Italy and Inner Space

Two collections by Tucson poets stand in marked contrast

Poetry can represent the purest expression of the human soul. But does a poet need to travel in order to fashion verse of the highest order?

Emily Dickinson rarely left her house, yet managed to conjure literary solar systems. Her expansive themes qualify her as a pre-Modernist who laid the groundwork for the existential lyricism that defined the 20th century. By contrast, English bard John Donne was a seasoned traveler; his lines resonate with experience and hard-earned (if ironic) truths, especially in "The Flea," a seduction attempt ("Cruel and sudden, hast thou since / purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?") that sounds lived-in and real.

Two Tucson poets bring this discussion into sharp relief. First up is William Killian, whose previous tome, All the Faces I Have Been: An Actor's Notebook, earned my praise in these pages. So I feel a tad responsible for the slightly self-indulgent travelogue that is From the Balcony: Poetry From Italy. In celebration of his 50th wedding anniversary, Killian treated his wife to a trip to Italy, albeit with a bunch of theater folks from the Utah Shakespeare Festival. According to Killian, From the Balcony is "my way of coping with myself while I celebrated the dance of the exotic, romantic, and stunning Italy." I sense a mixed metaphor here; that aside, sometimes, the personal poems that one pens don't need to be shared, especially mere months after the experience, and before one has reflected on them.

Still, there are darkly humorous, enjoyable poems here, from "Nap Time, First Day on a Tour Bus," which bitches about the inane chatter one is typically engulfed in on trips like this, to "Well, Why Did I Do That?" about walking down a well in Pozzo di San Patrizio like a stupid, water-loaded mule, to "Goddamn Pickpockets," which curses the scourge of silent banditry.

But these are slight compared to more-serious, rewarding efforts like "At an Italian Pizzeria," a narrative in which Killian encounters, over glasses of wine, a father grieving over his recently deceased son. Or consider Killian's meditation on miracles, "Duomo of Orvieto," among Italy's finest cathedrals. My favorite ode is the one to Michelangelo's "David," housed in Accademia di Belle Arti, "where you remain muscular, erotic, / the heartthrob of lovers, artists, and scholars." These are exceptional poems that seem out of place amidst hilariously crabby works like "Nothing Poetic in Pisa," which begins: "If one more Pisa Vendor invades my space, / I'm going to lean over and piss on him." Methinks Killian should stay home with a stronger editor for his next book.

Up next is Joni Wallace, whose beautiful Blinking Ephemeral Valentine deservedly won the Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry. I don't how to describe Wallace's writing except to say it possesses a deeply romantic aesthetic. Wallace assembles the loveliest heart's-nativity scenes, as she does in the short lyric poem "Valentine Behind Door Number Two."

The tender yet violent language Wallace wields is music to my ears—especially when she explores the imaginative, knickknack-centered landscape of childhood, like in "Zoetrope, Small Horses and Animals":

Princess Hold Out,

around your neck

a string of caterpillars

and small figurines, you make

the tower from which you

plunge the practice birds,

vermillion-stained, aviators all,

shoe-shined confetti to litter

earth the earth the earth

a silver wheel whirring.

Finally a bridle, your ruined boots

and thunderous lashes.

Dangle low. Gallop.

Wallace doesn't trap readers in her Hello Kitty bedroom surrounded by girly (and sometimes grisly) accoutrements. She's lived everywhere—gorgeous places like New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Montana and, yes, Arizona, and her evocations of these locales (check out "Montana," where you find "the greenest grass you've ever known") are compelling. But she's most affecting when she dips into memory—say, as in "Purple Plastic Decoder Valentine," where she uses the valentine as a metaphor for the heart's unpolluted speech.

I could spend all day listening to Wallace's sweet interior nothings. You should, too.

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