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

Sunday, May 20, 2007


When encountering a new collection of poems, any astute reader usually seeks to discover a distinctive voice narrating an array of events with imaginative imagery; however, one also often hopes to find some bonus of a varying tone among the poems, modulating as it expresses particular feelings or persuasively displaying a fairly disparate emotional range between the book’s opening work and its closing poem. Nevertheless, a poet who masters passionately elegiac language, through descriptions of intense situations or articulation of a more somber mood, may not be equally adept at presenting a lighter side of the human spirit. Likewise, those poets known for their wit and humor frequently strike something of a false note when attempting to address convincingly the darker conditions of living and the ever-present awareness of one’s mortality.

Indeed, the likelihood of an imbalance of emotional content probably characterizes most collections of poetry. In many cases such attention to certain colors of the emotional palette at the expense of others occurs as a deliberate tactic. The poet purposely controls readers’ sentiments in response to the work and even restrains (perhaps even retrains) their expectations of a straying from the set timbre of voice that follows through from poem to poem in the book. Poets who offer thematic book-length studies or sequences of pieces possibly exploring the emotional depths of individual experiences and moments of personal pain may seek precisely the targeting of particular reader sensations rather than divert or dilute the power of their poetry by reaching for a greater range of reactions.

With this in mind as I read the beginning section (titled “Anagrammer” after the initial work in its pages) of Peter Pereira’s new volume of poetry, What’s Written on the Body, I immediately appreciated the poet’s marvelous display of wit and pleasant humor, his ability to recognize and dissect the internal elements of language—its vocabulary and the accompanying denotative meanings or connotative suggestions many words carry on their own or offer when coupled with others that are homonyms or similarly spelled, perhaps anagrams. Even as I was entertained by the playfulness exhibited in this wordsmith’s poems of the book’s opening section, my poetic instinct also identified with the speaker’s focus on designed or coincidental connections created by placing particular words near one another, sometimes by simply rearranging letters to alter meaning in delightfully unexpected ways.

Pereira begins “Anagrammer,” the collection’s opening poem, with observations on a belief in “the magic of language,” an impression shared by most accomplished writers, especially poets: “If you believe the letters themselves / contain a power within them, / then you understand / what makes outside tedious, / how desperation becomes a rope ends it.” This trust in language leads to the practicing poet’s confidence: “That if you could just rearrange things the right way / you’d find your true life, / the right path, the answer to your questions.”

Pereira’s love of language proceeds unabated through the intelligently amusing lines of the premiere portion of What’s Written on the Body. Even the book’s cover bears its obviously ambiguous title referring to a similarly titled poem in the collection’s second section, where the poet, a family physician who frequently treats recent immigrants, remarks upon markings found upon one of his patients: “Holding the stethoscope’s bell I’m stunned / by the whirl of icons and script / tattooed across his back, their teal green color / the outline of a map which looks / like Cambodia, perhaps his village, a lake, / then a scroll of letters in a watery signature. / I ask the interpreter what it means.”

In this poem the poet’s passion for the written word and his devotion to physical healing combine in a perfect metaphor. Even the writings on the patient’s body seem as symbolic and in need of interpretation as any complex or allusive poem might. An earlier piece shows readers how mischievous Pereira can be when combining his ardor for words with his medical training as he presents “The Devil’s Dictionary of Medical Terms,” a list of humorous or ironic anagrams for phrases found in the physician’s daily lexicon. For instance, a few the poet proposes: “Lower back pain: Incapable work”; “Prostate Cancer: Crap! Not as erect. Procreates? Can’t”; “Vasectomy: My octaves!”; “Whiplash Injury: Shh! I win jury, pal.”

The lighthearted nature of the book’s first section delights with its careful attention to the workings of language and its twisting of common words or terms into surprising lines with refreshing phrases that invite the reader to examine written messages more closely. As Pereira cleverly hints in “Think or Swim,” such an inspired and inventive look at common parlance merely reflects the poet’s approach: “Poetry without the why is just trope.”

Nevertheless, Pereira’s poetry progresses toward darker territory in its second section, as the poet subtly discloses his persona as a compassionate physician facing patients confronted with difficult decisions or caught in incidents of pain and sadness that evoke an array of emotional responses from each poem’s speaker. In this part of the volume, “Practicing,” Pereira prominently provides perceptible and palpable indications of the attendant sentiments doctors deal with daily, though as professionals they often must submerge their personal feelings beneath a false façade, the reassuring exterior presence patients witness. In “Scald” the doctor observes a toddler’s mother agonizing as her son is brought in to the hospital after being burned by “a pot / of boiling noodles.” The woman is seen “screaming in the ER / as his chest and belly bubble, / his peeling genitals and thighs / turn scarlet—her Spanish a litany / of coyote howls and moans.” Eventually, the doctor describes his own reaction: “The oxygen mask covers his face. / His beautiful face. // I think to myself: at least / it spared / his face.”

Peter Pereira’s poetic sensibility serves him well when he describes the physical details of his doctoring. In the section’s title poem, a wonderful centerpiece work itself separated into seven sections, the speaker recounts treatment during Christmas week of an “eighty-year-old / woman with no family of her own.” The poet’s lyricism almost makes musical the technical language employed: “The sonographer wonders / if he sees a stellate mass blocking the blue / sky of her vena cava.”

