my father’s kites and Corporal Muse, by Allison E. Joseph
Allison Joseph is a personal hero of mine. Many creative writers focus primarily on their own work and their own careers. Joseph is that exemplary poet and educator who seems to be constantly supporting other writers. Beyond her considerable publication resume, and a staunch commitment to her craft, her bio of community building activities is impressive. And despite her gravitas as poet and professor, she frequently publishes her work with small independent presses. Bravo to that, I say!
Joseph is also that rare contemporary poet who has the talent for writing accomplished and accessible poetry in both free and formal verse. Her collection, my father’s kites (Steel Toe Press, 2010), an almost-chapbook at 56 pages, contains a section of formal sonnets eulogizing her father that I found both courageous and moving, at least in part because I’ve struggled to write about my own father. In an interview with Billy Jenkins at “The Fourth River” Joseph spoke about the difficulty she confronted in writing about her father:
I found that it was harder to write about my father, who I had a fractured relationship with, than my mother, who died when I was a teenager. . . . At first it stumped me . . . But it was because his death was . . . about his life as a black man, the things he faced. His anger was a lot more emblematic. Even the very reason he died, diabetes, is something that affects far more disproportionately, the African American community.
But in this villanelle, “On Not Wanting to Write a Memoir” Joseph reminds us that memory is “insecure” and she circumnavigates the topic of disclosure in this way:
Some memories lurk deep, in bone and tooth,
with consequences I can do without.
What’s there to write? I had ‘that’ kind of youth.
Forgive me if I don’t tell you the truth.
In another interview I came across online, she adds this intriguing caveat about the “I” persona, which she believes can be used very effectively not only for confession, but also to connect with others,
So the opportunity in a poem for the “I” to fool its own inventor, it’s huge. … I think the distance between the fictionalized “I” of my particular poems and the person sitting next to you usually isn’t that far.
Corporal Muse (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018), which won the 2019 Independent Press Award for Small Books, is a lighter read emotionally than my father’s kites, or some of her other collections, but it shows off Joseph’s talent for both form and free verse and is packed with her sense of humor. Here, she pays homage to language itself, reminding the reader how words beguile, bewilder, and compel us. In many of these poems, words and language take on mythic personas; those are the ones that interested me most in this collection. In the initial poem, “Dictionary,” she gives a warning,
You open me, and worlds begin to shift,
zealously, you’ll covet all I can define.
The title poem, “Corporal Muse,” is a psychological thriller. The protagonist here is corporal-like and,
Dressed in drab olive green fatigues,
bayonet in fist, beret on his bald head,
he wants to see your work—pages and pages
of it. He wants you broken and crying.
And in “A Plea to the Grammar Lady,” Joseph submits to syntax,
Split infinitives slap me hard, slice
thin red scratches across my cheeks.
Modifiers dangle from me, slipping
off into nonsense before I can pull
them back. Tense about tenses
I try to pin down the future,
For a taste of another side of Joseph’s humor, here are lines from “The Joining,” which is a wickedly funny riddle,
You’re a wind-up toy I never tire of,
big as my thumb and just as funny.
The last couplet of the final sonnet in Corporal Muse, titled, “Necessities,” is a response to our ubiquitous queries about the value of words and the ability of the “I” to connect with others:
Each syllable another life’s pushed through—
I only need these words I pledge to you.
Allison Joseph lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where she is part of the faculty at Southern Illinois University. She serves as editor and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review, moderator of the Creative Writers Opportunities List, and director of Writers In Common, a summer writers’ conference. Her books and chapbooks include What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand Press), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon University Press), In Every Seam (University of Pittsburgh), Worldly Pleasures (Word Tech), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon), Voice: Poems (Mayapple Press), My Father’s Kites (Steel Toe Books), Trace Particles (Backbone Press), Little Epiphanies (Night Ballet Press), Mercurial (Mayapple Press), Multitudes (Word Tech), The Purpose of Hands (Glass Lyre Press), Mortal Rewards (White Violet Press), Double Identity (Singing Bone Press), What Once You Loved (Barefoot Muse Press), Corporal Muse (Sibling Rivalry), Smart Pretender (Finishing Line Press), and Confessions of a Barefaced Woman (Red Hen Press). She is the literary partner and wife of Jon Tribble.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).