Thursday, July 7, 2011

Braids & Other Sestinas by Leonard Kress

A new book of poems by Polish-American poet Leonard Kress is always an event for me, and this time it's even more so.

His latest chapbook Braids & Other Sestinas (winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize) is a collection of 20 sestinas, my favorite form. I won't get into the dynamics and expectations of the sestina here, but let me just say that like the best forms, the sestina equally challenges and inspires the poet to explore his feelings and thoughts in a profound way. But the sestina doesn't just inspire the poet, the reader following the poet's movement through the sestina experiences in part the joy of discovery that the poet experiences.

For my money, the sestina is a win-win form, and Leonard Kress lets us share in the winning.

Here's what writer Betsy Sholl who judged the 2010 Keystone Chapbook Competition said in part about his book:

“Easy to think a collection of twenty sestinas (minus envoy) would be drear, repetitive, self-indulgent. But read these poems, and something happens. Call it surprise, call it the poet letting the poem loose to fly and going along on the tailwind. The poet pays homage to other artists, explores myth and the great biblical themes, writes of love and grief. At times the form becomes nearly invisible as the voice takes over. There’s a rollicking cleverness that turns away from itself into the deeper/darker heart of its concerns, as in the final poem where a son grieving for his dying mother says ‘Strange for us offspring–parents retracting into kids,/ Meeting ours along the way, flashing signs.’ I find these poems challenging, compelling, and moving in both muscular and emotional ways.”

Leonard has allowed me to post one of the poems from the collection here at Writing the Polish Diaspora. The poem commemorates a poetry reading he and several other Polish-American poets gave at the Polish Embassy in Washington, DC to celebrate the Year of Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert.

The Idiot

I was invited to read some of my poems
At the Polish Embassy in DC,
A celebration, of sorts, of Zbigniew Herbert’s
Life and work, a decade after his death,
His year, the Polish Sejm proclaimed
Of course, I wasn’t the only reader

There—and one distinguished guest, who didn’t read,
Though he’d authored a slew of works about the poetics
Of arms control and whose most dubious claim
To fame— lauded only, I think in DC—
Was helicopters in Vietnam, the death
And destruction they brought. What would Herbert’s

Mr. Cogito, his everyman say, since Herbert
Often spoke through him? I dreaded having to read,
Like some spokesman for so much death
And suffering, so I chose my poems
Carefully, after wandering all day through DC’s
Museums, wary of sounding any sort of proclamation

Or making any great moral claims
For poetry, though I do partly believe. Unlike Herbert,
I didn’t live through war, revolt, or prison. My trip to DC
Was funded, though I have, of course, done the reading.
My long trek made me thirsty, late, and poetry
Was not on my mind. To keep from dying,

I’d just taken my heart meds, and in the dead
Silence of beginnings I reached out to claim
A glass of juice, gulped it down, grabbed my poems,
Formulated some rationale how they related to Herbert,
then recalled with horror what I’d read
On the pills—Avoid grapefruit Juice. Here in DC

It was bound to happen, a foreign embassy in DC,
Convulsions, drool, seizures, trashed decor, I’d die
Spotlighted, pathetic, the kind of scene you’d read
In Dostoyevski’s Idiot. As if a proclamation
Had been issued, this might be the year of Herbert,
But when it’s up, there’s no further need for his poetry

Braids and Other Sestinas is available in a limited edition from Seven Kitchen Press.

Leonard has another chapbook entitled Living in the Candy Store coming out this fall from Finishing Line Press. You can pre-order the book by clicking on this link

The cover illustration for Braids and Other Sestinas is by the artist Mania Mary Dajnak.

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