Skip to main content

Guest Review: Saunders on Begnal and DuMars

Craig Saunders reviews
Ancestor Worship by Michael S. Begnal
Big Pink Umbrella by Susan Millar DuMars

Michael S. Begnal and Susan Millar DuMars are both poets, both hail from the United States, and both have set down roots in Ireland. They share a publisher, Salmon, and were born in 1966.

Both collections are relatively concrete in their approach. DuMars’ book, Big Pink Umbrella, paints very clear emotional pictures. Begnal’s Ancestor Worship creates a more challenging set of psychogeographic explorations. All too often, modern poetry fights too hard to be abstract, often for the sake of intellectual posturing. The strength of both of these collections lies in their accessibility.

DuMars has a curious style, particularly in the first part of her collection. Her poems tend to be setups for an emotional punchline at the end. She does this with evident skill, often leading the reader through a discourse on the familiar, wondering what the point is, only to blindside them in the last line or two. It’s a technique she uses well, but after a while, it becomes more or less predictable. It becomes tempting to just skip to the end and see how she’ll hook you.

At times, these punchlines deliver a wallop. The best, perhaps, is in a simple poem called “Honey.” Its narrator is a child watching her mother in the kitchen. The images are simple and familiar, but at the end, she delivers two lines, “Mom, keep singing./ I am your daughter,” which come with surprising power. The poem brings out fear of loss and separation, and for a single parent, they’re almost chilling.

The poems in her book do not explore grand ideals. This is not Dorothy Livesay crying out for the fate of humankind. It is emotional and direct. At least, that’s when it’s at its best, as in poems such as “Morning Kisses.”

My hands, stained with coffee grounds,
look like a gardener’s hands.
The early air is soft and damp on my face,
and I thank the sky

for morning kisses.

But then comes the other Susan Millar DuMars. While the first half is lovely, if not earth shaking (except for "Silk Scarf", which may offend some feminist sensibilities ), the second half of the collection seems weaker, and even, at times, self-indulgent.

Perhaps that’s what one should expect when confronted by poems with titles including “On Not Getting Nominated,” or “To a Writer I Used to Know.” The former is a brief cry of despair at, well, not getting nominated, something that all writers face. And some anguish over. And, apparently, some feel compelled to publish that moment of rejection. As for the latter, it’s an attack on an unnamed writer. The Irish have a long history of masterfully poetic insults, but this one doesn’t manage to muster the artful vitriol of J.M. Synge.

Big Pink Umbrella starts out well. There’s an uncomplicated charm to it, and there are several lovely poems that show the writer’s evident skill. Unfortunately, near the end, it descends into the work of a writer writing about being a writer.

Ancestor Worship, by Michael S. Begnal, is an entirely different creature. His poems are often more complex. They frequently build on a sense of place, often blurring geographic lines and creating a sense of displacement, perhaps most obviously in “Walled City,” where dream blurs Galway and childhood memories of Prague. At other times, the lines blur, uniting disparate cultural landscapes in the way a traveler or expatriate will look for the familiar within the foreign. He does this with varying degrees of success in the longer poem, “Madrilenos.”

For the most part, Begnal’s poems bring together an obvious love of travel and cultural exploration, and a superb ability to convey the mood of a place. It’s hard to imagine Ireland, or the UK., for that matter, without the pub where old men gather and have done so from the beginning of their memories. This he captures masterfully in “Old Men’s Bar.”

Salmon-pink walls, this fishy room,
these stuffy cushioned booths
(I’m tolerated),
old men pouring the water jug,
whiskeying their innate suspicion of writers,
fellas in caps just shooting the shit,
“Can you read without the glasses?”

No book of poetry completely comprises gems of literature, and this is no exception. There are weaker works in it, and at times some needlessly coarse language (at other times, clearly justified coarseness). But Ancestor Worship has more than its share of gems and is, simply, a pleasure to read and to explore.

Poetry of this sort is at its best when it takes you into the heart of the scene, and Begnal frequently manages this magical transportation. It’s a book to read and to re-read. And given that the poet is still relatively young, it’s a book that leaves hope for even better works to come.

Craig Saunders is a Toronto-based writer.
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog


Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or all of these) by Donald Trump, we cannot claim to be rid of him just yet. He bestrides the world stage like a silverback gorilla (according to one British thug), or a bad analogy, but he is there, a figure, no longer of fun, but grave concern.

There has long been a history of misogynistic behaviour in American gangster culture - one thinks of the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy, or Sinatra throwing a woman out of his hotel room and later commenting he didn't realise there was a pool below to break her fall, or the polluted womb in Pacino'sScarface... and of course, some gangsta rap is also sexist.  American culture has a difficult way with handling the combined aspects of male power, and male privilege, that, especially in heteronormative capitalist enclaves, where money/pussy both become grabbable, reified objects and objectives (The Wolf of Wall Street for instance), an ugly fus…


According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile odds of 66% to 33% and change. But the current popular vote is much closer, probably tied with the error of margin, around 44% each. Trump has to win more key battleground states to win, and may not - but he is ahead in Florida...

We will all know, in a week, whether we live in a world gone madder, or just relatively mad.

While it seems likely calmer heads will prevail, the recent Brexit win shows that polls can mislead, especially when one of the options is considered a bit embarrassing, rude or even racist - and Trump qualifies for these, at least.

If 42-45% of Americans admit they would vote for Trump, what does that say about the ones not so vocal? For surely, they must be there, as well. Some of the undecided will slide, and more likely they will slide to the wilder and more exciting fringe candidate. As may the libertarians.

Eyewear predicts that Trump will just about manage to win th…


Announcing the Shortlist for the 2016 Sexton PrizeSeptember 13, 2016 / By Kelly Davio
Eyewear Publishing is pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2016 Sexton Prize. The finalists are, in no particular order, as follows:

HISTORY OF GONE, Lynn Schmeidler
SEVERE CLEAR, Maya Catherine Popa
SIT IN THE DARK WITH ME, Jesse Lee Kercheval

The shortlist was selected by Eyewear’s Director Todd Swift with Senior Editor Kelly Davio. Don Share of Poetry Magazine will select the winning manuscript, which will be released at the 2017 AWP conference in Washington, D.C. The winner will be announced in October. 
Congratulations to our finalists!