Book Review: Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night

Umberto's Night

Kathleen Hellen’s award-winning poetry book

Kathleen Hellen’s Umberto’s Night won the 2012 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize. Its black cover, with an apocalyptic image of a city under an atomic fireball, hints at much of the content, made explicit by an epigraph from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality: “as if along a river, you go by an invaded city…the city burns like a match…everything collapses in flames…”

The flames—sometimes literal, sometimes figurative—describe the pain carried by the speakers and characters observed in these finely crafted poems. There are drug addicts, ex-cons, murder victims, Vietnam veterans, blue-collar workers, slapped children, all vividly detailed in compact phrases. Their stories are stories of violence, whether on city streets, in battlegrounds or echoed ironically on a football field.

Hellen delivers her vivid and sometimes horrific images with exquisite beauty in poems that are meant to be read aloud. Listen to the half-rhyme and guttural consonants in these lines from “Reruns of Lassie”:

No chance of Timmy asking: “What is it, Lassie?
Who needs help?” No dog at all. Or gone.
Devoured by wolves. The dogs with bigger teeth.

The book is divided into five sections. The poems in Part 1 are told in a variety of voices—a teacher, a lover, a woman under arrest. They portray Baltimore as “a town too old for beginnings,” a city that swallows up A-students into unrelenting violence. In “Nine Circles,” a little boy experiences gunfire as a

ringing in his ears

that left a hole
in her thigh
the size
of a button.

In “Eight,” the speaker asks “who got shot in Druid Park? / whose throat was cut?”

Part 2 seems to follow the arc of a relationship that ends, as too many relationships do, in domestic violence. Here are scenes in a courtroom with a blasé judge who “has heard it all,” a victim who can feel her attacker “here in the bones of my throat” and poems filled with images of menacing hands, scars and cuts.

Yet the final poem in this section, “Palpable,” has two lovers in front of a late-night bakery, writing “love / backward on the glass” as they admire a display of glazed fruit tarts and watch the bakers with pans of freshly baked sweet rolls. Are these the same people who, earlier in this section, met on the Internet and then in person? If so, is this a flashback? Or simply a warning that any relationship might end badly, and that whether it will—or won’t—may be foreshadowed by “a drunkard’s quilt”?

Part 3 contrasts the foreignness of war with the domestic, day-to-day coping on the home front. Both soldiers and those left behind search, mostly unsuccessfully, for love. Nightmare images occur throughout this section: a football game morphs into a real battlefield, a year “shell shocked,” Vietnam slipping into innumerable conflicts in the Middle East. People and memories seem to become “[l]iving holographs”:

The night inside a night until
attention must be tipped
to darkness in its layers.

The final poem in this section leaves us in the “blackest Appalachians,” leading us right into Part 4’s mining and steel mill towns along the polluted Monongahela River. The night is lit by “a Frankenstein” of coke furnaces. The air smells sulfuric. Factories close, workers are laid off, their children go hungry. In the poem “A Pillar of Fire by Night,” Hellen gives us mattresses “in exodus,” offices “tight-lipped in their failures,” a way of life that was “there, then it wasn’t.”

Kathleen Hellen

Kathleen Hellen

Part 5 moves between disasters of varying scale, from those affecting millions, such as Hurricane Irene, to a car accident, from which the speaker escapes in the nick of time. Dandelions “implode” as they are mowed down; people, like comets, “burn out long before the accident of touch.” We lose those we love, see their ghosts in puddles or in dust. Through it all, these poems argue, hope persists, sometimes shaped like a daffodil, sometimes the human heart.

In addition to Umberto’s Night, Hellen has published The Girl Who Loved Mothra. Her poems have appeared in a range of journals and been featured on WYPR’s The Signal. In addition to the Feldman prize, she has received awards from H.O.W. JournalWashington Square Review, Thomas Merton Institute and  Appalachian Writers Association. Her work has been supported by grants from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts and Maryland State Arts Council.

Note: Pat Valdata will appear this Saturday at our CityLit Festival reading.


Book Review: Dan Gutstein’s Bloodcoal & Honey

Bloodcoal & Honey

Dan Gutstein’s award-winning book (Cover design: Justin Sirois)

When I find myself unaccountably crying as I reach the end of a collection of poems, when the combined weight of the poet’s felt human presence and the loss seeping through the poems brings tears, I know something powerful is about. This happened as I read one of the last poems,“The Last Out,” in Dan Gutstein’s Bloodcoal & Honey, which I finished while on a long bus journey.

The last time I remember tears burning at the end of a book of poems was when I read Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. The ambush was easier to understand: Hacker’s sonnet sequence tells the story of a love affair from birth to breakup.

