Some of the best poetry I’ve ever encountered was not on the page, but heard at a spoken-word night at New York City’s Nuyorican Poets Café. I was making a teenage pilgrimage in the sloshed footsteps of the Beats, but I found something more valuable there: poetry that was vital and thriving. A grandma brought the house down by reciting a sexually charged poem, and, later, a truck driver from Staten Island sitting beside me ground out tears on his cheek with his knucklebone. What has all this got to do with new books of poetry by Jacob Scheier and Jacqueline Turner, you ask? Everything and nothing, actually.
. . .
You may remember Scheier’s first book of poems, 2008’s More to Keep Us Warm, which won a Governor General’s Literary Award. There was some controversy over a juror’s perceived conflict of interest. In the time before and since, Scheier lived in New York, worked as a journalist and writing instructor, and produc
ed a follow-up collection. Letter from Brooklyn is a cross between a diary and an epistolary volume. There’s a strong confessional influence: Scheier quotes Lowell, but the poetry feels more like Sexton.
Confessional poets were masters of form as much as sentiment, but Scheier neglects the former to the detriment of the latter, and many of the poems would have benefited from greater intensity. Overall, the book holds back too much, which results in frustration. Jacqueline Turner, a poet with a lower profile but three previous collections to her credit, also has a new volume of poetry. Her book is concerned with some kind of nebulous apocalypse that’s part environmental, part technological.
The Ends of the Earth is a trite phrase, but in the context it fits. Although this book positions itself as avant-garde, it is shockingly conservative in its rigidity and judgment. Its apocalyptic vibe is downright religious in its convolutions. In a poem about “garbage island” (a reference to plastic that has collected in the ocean), Turner writes:
“plastic floats like islands on digital screens
everywhere somewhere in the ocean
it churns through tides like soup you
we care via Twitter or Paypal depending
on the day pack reusable latte cups”
The willful pettiness Turner displays in lines that rail against the suburbs, gated communities, businessmen, TV-show themes, and 40-year-old divorcees made me wonder: can one ever grind an axe artfully? Scheier is politicized too: he comes from a line of American Jewish Communists, so it’s in his genes. “The world-changing business,” he writes, “was the family business.” There are three tedious poems about the flatlined Occupy movement, and a fantastic piece about an older Communist reacting to the collapse of the Berlin Wall: “I didn’t know / what ideology was, but I understood / you were against joy on principle.”
Scheier sees himself as a populist poet, which creates some issues. The need to be accessible relies on the use of non-alienating language and imagery, but this tempering undermines many of the poems’ effects. In spots, the result is a simplistic corniness: “Maybe you were that kind of person, all along – / just waiting for me to deliver the perfect line. That’s what I like about movies.” As uneven as Letter from Brooklyn is, it is honest about love and loss in ways that are wise. Some of the most successful pieces, such as “Actual Pingpong” and “1989,” are about parents, expectations, and loss. Turner’s book moves into softer areas, too, including a series of poems that almost go Harlequin: “i want to translate your pain into beauty, want to inhale your longing and keep it safe within me. we are alone in this, but who is more connected than a sailor and a castaway.” The shift is jarring, and the scene described is emotionally unmoving.
. . .
I’m reminded yet again of how hard it can be to write something candid that’s not naked, definitive without being alienating, and passionate yet somehow fresh in expression. And I remind myself that it’s a good goal to want to write something honest and ferocious and tender enough, all at once, to make a truck driver bawl. Between these books, one seemed covered and smouldering, the other an unchecked open flame. If only Scheier had a bit of her fire, and Turner a bit of his heat.