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Katherine Soniat

12-06-2012

Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Article - Readings

Katherine Soniat

Refraction

Little was said as we lay there our bodies close. 
That was how we started in a room that held space 
for daybreak and the few late stars.

But I rose, and it was not from dream. Wrapping 
myself in woolens, I wished you a long, slow sleep.

I wished the clocks would stop, the birds fall silent in the trees. Moving 
from room to room, I turned each photograph flat, placed a close, warm 
breath on every mirror until I made myself and all the background 
disappear.

Cosmos

The valley's pale with cicadas under the moon as sleepless
I toss my leg over a pillow. 
                                      The deserted villa up the road 
pointed to this. All afternoon, I trespassed, one step after another 
up the drive of dying cypress, the garden wild with hollyhock 
and cosmos.

A concrete saint rose through the trees, arms skyward, expectant, 
head crumbling. And in the dirt was a child's garden of marked graves-
a cat, two dogs, and the plot for turtles. Someone's wish-fraught endings.

When I was young, cicadas pulsed at vespers outside the church like a cult 
of loony believers. Here's the church, there's the steeple; open the door, 
and see all the run-away people. 

                                   In such dimness I heard organ pipes as the throat 
I would have speak to me as a mother. I tried to conjure her out of that sing-
song light, tried to make her come home.

The tiffany window filled with sun on that mansion staircase: rosy girls dropped 
flowers, a cow licked its calf. And behind the house, off in the pines, the keyhole 
to the stone tower continued to rot. 
                                                    That's where I put my nose today.
Bottom of a well. The earth's bottom I breathed, creature restless for the season 
to be done, grasshopper fidgeting on a saint's broken neck.

I needed mystery more than a mother. What I could not have comes to lie down 
beside me-blue pillow I rock with under the moon. 

Deep muscular affliction, sundown.

Slow dissolve of the road I rushed down to get past understanding there was only 
so much to make of space, and her brief landing.


Camouflage

It's Ravel now who's crazy according to the news-only a damaged brain capable ofBolero's rolling cadences in this place where caution's never lacking. The blue light's steady on the 911 phone at the edge of campus. Quaint hue near the napping cattle, the big sycamore reaching up as far as summer let it. Sheep wade through clouds in the stream. Some bucolic trick, I think, animals at peace this close to slaughter. 

Now there's movement in the trees as the barkbrown-and-squirrelgrays march on me, like the massed woods of Birnam. On command, these Cadets fall down to play war on their bellies. Four hold me in their rifle sights. Another, bored, stacks twigs in the grass. He smiles then tips his camouflage cap, courtly gesture inches from the ground. I stand as close as I ever will to a firing squad-Goya perhaps the next accused, his mind hung out to dry after trying to equate the carnage. Hacked trees. His war-torn stumps of soldiers.

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Article - Readings

Katherine Soniat's sixth collection of poems, A Raft, A Boat, A Bridge, will released by Dream Horse Press in Fall, 2012. Other publications include The Swing Girls, The Fire Setters (on-line Chapbook Series, WebDelSol), Alluvial (Bucknell UP). A Shared Life(Iowa UP) won the Iowa Prize and a Virginia Prize for Poetry, selected by Mary Oliver;Cracking Eggs (University Presses of Florida). Notes of Departure received the Camden Poetry Prize (Walt Whitman Center for the Arts and Humanities) and was selected by Sonia Sanchez. A chapbook, Winter Toys, was published by Green Tower Press.

She is the recipient of two Virginia Commission for the Arts Grants, a William Faulkner Award, a Jane Kenyon Award, Anne Stanford Award, and Fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her work has been published in such journals as TriQuarterly, Poetry, Crazyhorse, Gettysburg Review, Antioch Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review, The Nation, New Republic, Georgia Review, and The Southern Review.

Originally from New Orleans, she has taught at the University of New Orleans, Hollins University, and for twenty years was on the faculty at Virginia Tech. The sense of place is central to her work and she travels widely to immerse herself in various cultures so that they become transformative filters for more personal contexts. Crete, the Andes, the Bavarian Alps, and the Grand Canyon are a few of these regions she has included in her writing. Expanding the focus of poetry in such a way allows threads of art, myth, history, geography, and geology to inform her collections, shaping sequences of poems that resonate across a broad but personal spectrum.

