Book Review: BRIGHT DEAD THINGS by Ada Limón

 photo d33cd3af-b947-490f-8bc1-27101e7cc62f_zpsiynsh6o3.jpg Bright Dead Things
Poems by Ada Limón
Milkweed Editions
$16.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

In 2010 a classmate handed me Limón’s first collection, lucky wreck, published by Autumn House Press, in the college dining hall. The classmate thumbed through the thin pages and pointed to her underline, the beginning of “First Lunch With Relative Stranger Mister You” which begins, “We solved the problem of the wind / with an orange.  / Now we’ve got the problem / of the orange.” Because I had just come into poetry and because it was a sad year and because this classmate, who was schizophrenic, wrote the most beautifully unrealistic images in her own poems, I saved Limón’s words. I now work for Autumn House and haven’t heard from that classmate in over four years, but I still think of our orange moment. Of how answers are fleeting, how we are thrust next to people who are equally broken and bright. Now, I hold Limón’s newest collection, Bright Dead Things, and it feels inevitable—these poems solving our impossible need for answers.

The collection is divided into four sections and we follow the speaker as she defines her place during a move from New York City to Kentucky, the loss of her stepmother, nostalgia, and falling into love. Each transition awakens new problems, but we’re reminded that within each problem we persist—we are still willing to whisper in the darkest of rooms, to still exist.

In the first poems of the collection, I watch the speaker fight against gender constraints, questions of “the roll of the woman” suddenly sparked by a move into a more conservative, southern state. These lines are heated with a power struggle, a defense against silence, a kinship with the forceful and fearless parts of nature. Most obvious in “How To Triumph Like A Girl” the collection opener, where the speaker details her affection for female horses. She writes,

…As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,…
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see…

The need to be animalistic stretches beyond the Kentucky landscape. In “I Remember the Carrots” the speaker remembers herself as a child, how she would rip carrots out of the ground, breaking their roots, ruining her father’s crop. She called them her “bright dead things.” Now, she tries to be “nice” but resents this desire, ending the poem on this line: “What I mean is: there are days / I still want to kill the carrots because I can.” Sometimes, we want to act without hesitation, to be an animal, to not be quiet and polite and it’s this tension—this wanting without action—that creates the friction within Limón’s poems.

We trek through the complicated mourning of death, in which the speaker navigates her sorrow with survival, writes,

But love is impossible and it goes on
despite the impossible. You’re the muscle
I cut from the bone and still the bone
remembers, still it wants (so much, it wants)
the flesh back, the real thing,
if only to rail against it….

In these moments nature serves as a reflection of our own human impulses. In a poem about silence, about paying respect for those bullied by hate crimes, Limón ends with a peacock “screaming, at first harmless, / then like some far-off siren.” Even nature, usually described as delicate and beautiful, can be a warning, a “bright dead thing.” Oddly, I’m reassured by this, for no single moment is entirely one thing—no brightness is ever endlessly light, no death forever dark. We will move on to the next moment and it will be equally complex, as Limón utters “I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying.”


 

Book Review: LOCAL CONDITIONS by Kristofer Collins

 photo 3160b442-1394-4f64-8ee2-35852b477692_zps3rofd9f9.jpg Local Conditions
Poems by Kristofer Collins
Coleridge Street Books, 2015
$8.00

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

Kristofer Collins’ Local Conditions, published by Coleridge Street Books, is a chapbook rich with candid, often tender reflections on family; specifically conventional family roles of son, husband, and father depicted unconventionally. It also continues the poet’s penchant for composing meditations on place, particularly Pittsburgh—its neighborhoods and neighbors uniquely its own—as he did in his previous collection of verse, Pennsylvania Welcomes You (CreateSpace Independent Publishing).

Whether reading all twenty-five of the poems included silently to oneself or aloud, there’s a breathless quality to Collins’ book; the product of several single run-on sentence-single stanza poems; among them: “Fix Bayonets,” “The Truth About Abstract Expressionism,” “Ants,” and “Spending Sunday Afternoon Listening to Jim Daniels’ Copy of Hall & Oates’ Abandoned Luncheonette.” In fact, only five of the book’s poems contain stanza breaks, with no poem exceeding twenty-four lines. The writer’s controlled, quiet rants have an effective stream-of-consciousness feel, and as reader (aloud or silently to oneself), one may need to remind himself/herself to breathe. In “Some Days Are Like This,” for example, he writes:

The crying baby on the afternoon bus angry
At his own insignificance and the mother’s
Intransigence, and the old man this morning
Who said to me, You’re full of shit, you’re bullshit
Like all the others
, hissing one last fatal fuck you
As he exits the shop, and the whole wide white sky
That pushes down on your head as if to say, Dammit,
I told you to stay put
, and really every time
A phone rings and the voice on the other end is not human
But still really wants you to buy something,…

