Book Review: THE DOG LOOKS HAPPY UPSIDE DOWN by Meg

The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down
by Meg Pokrass
Etruscan Press, 2017
$15.00

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

One can only hope that their book review could be as concise and affecting as one of Meg Pokrass’s stories in her collection, The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down. Sporting fifty raw and honest vignettes, this text beckons the reader into explicit glimpses at the frailty of relationships through the powerful recollection of daydreams, failures, and awkward almosts.

Most attractive in this book are Pokrass’s clear, minimalist moves within each compact story, lacing them tight with care. Broken down into their short, flash-fiction form, there’s a sense that there’s more to each moment, yet they feel complete; we have all the information we need to connect with the specific emotions she sprinkles forth. On that note, while being labeled “flash fiction,” all of these read like radiant poetry. Especially at her most concise in cases like “Sit In Here,” all the fixings of the prose poem are at work.

He lives in dreams with me but he wants it to stay that way; a scene in a movie right before the middle when the popcorn is still perfect. I’ll follow him into a deep blue anything.

With a slight detachment from the rest of the story, she mesmerizes the reader with acute metaphors that are exquisitely enigmatic.

All of the entries in this collection achieve this poetic success, but “The Light-well” is particularly thoughtful, supported by a strong sense of symmetry. Pokrass opens with an image of a light well in the middle of an apartment complex, where pigeons fly down, make nests, and rarely make it out again. The core of the story lies between the main character and her roommate, Zoe, who was recently mugged and needs to be cared for after breaking her shoulder and suffering from the trauma of the event. The narrator calls the rain-flooded light well “pigeon suicide.” This seems to be paralleled in the lives of the two characters; it’s not clear whether the narrator is male or female, but their same-sex relationship is implicit in one of her final lines:

She nuzzles my neck, and I decide there is nothing more thrilling than calling the conservative parents of my lover, people who voted for Jesus in the last election and wear red, white and blue hats and slippers—people who will end the wonderful times we are having here.

These details enlighten the reader to the couple’s own light well struggle, whether they’re rained out by Zoe’s conservative parents or the more aggressive public, represented in Zoe’s maiming.

“The Light-well” and many others exhibit Pokrass’s ability to write with stripped-down prose. She’s able to open up her often nameless characters into real, bare beings within a limited word count, occasionally using sexuality and sexual encounters. “The Cooling” is a passion-fueled piece. It features Kim and Todd, both still kids in school (although their age isn’t stated), who seek intense and risky ways to spend their summer days together. In one scene, the two spy from a tree as the newlywed neighbors fornicate. Pokrass tackles this young erotic experience with tact:

Watching it makes Kim squeamish, so she watches Todd’s mouth and her face gets hot. To quiet her pulse, she thinks about her brother’s face, her brother’s return. They watch until the end. Then they slide off the tree.

This story is just one of many examples of Pokrass’s dabbling with carnal scenes and passionate characters.

Pokrass’s book makes a hellacious footprint when regarded as a holistic entity. The stories will make a reader feel a thousand different moments all at once. Like walking circles around the Picassos at Centre Pompidou, this collection gives off a multi-angular vision of provocative, real life. It’s a little absurd, sometimes hilarious, and reminiscent of early-twentieth-century cubist delirium.

The quick and potent constituents of The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down feel like racing up a tree and grabbing onto bough after bough, each one cradling a nest of wailing chicks. As you pass them, the chicks make their first jump, but you’ll never see them touch the ground.


 

Book Review: THE BOWL WITH GOLD SEAMS by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

The Bowl with Gold Seams
by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Apprentice House Press, 2016
$16.99

Reviewed by Kelly Dasta

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, is a touching work of historical fiction which focuses on themes of acceptance, love, and overcoming tragedy. Campbell tells the story of the Bedford Springs Hotel in Pennsylvania that served as a detainment center for the Japanese ambassador of Berlin, his staff, and their families during the summer of 1945. The narrative is told from the perspective of Hazel Shaw, a Quaker who is employed at the hotel after her husband, Neal, goes missing in action while fighting the war in Japan and her father passes away. The story’s prologue and epilogue show Hazel’s present life in 1985: She’s the headmaster at Clear Spring Friends School faced with the decision to accept the resignation of a black teacher, Jacques Thibeault, who she believes is falsely accused of sexual assault by a troublesome student. If she does not accept, she risks being fired herself. After the prologue, we go back in time to Hazel’s past at the hotel. People are hostile towards the detainees, but Hazel sees them as equals, so she befriends them and gives them books. When the war ends, Hazel is grief stricken to find out her husband is dead, so her friend Takeo Harada leaves her a bowl that has been broken and repaired using gold seaming.

The title, The Bowl with Gold Seams, captures how Hazel’s life (and the lives of others) can be broken and repaired just like the bowl: “This bowl has been broken and mended many times. It has lasted. And so will you.” Hazel lost her husband who fought in Japan, but she is kinder to detainees than anyone. Hazel’s ability to transcend surface-level judgments illustrates how anyone is capable of looking past borders to care for and respect each other. Despite being set over half a century ago, the themes in the book are completely relevant for our contemporary world and the struggles surrounding acceptance. I appreciate how the framing of the story in 1985 demonstrates how past experiences affect the decisions we make in the present. Hazel stood up for minorities in the past and carries her experiences with her to the present, stating, “Jacques is a fine teacher. And I have to say it—he’s one of our only minority teachers, too. We can’t sacrifice him to slander and extortion.”

However, as good as the story is, I must admit there are minor issues with the writing. Some important scenes are glossed over, such as the progression of Hazel and Neal’s relationship and the moment Hazel’s father dies—both are told in compressed time. The book is only 215 pages, perhaps if it were longer and if Campbell had let those moments linger, these scenes would resonate more. Adding to the short length, certain descriptive details are left out, making some passages confusing. The opening paragraph is vague and left me with no sense of location because there was limited description of scene and action. There were several places in the book similar to this that left me wanting for clarification and description.

Despite these issues, The Bowl with Gold Seams emphasizes the importance of standing up for minorities, and it’s hard to criticize a book with such a strong and relevant message. Hazel is flawed like all of us, but she is kind to the detainees even if it risks her safety, and she stands up for Jacques, even if it means getting fired. It is a quick read, but not the easiest read. The reader will be looking to feel a bigger emotional impact in certain sections, but the ones that do resonate will open your eyes to empathy and beauty.


 

Pacing a Poem

by Gerry LaFemina

I’m thinking of pacing, specifically of someone (an expectant father, ala the fifties cliche?) pacing a room: walking in one direction then turning and walking back. In this regard the gesture is akin to the etymology of verse– “Old English fers, from Latin versus ‘a turn of the plow, a furrow, a line of writing,’ from vertere ‘to turn’; reinforced in Middle English by Old French vers, from Latin versus. The movement of the verse line is a kind of pacing, a turning back.

So to talk about the pace of the poem, we are then, in some way, talking about the line. Pace, in the end has to do with the speed of motion, in general, and according to the American Heritage Dictionary definitions, they particularly have to do with walking or marching. Perhaps this is why it’s important to think about the rhythmic foot. But meter, in the end, is only one way of measuring rhythm, measuring the pace of the poem: it is not rhythm itself. Vers libre removed much of the trappings of meter in poetry, but not the need for rhythm, the need for the poem to have a pace. Williams and Pound talked about cadence, “a term formerly often used to describe the rhythmical flow of such nonmetrical prosodies as Biblical poetry, Whitman, free verse of several stripes, and prose poetry. Drawn from music the term … implies a looser concept of poetic rhythm than that applied to metrical poetry and mainly refers to phrasing.”

Pacing is about the rhythmic movement of lines down the page, and how we create that momentum. Each poem, each emotion, seems to demand its own pacing, and in some ways therefore, talking about pacing is pointless: there are no real rules, no magic solutions. Still, it’s important for poets to consider the ways poems are paced, the way poets manipulate the rhythms of a poem. Syntax, alliteration, diction, rhyming, the juxtapositions of sounds, and line all play into how a poem speeds along the page. It goes without saying that a Dickinson poem and a Whitman poem pace differently down the page, in part because of each poet’s sense of line, each poet’s vision and vision of a poem.

For instance, a recent poem from The New Yorker is written almost entirely in lines ending in a period, with the exception of one that ends with a dash at the end of a clause, maintaining a sense that the poem keeps stopping, and another that is enjambed. More, most of the lines in Michael Hoffman’s “In Western Mass” have at least one caesura in it, as we see here:

Once, an owl huddled there, pecked at by small birds.
It was daytime and just beginning to snow. Such a picture of misery.

Me in my blue shirt, and James’s tie. A frog
hopped over my boot. It seemed like luck. Then the threshold.

Notice how the enjambed line break actually enacts the meaning of its sentence (hopping over the break), and how the poem uses sentence fragments (“Such a picture of memory” and “Then the threshold”) to further slow the poem. The result is a poem the pace of which captures the spirit of its first line: “What do I remember of those strange episodic parts of my life.” Fragments. Bits. The poem’s pace engages the hesitation of the thought process.

Line and punctuation are only two ways to control the pacing of the poem. Consider the opening stanza of “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, and read it out loud, paying attention to the movement of your mouth.

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The numerous plosives (P and B sounds) and velar stops (K sounds)  force our mouths closed and thus slow the poem for the demands of articulation, and the forced breath of such sounds enacts the threats of the household. These sounds disappear from the poem as the speaker comes to better terms with the memory of his father.

