Poetry Review: Robert Okaji’s If Your Matter Could Reform

10592324_10153113120915120_689180005_nIt’s April, National Poetry Month, and I want to think of poet Robert Okaji’s new chapbook, If Your Matter Could Reform, as a song cycle. It does, after all, make music of the words with which we gird our lives: “In the marrowbone of night,” he writes, “your song parts the fog.” [“Trains”]

It’s not any casual poetry, crammed with namby-pamby rhymes and beats, easily forgettable and born-discardable. Like the best, it’s steeped in Stygian waters, chipped at by the fine, diamond-point of time, and polished to an exacting degree. You might begin to wonder ‘where’s my place’ wrestling with these words. And, oh, the words! Let’s not overlook those.

The chapbook’s title stems from the subjunctive mood: “if” this hypothetical or contrary reality could happen, then something equally magical follows. This conscious naming choice places the chapbook on prosodic terra firma. The subjunctive is the very expression of doubts, wishes, desires, regrets, and requests. What a perfect spot in the universe from which to peel back the curtain and show a reader a bit of the poet’s wheelhouse!

This book, available now on download through Dink Press, is not packed to the gills with snobby, high-falutin’ poetic argot, but it needn’t be. To paraphrase another poet, its fresh directness gets at where the deep-down things live, though it is neither emotionally or intellectually doused nor tamped fashionably.

From twinkling stem to stern, this chapbook moves: in and through itself, outside itself, through you, and through time.

“To sweeten the dish, add salt. To bear the pain,

render the insoluble. . . .

My mother brought to this country a token of her death to come.”

Readers of Bob’s blog, O at the Edges, will feel a favorite-blue-jeans kind of familiarity to the poem “Ashes,” which is probably, along with the more traditional, one might say, love poem “Nine Ways of Shaping the Moon,” at the highest-water point in the chapbook for personal (brushing up against confessional) poetry. Although I’ve never met Bob in real life, I get a sense of his actual flesh-and-blood voice, timbre, pitch, pattern, in these two poems in particular. I would also add “Earth’s Damp Mound,” which I was fortunate to read in Bob’s blog in the past year. But these two pieces plumb the emotional depths as they must, in matters of regret and remembrance, both personal and the hinted-at historical, as in “Ashes,” and shoot to a zenith when the narrator himself implores his beloved to “Talk music to me. Talk conspiracies/and food and dogs and rain. Do this/under the wild night sky.” [“Nine Ways of Shaping the Moon”]

Perhaps the quintessential question in this 16-poem volume prods you out of any complacency as a reader and, if you are a writer, drives your courage back to the sticking place: that empty page. “Are words ever enough?” [“If We Burn”]

There’s a Shakespearean sonnet here, too, where “Nothing is everything, but before.” [“Nocturne with a Line from Porchia”] There is ample praise of gravity and of lives well lived and written, even if “the words find[ing]themselves/alone, without measure,/without force, and no body to compare.” [“Earth’s Damp Mound”]

It seems to me that Bob’s friend and mentor, Prentiss Moore, eulogized so eloquently here [“Earth’s Damp Mound”] and elsewhere, would applaud the herculean effort of the chapbook—it goes a long way toward elevating the diminished thing (one’s life sifting by and any accrued regrets) and reforming both lost matter and memories. What more could an author ask of him or herself? What more could a reader want beyond a hushed “come over here and let me share my hard-won secrets with you” from a wise friend or confidant? If Your Matter Could Reform might be the key fob to the private kingdom in that regard.

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Texas poet and one-time bookstore owner Robert Okaji frequently shares his original poetry and thoughts on other bibliophilic interests at his blog: O at the Edges. His first chapbook, If Your Matter Could Reform, is now available for digital download from Dink Press, via their Etsy shop, for a mere $1. Think of it as caffeine direct to the intellect, and at well under the price of a traditional cup of coffee.  Print versions are slated to be available April 19, 2015.

Midweek Markets: The Bards and Bell Jars Edition

Good day, friends. The “cruellest” month has arrived. No foolin’. Yet you needn’t sit around and watch lilacs breed out of the dead land. I hope you’ll instead tilt your thoughts to action, put your pen to paper, hitch your heart to the art, and cartwheel your cares into the aether. In short, I wish you writing, or any creative striving, for the remainder of the week.

ART-Will

William Shakespeare statue situated at the heart of Tower Grove Park in St. Louis, MO. Created by artist Ferdinand von Miller and dedicated on 23 April 1878, it bears “Hamlet” and “Falstaff” pieces and other insets on its four sides. Photograph by Leigh Ward-Smith.

So let’s get write into this week’s markets, which include a fellowship and a couple of contests.

  1. Mooky Chick online has been bashing the bell jar since 2005. An online United Kingdom–based endeavor, MC seeks feminism, activism, LGBTQ, reviews, fashion, how-to guides, arts and crafts, and other approximately 600-word previously unpubbed pieces to populate its literary manse. “Surprise us. Surprise yourself. Send us what you’ve got,” they urge folks of “all genders,” and, presumably, from around the world. If mindcake, “inclusivity and joy . . . sweet and ballsy” mark your writing and persona, then Mooky Chick is where it’s at. No deadlines, just an evergreen market here!
  2. Although it might not be “that time of year thou mayst in me behold” leaves steadily yellowing, it is almost that time of year again where we bring out the “happy birthday” signs . . . for the 450th time (okay, 449th time, if you don’t count the first April 23rd birthday in 1564). So, locate your sparkly hats; it’s time for a Bardy party, courtesy of Litro magazine. William Shakespeare is t’ birthday boy, and sonnets are the subject. C’mon, ye paragon of animals, just craft 14 lines, a Shakespearean sonnet with the ababcdcdefefgg rhyme pattern and in iambic pentameter, of which this is a most excellent example. The deadline is midnight April 10 (presumably Greenwich Mean Time Zone UTC), so don’t wait until 11:57 to get started, lest you leave no time to out, out that damn annoying blank (or red) spot on the page.
  3. Pen Parentis offers writing fellowships to “new” parents, with at least one child under the age of 10. They note: “Writers at any stage of their career may apply. The winner will have his or her entry published in Brain, Child magazine and [is] encouraged to present their winning entry at the Pen Parentis Literary Salon [in Manhattan, NY] in September 2014 to receive the prize money” of $1,000 granted toward your writing career. There is a $25 entry fee, and the deadline is April 16, 2014 (postmark deadline; though online submissions are also accepted). Find full grant guidelines here.
  4. Want headlines good enough to undam waves of lachrymal laughter? Well, you need not scour the pages of The Onion (besides, that might damage your eyes). Just skippidy-do-da over to Writer’s Digest and Brian A. Klems’ fourth annual #AprilFools4Writers contest. Here’s the beef on the April Fools 4 Writers contest: “Create entertaining, clever and witty headlines that would appear in an Onion-style newspaper for writers about anything writing-related (grammar, authors, books, etc.) and post it in any of the ways mentioned . . . ” Your deadline, should you choose to accept this hilarious challenge, is Friday, 4 April 2014. When you visit Brian’s blog piece, you can (re)confirm the hour of the deadline (i.e., there’s a couple date typos on the original post). Good luck, we’re all counting on you (and don’t even think about calling me Shirley)!