Undercover: ‘The Garden’

This work of poetry "is an hallucinatory origin myth that pokes and prods at the subversiveness of a language."

Poetry most commonly is understood as a response to an experience. In other words, the poet experiences something profound — whether it’s the passions of love, the hard-edged energy of living in an urban metropolis or the horrors of trench warfare — and uses the form of the poem as a staging ground for assembling thoughts and emotions on the subject. There’s more to it than that, of course. The majority of poems are moments of witness. But this is a sliver of what poetry can do.

Ed Steck is a visionary writer, so it makes sense that “The Garden” [Ugly Duckling Presse, $16] very much is concerned with seeing. Mostly what Steck wants us to see is the way language is being manipulated by various sources to remove our humanity. “The Garden” is a longform poem that is not like much of the poetry you’ve experienced. Steck uses the bland, dissociative language found in instruction manuals, consumer catalogs and spam emails, all of the awkward terminology and phrasing that insinuates itself in our brains every day. “The Garden” is an hallucinatory origin myth that pokes and prods at the subversiveness of a language that bleeds away our collective humanity while acting as a great reclamation project for the human soul.

Ann Curran perhaps is best known as the long-time editor of Carnegie Mellon Magazine as well as a frequent contributor to this magazine, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Catholic. She also is a poet of great verve. Her years as a reporter serve her well in "Me First's" [Luminox Press, $15] poems, which playfully interview subjects from Bill Cosby and Franco Harris to Dorothy Day and Hubert Humphrey. What more needs to be said of a poem entitled “Me and Mister Rogers” when the opening line is “And so, are you good in bed, / Mister Rogers? the writer said.”  There’s a refreshing cheekiness at play here.
Curran’s encounters with the famous and the unknown, whether real or imagined, allow for thoughtful, if often irreverent, ruminations on wealth and power, aging, the bonds of friendship and the world at large. These poems are like conversations you get to have with a friend who’s eager to share her remarkable experiences. Curran sums up a life eloquently in “Me and That Old Lady in the Mirror” when she writes, “Tired of burying friends and relatives. / Tired of all but Earth’s infinite delights.”

It was 50 years ago today (well, Sept. 14, 1964, to be exact) that the Fab Four arrived in Pittsburgh for the first time. If your tykes are wondering what all the fuss was about, dust off your albums and give ’em a copy of "The Beatles Were Fab (And They Were Funny)" [Kathleen Krull & Paul Brewer; Harcourt, $16.99], gorgeously illustrated by Stacy Innerst of Mt. Lebanon.

Robert Walicki’s debut poetry collection, “A Room Full of Trees” [Red Bird Chapbooks, $12], does not feel like a first book; the poise on display in these poems suggests a writer with a much longer resume. The poems are awash in grief and violence, and a profound emotional turmoil rumbles at the volume’s heart. Yet Walicki’s poems never get away from him nor succumb to the impatience that marks most younger writers.

Walicki does not shy away from the rougher stuff as in these lines from “When the Sunlight,” “And when he says: / Don’t tell anyone / It is sunny. / And when he says: / Come here / You are nine.” These poems insist that the reader take his or her time. The short lines slow the experience of reading, turning the negative space of the white pages into a room much like the image in the book’s title. It would be difficult to navigate a room filled with trees and almost impossible to move through it without the branches grazing and scratching your skin. Walicki’s poems leave their mark in much the same way.

Upcoming readings:

Sept. 22
The ever-popular Monday Night Reading Series kicks off the new season with bestselling author James McBride. McBride won the 2013 National Book Award for his novel “The Good Lord Bird.”
[Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland; 412/622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org]

Sept. 20
The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh inaugurates its reading series Saturday Poets in Person with two singular voices. Toi Derricotte is a University of Pittsburgh professor and co-founder of Cave Canem. Vanessa German does it all, from sculpting to acting to poetry.
[International Poetry Room,  CLP Main Branch, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland; contact Don Wentworth: 412/622-3175,

Sept. 27
The Pittsburgh literary community gathers to support one of its own. Earlier this year, musician and author Karl Hendricks began treatment after being diagnosed with oral cancer. All proceeds from this reading will help to defray medical expenses. A wide range of writers is on board for the evening, including Dave Newman, Bob Pajich, Lori Jakiela, Jeff Martin, Scott Silsbe, Jason Baldinger and Jerome Crooks. To make a donation, click here.
[ModernFormations Gallery, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield; modernformations.com]

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