Pacing then is as much about what’s happening at any given moment in a poem as it is about the sounds and energy of the poem. Crystal Williams begins “In Search of Aunt Jemima” like this:

I have sailed the south rivers of China and prayed to hillside Buddhas.

I’ve lived in Salamanca, Cuernavaca, Misawa, and Madrid, have stood upon the anointed sands of Egypt and found my soul in their grains.

I’ve read more fiction, non-fiction, biographies, poetry, magazines, essays, and bullshit than imaginable, possible, or even practical. I am beyond well read, am somewhat of a bibliophile. Still, I’m gawked at by white girls on subways who want to know why and how I’m reading T.S Eliot.

Consider the way momentum builds in this poem, the forward movement of its phrasing: the first line is a statement, the second a longer statement, the third is yet a longer statement, this one followed by a sentence of self editorializing, which is then given a rationale, a statement of why this is important. The poem’s energy builds, early on, as Williams paces the poem by extending both the line and the sentence to build momentum.

Later on, to create emphasis, Williams shortens the line creating a staccato effect that enacts the speaker’s building frustration:

I am not your timberland, tommy hilfiger,
10K hollow-hoop wearin
gangsta rappin
crack dealin
blunt smokin
bandanna wearin
Bitch named Poochie.

Repetition of sounds and the high number of stressed syllables furthers this sensibility.

Each poem–each moment of a poem–makes demands of the poem’s pacing. As The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics points out “since poetry is of course made up of language, the natural rhythms of speech are the threads of which larger rhythmic cadences and meters are woven.” For me, “speech” is the key word here, because poems are still meant to be said aloud, how they’re spoken is the key to pacing.  Change the syntax and you no doubt change the pacing and how a reader (or listener) experiences what’s said in the poem.

Our vision for a poem, of course, shapes the pacing even more. A poet such as Jan Beatty often writes poems that rely on narrative structures, and such poems engage a quickness that is related to the art of storytelling and reliant on enjambments among other things to propel us more quickly down the page, as in these lines from “The Zen of Tipping”:

My friend Lou
used to walk up to strangers
and tip them—no, really—
he’d cruise the South Side,
pick out the businessman on his way
to lunch, the slacker hanging
by the Beehive, the young girl
walking her dog, and he’d go up…

Furthermore, echoing sounds at the end of the line at the beginning of the following line does a lot for smoothing out the enjambed break.

Whereas the more lyrical-meditations of Mark Doty draw out moments through description: the held camera of the poem remaining firm so that the poem slows, as in this excerpt from “Broadway”:

So many pockets and paper cups
                    and hands reeled over the weight
                              of that glittered pavement, and at 103rd

a woman reached to me across the wet roof
                    of a stranger’s car and said, I’m Carlotta,
                              I’m hungry. She was only asking for change,

so I don’t know why I took her hand.
                    The rooftops were glowing above us,
                              enormous, crystalline, a second city

lit from within.

Despite the number of sentences here, everything seems to be happening at once. The action of Carlotta interrupting the reverie of “So many pockets…” and followed up by a moment of self commentary about the moment are all meant to be simultaneous. Here the poem’s thinking is suspended and thus its pacing slows down despite the enjambments. The indented lines adds to this, making each line feel longer while simultaneously being the same length–creating a visual stretching out of time itself.

And pacing, after all, is about time. Not just the tempo of the line, but how we manipulate lyricism and narration and meditation: by shifting the gears of our thinking from narrative advancement to lyrical reverie to contemplative commentary, we engage various aspects of thinking in the reader that may slow down or speed up accordingly. Pacing, ultimately, is about the elasticity of time in the poem. It is neither metronome nor clock, bur reflective of the tempo of our engagement with language and subject matter, voice and vision. Craft gives us ways to enhance the pacing of our thoughts.


Book Review: KUBRICK RED by Simon Roy

Kubrick Red
by Simon Roy
trns. Jacob Homel
Anvil Press
$18.00

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

In his memoir Kubrick Red, Simon Roy presents readers with a beautifully honest account of his family history, revealing the past in tandem with facts about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As Roy’s debut memoir, Kubrick Red was translated from French to English by Jacob Homel and received the Independent Publisher Book Award for Best First Book—Nonfiction. The award is only fitting for such a unique and memorable work. Admittedly obsessed with Kubrick’s film because of its eerie relationship to his family’s story, Roy has penned a horde of behind-the-scenes facts about The Shining that complement his memoir. He has perfected a delicate balance between film buff trivia and personal narrative, ensuring readers’ growing emotional investment in the story.

Skillfully echoing The Shining’s unnerving progression, Roy’s story builds its shock value and poignancy with increasing velocity. “My deep examination of this magisterial work is akin to spooling out a thread behind me,” Roy explains of his favorite film. At first, Roy’s efforts to compare his own life to such an infamous thriller seem impossibly dramatic. But as the book continues, movie trivia subtly informs his family history. Roy keeps readers in the dark about his family past just like the film steadily divulges the Overlook hotel’s history. It is not until halfway through the book that readers learn Roy’s mother had a twin sister. Roy then delves into the question: “Does fiction simply mirror an increasingly violent reality, or does it stoke the flames by inspiring increasingly barbaric acts?” He demonstrates how The Shining broaches the theme of mirrored or inspired violence through the use of twins, doubles, and repetition.

Clearly, the idea of cyclical trauma is replicated in Roy’s family narrative. His mother and her twin are only the simplest connection. Roy also explains that his mother’s depression was the result of psychological trauma, causing her to “repeatedly relive the pain [she] underwent,” another representation of cycles similar to The Shining’s plot repeating past events. In this way, the movie facts and Roy’s personal life synergistically construct a complex narrative, each chapter piecing together readers’ understanding of the material. Roy’s choice to include specific film facts prevents family drama from appearing overbearing and cleverly allows the story to intensify, mimicking the film.

Not only did this book make me want to return to The Shining, it also gave me the most original and personal account of mental illness that I have read to date. This was not a generalization of depression and mental instability forced on a character. It was a sincere portrayal of psychological trauma and how it can affect an individual and generations to follow. Dedicated to his mother, Roy’s story chronicles her lifelong depression, reflecting on events from his childhood to more present years with an evolved understanding of the disease. Roy is adept at placing his readers in a scene and subtly shifting the focus to a mature emotional standpoint on the experience. “Above us, on the next floor up, an apathetic woman in her early forties was in her bedroom. My mother slept like the dead, knocked out more than numbed by Ativan. And I, the self-centered virgin, kissed a girl for the first time,” he writes, using simple observations and juxtaposition to portray regret and new found sympathy for his mother’s struggle.

As a work of translation, Kubrick Red seems to stay true to the original manuscript thanks to its translator, Jacob Homel. Homel’s efforts to ensure that the translation is as genuine as possible are evident and honorable, especially considering the profoundly personal content of the book. At times, adjectives and descriptors were noticeably precise, like when Roy described his mother saying, “She was a mix of intuition, desperate solitude, and feminine sensitivity.” The specificity of these adjectives, or phrases like “birthing home,” seemed to be evidence of a very conscious and thoughtful translation. This only served to strengthen readers’ connection to Roy as a narrator.

Obviously, this is a book any fan of The Shining could dive into. But aside from that, it is a truly fresh memoir that should not be missed by readers in general. Kubrick Red is the kind of book that, like its movie inspiration, will leave you thinking for days. In a way, the novel will haunt its readers after they put it down, if not because of the horrific details then certainly because of its originality and ability to connect with its audience.


 

Leaps of Faith

by Gerry LaFemina

In the opening chapter of The Triggering Town, aptly titled “Writing off Subject,” Richard Hugo writes that a “poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean.”  Further he says, “The triggering subject should trigger the imagination as well as the poem.” More it should trigger the imagination of both the poet and the reader, and it does so through it use of language and image, tempo and tone.

I often tell my students, don’t tell me what you want to write about—subjects can be a handcuff. Write the story of the time the police pulled you over for speeding, and you might have a funny or scary or sad story to tell, and you might then leap to the expected indignations of police overreach, the threat of police violence (or lack thereof, and thus emphasize a notion of privilege), or the boredom of small town cops, none of which is surprising because those are the inherent subjects of the story. Such poems don’t thrill the writer in the end, particularly if they’re stories told before, and they offer little to no surprise, no discovery, for the reader. We nod our heads, say to ourselves, damn cops.  Which is to say nothing new for the writer, nothing new for the reader.

A poet might make such poems funny, might read them in such a way that it performs well, but it won’t ever transcend itself. Why? Because the poem makes no leap from its triggering subject, it makes no leap into the creative imagination, that subconscious zone in which the best poetry comes from. In Leaping Poetry, Bly describes the poetic leap as “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again” and notes that the “real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem.”

I would say that more than it being the real joy of the poem, it’s the real essence of our best poems. Consider how one of the words for poet in Latin, is vates which also means soothsayer or seer; ditto, kavi, in many Indian languages. The poet is someone who sees beyond the triggering subject and into the connectivity of the world, hence the importance of metaphor. This is why I tell my students to ignore what they want to write about and instead write about what in the world catches their attention, and then explore, through the act of writing, why it catches them. Such images are often inherently metaphoric.

Still, some ask me, often more than once, how do they make leaps? There is no easy answer to this inquiry, but the inquiry itself leads us to metaphor: the leap in the end is itself metaphoric.

