What Rough Beast Slouches into National Poetry Month? 

Angela Vogel and Catherine MacDonald bring their words to Chop Suey.

I wonder why they picked the spring, whoever they are. Was it due to the scarcity of recognized holidays and perceived weak competition: the month of April beginning with Fool's Day, then International Cannabis Day, and finally Earth Day -- the last two seeming to be one in the same?

I suspect a bunch of Longfellow look-alikes -- the chaps and ladies who nest kittens in their beards -- had written poems that demanded to be read or heard and proclaimed, "Everyone has a month but us, what, what." And their yellowed mustachios nearly flew from their faces in heated harrumphery.

That is, until 1996 when somebody even more self-important decided to quit presiding over delicate international policy to make a new, evidently, otherwise unobservable observance. Yes, fellow illiterates, this is anniversary 16 of National Poetry Month. You'd think it would have taken root by now. But I, for one, am happy it has not.

That there is a public urgency to feed poems to new readers tends to run counter to the nature of the art itself, both at its creative impetus and its enduring capacity for consumption, which, hopefully, is more pleasant, or at least less painful than the kind to which Keats succumbed at the age of 26.

It is less push and more pull. Poetry is a private matter. It gains power from our cultural neglect. It is a clear-eyed observance of all the things we don't quite see. It is not some bumper sticker that captures our entire political consciousness in a three-word phrase such as "just do it." Entering poetry into some pretentious parade of days would be like taking the Dalai Lama to Disneyland. According to Auden, "poetry makes nothing happen." In other words just don't do it and then you'll be doing it.

The fact is, Richmonders need no trumpets or cheap promotion when it comes to poetry nor do poetry events depend on arbitrary assignments to the lunar calendar. For example, Chop Suey plays host to a reading by two poets on April 21 at 3 p.m., and not because of National Poetry Month. See, that would suck the thunder from the event. Really, it's all just coincidence. Within the last year, both readers, Angela Vogel and Catherine MacDonald, have won big prizes with their first books. Both are local writers and educators and both their books are hot off the presses, so it's time to show them off.

Vogel won the National Poetry Review book prize for "Fort Gorgeous" (The National Poetry Review Press, $17.95), a work that squeezes every bit of juice out of words and their meanings, right down to the title. Clever word play, punning, innuendo, juxtaposition, hints and suggestions all conspire to protect a fragile and vulnerable center. Reappropriation of myth and avoidance are just oven mitts to handle the red-hot coals of threat and violence, as evinced by one narrator who allows an imposing husband to "sing/ a song of six-packs, pockets full of sky." Yet, this book is really about how we talk about things we can't talk about—the profane, the prevailing mire, the menacing sinister, all prettied up nicely for us behind a frilly gown of misdirection. We are asked to "Listen for what's not being said," and to "ignore the coy and the hoi polloi." The beautiful thing is -- the rhetorical strategy is both bait and portal. By calling attention to the aerial tricks, we are awakened to greater possibilities and deeper connection. Vogel does with our current cultural and politically-deadened language what all poets hope to do: she makes it new.

MacDonald, author of "Rousing the Machinery" (Arkansas Press, $16.00) winner of the Miller Williams Arkansas poetry prize, performs another type of linguistic acrobatics: Her poems leap on a balance beam anchored by familial joys and dissolution. They are softly spoken and lyrically radiant. Most are graceful and unresolved elegies that completely resist the aspartame sweetness of sentimentality as when working at a dental clinic, one character remembers how her father "pulled his own bad tooth from his own aching jaw, staunching/the blood with a bleached diaper from the baby."

They are celebrations of the profoundly intimate gesture. As a child narrator, she's seen her parents exchange blows, and yet reconciles this in the delicate, beautiful precision of witnessing her father after a storm "pour bottled water, warmed/on the gas grill…over my mother's head" to lovingly wash her hair. These are the sorts of things that capture whole personalities through a lifetime of keen observation. Reminiscent of Robert Lowell's "Life Studies," her work shares something else with Lowell: a Boston background. In this setting, MacDonald suggests that family and religion are equipped with similar machinery and that domestic fetishism and ritual provide a net to catch us when we fall from faith. Meanwhile, miracles can occur in the most domestic things: "in a lidded pot/ on a hot stove, in a woman's body/ where a child grows, or in the insect/ jaw, ganglia, and lobe."

So, make time in your Saturday afternoon to stop at Chop Suey and hear these two budding voices that have beatified to the national stage. It won't cost you anything but time. Just don't tell anyone that National Poetry Month made you do it.

Angela Vogel and Catherine McDonald will appear at Chop Suey Books on April 21 at 3 p.m. For information, go to chopsueybooks.com.

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