While this poetry collection dips into an affection for Pittsburgh as its famously blue collar self, the writer renders it in a new light with mentions of landmarks and the norms of life in the region still referred to as the steel city, as in his “31st Street Bridge Poem”:

How much longer will 28 be closed?
And when will I walk across the 31st
Street Bridge again and visit Kristina
At the magazine offices and leave
With a bag of books written by the same
Drunks I see in the bars at night when it’s
Hard to come by a cab…

At times, Local Conditions is a journey from bar to pub, where each venue also serves as character. In “Heaven,” Collins writes of a town watering hole and its accompanying cast of regulars:

…Here you can still find foamy pints for $2.50, here
We still call one another friend. Out there are the wives,
The children & debt. Why would we ever go out there?
I can see the whole world perched on this stool and I gotta
Tell you I want no part of it. Some days someone walks in
With the paper or asks to change the channel to the news.
He is not-so-politely told to leave. There is no time here.
Nothing happens by design. It is wonderful.

It is always an achievement in poetry and writing in general to render a familial piece effectively without becoming too melancholic, melodramatic or pathetic, all of which can weaken impact. Collins deftly accomplishes deep feeling and resonance with the reader while avoiding any of the aforementioned traps in poems such as “Anger.” In it, he writes:

He was right to leave. It just wouldn’t do
Watching his son fall apart in the same bars
Where pieces of his own tattered being
Adorned every smoke-fouled surface. We must
Applaud his courage, if only quietly when alone.
And wish ourselves that same fortitude
To refuse this life and go searching for some other…

Though no word is wasted and no poetry misplaced in Collins’ collection, other strong works include opener “I Am Not Kahlil Gibran,” “Marriage,” “My Wife Goes to War With The Deer,” “City Forge,” “Molina,” “Ruth,” “When My Daughter Is Born,” and “Identifying Trees.”


 

Book Review: POEMS AND THEIR MAKING: A CONVERSATION Moderated by Philip Brady

 photo f538c001-2258-4192-ad0a-14944652bcaf_zpse78heuaz.jpg Poems and Their Making:
A Conversation

Moderated by Philip Brady
Etruscan Press, 2015
$23.95

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Poems and Their Making: A Conversation isn’t the kind of book that you read through once and put away.  In specific and individual ways, it is a peek inside the writing process of 31 accomplished poets. Whether a writer, reader, or both, we all want to know the secret to the mystifying process of writing poetry. While there is no definitive answer here or anywhere as to exactly how a poem comes to be, it is an endlessly fascinating process to talk about and this anthology creates a way for this conversation to be revisited.

Inspired by beloved and revered poet/professor, John Wheatcroft, “moderator” Philip Brady writes in his introduction, “No pronouncements here, just a conversation—a continuation of the dialogue Jack Wheatcroft nurtured for so many years [at Bucknell University].” And so Brady kicks off the conversation with a poem and essay written by Wheatcroft. This is basic model for each contribution, though sometimes the essay precedes the poem, or the lines of the poem are within the body of the essay. The poem and essay lengths vary, as well.  Just as it can be an insightful experience to hear a poet read their own work, a poet writing about how their poem came to be, all the backstory, the edits, the time they spent away from it, the moment when it fell into place, is illuminating. Writing is hard work. But what does that work look like? This accessible collection gives its reader 31 personalized, concise approaches to writing poems from their inception, revisions, and completion.

This collection will give the reader a unique insight into the work of the writers they are already familiar with as well as poets they may not recognize or only know by name. In almost every instance, the reader is quickly invited into the poet’s life. The contributors divulge personal details about what was happening when they wrote and revised a particular poem, as Betsy Sholl does in her essay about writing “Redbud” which begins:

More often a poem’s original impulse seems mysterious and then just dogged revision takes over: try this, try that, turn it on its head, turn myself on my head, etc. With this one, however, there was a specific incident that got it going, then a long process of finding its real concerns, and having to wait until I experienced something else, a counter-story to play against it.

Others take a more philosophical view, not only recounting how this exact poem came to be but how they engaged in their own writing framework to create this particular piece. In Paula Closson Buck’s lively essay, “On “Elegy for My Novel,” she identifies and explains:

The Principle of Unforeseen Collapse—the first of several tendencies or inclinations governing poetic practice (mine at least) that, were they not so uncannily responsible for creation, would surely be the destruction of the poet.

There are in fact ten of these “tendencies or inclinations” and the rest are just as excellently named.

I did find my wishing the collection included citations or a reading list. Many of the poets refer to other poets they admire, they quote or summarize favorite morsels they use to keep going with their poetic practice. This would be a great way to continue the conversation, the lineage and legacy of writing, but it is sadly missing.