Leaping is an act of childhood, other than the lords in The Twelve Days of Christmas and some track stars, adults rarely leap. But kids—they leap. They leap over puddles and from hay lofts; they leap over each other each other and leap into swimming holes. And they learn the distance they can manage with a leap. Who hasn’t tried leaping over a puddle, only to land in the middle, spraying ourselves and those around us with water? Only by leaping do we know how far we can leap. Only by leaping do we discover what’s possible and what isn’t. Only by practice do we extend our range.

Thus, when writing we have to return to a sense of play, to a sense of possibility, to a sense of exploration. We have to revel in what the language gives us beyond what we can consciously conceive from our triggering desire to write about X. Perhaps that’s why Bly goes back to one of his poetic fathers: “To write well, you must ‘become like little children.’ Blake, discussing ‘experience,’ declared that to be afraid of a leap into the unconscious is actually to be in a state of ‘experience.’”

Consider the urge to publish, the urge to make a career of poetry: this makes poetry an adult preoccupation, and therefore we might feel sometimes a need to make it safe. By that I mean fit into a school, satisfy some audience, and move linearly rather than laterally. We avoid associations that might seem like a stretch for the obvious, the easy, the step as opposed to leap.

Stephen Dunn says a good love poem must have a “but” in it, which is a type of leap. Mark Doty in his poem “This Is Your Home Now” writes:

                                      …Then (I hear my friend Marie
laughing over my shoulder, saying In your poems

there’s always a then, and I think, Is it a poem
without a then.).

“Then” and “but” are easy ways to establish a leap. Whatever follows “then” can be anything. It allows for radical changes in direction, whereas “but” allows us to double back, leap away from our own declarations, avoid being pinned down in our thinking.

Sometimes leaping means taking out the narrative context, and allowing for the language and scenario to do the work. For instance, last night I began a draft of a new poem with this line: “Earlier the sun turned around, began its long walk southward.” It’s a line I liked. I followed it up with this line, “& so the calendar made summer official,” which was crossed out almost immediately because 1. It’s explaining the metaphor, and therefore, 2. It’s obvious. So I started writing a few potential second lines, some of which never got finished:

so finally after dark…
     
No, too narrative.

the asphalt releasing steam all afternoon
     That’s just repeating the notion that it’s hot.

now that I’ve waited till after dark…
     Clumsy

now I walk the town’s streets all the neighborhood dogs dreaming
     Closer

“Now” could be a leap, a movement away from “Earlier” that opened the draft. However, cutting some more of the narrative away I came up with this for a second line: “Now all the neighborhood dogs dream of filet mignon & belly rubs.” This is a leap of a second line. There’s no cause and effect, there’s no connection, only possibility in the gap between the two. Here the poem as a discovery zone has opened up for me as a writer, and I hope for the reader as well.

Once a student was writing a poem about the county fair, and the poem was filled with all the things that we know are at a county fair: midway games, cotton candy, a fun house, carnies. The poem went to all the expected places and that was its key problem. The poem was vivid, its language, at times, delightful. But unlike the very reason we go to the county fair (to be taken out of our humdrum days), the poem failed to surprise or delight. Finally, I suggested she start listing all the things at the county fair: step away from the hall of mirrors and perhaps the ticket booth— with its connotations of buying “escape,” or the demolition derby, or the adolescents making out in the Ferris Wheel carriage, or the parents at home who didn’t want to cramp a child’s style, or the fairgrounds a week later when everything is gone.

Jumping time, jumping place, jumping frog contest at the county fair, and how I didn’t win despite the bullfrog “ringer” I was given when I was eight, summer vacation in upstate New York. My frog came in second place, and then I set it free.

Of course I don’t have to tell you that last bit isn’t true. It just illustrates the way language and time and place can all lead to a cognitive and imaginative leap. The best leaps are both risky and inevitable.

The British Underground reminds us to “mind the gap,” by which they are imploring us to be safe, to step over the space between the station platform and train car. Whether we are readers or writers, poems beg us to take some chances, the leap as much a leap of faith as a leap between modes of cognitive thinking, between conscious and unconscious experience, the little electrochemical charge of a thought surging across the space between axon and dendrite some thousands of times. Leaping, in the end, is how we think.


 

Book Review: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Contents Under Pressure 
by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Broadkill River Press, 2016
$16.99

Reviewed by Bryce Johle 

Ellen Prentiss Campbell gives us a taste of several coming-of-age conflicts in her short story collection, Contents Under Pressure. From the metamorphosis of college student to real-world-dweller in “Sea Change,” to the challenges of midlife crises and divorce in “Peripheral Vision” and “Entangled Objects,” and even dealing with the denial of life’s bookend in “Dance Lessons,” Campbell grounds us in reality, unearthing the drama in otherwise mundane facets of school, work, love, and family.

The book takes us to relatable places, but one story does so with a surprising twist. “Sea Change” is my favorite story in the collection. Campbell introduces us to Adrienne, a college student studying marine biology. She’s the kind of character many of us identify with: passionate about her major, but wishing the college struggle would lead her to something more fulfilling. We’re full of envy when Adrienne impulsively answers an ad that reads, “Seeking adventurous scientist for underwater exploration. Willingness to relocate a prerequisite.” The tale takes us down a path where Adrienne’s “underwater exploration” has another prerequisite—becoming a mermaid through medication designed for physical alteration.

With this story, Campbell plays with the idea that you should be able to become what you’re passionate about. It reminds me of my friends and me, how we grew up with big dreams and constant distress over potentially using our degrees in writing, fine art, and accounting to manage a Domino’s or push grocery carts. “Sea Change” is at once the epitome of escape from the real world and the ideal post-college destination.

It’s also the only story in the book that takes a science-fiction route to makes its point. Among a series of ordinary narratives which feel drawn from life experiences, it’s surprising how well Campbell performs with more fantastic subject matter. It reminds me of a Vonnegut adventure; it’s moored by concrete issues, but fearlessly wanders into strange territory to achieve a swimmingly impactful metaphor.

Other standouts are the stories that feature previously established characters. “Peripheral Vision” and “Entangled Objects” are adjacent in the book, and each follow Meg and her husband, Walker, an older couple who continuously experience the vicissitudes of marriage, teetering on the prospect of divorce.

Campbell’s strength is developing characters over time, which she proves with these two stories. Her ability of splicing together marriage conflicts in a chapter-like design displays endurance with the drama. Specifically, she shows us an uncertain couple trying to regain a sense of youth. They dress up like JFK and Jackie for a Halloween party, where an authentic fortune-telling gypsy warns them that “something is going to happen,” and to “be ready.” In “Entangled Objects,” the uncertainty is prolonged in their home, where the reader is allowed to feel Meg and Walker’s seniority through thoughts of their grown-up children and refusing to forget old affairs.

The book opens with “Depth Perception,” a story that attempts to criticize psychology and adoptive parenting, which Campbell is able to do by the end of the story, albeit with sacrifices to flow and character development. This story emphasizes Campbell’s difficulty with developing characters within the frame of a short story, showcasing a big plot with contrived players.

Despite the issues with the title story, this collection also contains gems like “Bicycle Lessons.” Here, Campbell accomplishes the great feat of manifesting the mind of a child; she acknowledges when something in Lydia’s small world is out of place, but retains the ignorance that keeps her from fully comprehending the reality of a situation. Campbell intentionally withholds information, never explicitly telling us the reason for Lydia’s father’s spotty home presence, aside from the fact that he stays at someplace referred to as the “Lodge.” By the end, there’s a strong implication of her father dealing with depression, accompanied by the metaphor of “learning to ride” that holds up the whole story:

I mounted the bicycle and rode fast toward the Lodge, as though I would be in time to see him, as he stood on the fire escape, stretching up on his toes, preparing to dive, preparing to fly. As though, if I hurried, I could catch him as he fell.

It’s a story that lets your nose leave the page only to sigh and contemplate its binding, final words.

Contents Under Pressure shows us Campbell’s ability to frame poignancy, especially when she takes the time to carefully recollect life’s steepest humps and unfold her characters across stories. While it’s not a perfect book, it’s a successful kicking-off point for establishing her potential in the fiction realm.


 

Book Review: HEADING HOME: FIELD NOTES by Peter Anderson

Heading Home: Field Notes
by Peter Anderson
Conundrum Press, 2017
$14.99

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

In Heading Home, field notes are more akin to poignant vignettes, setting Anderson apart as a master of poetic fiction. What is truly remarkable about Peter Anderson’s writing is his ability pull the reader into the experience with him and then leave them deep in thought following the briefest scenes. In simple snapshots, he provides sharp observations of his surroundings. And whether those surroundings are people, places, or things, Anderson always manages to breath life onto the page. Alert and meditative, Heading Home is a book that makes you want to reread every page and share each one with a friend. With every vignette, Anderson colors his writing with wit, contemplation, and care. He will turn the invasion of a killer raccoon into a noir crime scene and simultaneously ask you to appreciate the varying responses from his 8- and 12-year-old daughters. He will piece together a list of Spanish phrases to use at the bar while leading you through an arc of emotion.

From a scripture-citing barista to Barbie dolls, readers can enter each vignette and expect to encounter bold characters and unique imagery because of Anderson’s ability to see significance in the ordinary. “A dust devil whirls up from the south, leaving a thin film of red sand on the windshield. I could wash it all away, but it softens the bright light, so I let it be—this remnant of the wind made visible,” Anderson writes in a piece titled “Espresso in Kayenta.” These minute moments, like sand gathering on his windshield, make Anderson’s work feel genuine, authentically representing one man’s particular experience in the American West. Perhaps he was just stopping for coffee, but Anderson is attentive to the details of that stop that made it a significant memory. And it is with this cognizance that he is able to imprint that memory on his readers as well.

