Review: My Beloved Brontosaurus

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

First, I have to confess that this is not really a review. It’s mostly a chance for me to visit one of my favorite topics. I have been fascinated by dinosaurs for a very, very long time. As I read My Beloved Brontosaurus, my fingers began to itch for the feel of my old plastic toys, the ones that roared through my childhood and paced across my shelves. They are (and were at the time) scientifically inaccurate. However, they were (and still are) great fun.

Dinosaurs April 4

Unlike my battered collection of mismatched toys, My Beloved Brontosaurus is equal parts good science and good fun. Much of it is a journey through paleontology’s growing pains, exploring name changes, skeletal puzzles, and feather mysteries. Chapter by chapter, the book details how Brontosaurus became Apatosaurus, how the upright posture that once defined a dinosaur was discovered in non-dinosaurs from the same time period, and how evidence hints that many dinosaurs had feathers or protofeathers (sometimes referred to as dinofuzz.)

My Beloved Brontosaurus is the most fun I’ve had with dinosaurs in years. Not only is the science interesting, the book strikes resonant chords in each chapter with elements of memoir, personal essay, and travel writing. As I turned the last page, I was filled with a deep yearning to pack a bag and head off on a multi-state museum tour. A few minutes later, coming to my senses and realizing that travel is not my favorite way to spend time, I headed off to the attic in search of a dusty box full of memories.

Dinosaurs April 4

(I don’t know how the woolly mammoth [definitely not a dinosaur] made it into this batch of plastic dinosaurs. Nor the sail-backed Dimetrodon. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I found a blog post, yesterday, explaining how Dimetrodon is #notadinosaur”.)

Dinosaurs April 4

Since I started this post with a confession, it seems appropriate to end with one. I don’t remember some of these dinosaurs. They mysteriously appeared in my collection when Mother mailed off several boxes of old toys as she attempted to de-clutter her house. I can’t say with certainty which of the dinosaurs were mine and which ones became mine as Mother packed the boxes, but I’m happy to claim them all now.

Dinosaurs April 4

(As an aside, it’s somehow logical to me that cats might have had something to do with most of history’s extinction crises.)

Dinosaurs April 4

Review: At Age Twenty

At Age Twenty by Maxwell Baumbach
(unbound CONTENT, 2012)

Maxwell Baumbach’s poems are perceptive, ambitious, and unapologetic. They are also wryly aware that age seldom listens to youth with the kind of respect these poems yearn for.

the god is………
this is your….reality
your………….world (“Kaleidoscopes (an experimental sestina)” pg 20)

but the world does not cease
leaving its oversized handprints on my back
shoving me
onward (“My Fifth Birthday” pg 64)

While I usually prefer more complexity of sound, there’s plenty of music here. It’s a raw music of line breaks and candor: “I am your / zip lock lover” (“Zip Lock Lover” pg 25), “your eyes are gods / they make me believe that I am / capable…” (“the gods in your eyes” pg 28), and “no one kills themselves / on their own” (“Lemmings” pg 69).

There’s chaos and gratitude. Despair, sarcasm, and humor. The world is vulnerable and absurd. Brakes fail, Harry Caray sings through a seventh-inning stretch, and pro wrestlers soar and fall. Orion has a belt but no pants.

Some of these poems are terse fragments of dialogue, others are expansive recollections. They drop F-bombs, have a few drinks, and fall in love. Bruises and broken hearts are part of the journey, as are breathtaking insights.

I couldn’t help seeing the future in this book, nestled inside one of my favorite poems from the collection:

Sphere Within a Sphere

I saw a sculpture
in Ireland
of the new world
emerging from the old one

it is not the
now rusting gold
or the curvature
of the spheres
that made it so wondrous

but rather
that this sculpture
will be perpetually relevant

(reprinted with the author’s permission)

The new world is, indeed, emerging from the old.

Review: Amytis Leaves Her Garden

Amytis Leaves Her Garden by Karen Kelsay
(White Violet Press, 2012)

I confess to feeling intimidated as I approached this book. I am a long-time fan of the author’s online journal Victorian Violet Press, which is now closed, and I regularly submitted my poetry there. Our roles are established: I am a poet with no poetry credentials (other than my brief list of publications) and she is an editor. I submit. She reads and evaluates. I find the idea of reversing those roles unsettling.

Also, this book reveals embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Who is/was Amytis? Easily answered by an internet search. But, more importantly, formal poetry? The majority of these poems are formal poetry, which I haven’t studied since high school. My preference, in both reading and writing, is free verse. So who am I to tackle this mysterious collection of formal poems? With my limited experience and non-existent credentials, what can I add to the conversation about Amytis Leaves Her Garden?

Then I started reading. I jotted down a few notes. And a few more notes. I read the whole thing again, flipping back and forth between poems, pen in hand. Now I have eleven pages of notes. With eleven pages of notes, perhaps I have something to add to the conversation after all. But it’s not a review. What I have is an argument for reading outside of comfort zones.

Formal or not, the poems in Amytis Leaves Her Garden are relentlessly beautiful. The first line sets the tone: “It’s always in the violet hour you call…”. (“Winter Lullaby” pg 11) Winter and dusk linger near every poem. Amytis is not leaving her garden, the garden is leaving her.

The book travels back and forth between fields and seashores, between childhood memories and adult responsibilities, between myth and reality.

…If I could wrap myself
around your limbs and carry you like nectar
cupped inside my hands–I’d drink your pain. (“Aurora Speaks to Tithonus” pg 32)

I wondered if their love had ever been
alive, or if their crazy, violent bouts
had killed it off–until the illness came. (“Outlooks” pg 40)

Time is fraught with grief, but also a maturing acceptance of change.

