Arsenic Lobster poetry journal
Ted Lardner, Tornado|
Kent State University Press
Wick Poetry Chapbook Series Four, #4 2008, 36 pp
Certain words are the bêtes noires of poetry; run across one when engaged in a poem and your hackles spontaneously rise. Most likely, you lose trust in the entire poem. Even worse than clichés, these words are so fraught with significance that using them is almost always a sign that an author's writing is not yet mature. Some of these so-called 'loaded' words include: god, abyss, void, love, soul, truth, and beauty.
But when it was time to nominate just three poems out of Arsenic Lobster's repertoire for the annual Pushcart prize, only one sprang immediately to mind. And guess what? Ted Lardner's "Poem for a Son" uses no less than five instances of the word 'love.' What's more, he throws in 'soul' for good measure. And the poem is surely stronger for them.
How did he so soundly thumb his nose at this poetic rule of thumb? I have read "Poem" repeatedly trying to unlock its secret. But in the end, there's none to be found. Instead, it's that rare real deal: authenticity. That quiet confidence -- the signature of Mr. Lardner's first chapbook, Tornado -- plays a major role in its success and charm.
Scattered throughout, I found more of poetry's taboo words. Here's 'beautiful' in the opening couplet of "From Afar": My sister's head looks like an apple. / Her beautiful hair is streaming with blood. And there's 'soul' again, twice in the first four lines of "Postoperative Care of Small Wounds": The soul upon leaving the body / must feel sad. / Tactile, like a zipper in search of a garment to close, / the soul must become sustained astonishment. No hackles, no mistrust. In fact, Lardner enlists our confidence by such unaffected diction— conversational, but with a certain candid charisma.
If one were to armchair analyze this collection of twenty poems, one might say that Lardner suffers from survivor's guilt. In fact, Lardner seems to thrive on the lessons learned from what we glean was an early death of a sister. Perhaps it is mawkish to say that the more suffering, the more capacity for joy, but once again, Lardner seems indifferent to facile assumptions. For on the whole, this is not a sentimental collection. What book can make that claim and also open with the lines: For bait they sometimes use pigs' eyes / shoveled from the floor, the slaughter house / windows, eyes painted with blood.?
Lardner does seem concerned with making sense of death— not just the senseless death of a young girl: There was her blood. Everywhere, it was friction added to the light. We worked on moving it, morning made visible in spoons, forks, knives. We worked it slow in the afternoon with sticks and imagination ("Stingray"), but of his parents ("What my Parents Did") and his forthcoming own ("Memorial for my Life").
And one easily discerns that, to Lardner, family is of paramount importance, as best illustrated in the poems written for or about his own children. "Little Infinite Actuarial Table" progresses so rationally (The children and I were eating chips and drinking iced teas and calculating relative proportions; ant is to tree as person is to X.) that it took several reads before the exactingly poignant logic of its final line sunk in. "Bath" takes form in media res of the nightly ritual of bathing a daughter.
Such subject matter in the hands of someone less self-possessed might be nauseating. And there are moments when Lardner comes uncomfortably close to crossing that fine line. For example, given the almost precious title of "U-Pick Orchard," I was predisposed to dislike it. Yet by the end, I found it exquisite: We are four mouths, four tongues, four stomachs moaning in honey. We are eight eyes, eight ears, eight hands. Our noses bring the place we almost feel. The deepest bliss, tucked like a star inside our heads, summer winds its flesh to a stem. We are combed with humming.
Bliss? Really? Yes, really. Purchase this collection, just $6.00 from Kent State University Press, and (at the risk of sounding cliché) remind yourself what a gift life is— and how short.