Moreover, Anderson’s awareness extends to writers that came before him. He understands the wilderness writer trope that he might be forced into and shuts it down with “Letter to Jack Kerouac.” Yes, Anderson is a writer inspired by his travels, but his road is not an imitation. Rather, Anderson effortlessly transcends stereotype with double-consciousness. “Some time ago, I drove past the sign that says there is more in the rear view than I will ever see through the windshield,” he writes. The quote, while indicative of Anderson’s age and position as a narrator, also demonstrates his consciousness of something else. That maybe he could have been typecast as a formulaic wanderer once, but he has decidedly continued writing about his travels, now with reflective growth. Unlike Kerouac, Anderson’s field notes hold an underlying search, not for abundant possibilities, but for refuge in the seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life in the Midwest. “I’ve given up anywhere for somewhere, which strikes me now as a fair trade,” he explains in his letter. With this mindfulness, Anderson’s travels remain striking and never feel overused.

Equally remarkable is Anderson’s powerful narrative voice, composed of swift wit and outstanding diction. “If the lower elevations called me now and then, it was only until the nightmares came: visions of après ski tights and fur jackets wandering the newly fern-barred streets of this ghost town turned resort,” he states. Before readers can even begin to appreciate his subtle humor, Anderson is on to another vista (in this case, “the old cabin surrounded by an invasion of doublewides”) or piece of quick wisdom. His writing is concise and rapid, keeping readers vigilant. This straightforward but clever voice enables Anderson to capture so much thought in such short passages.

This is the kind of book you pick up and finish reading before you’ve realized. Each field note brings new insights into the importance of little things, forcing readers to dive deeper and deeper into thought as the book continues. Rereading scenes is unavoidable, not because Anderson outwits his readers, but because each piece can be appreciated individually and then as part of a poetic compilation. This book left me feeling refreshed as a reader and covetous of Anderson’s sharp observational eye.


 

On Ekphrastics

by Gerry LaFemina

For the last few years, I’ve been working with the Italian photographer Leila Myftija, writing poems in dialogue with her photographs. The photos are varied: one depicts a group of children at the beach, another is a close up of a section of an industrial grate, another a wicker ball. Some conjure my imagination immediately, others less so. One, a photograph of some Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast, is both one of Leila’s favorites and one that has given me fits and starts.

This is an experiment, in the end, of ekphrastics, and so much of my work has engaged art, though never quite like this. A number of the prose poems in Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist are ekphrastics, tackling (often) early twentieth century modernist paintings like those of Joan Miró; I’ve co-edited two anthologies of poets “covering” albums for the Lo-fi Poetry Series; and I got an early start publishing by writing freelance art reviews in the mid-1980s. I love visual art and music, and writing poems can be a way of entering a dialogue with work that excites us.

This photograph didn’t excite me. It’s lovely: it’s framed nicely; the froth of the water is lit up and almost tactile. One small boat comes in, another rests on shore with its fisherman waiting. Time and again I’ve started the poem. Failed. Started again.

I’m reminded of the reaction my students have when I give them one particular writing prompt. Often, when I’m out in a new city, I make sure to go to art museums and after a walk through of the galleries I always stop in the gift shop and sort through the postcards featuring selections from their collection. I like the abstracts, the funky, the non-representational… I buy them in bulk and then bring them to my office. At a certain point in the semester I present them to my class fanned out, face down, tell my students to pick a card but not look at it. It’s a magic trick after all, the ability to make something appear from nothingness. I also hand out 4×6 index cards. Then they turn the postcards over.

The goal: to write a poem that is informed by the picture on the front of the postcard that would fit on the back of it. The 4×6 index cards become the “backs” to assure that nobody complains that one student’s postcard is bigger than someone else’s. Inevitably the questions arise: do I want them to describe the picture? Maybe. Can it use the title of the painting? Sure, but it doesn’t have to. Can I trade for a picture I like better? No.

I received similar questions from those submitting to Clash by Night (covering the Clash’s London Calling) and the forthcoming Poet Sounds (covering the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds). What does it mean to cover a record? I don’t know.

Writing ekphrastics means engaging someone else’s vision with your own, interpreting an art form from one medium to another mediated by your interpretation, taste, feelings. It helps to have strong feelings for the piece, but sometimes, that’s not always an option. Writing about such art becomes a way to develop one’s feelings and one’s interpretation of the piece, much as writing about a love relationship hones and sharpens the feeling toward the beloved. The less one “likes” a particular piece also allows for the imagination to run wild, divorces the writerly vision from the admiration of the artwork (and perhaps wanting to describe it in such a way as to show one’s love for it).

There is something third world about the photograph of these fishermen, something I found vaguely off-putting. I didn’t want to appropriate their culture. I hadn’t been there—the photographer had! I tried connecting them with the old guys who used to fish and crab off of South Beach on Staten Island, but that seemed obvious and trite. I wanted to avoid blank description. I wanted to create a connection where I found none. This is the ekphrastic challenge, made more challenging because the connection in the poem has to also connect readers to the art object even if they haven’t seen the work, heard the song…. What we’re doing as writers in the end is making a separate and equal artwork that pays homage to the original without requiring that the reader know the original, or like it as much as we do.

The other challenge, of course, is to not write the same type of poem over and over again, to not enter each ekphrastic poem the same way. Different strategies ensure different poems. Having different reactions to the originals means that I have different attitudes inherently involved in the writing of each poem. For “Fishermen,” I finally just asked questions of the photo itself, presented those as the first line, giving some voice to my concerns about the composition. Details from the photograph itself emerged, not enough for the reader to imagine the photograph, but the goal of ekphrasia is not to recreate the photograph in text, but to create new art. There’s enough to stimulate a picture in the reader’s mind, and I think I found a meta-purpose for the poem, some emotional depth to make it linger. That lingering, like the heat of the sun onus long after we’ve come in from the beach: that’s what I want from all the art I love.

 

photo by Leila Myftija; poem by Gerry LaFemina


 

Volume 18: Summer 2017

“Garden of Choices” by Mary Sesso
“Road Trip” by Kathryn Hunt
“The First Time” by Komal Mathew
“Prison Lesson” by Sonja James
“Homecoming” by Bill Glose
“At the Mother-Daughter Tea” by Tammy Robacker
“Visitation” by Rebecca Dunham
“Home” by Doralee Brooks
“Royce—No Man’s Land” by Markham Johnson
“Ghazal to John, from Exhile” by Steven Bellin-Oka
“Whiteout” by Wayne Johns
“Hymen Hymn” by Seema Yasmin
“Escape” by Joshua Martin
“White Horses” by Roberta Senechal de la Roche
“Because the Wreck” by Mike Saye
“Wedding” by Lesley Wheeler


 

GARDEN OF CHOICES

It all comes down
to my friend telling me
he’s an empty basket.
Why not fill it, I ask,
with the dead of night,
the wet light of morning,
or maybe a sigh?

Next, a layer of sound—
the bark of an unseen dog,
song the cricket hauls
to my porch to drown out
the tyranny of thunder,
and the murmur of wildflowers
as frost hovers.

Then you could weave
across the basket handle
the hiss of a sling shot stone
speeding past your ear,
the shiver from its closeness
and the splendor of a spark
as stone strikes stone.

 

ROAD TRIP

by Kathryn Hunt

In the humid honeycomb of night,
trucks loaded down with carnage
stutter at the pumps. Neon tubes
sell cigarettes, the news, an umpteenth
million chance to get it right. I buy one
for a dollar.

We roll south and east, past fields of ripening
hops and wheat, high plateaus fashioned
from forgotten seas. Knuckled apple trees
untended at the edge of town. A for sale
sign flapping from a mothballed missile site.
The river where we knelt to kiss
the mineral rush of clear cold water.
The dreamy blur of miles.

In a campground, a herd of children
run free-range, their tracks beneath
the pines. Their voices ricochet
against basalt. Why is it now
that I remember them, of all the ones
we left behind? The way their
words chimed, calling us to look,
although I want to say they reminded me
of breaking glass, the way they traveled
privately and bare skinned into
the belly of their lives, not innocent—
we never were—full of harm and
yearnings, pitiless, proud, the mystery
of being, unhinged from time. Only
the seasons turned, only sun. Only
our bodies to drag us deeper.

Love, death, heat, gasoline. An apple
ripening on a slender stem, the makings
of a garden where no other than
the Other lives, the other one
you’d come to love if you would
love yourself, the child sleeping
in the dark. Bees pilot in from
ruined hives, their silver throats
tin cups to drink the world’s blank
suffering. Stench of slaughterhouse
in turned-down light, pumpjacks
along the highway, sexless beasts against
the sky, devouring. We all have ways
of whistling in the dark. It’s a fragile art
to breathe and settle deep into faux leather
seats beside your lover, crossing Lolo Pass,
eighty miles an hour, just after midnight,
stars, sober, a humbling mountain
range behind you.

 

THE FIRST TIME

by Komal Mathew

The first time I heard
the story of the prodigal son,
I was in college and always jealous,

imagining him in his father’s robe
and ring, eating all that calf.
Dishonor is worse than death.