In another section of the poem a young mother undergoes needle biopsy of her breast, and the casual conversation between physician and patient about summer travels becomes suddenly stilled: “when the needle / of my aspirator hits something firm / and stops, our offhand chatter halts. / She is pale as a cloud.” However, in this instance the outcome appears positive as the examination continues: “We’ll wait for the path lab’s / verdict, the mammogram, but for now / this is good news.” The poem closes with the physician witnessing the woman’s emotional release: “she’s already gone, lifting her / two-year-old into living arms.”

As suggested by the simile embedded in the cloud imagery describing the pale woman’s complexion that reflects the concern for her health, Peter Pereira’s poetry contains snatches of Romanticism’s fascination with nature’s elements, especially as ingredients for constructing metaphor. In fact, Pereira’s poems in the third section of What’s Written on the Body turn to the allure of gardening and admiration for botanical beauty. (In “Crossing the Pear,” readers even learn Pereira is Portuguese for pear tree: “My father’s name / is all that’s left of him, a vague sweetness, / the taste of pear.”)

In “The Garden Buddha,” the speaker seeks to understand aspects of life as he looks upon a “stone Buddha” and wonders: “Why don’t I share his one-minded happiness? / The pear blossom, the crimson-petaled magnolia, / filling me instead with a mixture of nostalgia // and yearning.” The persona hopes to learn something from his observations of nature: “The seasons wheeling despite my photographs / and notes, my desire to make them pause. / Is that the lesson? That stasis, this holding on, // is not life?”

During lines in “The Scholar’s Garden” the speaker reveals a reluctance to end the respite its surroundings allow: “I cannot bring myself / even to look at my watch.” Still, Pereira recognizes the reality of nature. Rather than becoming overly sentimental and romanticizing, he declares: “Two errors in perceiving / the world this way: / First, seeing only a mirror / of the self. Then, not seeing / the self as part of the world” (“Mount Baker in August”). At the end of this poem Pereira even revisits one of the more famous relationships in literary history, the connection between “death” and “beauty,” and he notes nature’s ability sometimes to deceive: “The way a scorpion will hide / in a conch’s dark hollow. / Death disguised as beauty.”

The linking of nature’s beauty with death reappears in “Night-blooming Cereus,” a piece near the end of section three. Dedicated to “Carol,” the poem relates a sorrowful situation: “That summer you were home dying of breast cancer.” Yet, this work addresses death with skill and tact, first commenting upon the subject’s disdain for others’ cruelty and disregard for life when she viewed a woman on a freeway bridge, who “straddled the railing in the middle of rush hour,” being urged to jump by irate drivers in a hurry home. Then this poet-doctor closes the poem with a splendid final stanza that needs to be quoted whole: “Though you’d doctored others for years / you were uneasy speaking of your own death. / But later, through the fog of chemo and morphine, / you called one evening— / the cereus in your kitchen / was growing the most amazing flower, / the magnificent white bud slowly opening / before your eyes. And I should come quickly, / you didn’t want me to miss it— / its dying fragrance soon to fill the house.”

What’s Written on the Body is a generous book in its spirit but also in the 70 poems it includes, perhaps enough for two volumes by some other poets. Even as early as the final lines of this book’s fourth poem, “Possessed by Words,” Pereira already had demonstrated his central concerns for medicine, language, nature, beauty, and death: “How they said it was too late, / by the time they got to the hospital— / it was too late, the infection / was florid: meaning, like flowers.”

“Night-blooming Cereus” serves almost as an indicator of the striking poems, many about personal relationships, to be found at the end of the third section and into the volume’s final section, “Night Walk.” However, one of the poems (“Serafina”) in this last grouping also regards reactions to the events of September 11, 2001, and it represents one of the best pieces I’ve seen written about the topic. The poem begins with finely fashioned and effective imagery: “That day the sky seemed torn open like a letter. / All morning on the television bodies falling // in flames as steel and glass towers crumbled.” The speaker and his partner decide to take a night walk to a “neighborhood bistro,” where the calm seems soothing and the candle, bread, and oil on the table appear “almost sacramental.” However, the poem’s closing shows the impact already felt by the speaker as he watches the interplay between the bistro’s singer and her pianist, “the well-worn strand of an engagement between lovers.” Contemplating this pair brings to mind “how that other couple stood / together on their fiery ledge— // how they turned to each other and / joined hands, before stepping off.”

Pereiras What’s Written on the Body guides its readers from humorous wordplay through patients’ medical dramas witnessed by a doctor-poet, or poignant personal encounters in his own life, toward the iconic imagery of a tragic public spectacle. The poet always seems at ease in this collection, no matter which components on the spectrum of emotions are involved, and the range of expressions in the four sections of this volume contributes to its effectiveness. One marvels at the inventive use of language, and even admires an innovative use of form in “Doppelgänger” (perfectly selected for its topic, examining stages of a relationship twenty years apart), a two-stanza poem in which exactly the same words are written in each, though remarkably rearranged.

An absorbing elegiac poem, “The Cruciverbalist,” describes its female subject, perhaps the same woman in “Night-blooming Cereus,” as attaining “serious pleasure in the tangle / of clues and meanings, / this knitting of letters like a scarf. / She loves how words work at cross-purposes . . ..” Similarly, Peter Pereira’s poetry apparently mirrors the immense satisfaction he finds in the knitting of language that summons readers to view words and their meanings in a new light, to discover for themselves the great pleasure poetry may afford when presented so passionately and so expertly.

Pereira, Peter. What’s Written on the Body. Copper Canyon Press, 2007.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, very educated for medical/non-medical viewers