Michael Prior

Michael Prior is currently an MFA candidate at Cornell University

Michael Prior published three poems in The Puritan Issue 32, “20/20,” “Never Been Better,” and “Richmond.”

Town Crier: Tell us the best thing you’ve read lately, or a poet/fiction writer you’re jealous of, or a story/short story collection you wish you wrote.

Michael Prior: Okay, hive mind of the Town Crier, I’m going to pretend I misheard all those singular nouns as plural because I’ve been fortunate enough in the last while to encounter some truly fantastic poetry collections. Here are a couple of my favourites:

Terror (Faber & Faber, 2014), Toby Martinez de las Rivas

One of the most arresting, and in my opinion, idiosyncratic books to be published by Faber & Faber lately, Terror is a heady mixture of faith, fear, and history sieved through an intelligence both compulsively allusive and formally restless. (On a slightly unrelated note, I have no idea how Martinez de las Rivas convinced Faber to abandon their standard trade-paperback shape for this collection, but Terror’s dimensions are nearly square, and in the book, poems often appear lengthwise along the page, further emphasizing the collection’s eccentricities). Most readers probably first heard of Martinez de las Rivas when he was featured as one of the U.K.’s emerging talents in the 2009 Faber New Poets Pamphlets; the half-decade wait between the pamphlet’s publication and that of Terror speak to Martinez de las Rivas’s patient revisions. Take, for example, the poem “Twenty-One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Things,” a stand-out piece, which appears as the first poem in both the book and the pamphlet (intriguingly, you can get a glimpse of the poet’s revision process here). “Twenty-One Prayers” riffs on Christopher Smart among others, adeptly using its core anaphoric formulation as a way to swing between surprising images and confessions without fraying the poem’s thematic threads:

My seventeenth prayer is to the memory of Christopher
      Smart kneeling in a torrent of bees at Staindrop
to pray, or cutting the Song to David into the bare page
      of a wall with a clasp knife, or a shard of glass,
& with his fingertip rubbing charcoal into the scratches.

My eighteenth prayer is for the glass ghosts of Leopold
      & Rudolf Blaschka, combinations of moonlight
& organ, slight tendrils of glass teasing out their quarry
      by tentacle & night vision. The Scyphomedusa
flows above us, a star in a doomed pod or constellation.

Martinez de las Rivas relies more on visual than metrical schemas for his poem’s forms, but there is plenty to admire in the deft lineation and music of phrases such as “kneeling in a torrent of bees at Staindrop / to pray, or cutting the Song to David into the bare page / of a wall”—check out the recurring assonance of the long “a” in “page” and “pray,” as well as each word’s actual placement in the line, suggesting the overlapping devotion inherent in both reading and prayer. Also consider the oneiric imagery and slippery rhythms of “slight tendrils of glass teasing out their quarry / by tentacle & night vision.” Martinez de las Rivas’s technical skill manages to maintain the poem’s ability to surprise over an impressive 26 sestets. As many reviewers have noted, Terror’s poems draw on diverse ecclesiastical and elegiac traditions, but the collection’s most prominent influence may be Geoffrey Hill, and in particular, the Hill of Mercian Hymns. In fact, it would seem that Martinez de las Rivas shares Hill’s view of truly democratic poetry as truly difficult, for Martinez de las Rivas’s work, like Hill’s, is often knotted with an unapologetically dense, Latinate lexicon—“neither illusion nor estrangement, but a recension … all things are irrevocable in the great economy: / a falling sparrow, a mite, clouds, the shape of my children” (“Triptych for the Disused Non-Conformist Chapel, Wildhern”—offering numerous rewards to the reader who’s willing to attend to the fascinating intensity of Martinez de las Rivas’s “hopeful & hopeless” world (“Allegory of Faith with Hunting Goshawk”).

Martinez de las Rivas’s technical skill manages to maintain the poem’s ability to surprise over an impressive 26 sestets.

The Same-Different (Lousiana State University Press, 2015), Hannah Sanghee Park

The Same-Different, which won the American Academy of Poets’ 2014 Walt Whitman Award for best first collection, is another book that contains an uncommon, compelling sensibility; not only do Park’s poems unravel etymology with imagination and sonic acuity, but they do so while remaining emotionally resonant and intellectually agile. In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Parks describes her process as akin to “an echo chamber” where words repeat with “slight mutations,” leading to the emergence of previously subterranean meanings. Reading Park’s work, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ linguistic energy, Emily Dickinson’s metaphysical scope, and an early HD’s chiselled sense of the short line all come to mind. Please, do yourself a favour and read the following aloud, or hear Park read it here:

The asking was askance.
And the tell all told.
So then, in tandem,

Anathema, and anthem.
The truth was on hold,
Seeking too tasking.

And the wool was pulled
Over as cover.
No eyes were kept peeled.

My iris I missed
The truth, now mistrust
All things seen, and this

Distrust, the sounded distress signal
Called and called and culled from your damsel.

This poem, one of two in the collection entitled, “And a Lie,” demonstrates the ways in which Park follows sonic bridges between words and their constituent morphemes in order to uncover new, striking patterns of meaning—even more impressive, is that Park does this while never neglecting the syntactical and grammatical level of the phrase. Park’s truncated sonnet skips from tercets in trimeter to a near-pentameter ending couplet, the metrical change enacting the sort of voltaic shift that in a more conventional sonnet would be signalled by inherited rhyme-patterns and stanzaic division. Furthermore, the irregular rhyme in “And a Lie” is carefully considered to evoke various semantic tensions: the kineticism of “told,” “hold,” and “pulled” metaphorizes the emotional force of the titular deception, while the contrapuntal tension between the ending couplet’s slant rhyme, “signal” and “damsel,” asks the reader to more closely examine the ways in which the poem’s processes subvert and re-examine the romantic tropes and ideologies associated with the sonnet form. While Park excels at the compressed, concise lyricism displayed in “And a Lie,” she is equally talented at the longer sequence, exemplified by the 16-page sequence, “Fear,” that ends the collection; here, Park’s sense of the line expands in fascinating ways, the space of the page becoming inseparable from the speaker’s “breathing and not breathing.”  For an insightful reading of Park’s work, check out Liza Flum’s review of The Same-Different.

Michael Prior is a Japanese Canadian writer. A past winner of Matrix Magazine’s Lit Pop Award (2015), The Walrus’s Poetry Prize (2014), and Grain’s Short Grain Contest (2014), Michael’s first book of poems, Model Disciple, was published by Véhicule Press in Spring 2016. He currently is an MFA candidate in poetry at Cornell University.

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