I believe it because I’m Indian
and hear so many stories about
unkept marriages and children

who leave their parents in homes
where they don’t serve Gujarati
meals.  My father still makes me

promise to take care of him,
even if I have a better choice,
even if the food is not that bad.

This time I hear the parable
in my friend’s living room,
sitting on a couch cornered

by her piano and fireplace.
Her father is describing love
as if it were always good.

 

PRISON LESSON

by Sonja James

My job is writing poems / and reading them to a cloud.
—Mary Ruefle

All of the miracles have been verified.
The hand and the nightmare collide
when the husband slaps his wife.
The noodles cook anyway,
and the sniper is successful.
Two cicadas sleep an extra year,
and when they emerge,
dapper and refreshed,
they are grateful for the extra time
spent dreaming of leaf and bark.
When the sky spits snow,
the squirrels curse an indolent summer.
No one blames Tiresias for howling at the moon.

 

HOMECOMING

by Bill Glose

He loves going down to Norfolk’s docks
when a ship comes back from deployment,

all those sailors ringing the top deck at parade rest,
the white of their uniforms as pure as uncut heroin.

He’s never been aboard a boat bigger than the ferry
that shuttles him daily across the James

but can’t imagine life on floating cities
too different from the one he spent

inside an Abrams tank, buttoned up and
viewing the world from video monitors

one slice at a time. He knows he was once sick
with fear of everything outside that armored skin

that wanted in, but thinking back, all he recalls
is the cramped ballet, the rumbling pirouettes,

finding his line to target, the pas de chat of loader
passing sabot round from rack to hand to tube.

When final formation breaks and sailors rush
into arms of girlfriends holding banners

and balloons, he files the postcard moment
in his memory and says aloud, as if the breeze

might carry the warning from his position
so far away into the ears of hugging couples,

Hold on to everything you’ve got. Never let it go.

 

AT THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER TEA

by Tammy Robacker

On a good day, her invitation seemed to arrive
for me with edges threaded in gilded floss. Sealed up
elegantly with our family crest (I am waxing dramatic

here on rose hips and fragrant hibiscus leaves).
She offered me the beautiful, fruited ceremony
of mothering at times. Well-mannered in pose.

Queenly in carriage. Smiling with pearl inlay.
Passing her love around like crudités, she fancied
me, on occasions. When I belonged there

at high tea, an utter sweetness steeped
those moments. My mother’s garden table
set with smiles, white linen, a sugar bowl, and bees.

 

VISITATION

by Rebecca Dunham

She tries to bring herself to care.
Him, him— It is always about him.
Some days she wants to dress
all in white. Some days she wants

to flood her body cobalt and iridium,
wants to glow from the inside out.
Wants to walk the rehabilitation ward’s
halls and touch each penitent’s bowed

head. His she will not. It is not her
he shakes for. Sweat on his temple.
Eyes down. And something akin
to caring splinters her haze, at last. Yes,

she likes to see him here, like this.

 

HOME

by Doralee Brooks

On any given day, minutes
from the East Busway
the driver tells me the poor people ride,
I stroll up Homewood Avenue.
Candy wrappers, bottles, cans,
along the walkway
to the corner of Kelly,
where community college sits.
Before the riots in ’68,
it used to be the 5 & 10, the GC Murphy’s.
My daddy took me there,
bought me the real ring
I squeezed to fit my little finger.
The Belmar Theater, the 35 cent matinee
still exists in Wideman’s trilogy.
I called him on it once.
When was it so cheap?
 I wanted to know.
The Grandparents’ house:
7223 Upland Street, the cyclone fence,
monogrammed storm door,
painted steps to the wraparound porch.
Sunday meals, biscuits, greens, yams
my mother ate, hating
her mother-in-law’s habit of tasting
with the cooking spoon.

 

ROYCE—NO MAN’S LAND

by Markham Johnson

While my wife and child drink slurred silence
of sleep and beads of sweat
from a cloudless day have dried, I rise. Cicadas

thread scratched voices, tree to tree when I pass. Dogs bark
their Benedictus then return to Sunday rest as half
a moon clears the cloud litter and Dreamland

is stilled.  Blue Devils tomorrow, not tonight, when God’s
sole witness watches the dipper pour sweet
starred life over this green world. Crossing

Latimer, then two blocks down Frankfort Avenue to banked earth
where last train cars idle, a wall of broken
Morse code between this land and the other—black, white, black.

I know I will find you crossing like some drunk, half-dead
doughboy who stumbles from his trench and can’t
return to either side. I wait for the roar, the terrible

vanishing, a plume of viscera and bone, but there are
no mines here, just miles of keep-out track—
the Santa Fe and Great Northern Lines and coyote’s

black shadow as she picks her way between
Greenwood and Tulsa, rooting out voles, a fractured
squirrel, to bear to her litter. Some nights, murmured

words from the other side, drawn guns that flare with oil
drum fire. Are we ready? When silence healed
over the Arden, we carried home Springfield, Enfield,

Mauser, Lebal. Some nights, I wait until first light
when the dark wave of maids, porters, gardeners will cross
over.  Tonight, only coyote in the broken coda passes

safe between the stutter of track and shadow,
of starlight and shade.  I am silence, nighthawk, the grave.

 

GHAZAL TO JOHN, FROM EXILE

by Steve Bellin-Oka

Spring snow never hurts us, but still it’s a dangerous thing.
It stays our lives and shrinks our days, like any dangerous thing.

I loved you because you had my father’s name and shale-
blue eyes flecked with green: serpentine, dangerous things.

Early April, North Atlantic wind: half-thawed mud and ice.
For a diver, to come to the surface too fast is a dangerous thing.

The night I crossed the border, maybe it was forever. The guards
dumped my shoes in a heap on the ground. Boots are dangerous things.

We were 22 and sat in the backs of movie theaters, touched
thighs and arms, almost kissed. Don’t speak: too dangerous a thing.

My passport’s just expired, time-stained paper for a lukewarm fire.
Not all the flock arrives: migration’s an unkempt, dangerous thing.

We both have daughters now, but I rarely see mine. She lives south
a thousand miles. Abstract and distant, I’m not a dangerous thing.

These days, spring takes longer and longer to shuffle and shake upright.
To name something too soon is a doomed and dangerous thing.

I go by Oka now. On Granville Island, I married him, not you.
Dozens of Canadian strangers cheered. Still—an imperfect, dangerous thing.

 

WHITEOUT

by Wayne Johns

Hooded in coats, we’re coming in
from a breathtaking blizzard.

One of us is looking down.
The other looks back into the whiteout.

No way to tell from this shot
since all skin is covered.

Behind us, the figure—it
should stand for something—

that we formed. We’ve been framed
between the threshold and the storm.

 

HYMEN HYMN

by Seema Yasmin

hummmm
hum it

hum means we
in Urdu

we hummmm
hum hummm

humesha means always
always in Urdu

we always
hum humesha

hum it on my hymen
a hymn thin as a membrane

hum humesha humanghee
humanghee means harmony

we always harmonise
on my hymen

your mouth mucous membranes
my half-moon membrane

reverberate in harmony
humesha humanghee hum

hum a hymen hymn in two tongues
one language

we hum
hummm hum it humesha

 

ESCAPE

by Joshua Martin

Braced against the wood post,
               I watch the horses gallop out of the barn,
their buckskin legs beating the ground
like fists into dough, their slick bodies
bustling toward the corner of the field
               where the fence has begun
to rot, is almost jumpable. At the rails

               they snort but do not attempt the last
long stride into the pines. Only their eyes
               run out over the distant grasses
the way my mother’s ran out the kitchen window
               those mornings they searched
for something else
               beyond us playing in the yard.

 

WHITE HORSES

by Roberta Senechal de la Roche

If we could choose,
I think we’d want white horses.
They look good in light,
tearing green around their feet
not looking up, not minding us.

We’d want them going fast enough
to get us past the obvious,
despite their breath pushed hard
around the bit we wish we didn’t need
to get us out of here.

Turning easy at our hands, of course
caparisoned, smooth-gaited, bearing us
with cadenced grace through bands of rain
and any lines arrayed against us, straight ahead,
even over fields of broken flowers.

They might come if we call,
if we choose the purity
of running things gone wild,
if we will keep watch on the dark horizon,
empty halters in our hands.

 

BECAUSE THE WRECK

by Mike Saye

Because the wreck
could not be fixed,

they dragged it
under an oak.

First Budweiser, then Jim Beam,
they doused the crushed tanks,

kicked the warped fork
and pretzeled spokes—

the headlight looked like
a broken bowl.

Someone brought out the come-along
and the logging chains,

others grabbed gas
and pistols and  lighters

and ten feet off the ground—
the ape hangers canted forward

like someone’s head
hanging down—

they chucked bottles of gasoline
at my father’s bike.

You could barely hear the pistols
over the roaring,

or the sound of those wet faces
yelling his name

as runnels of gas
thinned into long feathers

and dropped as flame.

 

WEDDING

by Lesley Wheeler

There is no happy and
             there is no ending,
just gilded loss
             / muddy return.

Did you think the plot
             was pregnancy?
That this season finale
             would resolve on a woman
propped in a hospital bed,
             laugh track flowing
into cooing? Spring beauty
             swaddled in her arms? Could
happen / not like that. Maybe,
             since time went strange,
the grown figment already sulks
             in a parked sedan,
acne blooming on their cheek.
             Maybe her in / fertility
is not the watershed.

Oh, she looked
             and understood the stick’s
hieroglyphic prediction.
             Its word was not conclusion.

