John Palen/Mark Neely

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Beasts of the Hill, Mark Neely (Oberlin College Press, 2012)

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Palen says:

I like short poems, like to read them, like to write them. The trouble with them, including mine, is that they often don’t get very far off the ground emotionally. It’s as if there just isn’t enough room to say much. Too many, again including mine, fall back on irony, distance or snarkiness to try to close the sale.

So consider Mark Neely’s “Funeral,” given here in its entirety.

We file around the coffin
like a buffet line. A bad
buffet, everything
picked over. Until the

daughter’s breathing
fills the basilica
and the whole space
lifts off, a ship

on a huge swell.
In a storm of music
we lash the hysteric
daughter to the mast.

It’s a cliche to say that a short poem doesn’t waste a word. What’s more important here is that nothing that matters is left out. In twelve brief lines, empty formality is overwhelmed by the emotion of loss, followed by a communal coming together in desperate support of the bereft. It’s all there, and, yes, not a word is wasted.

Neely’s Beasts of the Hill, winner of the 2011 FIELD Poetry Prize at Oberlin College, is full of such marriages of brevity and power. Try “Lover’s Meal,” which is unsettling, “Twenty-First Century Vacation,” which is funny, or “Oracle,” which is both.

The first poems you will probably notice on opening this book, however, are those that look like four-pane window sashes, each with “Four” in the title—“Four Lanes,” Four Moons,” “Four Blues” and so forth. Each “pane” is a square of prose, typographically justified right and left, exactly eleven lines deep by the same dimension wide.

At first I puzzled over how to read these—top row left to right then bottom row? Clockwise or counterclockwise? Then I decided it probably didn’t matter, although there were pleasure and surprise to be had in reading them in various sequences.  Previously published in a chapbook, Four of a Kind from Concrete Wolf Press, these poems seem a little less accessible, to me at least. But that’s a challenge, and they are intriguing and powerful in the way they hold the freedom of prose within the strict visual limits, like chemical reactions inside steel containers.

Neely teaches at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. I heard him read from Beasts in Urbana, Illinois, at a “Stories and Beer” session at the Iron Post, put on by students in the creative writing program at U of I, where Neely also went to school. The students were thrilled to have an alum FIELD winner at their reading, and they and I both were excited to have gotten to know another admirable poet from the Midwest.

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A retired journalist and journalism professor, John Palen’s poetry has appeared in literary journals for more than 40 years, including Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, The Formalist, Kansas Quarterly, and Passages North, and in anthologies published by Milkweed Editions and Wayne State University Press. He was a finalist in the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Competition in 1995 and a Pushcart nominee in 2003. His Open Communion: New and Selected Poems was published in 2005 by Mayapple Press. Since then he has had chapbooks published by March Street Press and Pudding House, and poetry and short fiction appearing in Sleet, Press 1, Gulf Stream, Prick of the Spindle, Poydras Review, Jelly Bucket, The Cossack Review, Citron Review and elsewhere. His first collection of flash fiction, Small Economies, was published by Mayapple in January 2012. His reviews of literary magazines appear in New Pages. A Central Illinois resident, Palen blogs about poetry and fiction at www.johnpalensblog.blogspot.com.