Photography, use of archetypal imagery and dream work are also special areas of interests in both teaching and in her own writing. She now lives on a beautiful ravine with one frequently-noted bear (The Kenilworth Bear) in Asheville, North Carolina, and teaches in the Great Smokies Writers' Program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Article - Readings

A "Mini-Review" of Katherine Soniat's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Zachary Macholz  

Reading Katherine Soniat for the first time makes me wonder how it’s possible that this is the first time I am reading her. Being poorly read doesn’t seem like a viable excuse, since these are poems that ought to be everywhere. She is an immensely gifted poet whose poems reflect a serious dedication to her craft and an exacting precision with words that ought to be the aspiration of every poet. Though “Refraction,” “Cosmos,” and “Camouflage,” are all distinct from one another in a formal sense, they all share several admirable qualities.

First among these is a strong, evocative sense of place. At no point in the reading of any of these poems did I question anything in the poem. Everything was in its right place, and perfectly described, with all the crucial details and no extraneous adjectives, rich scenes so starkly rendered that even those readers who have a hard time visualizing language would have no trouble imagining what she describes. In “Refraction,” it’s “a room that held space / for daybreak and the few late stars.” In “Cosmos,” it’s the valley “pale with cicadas under the moon,” and “the deserted villa up the road,” “the drive of dying cypress, the garden with wild hollyhock / and cosmos.” In “Camouflage,” we’re at “the edge of campus. Quaint hue near the napping cattle, the big sycamore / reaching up as far as summer let it.”

Those lines from “Camouflage,” aren’t just excellent at evoking a place, they’re also examples of how that strong sense of place is heightened by the exact language and clear vision that Soniat displays in each of this week’s poems. It isn’t hard to see the influence of photography in some of these poems, and that she has a photographer’s eye as well as a poet’s. Consider in “Refraction,” not just the title, or the presence of a photograph in a poem, but the photo-esque described images like the one that ends the poem:

 

…Moving
from room to room, I turned each photograph flat, place a close, warm
breath on every mirror until I made myself and all the background
disappear.
 
From “Cosmos,” comes another perfect still moment, captured as clearly and crisply as any photograph could do: "
A concrete saint rose through the trees, arms skyward, expectant, / head crumbling. And in the dirt was a child’s garden of marked graves— / a cat, two dogs, and the plot for turtles…"

It’s not just that the choice of images is particularly compelling in each of these cases—though certainly, they all have a certain beautiful or sometimes haunting quality that makes the images themselves seem like the poems strength. But in fact, these images and settings are fully realized, and achieve a kind of clarity only possible through an equally precise attention to the language used to describe them.

In addition to clear, robust images, a strong sense of place, and exact language, these poems also share another quality that makes me admire them greatly: strong last lines. These poems carry their momentum and beauty all the way through their respective ends. In “Refraction,” it’s the gut-punch, emergency-break of a single word for the final line that follows the penultimate line in a way that perfectly reflects (pardon my pun) the quickness with which breath breathed on a mirror would vanish, and also echoes with rhyme: "breath on every mirror until I made myself and all the background / disappear."

Building to that final single word line with a long sentence creates the momentum that is then arrested by the final line break. In “Camouflage,” Soniat again makes use of contrast to punctuate the poem’s end, though in the case of this prose poem, she does it by varying sentences rather than line length: "…I stand as close as I ever will to a firing squad—Goya perhaps the next accused, his mind hung out to dry after trying to equate the carnage. Hacked trees. His war-torn stumps of soldiers."

 
Again, the control of lines and sentences is impeccable. This control is on display once more at the end of “Cosmos:”Slow dissolve of the road I rushed down to get past understanding there was only / so much to make of space, and her brief landing."

The way that the line breaks is perfect: the first line is longer, unbroken by punctuation, and reads quickly into the final line. The pause of the break after the penultimate line and the pause created by the comma leave the reader considering the many layers of meaning in those final phrases.

Katherine Soniat’s poems are pretty damn sublime. They’ve got cicadas and birds and stars and napping cattle; Bolero and Goya and a tiffany window; a church during vespers and the bottom of a well. All of it is real. These aren’t devices used by a poet trying to weigh them down with clichéd symbolism. They are the world that this poet has travelled all over and seen. These are intimate moments with the world captured lovingly and precisely and held up for our examination. Her website proclaims: “A poet travels.” I’m going to try and heed that advice, but when I can’t, I’ll be reading her poems, because they are the next best thing. 