She is a fiction
             to herself. Many
morphologies are possible.
             Differences matter /
differences are carried
             downriver. Next
twist: marry key
             to lock, since seeking’s
all a person’s got. She will
             fall and climb, fail
and try. It may be fine.


 

WEDDING

by Lesley Wheeler

There is no happy and
            there is no ending,
just gilded loss
            / muddy return.

Did you think the plot
            was pregnancy?
That this season finale
            would resolve on a woman
propped in a hospital bed,
            laugh track flowing
into cooing? Spring beauty
            swaddled in her arms? Could
happen / not like that. Maybe,
            since time went strange,
the grown figment already sulks
            in a parked sedan,
acne blooming on their cheek.
            Maybe her in / fertility
is not the watershed.

Oh, she looked
            and understood the stick’s
hieroglyphic prediction.
            Its word was not conclusion.

She is a fiction
            to herself. Many
morphologies are possible.
            Differences matter /
differences are carried
            downriver. Next
twist: marry key
            to lock, since seeking’s
all a person’s got. She will
            fall and climb, fail
and try. It may be fine.


Lesley Wheeler’s chapbook Propagation is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in fall 2017. Previous collections include Radioland and The Receptionist and Other tales. Her poems and essays appear in Ecotone, Crab Orchard Review, Notre Dame Review, and other journals, and she blogs about poetry at lesleywheeler.org. She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.


 

BECAUSE THE WRECK

by Mike Saye

Because the wreck
could not be fixed,

they dragged it
under an oak.

First Budweiser, then Jim Beam,
they doused the crushed tanks,

kicked the warped fork
and pretzeled spokes—

the headlight looked like
a broken bowl.

Someone brought out the come-along
and the logging chains,

others grabbed gas
and pistols and  lighters

and ten feet off the ground—
the ape hangers canted forward

like someone’s head
hanging down—

they chucked bottles of gasoline
at my father’s bike.

You could barely hear the pistols
over the roaring,

or the sound of those wet faces
yelling his name

as runnels of gas
thinned into long feathers

and dropped as flame.


Mike Saye is a Georgia native and Ph.D student at Georgia State University. He has been published in various journals, worked at Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art, and teaches freshman composition. You can learn more about his work at https://mikesaye23.wordpress.com/.


 

WHITE HORSES

by Roberta Senechal de la Roche

If we could choose,
I think we’d want white horses.
They look good in light,
tearing green around their feet
not looking up, not minding us.

We’d want them going fast enough
to get us past the obvious,
despite their breath pushed hard
around the bit we wish we didn’t need
to get us out of here.

Turning easy at our hands, of course
caparisoned, smooth-gaited, bearing us
with cadenced grace through bands of rain
and any lines arrayed against us, straight ahead,
even over fields of broken flowers.

They might come if we call,
if we choose the purity
of running things gone wild,
if we will keep watch on the dark horizon,
empty halters in our hands.


Roberta Senechal de la Roche is an American historian, sociologist, and poet of Micmac and French Canadian descent, and was born in western Maine.  She now lives in the woods outside of Charlottesville near the Blue Ridge Mountains.  She graduated from the University of Southern Maine and the University of Virginia, and is Professor of History at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  Her poems have appeared in theColorado Review; Literary Juice; Still: The Journal; the Front Porch Review; Glass: A Journal of Poetry; Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review; Yemassee, Cold Mountain Review, and the Big River Review, among others.  Her poems also were selected for and published in the 2011 and 2015 Montreal International Poetry Prize Longlist, and her chapbook, Blind Flowers, won the 2016 Arcadia Press Chapbook Prize. 


ESCAPE

by Joshua Martin

Braced against the wood post,
               I watch the horses gallop out of the barn,
their buckskin legs beating the ground
like fists into dough, their slick bodies
bustling toward the corner of the field
               where the fence has begun
to rot, is almost jumpable. At the rails

               they snort but do not attempt the last
long stride into the pines. Only their eyes
               run out over the distant grasses
the way my mother’s ran out the kitchen window
               those mornings they searched
for something else
               beyond us playing in the yard.


A PhD student in creative writing at Georgia State University, Joshua Lee Martin has been published or has work forthcoming in The Cortland Review, Appalachian Heritage, The Raleigh Review, The Cumberland River Review, decomP, and elsewhere. He was recently a finalist in the 2016 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Competition and the 2016 Coal Hill Review Contest, and his chapbook, Passing Through Meat Camp, was a finalist in the 2015 Jacar Press Chapbook Competition. He currently teaches composition at Georgia State University.


 

HYMEN HYMN

by Seema Yasmin

hummmm
hum it

hum means we
in Urdu

we hummmm
hum hummm

humesha means always
always in Urdu

we always
hum humesha

hum it on my hymen
a hymn thin as a membrane

hum humesha humanghee
humanghee means harmony

we always harmonise
on my hymen

your mouth mucous membranes
my half-moon membrane

reverberate in harmony
humesha humanghee hum

hum a hymen hymn in two tongues
one language

we hum
hummm hum it humesha


Seema Yasmin is a poet, doctor, and journalist from London currently living in the U.S. She trained in medicine at the University of Cambridge and in journalism at the University of Toronto. Her poems appear in Glass, The Shallow Ends and Diode, among others. Her chapbook, For Filthy Women Who Worry About Disappointing God, won the Diode Editions chapbook contest.


 

WHITEOUT

by Wayne Johns

Hooded in coats, we’re coming in
from a breathtaking blizzard.

One of us is looking down.
The other looks back into the whiteout.

No way to tell from this shot
since all skin is covered.

Behind us, the figure—it
should stand for something—

that we formed. We’ve been framed
between the threshold and the storm.


Wayne Johns’ poems have appeared in New England ReviewPloughsharesPrairie SchoonerImageBest New Poets, and elsewhere. He is the author of a chapbook, An Invisible Veil Between Us (Thorngate Road). A former Lambda Literary fellow, he currently serves on the editorial staff of Raleigh Review and as a reader for The Adroit Journal and the BOAAT book prize.


 

GHAZAL TO JOHN, FROM EXILE

by Steve Bellin-Oka

Spring snow never hurts us, but still it’s a dangerous thing.
It stays our lives and shrinks our days, like any dangerous thing.

I loved you because you had my father’s name and shale-
blue eyes flecked with green: serpentine, dangerous things.

Early April, North Atlantic wind: half-thawed mud and ice.
For a diver, to come to the surface too fast is a dangerous thing.

The night I crossed the border, maybe it was forever. The guards
dumped my shoes in a heap on the ground. Boots are dangerous things.

We were 22 and sat in the backs of movie theaters, touched
thighs and arms, almost kissed. Don’t speak: too dangerous a thing.

My passport’s just expired, time-stained paper for a lukewarm fire.
Not all the flock arrives: migration’s an unkempt, dangerous thing.

We both have daughters now, but I rarely see mine. She lives south
a thousand miles. Abstract and distant, I’m not a dangerous thing.

These days, spring takes longer and longer to shuffle and shake upright.
To name something too soon is a doomed and dangerous thing.

I go by Oka now. On Granville Island, I married him, not you.
Dozens of Canadian strangers cheered. Still—an imperfect, dangerous thing.


Steve Bellin-Oka is from Baltimore, Maryland and has lived in Mississippi, San Francisco, and Canada. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Yalobusha Review, William and Mary Review, Mississippi Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among other journals. He earned his MFA from the University of Virginia and his PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, where he was awarded the Joan Johnson Prize for Poetry. He is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He currently lives in Portales, New Mexico and teaches at Eastern New Mexico University.


 

ROYCE—NO MAN’S LAND

by Markham Johnson

While my wife and child drink slurred silence
of sleep and beads of sweat
from a cloudless day have dried, I rise.  Cicadas

thread scratched voices, tree to tree when I pass.  Dogs bark
their Benedictus then return to Sunday rest as half
a moon clears the cloud litter and Dreamland

is stilled.  Blue Devils tomorrow, not tonight, when God’s
sole witness watches the dipper pour sweet
starred life over this green world.  Crossing

Latimer, then two blocks down Frankfort Avenue to banked earth
where last train cars idle, a wall of broken
Morse code between this land and the other—black, white, black.

I know I will find you crossing like some drunk, half-dead
doughboy who stumbles from his trench and can’t
return to either side. I wait for the roar, the terrible

vanishing, a plume of viscera and bone, but there are
no mines here, just miles of keep-out track—
the Santa Fe and Great Northern Lines and coyote’s

black shadow as she picks her way between
Greenwood and Tulsa, rooting out voles, a fractured
squirrel, to bear to her litter.  Some nights, murmured

words from the other side, drawn guns that flare with oil
drum fire.  Are we ready?  When silence healed
over the Arden, we carried home Springfield, Enfield,

Mauser, Lebal.  Some nights, I wait until first light
when the dark wave of maids, porters, gardeners will cross
over.  Tonight, only coyote in the broken coda passes

safe between the stutter of track and shadow,
of starlight and shade.  I am silence, nighthawk, the grave.


Markham Johnson recently won the Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod, and his poems have been published widely.  His book, Collecting the Light, was published by the University Press of Florida.


