Three local poets reconcile the outer world with the inner
Britt, Mason, and Winch have a rare gift for showing us how those two worlds can coexist in the same reality—as they do for almost every reader
Published: August 17, 2011
A forsythia bush starts talking in Alan Britt’s poem “Anxious Autumn,” advising us to serve despair with a side of mashed potatoes and “with a generous fist of black pepper,/ thereby stimulating intelligence/ from this beastly emotion.” This comes in the midst of a sequence of poems written just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for Britt’s new book Alone With the Terrible Universe (Cypress Books), and it reminds us how deeply the otherworldly events and surreal despair of that month penetrated into our everyday lives—so much so that suburban shrubbery chattered about food as therapy.
Reisterstown’s Britt, who teaches at Towson University, is one of three Maryland poets whose new books capture this intermingling of the extraordinary and the ordinary, the mad and the mundane, the weird and the normal. Baltimore’s Chris Mason, who teaches in the city’s public schools, shouts hosannas to such seemingly commonplace subjects as beer, grass, and farts as if they were sacraments in his book Hum Who Hiccup (Narrow House). Terence Winch, currently a Silver Spring resident who recently retired from the Smithsonian Institution, describes how the seemingly stable architecture of one’s own home can allow dreams and water to seep in through cracks in the foundation, where one can wake up, as his new title puts it, Falling Out of Bed in a Room With No Floor (Hanging Loose Press).
There are poets who can provide startlingly vivid descriptions of the world outside our skin, and there are poets who can invent entirely new worlds to explain the turmoil inside their skin. But Britt, Mason, and Winch have a rare gift for showing us how those two worlds can coexist in the same reality—as they do for almost every reader.
Britt begins many of his poems as if he were just another skillful nature poet, describing the autumn oranging of the maple trees just beyond the cedar latticework of his Baltimore County patio. In his best poems, however, tumbling skyscrapers and crumbling hopes intrude. A poem may begin with “Two squirrels drop maple seeds,” but soon those “ribbed pods . . . resemble the primordial ashes of our ancestors.” Another poem may begin, “September has thick, emerald hair,” only to end, “September leans on a split-rail fence/ and watches yellow leaves/ sail by in a swirling gust of ashes.”
Britt makes allusions to Bob Dylan, Paco de Luca, and the late Maryland guitarist Roy Buchanan in these poems, and there is a musical flavor to Britt’s diction. Winch name-drops Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and Van Morrison in his book, and as co-founder of the notable Irish-American folk band Celtic Thunder, knows how to write a singable lyric (our governor’s Irish-rock band, O’Malley’s March, has recorded Winch’s “In Praise of the City of Baltimore”). Mason too is a musician, co-founder of the Tinklers duo and of the Old Songs trio.
Baltimore composer Daniel Carney has already set several poems from Mason’s new book to music. The “Airs of Air” chapter, for example, is a sequence of concrete poems (where unusual typography plays a major role in each poem’s sound and meaning) that Carney has turned into multivoice madrigals. Some of these are less successful on the page than others, but the “11 Tetracubes,” where four-syllable couplets occupy the far corners of the page, and “3 Ripples,” where longer and longer lines radiate in concentric circles, work wonderfully. They leave open the question of where each poem begins and where it ends, of what is the theme and what the variation.
Even better are the “Hiccups,” short, three-line poems that don’t follow the rules of haiku but that work much the same way—provoking small epiphanies with brief images. Better yet is “Games,” diamond-shaped poems that describe the interaction of two parents and two children as games whose rules are discovered only after play has finished.
Best of all are the “Homeric Hums,” which Mason describes as inspired by Greek Homeric Hymns but which more closely resemble Pablo Neruda’s odes to ordinary objects. In his best poems, Mason simultaneously achieves a child’s naive imagining and an adult’s sober reality—a combination that’s not easy to pull off.
Winch, who’s the subject of a poem in Mason’s book, is the best known of these three writers—his poems make semiregular appearances on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Like Britt, Winch is trying to find a moral response to an amoral universe, but he approaches the question not through nature but through the absurdities of the modern city. Winch can be very funny; when he talks of “Listening to the Ancestors,” what he hears is his Uncle Joe playing the harmonica and his grandfather touting real estate in Staten Island.
In his best poems, though, these irreverent jokes can open doors to tremendous feeling. “Elf Storage” begins as an obvious joke about a burnt-out neon “S” on a building, but then pivots and says,
Even with the “s” lit up, it would still be an amazing concept. A big dark place to store the self in. A way, at last, to keep our identity from smattering into a billion bits of nothing.
In “Memo to Bridie Flynn,” he jokingly asks his mother how she could die in 1962, when an Irish Catholic had finally become president. Then he adds,
I knew there was no afterlife when you failed to visit me from the beyond. I know there is food, sex, music, books, sleep, art, movies, friends, talk, love.Please tell me that’s enough.
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