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A Review of Katherine Soniat's The Swing Girl by Kelly Chery, first published at ronslate.com

Who or what is "the swing girl"? Our first thought may be of a young lady dancing to Glenn Miller, her partner rolling her out from under his arm, then reeling her back, their faces flushed. A second thought could be Evelyn Nesbit—whose famous lover, architect Stanford White, was murdered by her husband—in a red velvet swing at the start of the twentieth century, the tag end of the Gilded Age.

Katherine Soniat's swing girl is neither of these. For her, the swing girl is an image on a Greek burial vessel, icon of the real girl who died. To see this image, the speaker has walked "down the hot path past the unwatered donkey / and shells that held the damp curl of the living." The "living" would have been the small creatures whose "[e]mpty snail shells bleach on boulders / near the tomb entrance." This is a poem of hard light, like the brilliant glare of sunlight in Greece.

Soniat's poems about the Mediterranean bring this intense focus back to us in our clouded climate. We see her Greece by that metallic light, and also the sea, and also the gods who seem to flicker from one grove to another. These poems make up the fourth and final section of her fifth full-length collection. Here we meet the swing girl, the girl "who set sail for the other side" and now occupies an ossuary, "the swing and its girl tucked in," her "remains . . . posed fetal," so perhaps the long-dead girl herself still holds the "curl of the living."

Throughout the collection we encounter poems that possess a disturbing elusiveness, yet there is no vague or generic language. Indeed, her language is stunningly exact, her focus precise and clear. What makes the poems elusive is the way she will often home in on particular details while omitting context. Viewing the world through her poems, we see foreshortened moments, things and ideas moving in and out of the periphery, odd alignments. We are thus encouraged to see the world anew—to see the ways in which, as the epigraph taken from Sir Thomas Browne puts it, we live "in divided and distinguished worlds," here and there, then and now. At the same time, Soniat's changing perspective allows us to live in more worlds than one.

Because images and themes, not contexts, are foregrounded, it can be difficult to find something to hold on to that separates each section of the book from the others. This difficulty is intentional and underscores the ambiguity that is the book's central idea.

Sometimes we can extrapolate a context. "On the Steppes" may be about a dying father ("He moved to another level, looking for a place to stop / the thoughts"). "Ghost Laundry" may suggest a wife recalling her husband's memory of his first wife. These are not easy poems, and yet with some thought a reader will find them meaningful, whether interpretation be accurate or not, and meanwhile the musical strength of Soniat's work enraptures us. Music moves the book from section to section, poem to poem; her cadenced lines are something like a luxury: luxurious, sensually lush, and yet disciplined. The book's first poem, "Thoughts at Paliani," offers a view of the plain, "the convent garden, the thousand-year myrtle tree" whose branches bear ribbons signifying good wishes for the ill or convalescent. The nuns are devout and dedicated. A picture of peaceful hard work, then, of sisters who are nurses. The shock of the poem is in its last stanza:

   It's a long stream water makes falling,
each drop coalescing. That spring you died, the moss on the banks
was greener, spray going farther than thought.

We don't know who "you" is. A husband? A mother? There's no telling, not in this poem, but we know from the detailed imagery and the word died that a memory has been awakened and the poet is mourning. Perhaps "spray" stands for reality and reality is too much for thought to encompass. Or maybe "spray" refers to beauty or life, and both are greater than thought. Yet the poem in its mystery pushes us toward thought, so the poet has not disowned the value of thinking. Rather, she is having it both ways at once—that ambiguity, that sustaining of opposing thoughts, of "divided and distinguished worlds"—central to the poet's project.

And of course, "spray" may mean spray. Reality presses these poems to a point of urgency. "Flute notes lift from the rapids," writes the poet, in "The Hill Station," "and on the trellis a buzzard skeleton / winks its Christmas-light heart. Red again, then dark."

The beautiful poem "Nightshade" allows "a liturgical young elephant" to co-exist with a Chinese painter whose "paints, bought in Beijing, / over time would disappear." The speaker imagines herself in a painting by the Chinese artist, how she would "know with each breath she was fading a bit, / going away."