 

HOME

by Doralee Brooks

On any given day, minutes
from the East Busway
the driver tells me the poor people ride,
I stroll up Homewood Avenue.
Candy wrappers, bottles, cans,
along the walkway
to the corner of Kelly,
where community college sits.
Before the riots in ’68,
it used to be the 5 & 10, the GC Murphy’s.
My daddy took me there,
bought me the real ring
I squeezed to fit my little finger.
The Belmar Theater, the 35 cent matinee
still exists in Wideman’s trilogy.
I called him on it once.
When was it so cheap?
 I wanted to know.
The Grandparents’ house:
7223 Upland Street, the cyclone fence,
monogrammed storm door,
painted steps to the wraparound porch.
Sunday meals, biscuits, greens, yams
my mother ate, hating
her mother-in-law’s habit of tasting
with the cooking spoon.


Doralee Brooks, A Writing Project Fellow (95), teaches at the Community College of Allegheny County where she chairs the Developmental Studies Department.  Her poems have more recently appeared or are forthcoming in Uppagus, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Voices from the Attic and The Paterson Review.  She writes with the Madwomen in the Attic poetry workshop.


 

VISITATION

by Rebecca Dunham

She tries to bring herself to care.
Him, him— It is always about him.
Some days she wants to dress
all in white. Some days she wants

to flood her body cobalt and iridium,
wants to glow from the inside out.
Wants to walk the rehabilitation ward’s
halls and touch each penitent’s bowed

head. His she will not. It is not her
he shakes for. Sweat on his temple.
Eyes down. And something akin
to caring splinters her haze, at last. Yes,

she likes to see him here, like this.


Rebecca Dunham is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Cold Pastoral, published by Milkweed Editions. She has received an NEA Fellowship and her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, The Antioch Review, and FIELD, among others. She is a Professor of English at the University of WI-Milwaukee.


 

AT THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER TEA

by Tammy Robacker

On a good day, her invitation seemed to arrive
for me with edges threaded in gilded floss. Sealed up
elegantly with our family crest (I am waxing dramatic

here on rose hips and fragrant hibiscus leaves).
She offered me the beautiful, fruited ceremony
of mothering at times. Well-mannered in pose.

Queenly in carriage. Smiling with pearl inlay.
Passing her love around like crudités, she fancied
me, on occasions. When I belonged there

at high tea, an utter sweetness steeped
those moments. My mother’s garden table
set with smiles, white linen, a sugar bowl, and bees.


Tammy Robacker graduated from the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program in Creative Writing, Poetry at Pacific Lutheran University (2016). She won the 2015 Keystone Chapbook Prize for her manuscript, ‘R’. Her second poetry book, Villain Songs, was published at ELJ Editions in Winter 2017. Tammy published her first collection of poetry, The Vicissitudes, in 2009 (Pearle Publications) with a generous TAIP grant award. Tammy’s poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming in Harpur Palate, FRiGG, concis, Tinderbox, Alyss, Menacing Hedge, Chiron Review, Duende, So to Speak, Crab Creek Review, WomenArts, and many more. Tammy was born in Germany, raised in Pennsylvania, and currently lives in Oregon. Visit the poet: tammyrobacker.com


 

HOMECOMING

by Bill Glose

He loves going down to Norfolk’s docks
when a ship comes back from deployment,

all those sailors ringing the top deck at parade rest,
the white of their uniforms as pure as uncut heroin.

He’s never been aboard a boat bigger than the ferry
that shuttles him daily across the James

but can’t imagine life on floating cities
too different from the one he spent

inside an Abrams tank, buttoned up and
viewing the world from video monitors

one slice at a time. He knows he was once sick
with fear of everything outside that armored skin

that wanted in, but thinking back, all he recalls
is the cramped ballet, the rumbling pirouettes,

finding his line to target, the pas de chat of loader
passing sabot round from rack to hand to tube.

When final formation breaks and sailors rush
into arms of girlfriends holding banners

and balloons, he files the postcard moment
in his memory and says aloud, as if the breeze

might carry the warning from his position
so far away into the ears of hugging couples,

Hold on to everything you’ve got. Never let it go.


Bill Glose spent the first part of his adult life as a paratrooper going off to war. Now he leads a peaceful life and reflects upon those earlier experiences. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Missouri ReviewThe Sun, Narrative Magazine, and The Writer. He is the author of three poetry collections, including Half a Man, whose poems arise from his experiences as a combat platoon leader.


 

PRISON LESSON

by Sonja James

My job is writing poems / and reading them to a cloud.
—Mary Ruefle

All of the miracles have been verified.
The hand and the nightmare collide
when the husband slaps his wife.
The noodles cook anyway,
and the sniper is successful.
Two cicadas sleep an extra year,
and when they emerge,
dapper and refreshed,
they are grateful for the extra time
spent dreaming of leaf and bark.
When the sky spits snow,
the squirrels curse an indolent summer.
No one blames Tiresias for howling at the moon.


Sonja James is the author of The White Spider in My Hand (New Academia/Scarith Books, 2015), Calling Old Ghosts to Supper (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Children of the Moon (Argonne House Press, 2004), and Baiting the Hook (the Bunny & the Crocodile Press, 1999).  Her poems have appeared in FIELD, the Gettysburg Review, 32 Poems, Kestrel, Beloit Poetry Journal, Gargoyle, The Iowa Review, Verse Daily, The South Carolina Review, and Poet Lore, among others. She was a finalist in the 2016 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Contest sponsored by Autumn House Press. Among her honors are five Pushcart Prize nominations. In addition, she writes a weekly poetry book review column for The Journal, which is a West Virginia newspaper.


 

THE FIRST TIME

by Komal Mathew

The first time I heard
the story of the prodigal son,
I was in college and always jealous,

imagining him in his father’s robe
and ring, eating all that calf.
Dishonor is worse than death.

I believe it because I’m Indian
and hear so many stories about
unkept marriages and children

who leave their parents in homes
where they don’t serve Gujarati
meals.  My father still makes me

promise to take care of him,
even if I have a better choice,
even if the food is not that bad.

This time I hear the parable
in my friend’s living room,
sitting on a couch cornered

by her piano and fireplace.
Her father is describing love
as if it were always good.


Komal Mathew’s work has appeared in The New Republic, The Southern Review, Georgia Anthology of Poets, and others. Her poetry collection, Dressing for Diwali, has also been a finalist for the National Poetry Series Open Competition and a semifinalist for the Alice James Books’ Beatrice Hawley Award. She lives with her husband and three children in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is the co-founder and co-editor of Josephine Quarterly.


 

ROAD TRIP

by Kathryn Hunt

In the humid honeycomb of night,
trucks loaded down with carnage
stutter at the pumps. Neon tubes
sell cigarettes, the news, an umpteenth
million chance to get it right. I buy one
for a dollar.

We roll south and east, past fields of ripening
hops and wheat, high plateaus fashioned
from forgotten seas. Knuckled apple trees
untended at the edge of town. A for sale
sign flapping from a mothballed missile site.
The river where we knelt to kiss
the mineral rush of clear cold water.
The dreamy blur of miles.

In a campground, a herd of children
run free-range, their tracks beneath
the pines. Their voices ricochet
against basalt. Why is it now
that I remember them, of all the ones
we left behind? The way their
words chimed, calling us to look,
although I want to say they reminded me
of breaking glass, the way they traveled
privately and bare skinned into
the belly of their lives, not innocent—
we never were—full of harm and
yearnings, pitiless, proud, the mystery
of being, unhinged from time. Only
the seasons turned, only sun. Only
our bodies to drag us deeper.

Love, death, heat, gasoline. An apple
ripening on a slender stem, the makings
of a garden where no other than
the Other lives, the other one
you’d come to love if you would
love yourself, the child sleeping
in the dark. Bees pilot in from
ruined hives, their silver throats
tin cups to drink the world’s blank
suffering. Stench of slaughterhouse
in turned-down light, pumpjacks
along the highway, sexless beasts against
the sky, devouring. We all have ways
of whistling in the dark. It’s a fragile art
to breathe and settle deep into faux leather
seats beside your lover, crossing Lolo Pass,
eighty miles an hour, just after midnight,
stars, sober, a humbling mountain
range behind you.


Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson.

Kathryn Hunt makes her home on the coast of the Salish Sea. Her poems have appeared in The Sun, Orion, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Radar, The Writer’s Almanac, The Missouri Review, and Narrative. Her collection of poems, Long Way Through Ruin, was published by Blue Begonia Press, and she’s recently completed a second collection of poems, You Won’t Find It on a Map. She is the recipient of residencies and awards from Artists Trust, Ucross, and Hedgebrook. She’s worked as a waitress, shipscaler, short-order cook, bookseller, printer, food bank coordinator, filmmaker, and freelance writer. kathrynhunt.net


 

GARDEN OF CHOICES

by Mary Sesso

It all comes down
to my friend telling me
he’s an empty basket.
Why not fill it, I ask,
with the dead of night,
the wet light of morning,
or maybe a sigh?

Next, a layer of sound—
the bark of an unseen dog,
song the cricket hauls
to my porch to drown out
the tyranny of thunder,
and the murmur of wildflowers
as frost hovers.

Then you could weave
across the basket handle
the hiss of a sling shot stone
speeding past your ear,
the shiver from its closeness
and the splendor of a spark
as stone strikes stone.


Mary Sesso is a retired nurse who volunteers at the National Children’s Center where she sits on the Human Rights Committee. She’s a member of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and is active in three workshops. Her most recent work appeared (or will appear) in Passager, Third Wednesday, and Comstock Review.  Her chapbook, published by Finishing Line Press, will appear later this year.