I was more surprised to feel a lump in my throat with Bloodcoal & Honey. Although many of the poems paint human affection and loss with skill, just as many are forays into surrealism, verbally stunning poems that are obscure in meaning and feel to me like odd objects behind a gate that few readers may be able to penetrate. This isn’t a criticism of the collection. But it is a fact that lots of poems there have bizarre, disjointed imagery and syntax that doesn’t gel around anything real and that surrealism isn’t my thing. Yet, somehow, I mostly loved the book. Gutstein is a really interesting poet.

Many surrealistic poems are fantastic in their pure sound, such as this from “the chance”:

never let it be said that fields change. the smallish pumpkins
are sunken crowns. the stolid headstones, tablets of law.

where the wood gives a deep stand, the spotted deer glance
marbles a bound. where the wind’s raw palm thumps the season.

They alternate with poems that provide a solid sense of the speaker–his feelings and sharp, quirky perceptions–and the emotional situation. That’s where sadness seeps in.

The backdrop of Bloodcoal & Honey is the random alleyway murder of a man named Warren, someone close to the poet. Although only six poems center on the murder and criminal investigation, a sense of things being heavy, grim and out-of-joint pervades the first section. (Six poems in the last section of the book concern the death of Gutstein’s brother and take on a gentler mournful tone). It’s not a depressing read, though, because the writer’s voice feels like company and because he, the grieving survivor, so intensely observes and interacts with the world around him as he goes about his business.

It’s clear how ragged grieving is: thoughts of Warren and the shooting, which the speaker didn’t witness, intrude at the most mundane times. In “The Speed Break,” the poet is trying to break a board in karate class:

“Come on, man,” my teacher says. But I’m all stares
at the black knot. Staring, as he concludes, softly, “—Shit.”
A scene I can’t possibly imagine. The gun tapping Warren’s back.
Then a twitch, then a flash. No pain, nothing but a thin mix
curling down the shoulder chunk. A hole in his back. The black knot.

In “The Alleyway Now,” he’s walking in a meadow with a friend:

…as I turn and see you
hipdeep, a stalk between your teeth.
You call my name, Daniel.
I tilt my head, thrust my hands toward blue.
If I could fabricate, I’d say, yes,
I heard footsteps, a gun clatter off brick.
I followed blood drops behind a dumpster
where I found Warren, a hole in his back.
A lamp came on in the alleyway.
Night had moon but no color, shots but no rescue.
If I could fabricate, I’d say, yes,
I cradled his shoulders.

The title suggests that the alleyway of the shooting is within the speaker at every moment. That’s fitting because these poems are urban. There’s an edginess to them. Even when we can’t be at all sure of the situation or story, we know we’re in a city spot, a gritty one. In some poems, details show we’re in DC. Gutstein seems to be fascinated with hidden corners of the urbanscape, especially anything industrial, low-tech or decaying:

here as in tonnage of diesel,
a transformer humming sidewise torsion.
Loopy flowers unbuckle beside barbed wire.
(“Industrial Island”)

A crowd grew across the street from the wrecking ball, which thumped the dying hospital further into a spaghetti of rebar and boxy rubble.

I liked the book’s eclecticism, and I wasn’t the only one. How depressing to plough through a new collection and find 45 poems from the same mould. Not here! There are prose poems, anecdotal poems, unidentifiable stanzaic forms, lyrics, stuff smacking of “language” poetry and more. Still, techniques characterizing Gutstein’s voice permeate the poetry: language heightened by unusual, juicy word choice; a tendency to write in fragments; vivid images that don’t quite coalesce into a unified scene; phrases repeated unsettlingly. A touchstone mood: besides loss and urban grit, missed human connections.

In considering why reading Bloodcoal & Honey feels glorious rather than sad, I’m reminded of something Harriet Barlow, Director of the Blue Mountain Center, said to me: “Poems about sad things aren’t depressing. Meaningless things are depressing.” Gutstein’s poems never feel meaningless, opaque though some may be.

It was gratifying to see that the local Washington Writers’ Publishing House awarded Bloodcoal & Honey the 2011 poetry prize and is still publishing gems.

Dan Gutstein

Dan Gutstein self-portrait

Online editor’s note on the author, lifted from his siteBloodcoal & Honey is Dan Gutstein’s second collection of writing. His first, non/fictionwas published by Edge Books in 2010. His writing has appeared in more than 65 publications, including Ploughshares, Denver Quarterly, Ninth Letter, The Iowa Review, The American Scholar, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English and The Best American Poetry, 2006 as well as aboard metrobuses in Virginia. He has received awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, University of Michigan, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other groups. He works at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and served as Visiting Assistant Professor in creative writing at The George Washington University. He was named the 2010-2011 “hottest” professor in America by Rate My Professors, and his body temperature has risen accordingly.