"Of Aviary Mice and Men" asks us, "How can we comprehend history?" and perhaps suggests than we don't, can't. "Know there are no roads back, no ladders," the poem concludes. "Dropped / seed, the thing left in context."

In context, but not contextualized. The thing as it is.

"Minoan Apocrypha" asks us, "How to study loss closely?" and warns that "[a]lways, the end is poorly / conceived. . . . "

"The Mark," "Sleeping Alone," "Day Spool," "Birthday Crossing," "Morning Child," "Brocade," "Flight," and the entire last section are remarkable. And the other poems are very, very good. In "Rose Mold" she envisions cut and dying rose buds as "beauty on its way to being mystery."

There is a sense in which that vision contains all the book's contradictions and ambiguity, as if the book itself is a waterfall—waterfalls turn up in several poems—or "spray going farther than thought." Reading Soniat's poems can be like standing under a waterfall, the words like weather around you, and watching beauty become mystery.

I haven't seen it, but I've heard that Soniat has already published her sixth collection.* She may be on the verge of a breakout. She deserves such a moment. Her work is finely skilled, probes deeply both intellectually and emotionally, and dares to say the seemingly unsayable, managing that noble trick through organization and image, coherence and melody. Readers should rush to read her; they will be, by turns, puzzled, surprised, made newly aware, and delighted.

[Published September 12, 2011. 74 pages, $17.95 paper)

Kelly Cherry's chapbook Vectors: J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Years before the Bomb is forthcoming from Parallel Press (U of Wisconsin Libraries) in December and her full-length collection The Life and Death of Poetry: Poems from LS.U Press in spring 2013.

* Katherine Soniat’s new collection, A Raft, A Boat, was published on August 15, 2012 by Dream Horse Press.

 

A Review of The Swing Girl by Andrew Burstein, first published by The Advocate

 "In The Swing Girl, the provocative Katherine Soniat, Iowa Poetry Prize winner, fixes us in ancient Greece and in less obvious, equally solemn places fit for the imagination.

Her opening poem, "Thoughts at Paliani," is a haunting rumination from a convent on the island of Crete; "Hummingbird of Ur" traces a frail creature along its path:

      "Any which garden should be fine for a bird with less than/an ounce of meaning...."

The poet's combinations are striking and evocative. In "Self-Portrait with Amnesia," she has a Zen-like encounter with a woman who is depicted on an un- finished canvas:

      Call her tabula tacit, say she's the primary silence.
 
      Those who stare long enough find darkness expansive.

Soniat goes for the stark as well as the shadowy. "An Aerial Meander" swoops down from a snowy sky and looks in on an Old World townscape:

      Enough softness here for a small village to bury its old in.
 
      Body-wrap of quilts and sheets,
      years of flesh packed up like the good bone china.

Yet the same poet is capable of the most sportive wordplay. In the staccato "Day Spool," a "windchime" yields "windtime," and "wood deck wood peck hood red ruby head" gives way to "noon-high sunsquash" and-oh, you must read it for yourself. --From The Advocate, Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship, Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American political culture. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.

 

Meighan L. Sharp's Review of Katherine Soniat's The Swing Girl --first published by The Hollins Critic

"In a 2007 interview with Andrew McFayden-Ketchum, Katherine Soniat states, "For me, poetry is the subtle work of the ‘middle mind' that accesses the rational, the literal, and the subliminal at once." In Soniat's fifth poetry collection, The Swing Girl, that "middle mind" twines through territory wide-ranging and lyrical, delicate and violent.

Soniat's poems explore intersections-boundaries between animal and human, dream and consciousness, old and young, past and present, living and dead. In "An Aerial Meander," Soniat's detailed and traveling eye hovers over an elderly woman, relegated to her bed, near death:

      Pillows surround her like re-embodied fowl.
      She thinks of fleeing farther than the farthest farm,
      her years of habitation trailing behind
      as the shaking off of life begins.

