Which shouldn’t be misconstrued to mean that there are only ten reasons. This collection of poetry has a lot going for it. You can buy it here, at Powell’s or here, direct from Dog on a Chain Press. Also, this list begins with endings and ends with a beginning.
1. Killer, Quiet, Deadpan Last Lines
Dena Rash Guzman knows how to end a poem. Her last lines are loud-quiet. Quiet-loud. Well-crafted but rather effortless. Heavy and weightless. You could blow smoke through them or they could shoot you full of holes. Maybe even both at the same time. Her poems end and then you take a breath and then you realize the poem is over. And that she SLAYS YOU, without ever once manipulating you emotionally. Basically, she just tells you something fierce. Quietly.
2. Delicious I
Maybe you don’t like poems that employ the first person singular. Go read another book. Or stick around and let Dena Rash Guzman blow your mind. Because the poems here are rooted in an individual, are personal, but they’re also personable. The I remains so utterly translucent, tethered to body (but not to a body stuck inside itself), I can wear it like a dress, take it for a walk, maybe go to the coffee shop down the street and feed that I a scone. This I is magnanimous and allows for the reader to participate in it. This I is at times diaphanous, as evidenced by these lines from “Life Cycle” (p.6):
I’m wood-clad, weathered
gray by snow and sun.
The lights inside my stories flicker.
The moon wanes and fills.
Phases matter little to hours
sidling through rooms,
defining and redefining
by fashion and function my trusses,
my mortise and tenon joints,
the structural frame.
I populate my space in time
as only something necessary will
and then turn around and gets specific, just two pages later, as shown here, in these lines that come at the beginning of “Life Cycle” (p.8—all the poems in Life Cycle are called “Life Cycle”):
When I was young, I was so poor
I wept like a baby in art class.
I was hungry. Underfed.
Teacher showed us Warhol’s
32 Campbell’s Soup Cans.
I wanted to eat them all,
cheese, tomato rice, clam chowder,
right off the screen.
The I in this book is both a little kid-self thinking about food and an epic self in tune with elements, the moon. And that, I think, is the point. We are small and epic. Epic and small.
3. Every Poem in Life Cycle Is Also Called “Life Cycle.” And Yet This Never Gets gimmicky.
Every poem stays fresh. Whether it’s a love poem, a list poem, a poem of childhood recollection, a poem evoking war, Yeti, motherhood, sex, China, Chernobyl, God, country life, soldierhood, you name it, it’s here, these poems deliver fresh insight, contain within each boundary their own unique direction. And while Dena Rash Guzman deserves kudos for delivering on the promise of her trim, sparse, often deadpan tone, she’s also not a one-trick pony. There’s variety of form and diction here as the reader moves through the collection—we get sinuous short lines, winding long lines, sentence fragments, prose poems, couplets. And yet I’m always here in the poem I’m reading now. Right now I’m rereading “Life Cycle” (p46), “to Tim, who nearly died today,” which includes the following lines:
Sun like a vowel,
pancakes and departure,
a dawn of truth, farewell at the door,
bus after car. It goes and goes on.
That’s another point of the book, I think. “It goes and goes on.”
4. Great Love Poems
“Life Cycle” (p26) is probably one of my favorite poems in the book. It brims over with beautiful pith and spare light and includes brief explications of Courtship, Pregnancy, and Domesticity. Another poem in the book contains the line, “What breeds in us is dirty and clean,” and that applies to this poem too. Because “I like white porcelain. You hate chips. / I drop dishes when I get upset. / …We smell like love together.” Yeah. That pretty much sums up love if you ask me.
5. Great List Poems
I’m particularly partial to the one on page 41, although (spoiler alert) I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
6. Exquisite Example of Rhyme
I was at a poetry reading recently where a poet was using end-rhyme and the poem seemed very contrived and sing-songy. After I got home, I poured myself a cold beverage and glared at my rhyming dictionary for about five minutes. I’m of the opinion that I’m not a big fan of end rhyme. Internal rhyme sure, but end rhyme, no. And yet Dena Rash Guzman employs end rhyme so effortlessly, in just the right dose, that she snuck right past my prejudice. Here’s an example of how she embeds the rhyme within her stanza in such a way that the lines pulse with energy, push right into the next line:
I am broke and unhinged. Gravedigger dirty.
Tinpot as a skinned raccoon. Fat carton of spoiled milk.
I am just a beggarly man on the lam, up a staircase,
a flat-footed cop waddling in chase.
Criminal on the roof, he yells. Come down!
I can’t give up now.
I can’t afford the ticket.
(“Life Cycle” p38)
These lines flex muscle and don’t end with the rhyme but rather pull weight.
7. Exquisite Examples of Rhythm
Dena Rash Guzman employs a natural rhythm in her poetry that lulls me, as the reader, awake. She puts words in the right place.
8. Life Cycle Lives up to its Epigraphs
“To be.” We get this as we pass over the first otherwise blank page of the book. Then comes “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” dog Latin for “don’t let the bastards grind you down,” and quoted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, followed by “Skin ‘em alive, and leave them along the trail,” a quote from Bazzel Bumgarden, a personage who remains somewhat mysterious to me. This is an auspicious beginning that promises poetry that will cut and whittle and make its point with a sharp knife. Life Cycle delivers.
9. Life Cycle Appeals to My Past As A Feral Child
10. This Book Begins with A Poem about Shipwreck
Whether real or metaphorical, a shipwreck is like life. Everyone who traverses the ocean knows that we, we who traverse the ocean, are the ocean’s bitch. The ocean is majestic, powerful, at times ferocious, always to be respected, sometimes to be feared. The ocean could kill us at any moment, as could anything in life. What Dena Rash Guzman understands, and why I think she places this poem first in her collection, is that a shipwreck (life) signals danger to every soul on board, extends both the promise of death and the fervent hope for continued earthly existence. That despite the danger a shipwreck (life) poses, we are all, after all, waiters who are “crying out for their mothers / as the cold drinks them to the bottom.” AT some point our lives begin and aren’t over until they’re really over. Life Cycle is what comes in between.