. She was holding me in her arms, and, according / to my mother, Einstein patted my head and said, ‘What / a beautiful baby.’”

Evidence of a connection between mother and son can be seen in a few pieces from this volume. (In addition, the cover photograph from 1948 displays Pape with his mother in Miami.) In “Practice,” another poem identified with “Miami Beach, Florida,” the poet also alludes to a sense of connection with his mother: “There is a photo of my mother, a young woman / lying on a beach towel looking up / with such a radiant loving smile, just to recall it / I am fortified.” A tender attachment of parent toward child again shows in “Album,” a ten-page poem now depicting the poet performing his role as father, although in this work Pape skates on a thin edge when exploring personal emotions. In fact, though one wants to encourage the speaker to accept risks at times by revealing his feelings, and Pape usually chooses well when dealing with sentiments, some of the lines about his children briefly breach the wall bordering between sentiment and sentimentality.

On the other hand, Pape recognizes the high regard he holds for using language in physical representation of objects, animals, people, and places from memories rather than offering abstractions attached to emotion: “Then the names of things become more important. / With a name one could hold on, not lose so much. Anger, fear, love / can twist the tongue silly or clamp it tight. / But say a name and it rings” (“Animals”). In this piece Greg Pape references fellow poets who have died young—among them, Larry Levis. When poems, like this one, in American Flamingo approach their best level, stretching into comprehensive and conversational meditations on life, love, and death while managing to avoid prosiness—at times somewhat resembling Levis’s poetic monologues, but with Pape’s individual voice—the speakers create opportunities for an even greater depth of understanding by readers.

Pape knows one prime facet of understanding calibrations measuring life, love, or death derives from the effectiveness of poetry portraying precise items from one’s memory: “What is this memory good for? What does it mean / to hold this scene that keeps its freshness / twenty years or more, though seldom recalled, / and feels, when remembered in detail, like / an awakening still going on—light // of a dead star pulsing and flickering / in space, shining in place on the surface / of moving water.” Readers should cherish his skill at temporarily bringing the glow of old memories into current situations.

In the collection’s title poem, Pape connects episodes from the past and the present, uniting scenes from differing times while contrasting Romantic renderings of nature with concerns of contemporary culture. He recalls Audubon’s passionate pictures of birds, including the flamingo, although he accepts the conflict evident in the artist’s necessity to kill: “I know he shot them to know them.” The speaker echoes Robert Penn Warren, whose great “Audubon” poem certainly would come to mind: “what / Is man but his passion.” However, the poet then shifts his attention to the famous flamingos he sees in the infield at the Hialeah race track: “the loud flat // metallic voice of the announcer fading / as the flamingos, grazing the pond water / at the far end of the infield rose // in a feathery blush.” The lively movement of the flamingos startles ticket holders and momentarily halts everything as the birds fly a “clipped-wing ritual lap // in the heavy Miami light, a great / slow swirl of grace from the old world.”

Similarly, the poetry in American Flamingo displays an array of bright pieces, often startling us with their generous spirit and frequently linking colorful memories of the past with present moments of subtle understanding or even slightly higher instances of enlightenment. Each piece increases readers’ awareness of relationships between nature and humans or between ourselves and others, especially those close to us. As well, readers attain an acute appreciation for the impact of the past on the present or the way fragments of stored memories may influence our lives every day.

Pape, Greg. American Flamingo. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.