In the same poem, flesh separates from bone as the woman's "[r]ib, hip, and pelvis roll through the sky" while the skin that remains is ". . . sucked in, / made small as a blood-red dot." What is left of this vital intersection between skeleton and skin is "small" yet vivid.
The dead or near dead surface again and again in The Swing Girl-"a river thaws with the dead. It swims with them"-and Soniat's poems are their elegies. In "Breathing This Long," the "breath of a cow. . .scented by meadows" is juxtaposed with the violence of men hung from trees and "the young" who "dream of stick coffins." In "Impoverishment," Soniat writes:

      The book of fluke, wing, and flesh is finished.
      Whale, cockatiel, and the world's long line
      of hungry children gone,

       . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
      Ghettoed, shot, zooed, they disappeared like a swarm
       of cosmic frictions nobody wanted.

But the dead are strangely lovely, too. In "The Hill Station," "a buzzard skeleton / winks its Christmas-light heart. Red again, then dark." Like the buzzard's heart, the dead often show themselves to the living. Soniat's "Ghost Laundry" gives us spirits that "brush up against us," "absences that are constant and faithless. . . ." As a daughter addresses her dead mother in "Birthday Crossing," we learn that ". . . [l]ike water, the memorized body // goes on."

The wonder of a collection like The Swing Girl is that its poems consider broad expanses of time and geography, yet Soniat's honed and careful language grounds the reader in the specific. Soniat suggests her own artistic approach to this dreamlike gathering of poems in "Nightshade":

      . . .She decided to give in, as a painter might,
      and let shadows offer direction. She'd follow with a sponge,
      dab gold at the edges.

Katherine Soniat's shadows do "offer direction," and by the end of this collection, we are with the poet, ". . .trampling the middle air." - Meighan L. Sharp for The Hollins Critic

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Katherine Soniat: Poet, Teacher, Traveler from the North Carolina Writers' Network

ASHEVILLE—A sense of place is central to the work of Katherine Soniat, a widely published poet who will lead a Saturday poetry workshop at this year’s Fall Conference. Her extensive travels have allowed her to immerse herself in various cultures so that they become transformative filters for more personal contexts.

Crete, the Andes, the Bavarian Alps, and the Grand Canyon are a few of these regions she has included in her writing. Expanding the focus of poetry in such a way allows threads of art, myth, history, geography, and geology to inform her collections, shaping sequences of poems that resonate across a broad but personal spectrum.

Originally from New Orleans, Soniat has taught at the University of New Orleans, Hollins University, and for twenty years was on the faculty at Virginia Tech. Her fifth collection of poems, The Swing Girl, is forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press, and a sixth collection, A Raft, A Boat, A Bridge, will be published by Dream Horse Press in the fall of 2012.

Her upcoming workshop is titled “Poetry, Archetypal Imagery, and You: A Writing Workshop.”

“What is an archetype?” Soniat asks. “How might it relate to who you are in this grand universe? Does the world have an imagistic language in which it speaks to us across time?

“If you participate in this workshop, you will probably find that indeed there are certain images that are almost old as the Earth itself, and that your life is also encased in those archetypes. AND (this one is important!) that we also create new personal archetypes to guide us into the future. Lots to think and write about.

“If you decide to join us: Please bring a photo of people in a situation that you are familiar with. Bring a second picture (not necessarily a photograph) of people you do not know in a situation/circumstance that you do not fully understand. You are simple drawn to this picture for some unknown reason. In other words, there is an interesting ambiguity in this picture that acts as a magnet. This second image can come from a magazine, the newspaper, whatever.

“We will enter through the gateway of these two images into the world of archetypes then see if those images speak to each other, if they inform one another in a fresh and vivid manner. Of course, they will “in form” YOU in the most surprising ways. You leave this workshop with a poem to remind you of the time we spent considering archetypal imagery.”

Photography, use of archetypal imagery, and dream work are also special areas of interest in both Soniat’s teaching and in her writing. She now lives on a ravine with one frequently noted bear (the Kenilworth Bear) in Asheville and teaches in the Great Smokies Writers' Program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Registration for the 2011 Fall Conference, Nov 18-20, hosted by the North Carolina Writers’ Network, will open in September. Keep an eye on www.ncwriters.org for more details.

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Poems - Bio - Mini-Review - Reviews - Article - Readings

Click here to hear Soniat read from her newest book A Raft, A Boat, A Bridge and discuss its composition.

Click here to hear Katherine read four poems from The Swing Girl




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