A Howl of Disenchantment: A review of Still Howling by Mary Dezember

Reviewed by Karen Corinne Herceg          

Still Howling
by Mary Dezember
53 Pages, paperback, $9, Oct 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1536984569

It is intriguing that a writer from New Mexico, “the Land of Enchantment” as Mary Dezember refers to it, would feel kinship with the a generation of poets who were decidedly disenchanted with so much. Dezember’s new collection of poems, Still Howling, pays homage to Allen Ginsberg’s iconic work “Howl” that defined the angst and disillusionment of 1950’s artists and gave birth to what is known as the Beat generation. Ginsberg’s seminal work was born out of a rebellion against staid, academic restrictions and the complacency and conformity of America’s middle class. For those who saw beneath the veneer of our country’s prosperity, “Howl” was the response of those supposedly mad or insane, observing the interior disintegration of a society enamored of materialism, steeped in religious doctrine but becoming increasing devoid of spiritual direction, still segregated and racist and generally intolerant of sexual honesty. “Howl” helped define a generation that saw beyond America’s inflated sense of progress and supremacy. They saw the underbelly of disregard of a people growing enamored with commercialism and disposable goods, landfills, gas guzzling cars, pollutants and self-imposed superiority. They were precursors to and the impetus for the revolutionary attitudes of the sixties, dropping out and living on the fringe, and questioning the moral fiber of the state of the union.

Dezember’s work comes through with a similar strong, genuine sense of passion. She is engaged with her feelings in contrast to some of the more “observational” poetry one often sees. There needs to be a fine balance, however, between raw emotions and artistic conveyance that elevates a poem and earns its intentions. The reader needs to have a revelatory moment, a twist in the expected, and it’s the poet’s job to show, not say, and lead us to these potential epiphanies.

There are twenty poems in the book leading up to the final title piece “Still Howling” and its “Endnote to Still Howling,” the latter mirroring Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl.” There is a distinct feminist perspective to these poems, anger at double standards, how men and women communicate or miscommunicate, lack of equality on personal and societal levels, and gender discrimination. What Dezember evokes well is honesty in her expressions and an openhearted vulnerability. There are some well sculpted phrases such as “…the letters ‘M O M’ carved large, heroic-sized” (P. 9, l. 27) in “Pure Poetry and Art,” the simple, final line, “She lets down her hair” (P. 12 l. 6) in “Sun Shining Through,” and in “Clearstory” the simplicity of “Men take the quiet” (P. 19, l. 8). The terse and precisely worded expectancy of the bride in “A Wedding” who prays to her groom, “That you would arch/And come to me” (P. 21, l. 6-7) gives us that one word, “arch,” that separates this stanza from others that are more prosaic with phrases like “Possess me” (P. 21, l. 8), “Somehow completely yours” (P. 21, l. 9) and “Secure in your hold” (P. 21, l. 12), as opposed to another finer image: “You/Plunged your greedy beak into my heart” (P. 21, ll. 17-18).

Many of these poems are infused with a New Age sensibility, a kind of hip spirituality, employing lines such as “…Heaven-baked manna” (p. 23, l. 9), “…kaleidoscope of chakra colors” (P. 9, l. 3) and many references to angels and miracles. We have the sun rising to “…bless all of Earth with its healing of light and heat” (P. 11, ll. 1-2), “…incredibly/Great beauty…” (P. 22, l. 21-22), and spaces that “…make each as individual/As an individual…” (P. 24, ll. 5-6). Sentiments such as “Draw light from the dark…” (P. 29, l. 14) and “Saying yes to this moment” (P. 29, l. 18) and “Life is vast and mysterious” (P. 35, l. 10) are less than revelatory. Perhaps most obvious are the final lines of the last poem, “Then live in the miracle/of love’s reflection” (P. 51, ll. 22-23). All require more original delivery in order to avoid leaving good intentions in the wake of prosaic expression. We see more of these possibilities in lines like “Pink sings its music from the tongues of all people” (P. 33, l. 12) and from “Dream Animals” where some inner realization lingers, “To take you deeper than dreams/And deeper/Than you wish to go.” This is the type of line that speaks to something we might ponder and chew on.

In “Canvas of Life, Look Closely” Dezember’s proximity to the subject matter and emotional connection seems to obscure poetic sensibility, phrases being more explanatory and directional than interpretive. The sections of this piece have very moving images that are somewhat obscured by stanzas that often read like journal entries. For example, Dezember speaks of hope as “A quality that doesn’t come automatically with life” (P. 25, l. 8) and of her nephew who struggles with ALS, there are quotes from websites, and tributary-style comments that seem more appropriate for an article or commentary.

There are some odd breaks at times as in the poem “Pure Poetry and Art” as evidenced in the lines, “…to get a panoramic view of my name weed eaten across the front/yard” (P. 10, ll. 4-5), the latter word standing alone but we’re not sure why. There are also some difficult internal rhythm structures and, when a poet uses repetition strongly and insistently, it needs to provide more impact than a litany of words or a punch list. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun, which is why poems need to present us with new insights. For instance, “Poetry Workshop Exercise” does not take us anywhere, it simply tells us facts.

What makes Ginsberg’s work great is that it achieves a universal perspective from a host of personal references, and this is a main goal of the poet or writer. In “Howl” specific recollections and observations speak to the connective tissue of a society, the state of a country, indeed the common threads of our humanity. Any great work that questions such large issues must also be host an underlying sympathy for human frailty and transgressions as they are linked to the many wounds we suffer at the hands of one another. When a writer pays homage to a particular piece, especially an iconic work such as “Howl,” there is a monumental responsibility to reinterpret it in a way that can link its lineage to current states of mind and history. The goal is not imitative but elucidatory because anything less will only draw comparisons that will likely fall short of the mark. And much of “Still Howling” feels a bit like sour grapes as in the repeated use of “Cockland” that, in today’s day and age, no longer shocks but seems more like a rant. Still there are many valid observations and points made about the inequities in our culture, in society’s views of male and female and legal injustices. But often the repetition of certain words or phrases appear simply gratuitous while striving to pack a punch, the most striking being the insistent chanting of the word “ball” in Section II, particularly exemplified in the awkward line “…furiously at us comes balls of yarn” (P. 46, l. 1).

Finally, in the “Endnote to Still Howling,” there is a reaching for resolution in the classic struggle for forgiveness, as if the repetition of the very word will provide that much needed solace. When Dezember states, “Man, Woman, the human step is compassion” (P. 50, l. 29) she is closer to the mark. Then in the following line she states, “The superhuman step is forgiveness” (P. 50, l. 30). This is where we’re asked to rise above and exceed our limits. It is not that forgiveness is unachievable, but it is an organic shift that occurs when we hold others and ourselves responsible and demands a harsh, honest inventory for abuses and grievances. It does not occur through a mantra of insistence. Dezember’s anger, both personal and societal, has many justifications. To one degree or another we are all perpetrators and victims on both sides of the gender fence with no short cuts to forgiveness, the true healing being accountability and self-worth. Dezember is struggling hard to express genuine emotions, to reach a state of absolution, but as she states in the concluding lines of “Still Howling,” she remains “…moored on the shore/of the un-navigable ocean of hegemonous men” (P. 49, ll. 11-12).

About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Schultz. She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Nirala Publications released her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, in November 2016 with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton. Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.