Monday, December 19, 2016

Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes - Cheryl Dumesnil (Pitt Poetry Series/University of Pittsburgh Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes.  Cheryl Dumesnil.  Pitt Poetry Series.  University of Pittsburgh Press.  Pittsburgh, PA.  2016.

Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes (Pitt Poetry Series) by [Dumesnil, Cheryl]

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Cheryl Dumesnil must have all the patience in the world at her fingertips to get to the clear water she shares with us in Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes.  

We are a big fan of good titles for books of poetry and Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes is an absolute classic.  We knew it was going to be almost impossible not to like a book with this title and a juggler without hands on the cover.  We were right.

Dumesnil starts this collection with a quote from our old buddy Lao-Tzu and ends the book at "Lake Dharma" and along the way we see/hear Dumesnil fight the good fight (as John Hoppenthaler suggests), set that good example.  These very human poems remind us all of what we require of love, what it takes out of us.

That I Could Keep You Like This

That you were
           falling, we all knew.

                  How sound travels across
                                a morning lake is how

                  I hear voices calling
                                always -- that's what you

                  need to remember about me.

That you have fallen
is a fact the water

will neither swallow
nor erase.

                    Trust this: You will
                                 not understand me

                    when I stitch sound
                                 in the language of my mind.

The last time you left,
          I carried your glass

to the sink, dunked it
          in soapy water. That your

fingerprints sifted upward
          like lace is what I imagined,

that I could pinch them up
          off the water's surface,

press them to my lips --

                    A distance, by definition,
                                  cannot be closed,

                    not even by sound.

              -- is what I dreamed.


Today's book of poetry has been distracted this past week.  A series of heavy snowfalls, the death of a family friend and a big old 750 page What About This - Collected Poems of Frank Stanford  (Copper Canyon Press, 2015) have kept me from due diligence.  I'd purchased the Stanford book several weeks ago and had gone through it lightly but hadn't had a chance to dig in.  Well Frank Stanford is an astonishment and What About This reminded me of how exciting it was to discover a new poet I admire.  

Same thing with Dumesnil.  From now until the end of time I will automatically pick up anything with her brilliant name on it.  Why?  Same reason as Stanford.  Poems about the lives we live that are so full of wonder and new reason that you don't want to finish.

Cheryl Dumesnil's Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes is just the excellent vehicle needed for Today's book of poetry to get back on track and everyone at this morning's read seemed to agree. Dumesnil's San Francisco birds enthralled Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, "Love Song for the Drag Queen at Little Orphan Andy's" did the trick for Milo, our head tech.

At the Reunion of Lost Memories

High School snorts Ritalin in a bathroom stall,
smears lipstick across the back of her hand,

snags her stiletto in her skirt hem, tears it
while slam dancing with the custodian's assistant.

Streamers droop from the ballroom ceiling,
crepe eels lolling in the fan breeze.

Fifth Grade hocks a loogie in the fruit punch
while College works hard to recall names,

anyone's names. Who painted Air Force insignias
on his '64 Mustang? Whose kiss felt like

a dead slug in her mouth? Which sorority
sister got caught poaching care packages

from the dormitory mail room? Nothing
to worry about, Old Age whispers, this is just

how it goes; even the good ones get lost --
the midwife who caught your first baby,

the coworker who let you sleep on her couch
after your divorce.  At the podium, Midlife

taps the microphone, clears her throat -- this was,
after all, her idea: the chicken croquettes,

the all-star band. She wants to explain why
she's called everyone here, but before she can speak,

Etta James saunters onstage, croons, At last...
In a botched confetti drop, ripped-up secrets

flutter down, accumulating on the polyester rug,
like the snow that fell and fell that one spring day,

cloaking all the cars, covering their tracks.


Dumesnil is funny when she wants to be but Today's book of poetry was swayed by some deeper force at work.  Dumesnil wants us to see through the veneer of our lives.  Reading Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes was like having a freight train pull into the yard, car after car, solid as a rock, each one as dependable as the last and the next and each filled with its own necessary and perfectly delivered cargo.

Melodrama of the Suburban Kindergartener

You would think I had asked him to swim
          naked across an alligator-spiked swamp,

my son whom I have sent walking across
          a flat acre of asphalt, to his classroom,

alone. though I pressed language
          into his hand: this feels scary, but it's not

dangerous; you are taking one
          for the team, twenty-five yards in,

he looks back at me and melts his face
         into a tragedy mask. This morning

his aunt is losing her breasts to cancer.
          He doesn't know. This morning Cairo

has erupted into chaos. He has
no idea. How many kids ate hunger

for breakfast? In the car, his sick brother
          coughs spit into a cup, while I watch

my blond boy shuffle away from me,
          molasses pace and sobbing. This is where

survival begins: that boy finally crossing
          his threshold, this mom letting him go.


Cheryl Dumesnil's ferociously smart poetry is exactly what Today's book of poetry needed on this cold, cold Monday.  Survival songs for the new age.

Oh yes, Cheryl Dumesnil is a lesbian and it is clear a lesbian is the narrator of some of these poems. Today's book of poetry is often confused about how big of an issue this is.  To ignore the obvious might imply some sort of negative implication, and to point it out sometimes implies the same.  Show Time at the Ministry of Lost Causes rattled my cage in the best poetry ways possible, Cheryl Dumesnil meets every criteria we have.

Cheryl Dumesnil

Cheryl Dumesnil's books include the 2008 Agnes Lunch Starrett Poetry Prize winner, In Praise of Falling, the memoir Love Song for Baby X: How I Stayed (Almost) Sane on the Rocky Road to Parenthood, and the anthology Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, co-edited with Kim Addonizio.

“Cheryl Dumesnil transforms the seemingly useless—the discarded, the broken off, what we keep in the kitchen drawer—into proof of our humanity, asserting that it’s to the things of this world, whether they be oil-slicked puddles, cathedrals, tampons or Pink Floyd, that our lives are anchored. These poems are as tactile as that kitchen junk drawer and just as rewarding to rummage through. Each poem begs to be picked up, turned over in the palm.”
     —Dorianne Laux

“Dumesnil’s precise observations, vivid images, deft humor, and brave willingness to invite in the whole of life, makes for a poetry that’s rich and meaningful. This collection gives us the world with its beauty and love and the loss that always hovers close.”
     —Ellen Bass

“Dumesnil navigates the hallways of illness and childbirth with grit and grace. She offers us soaring birds, revolutions and plums. This is a book full of the love of women and sons, drag queens and last calls, and always the gospel of the body, and its constant prayer of falling.”
     —Sean Thomas Dougherty, author of All You Ask for is Longing: Poems 1994-2014
“What the poet knows is this: there are no lost causes. There is loss, of course, but to love enough to take up a cause is to keep faith. Dumesnil’s collection is the good fight in miserable times; it is how we endure knowing that part of us always / stays back, while the rest marches on. This fabulous book is the part marching on.”
     —John Hoppenthaler

Cheryl Dumesnil
at Radar Reading Series
Video courtesy of San Francisco Public Library


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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