Sometimes editors publish writers before they are ready. Confirming that are three recent books from Curbstone Press: E. Ethelbert Miller's How We Sleep on the Nights We Don't Make Love (paper, $12.95); George Evans and Nguyen Qui Duc's translation of Huu Thunh's The Time Tree (paper, $15.95); and Margaret Sayers Peden's translation of Claribel Alegria's Casting Off (paper, $13.95). Too often I found these books stuffed with short poems that read as toss-offs and really merited further thought before inclusion.
That is not to say that editors shouldn't publish short poems, because there are many good short poems in these collections. For example, Miller's "Rosa Parks Dreams" illustrates that the Palestinians' struggles in the West Bank are indeed a struggle for civil rights, but in just a few words—“... a line of bodies segregated from the living”—he also manages to show that some of their violent methods are counter-productive. Miller's strength is that he doesn't take sides.
Huu Thunh's collection, The Time Tree, on the other hand, seems unwilling to even examine any side at all. Thunh's biography points out that he was a tank driver, squad leader and journalist for the North Vietnamese during the war the Vietnamese call "The American War." His poems, particularly those in the section entitled "Winter Letter," are unwilling to deal with emotions in any concrete fashion. For example, in the first poem in the collection, "Greetings," he compares himself to a "... a thing often left behind," and in the same poem he continues with "a nondescript cup" and a "small, lonely kite." Three metaphors in the same 16-line poem that don't add anything to each other.
Yet it is in the section of the book entitled, "The Sea," that Thunh's imprecision works for his poems instead of against them. In "The Sea," he continually comes back to the theme of water in a way that gives the poems a haunting, emotional quality. All in all, Thunh's book felt rushed and the inclusion of "Winter Letter" didn't fit well with the beautiful longer work, "The Sea."
Finally, Claribel Alegria's Casting Off also seems to be a work forged together more by editorial fiat than because the poems belong together. Although she is "... universally recognized as the major living poet of El Salvador," her poetry transcends borders and expresses a mature outlook on old age and dying. Her strongest pieces are the ones that bridge the personal with the classical or biblical. For example, in "Road to Damascus," she starts simply, "I thought that finally / I was on my road / to Damascus ..." and reflecting upon a life spent searching she acknowledges, "... I have no answers / and now I have grown weary / of asking." The pieces that seem to be meditations on classical figures—Antigone, Medea, the Minotaur, etc.—don't connect like the more personal pieces do. In the personal pieces, the reader gets a sense of a poet who's had a full life and now is willing to embrace death not as a surrender, but merely because it is time.
All three authors have poems that are moving and beautiful, yet all three books also have poems that just seem to fill up space. I'm left uneasy, feeling that someone should've been willing to say, "Hey, let's publish a shorter book," or, perhaps, "Let's wait and see what else you come up with before we go to press."