Our Lands Are Not So Different
by Michael Bazzett
Horsethief Books. 2017.

Lonesome Gnosis
by Elizabeth Scanlon
Horsethief Books. 2017.

Who knows the life span of any given poetry press? Some start with fanfare and fizzle. Some limp into the world and build and stay for decades. Horsethief Books, a newer poetry press, with an online magazine, seems to be doing something different. The fanfare is in the quality of the books, both in its list as well as its production. These are well made cloth-covered hardbacks, a distinct look both in paper, color and font. One hopes that the poetry community will rally around this press, as their recent titles have been long in coming and well worth the wait. The books and editorial eyes they suggest ought to be championed for their old school devotion to book arts.

In the ravine between story and myth, the lived experience and how the imagination tinkers with it, is the good shade where parable resides. Perhaps, Mark Strand, was one of our finest parablists, his knack for a being able to convolute a fanciful indulgence into heartfelt song was one of his signature preoccupations. Usually, his poems started in the mythic space, rather than deliver us there. Whereas Kunitz’s desire was to turn life into myth, (and the craft of his poems certainly tracked that trajectory) Strand’s poems operated inversely: Born of myth, the poem sought to find a pulse inside the abstraction. Perhaps, that is what distinguishes the Parable: it’s starting point.

Reading Michael Bazzett’s poems in OUR LANDS ARE NOT SO DIFFERENT (Horsethief, 2017) I think of Strand a bit, but also Billy Collins who, at his very best, subordinates anecdote for the artful. I like Bazzett’s poems. Wry, heartfelt, ironic, unpretentious, he is a master of the contemporary parable. As Bazzett has been prolific recently, any number of poems will do for an introduction to this author’s work. But the sets of hands that fashioned this beautiful book from Horsethief have shaped a remarkable collection. Take the opening of “The Party”

She stood in the kitchen talking to a man
who specialized in enslaving the wind

Or consider this from “Unhinged”

The girl left her house and went into the woods.
The ground seemed to swallow the sound of her

These are opening couplets, and the swerve in the line break is sort of signature. The simplistic gesture goes counter-weighted with a wild imaginative one. It’s not just surprise and rupture, there resides in the emotional ballast of the speaker and calm that holds these gestures in the palm, as if Bazzett is holding some feed for his pigeon-like readers to peck husk from seed. With other poets, the domestic and the mythic turn trite, forced, but not in these poems. Bazzett inhabits the space at the point of conceit so that the established space of the poem is without the torque one feels when poets force an image beyond it’s naturalness. The beauty of parable is that we feel the dream of our lives floating before our eyes, so that there breathy existence can be inhaled back into our bodies one more time. As such, rather than basking in their transformation into myth, behind Bazzett’s dreamscapes reside some deeply sad eyes that recognize the brevity of our parables. Mortality, therefore, Bazzett’s parables seem to want to reconcile. But he is funny too,

The question wasn’t whether to tell them about his extra limb, but how. (“Limb”)

I did not anticipate that when the ottoman moved
it would hump like a sea lion…(“The Ottorman”)

as was Strand at times, as Billy Collins’ can be when at his parablistic best. And maybe that is what is different here, and what marks Bazzett’s poems as unique. He does not bother to decide between tonal ranges. Instead, his work allows a broad emotional pallet. It must be some sort of praise to say that a book makes you think of the richness of an entire form of poetry, and yet Michael Bazzett’s OUR LANDS ARE NOT SO DIFFERENT, does just that.

On the other side of the Horsethief barn is Elizabeth Scanlon’s Lonesome Gnosis. If Bazzett was working years in manuscript obscurity before unleashing a bucket load, Scanlon, as editor of American Poetry Review, was hiding in plain sight. Her work is wildly lyrical, flippant, strange, intelligent, bare-knuckled and yet charming. In short, she is from Philly. Examples abound:

I’ll be blind to your porn habit & you’ll elide
the edges of my idiot rage.
We’ll be full of shit but marvelous anyway (“Disgust”)

Art imitates life;
Life cries a little.
Art tells Life to stop being such a baby. (“Family Drama”)

In fifty or so brief lyrics, Scanlon demonstrates the value of the lyric as well as brevity. It ought to swerve and veer and sting a bit and last awhile. Each of these poems has a way of staying long after the page is turned. But the compression is not claustrophobic; there is air in these poems, a lightness and leap. And also, humor. If Horsethief could be marked with any particular aesthetic sensibility at this point in its life, it seems that polytonality is a key hallmark. In this, Scanlon delivers. She can be deeply serious, but many of these poems embrace the inclination that the human is polyamorous in its nature. I mean, the tonality in these poems, the registers, dictions, play come from a singular devotion, but the attention is multitudinous. I suppose it’s like having an octopus for a lover. You know you are dealing with one being, but it surely feels like there’s a crowd here, a good crowd.

O’Hara, who Scanlon mentions, comes to mind. But so does Whitman and Gluck too. No matter the lineage and conversant forbearers or relevant contemporaries, Scanlon’s presence is refreshingly real. You have to be from some working class life to understand what I mean by real here. You have to have that level of ground, but also understand the humor, sarcasm and unapologetic stance (realness) that being from Philly tends to generate. Here is what I am talking about: This is “More Hound Than Not” in its entirety.

The blind dog with the smell of the hunt
better off than the two-eyed with no taste for it,
lashing through weeds, wet on the face, air in lungs,
blood in limbs, and maybe it smells like shit, maybe
it’s the pelt of a dead thing by the time you get there,
but still you want the prize of blood on your nose,
stink in your fur, but still you chase.

I love this poem. As someone who spent his youth roaming around Philly, this seems apt whether we are talking about desire for another, or ambition. Like the hound, these poems are feral and caged, driven and reckless, so embodied it’s like we’ve blown through the body. LONESOME GNOSIS, as the name suggests, renders an inward spiritual knowledge; and as with such practice, the gut, the throat is not forsaken.

What is most startling is that the verve and pluck that dominates much of this book happens within the context of the domestic. So much of the song in this book stands in relation to home life and street life. Either overtly as in “Kitchen Scrap” or “Home Suite” or simply feathered in detail, the tether to the home is as real as the shriek of the voice considering home, parenting, love. I suppose that this might tie Bazzett and Scanlon. Both poets seem firmly engaged in responding to the air of the apocalyptic that dominate us. The vulnerabilities of our bodies and the bodies of those we love seem so pronounced these days it is hard not to read these books as documentary evidence on feelings of everyday disaster. Where Scanlon sears, Bazzett cools. Both are honest takes of these times.

I guess it might be good for me to say I count Bazzett and Scanlon among my poet friends. A disclaimer is warranted, but the poems and this press are good, real good, and I am happy to write about Horsethief here in the hopes that the press will continue to produce the kind of books you see on your shelf and know exactly what they mean.

Both Bazzett and Scanlon are very much of their time. Which is to say: Not trendy. Contemporary, but aloof from what is in the main. I am not sure if the two have ever met. But I can imagine them sitting together at a café, laughing at each other’s jokes and getting each other. I can draw no other inference regarding the situation of contemporary American poetry in the first quarter of the 21st century, except reading Scanlon and Bazzett in these finely shaped books makes me want to say keep going.

James Hoch
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