While some may want to read this book straight through, it’s so delicious, so fortifying, it’s also a manual, a source of inspiration when your writing life is drawing shallow breaths. When this collection is read in the intended sequence, elements from one essay echo in the next. But each voice in this conversation is unique, each offers wisdom worthy of close study as well as practical approaches to revision. I look forward to picking this book up again in a couple of months to see what insights speak to me next.

Book Review: MENDELEEV’S MANDALA by Jessica Goodfellow

 photo 845c6028-9b52-4cf4-b74d-eef21d2102e0_zpsigjihztv.jpg Mendeleev’s Mandala
Poems by Jessica Goodfellow
Mayapple Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

mandala: from the Sanskrit for “circle,” a schematized representation of the cosmos chiefly characterized by a concentric configuration of geometric shapes; in common use, mandala has become a generic term for any diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe

Jessica Goodfellow couldn’t have picked a more apt symbol as the face of her second full-length poetry collection, Mendeleev’s Mandala, out this past February from Mayapple Press. Cleverly represented by a diatom on the book’s cover, the mandala captures perfectly some of the lofty questions Goodfellow sets out to answer from the book’s first page.

How to revisit centuries’ worth of scientific, religious, and cultural development? How to do so in a new, unexpected way? How to accurately represent scientific, logical and linguistic concepts on the page? How to do so intelligibly?

By adopting the mandala as a guide, Goodfellow is able to show how each moment can be a microcosm of the entire human experience and, in turn, how the macrocosms of science, religion, language, and logic can be applied to each moment. Poems like “The Bargain,” “Night View from the Back of a Taxi,” and “Other People’s Lives” do so directly by examining the idea of fractals—curves or geometric figures, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole—but each section of the collection takes on the charge in its own way.

The first section sees Goodfellow applying scientific and logical concepts to everything from the myths of Isaac and Iphigenia to the story of her father’s hometown succumbing to a copper mine. These stories, along with that of her father’s eventual death, use physics and logic to test the limits of our capacity for understanding. The second section focuses on various types of measurement and perception—time, space, distance, and sight—and how they restrict. The third section is a delicious exploration of color’s effect on sensory perception, where we’re treated to the characters of The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau (“the color seen by the eye in perfect darkness… perceived as lighter than a black object in normal lighting conditions”) and her blind husband. The fourth section seems primarily to be an examination of language—its limits and its (in)ability to represent abstract concepts. Finally, the fifth section exists as an amalgamation of the various ideas explored in the previous poems.

As in Dmitri Mendeleev’s version of the periodic table, what is most interesting about this collection is what isn’t present. Like Mendeleev, who noted the absence of certain elements in his table and attempted to predict ways of filling those gaps, Goodfellow often meditates on absence and emptiness in an attempt to reunify the self.

For instance, she considers the idea of nothingness as Sarai, the Torahic heroine, in “The Mother of Nations Waits.”

In the time before zeros,
merchants marked nothing with nothing,
leaving space to show where something was missing.
But what shape was the space?
Sarai wanted to know, pressing on her midriff,
hoping that containing the emptiness was a possibility.

The poem continues with the Babylonian invention of zero—“All losses were made equal / which was a relief to Sarai / and which wasn’t”—and the language of zeros and ones in binary code. By the poem’s end, Sarai comes to understand that “while the opposite of being fertile is being barren, / the opposite of being barren is still being barren.”

Absence also proves a rich lens through which Goodfellow can examine her own father. “How to Find a Missing Father in a Town that Isn’t There” contains a pitch-perfect pun that succinctly sets the scene. “Mine, my father joked, pointing into the gaping hole. / Not mine, he waved his arms in large gestures / in no particular direction.” Not only is the father associated with emptiness here, but he comes to own it (semantically and geographically) as a central part of himself. Later, in “The Factory,” Goodfellow writes, “Kilroy was here means he’s not anymore—a kind of geometry nobody / cannot configure.” An emblematic American symbol, Kilroy, and a universal human loss, the death of a parent, are touchingly intertwined to expand our understanding of grief.

The collection is rife with other examples of absence. “Knot Sonnet” represents the space between two people in a relationship as the growing distance between geese flying in vee formation. “Night View from the Back of a Taxi” makes note of a verb tense in Ojibwe that conjugates “what was going to happen / but didn’t.”

But perhaps the most beautiful and interesting portion of the collection is its final poem, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland.” Written in six sections, the poem begins to give way to chaos in its sixth line as random numbers begin to invade the words on the page. Is this an invisible science behind the scenes becoming visible? A visual representation of the randomness we all exist within? An attempt to fill the emptiness? In any case, it’s a wild experience to watch as spaces and the insides of words are consumed by a rush of numbers. As the final page fills with a block of arbitrarily sequenced numbers, the reader realizes she must agree with Goodfellow and her son on their opinion of night, and of life:

“It’s such a lovely dark.”