I’ve come to wrap long vines around my breasts
and smear wet clay upon my dress. To weep. (“At Sunset By the Oak” pg 26)

Your gauze-like scent clings to the walls, despair
and giddy memories return. I swear,
I hear a gull and jetty bell’s refrain.
They both dissolve like sand hills in the rain. (“Divining a Lost Summer” pg 45)

These poems are mesmerizing. Rhyme and meter are a tidy bonus, but not the primary allure. Whenever I try to name their forms, I succumb to the lure of imagery. When I try to pin down meter, I lose myself in metaphors.

Does my lack of appreciation for formal poetry rob me of a more profound connection? Probably so. A reader familiar with formal poetry would likely choose a different set of lines to illustrate a different understanding. But Amytis Leaves Her Garden did not hold me at arm’s length, demanding I study the intricacies of sonnets before entering its world.

My journey with Amytis Leaves Her Garden reflects my larger journey with poetry. I approached it with misgivings, circled a while in indecision, sampled and retreated, returned for a closer look, and finally waded in. Next time I’m tempted by a book that seems too difficult for me, I won’t be so hesitant to explore.

Sparrow August 12

Sparrow August 12

Sparrow August 12

Sparrow August 12

Amazon link and sample poems:

Review: While You Blue-step

While You Blue-step by Mary Belardi Erickson
(Aldrich Publishing, 2012)

The poems in While You Blue-step examine the verge between nature and man. Some images are ordinary while others are strange. Swallows nest in metal culverts, butterflies and weeds invade a trash heap, minnows swim under railroad crossings, and a lone pelican lands beside a barn. Trains rattle across many of the pages and water flows throughout.

Like water, the book seeps and eddies from one poem to the next. The connections aren’t always obvious, but there is a general sense of movement. Of momentum without acceleration. By the end of the book, I felt as if time had passed and wisdom had been gained, even though I had not been aware of either process.

For me, the author’s voice is subtle, almost plain. But there are intriguing complexities in these poems, which depend more on meaning than music:

“Life swallowing you       like the whale did Jonah.”    (“Whaling Song”, pg 9)

“you fling pebbles
as if equating impact with answer
in a lifetime of making all blues
a wishing pool.”    (“A stone plunks”, pg 14)

“Winter takes off its gloves and cold
snaps its fingers like a magician
giving his audience an icy look.”    (“Cold Snaps”, pg 44)

While You Blue-step is not a book to be read once and returned to the shelf. My copy will undoubtedly end up creased and scarred, written-in and highlighted. Unmistakable signs of respect.

After Mother’s car accident, I stayed in her house a few months, in Huntsville, Alabama. While You Blue-step reminded me of those months. Chipmunks lived under an old shed in her back yard, and train whistles woke me with their unfamiliar cries in the night. Then there were months of emptiness and grief, after Mother died, and I’m only just now reaching the point where the world is familiar again. I am like the leaf on pages 18 and 19:

“touching ground means finding
waters, yourself flowing from time
to time.”    (“As a leaf”)

Review: Elegy

Elegy: Poems by Raphaela Willington
(unbound CONTENT, 2012)

In the foreword to Elegy, John Briggs begins by saying, “Raphaela Willington died on January 6, 2004, of ovarian cancer. Death became her muse in her last years.” He goes on to describe a woman of admirable strength and a poet of considerable talent.

The first poem begins: “Sometimes you wake / into silence” (“Sometimes You Wake”, pg 20). From there the book proceeds to muffle death’s dirge with birdsong and rustling leaves. The poems’ gardens are vividly alive. Zucchini and paperwhites thrive there, tomatoes and zinnias. Deer, squirrels, and groundhogs roam the pages, and “The sun is today a citadel / falling falling / yet standing” (“This Day”, pg 28).

In Elegy, death isn’t a morbid centerpiece, nor is it draped in mourning. Instead, it is herded into place as simply another visitor in the gardens. When the author finds the skull of a buck, antlers still attached, she says:

“One ear remains intact, as if listening, I imagine,
for the sound of the voice of my father calling us,
     mother and me,
in from the dusk of the garden
     at the end of a long day.” (“Endgame”, pg 45)

Later, she hears her name in winter’s approach:

“deer feasting on our hearts,
tomatoes crystallized into summer’s rubies
set in circlets of dying vines” (“Growing Seasons”, pg 76)

The foreword says, “A culture plumped with its belief in self-importance and fixated on amassing accomplishment might judge that Raphaela didn’t ‘do’ much with her life.” (pg 12) I say she did much that was remarkable, and I’m particularly grateful to her for writing Elegy. It seems to me as if she peered through the veil that separates life from death and fearlessly recorded what she saw. Then she wrote her observations into beautifully lyrical, meticulously revised poetry.

  • Find out more about the book here.
  • Six poems from Elegy were the inspiration for a song cycle that recently premiered at Western Connecticut State University. Read about “Wrensong” here.

Last week, my trip included a morning in Elora, Tennessee, where my mother’s father is buried alongside his parents and a handful of other relatives. I never met my maternal grandfather, who died before I was born, and I have few memories of his parents.

My visit was intended to honor Mother’s memory, more than theirs, so I was surprised by how their headstones affected me. I became intensely curious, wandering past name after name. Who were these people? How much of them lives on, in me? My connection to these graves was strengthened by my recent experience reading Elegy, which I had finished the day before our drive to Elora.