 

Book Review: AN ACCIDENT OF STARS by Foz Meadows

26225506 An Accident of Stars
by Foz Meadows
Angry Robot Books, 2016
$7.99

Reviewed by Maeve Murray 

An Accident of Stars is the kind of fantasy novel that’s been a long time coming. As more and more articles pour out about bias in science fiction and fantasy, citing lack of diversity—both in the gender and race of the author and main characters— it’s nice to see new stories and voices emerging. Genderqueer author Foz Meadows achieves wonderful diversity in her first novel of the Manifold Worlds, creating characters that are resilient, likeable, and completely original.

The novel opens with Saffron, an average high schooler in the modern era. Wasting no time to make a statement, Meadows plays out a scene many young women are familiar with: casual sexual harassment and the subsequent underwhelming response by those in power. Admittedly, this book does have instances where such statements are a bit heavy-handed. For example, on page 185, Meadows writes:

It required more mental agility than Saffron currently possessed to instantly confer identical status on a fourteen-year-old brown girl who was shorter than she was. Not, she thought hastily, that race has anything to do with it. The thought that it might, even a little, left her feeling deeply uncomfortable… “Not seeing Viya as a queen because she’s not white is racist,” she whispered into the pillow. “I’m being racist. Stop it.” She felt bad because it was true… if she didn’t admit she was doing something wrong in the first place, how could she possibly fix it?

Such bluntness isn’t uncommon in fantasy novels. Terry Goodkind’s novel, Faith of the Fallen, has often been cited for heavy political undertones and outright political messaging. While this heavy-handedness isn’t tiresome, it’s worth noting that Meadows does set out to tackle some uncomfortable conversations in her novel.

It’s significant also that all the major characters, including the main antagonist, are female. The normal setup is reversed. The group of unlikely heroes contains only one male character, who has a support role. It’s fascinating, as an avid reader of fantasy, to see this implemented so seamlessly. Meadows’ characters are vibrant individuals who command attention and authority. There are no one-dimensional characters here. It begs the question; does anything change when the roster is made up almost entirely of women instead of men? Yes and no, which is exactly the brilliance in Meadows’ decision. As readers, we see women (especially women of color) with qualities such as strength, control, and adaptability. Their versatility is both natural and inspiring. Yet, this doesn’t change the traditional narrative much because these characters are still adventurers, facing challenges the way any protagonist might. Their creative solutions and their unique personalities aren’t determined by their gender, but by the merit of their individuality.

The story itself follows a classic “defeat the monster” plotline, but the challenges on that path again draw on Meadows’ aptitude for women, and the metaphors she creates are characteristic of the current feminine climate. When Saffron embarks on a test to join the upper ranks of an all-women council, she’s faced with beasts. To defeat them, she must reach inside herself and find the courage to overcome adversity. In a very literal sense, she embodies a new, strong body and charges forward to victory. This resonates with something many women are familiar with, the forming of a tough hide to navigate the world, to fight for their rightful place, and earn their own way. It was wise of Meadows to utilize such a metaphor, instead of allowing her characters, like so many male versions before them, to run into battle brandishing only a legendary sword.

Finally, we must touch on Meadows’ unique magic system. While not thoroughly explained, the magic of Meadows’ fantasy world seems to rely heavily on the connections characters make with each other, which is different altogether from magic systems which flourish without interaction. This magic performs functions like healing, teaching language, and communicating across vast distances— things for which we have technology in our own world, and yet cannot function without human interaction. The point Meadows makes here is well-appreciated, and the parallels can’t be ignored. She not only comments on controversial topics like race and feminism, but also digs into our dependence on technology. The characters in the novel feel absolute agony when their magic is unavailable to them, and we as readers feel that, too, because it hinders the progress of the story. Stifled progress, whether in a fantasy novel or real life, is a roadblock to be overcome. While her statements about race and gender are sometimes overwrought, this statement is much subtler, which works in the book’s favor.

An Accident of Stars is a courageous, timely novel. Foz Meadows does a remarkable job tackling thought-provoking conversations while weaving together an interesting, full world headed by resilient women. I highly recommend it for any lover of fantasy.


 

For Future Reference: Notes on a Writer’s Desk

by Gerry LaFemina

Like a lot of people these days, my students have a stated conviction that the internet is better than print materials for research. It’s easy to think so. If you know what you’re looking for it may even be true. Need to know what a grackle eats? You can find out. Want to know the history of coffee or the cost of it at your local grocery? You can find both out. More often than not, as a poet, I’m looking for stuff that will catch my attention, give me information, images, language that I don’t already have. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I can’t type Things that might interest Gerry into Google and believe that it will come up with something to engage the poetic imagination.

That’s where my reference books come in. If you’re a writer, it’s good to consider what’s on your desk (and neighboring book case!). I believe it’s important to have a good library of reference books that are both helpful and deeply personal. By reference books I don’t mean only dictionaries and thesauri and encyclopedias; I mean, also, those books that can provide information I didn’t know I’d needed to know.

Right here’s where my students complain—I can look up any word on dictionary.com or thesaurus.com. Yes, you can. But the reference books provide more than just definitions, synonyms and antonyms, and etymologies. What I love about the dictionary is not its ability to give me a definition (or multiple definitions) and/or word origin, but also the field of the page of words with definitions. What I mean by this, is that by looking up a word I get a two pages worth of others that are phonically close to it: I find this particularly useful when drafting poems. Let’s say I want to emphasize the word conspicuous. I might look it up in the same American Heritage Dictionary I’ve had since grad school, and find conspirito–“with spirit and gusto”; or I might look up words which start with spic and find spicule–“a small, needlelike structure.” (I particularly like how needlelike is one word in the dictionary, but my autocorrect doesn’t like it spelled that way.) To get such words into a new draft help shape and change the thinking of the poem itself and broaden the field of language that I have open to me.

Or I might use the Webster’s Unabridged Encyclopedic Dictionary. Dating to 1957, it has 4800 columns of facts and pictures. It suggests spikenard, “a perennial herbaceous plant…being the source of the ointment referred to in scripture…. It has a short, thick, carrot-like root, spatulate leaves, and small red or purple flowers in dense heads.” Now we’re talking! What I like about the encyclopedic dictionary is that it includes names of famous people in history in alphabetical order, too. This allows for history to come into the poem.

I keep a Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, too, for quick information about literature, a rhyming dictionary, a style guide. At one time I kept a Bartlett’s Famous Quotations close at hand. More recently, I keep a Schott’s Miscellany close by to rummage for random facts that engage my poetic imagination. For instance, beyond giving me the names of “Some Palmistry Lines” it also lets me know that the area between the Line of Head and the Via Lasciva is the Mount of the Moon. Surely, there’s a poem in there. If not, perhaps the book’s list of “Some Notable Belgians” (none have made it into any of my poems) or “The Hierarchy of Falconry” (itself a potential title for a poem) could provide inspiration.

Because I grew up in New York City and know few birds beyond the common pigeon and starling, I keep a bird book at my desk. I bought it on the remainder table at a chain bookstore years ago. I buy a lot of my miscellaneous reference books on the cheapie rack. A $3.99 guide to mythology may come in handy. More likely though a book called 50 Physics Ideas. Physics fascinates me, and although the math is beyond my ken, the concepts of physics get me thinking. Beside that is Reg McKnight’s Wisdom of the African World, which reminds me, always, to not think solely in my white Western thinking. For a while there was other philosophy (The Art of War, an assortment of Platonic dialogues), a book on tarot cards, a bartenders’ guide, and a Depression-era guide to putting on a pretend circus in your backyard called The Big Time Circus Book. Various books of folklore from all over the world show up. It’s good to shake up the list: bring in an I Ching or a cookbook or a book of common phrases in Portuguese. Of course, I keep the books I walked away from in my adolescence, a Bible and a book of Roman Catholic Catechism close by to make sure I get the details right.

None of these books have anything to do with poetic craft: those books spill off the book case next to my desk. Those books help with my essays and my thinking about poetry but they don’t help with the crafting of poems. The books at my desk, on the other hand, have the potential to help change the direction of a poem-in-progress, can give me language I didn’t know I was looking for, metaphors I didn’t know I needed. Like my own poems, these books reflect my obsessions, but they also provide scope beyond my own go-to knowledge: an important tool. Yes, the internet gives me an avenue to find what I’m looking for; surely, I could look up “fun physics facts” in a search engine and it might provide me with something similar from the books, but I can’t say sometimes where the fact I need is, and the books provide me a way of looking things up without the interruption of emails and IMs showing up. There’s a joy to referring to the reference books, a kind of guided randomness that help shape my poems.


 

Book Review: BRAWL & JAG by April Bernard

brawl and jag Final.indd Brawl & Jag
by April Bernard
W.W. Norton, 2016
$17.95

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

Reading April Bernard’s fourth book of poetry, Brawl & Jag, is like staring down the barrel of a gun. She writes about loss, despair, and anger with sharp-tongued wit and humor. Bernard’s language is not soft—her words bristle, pages upturned by grief.

When it comes to relationships, Bernard is not gun-shy. The book begins with “Anger,” a fierce poem that fans the flame of childhood vexation. The poem is unflinching in its recollection of instances of anger in the speaker’s adult life, beginning with her holding a shotgun in a farmhouse kitchen. “I hoisted the shotgun to my shoulder / and aimed but did not fire it at the man / who had just taken my virginity like a snack, / with my collusion, but still—” The speaker may not have fired the shotgun, but her rage in being brutally enacted upon by others rings through these pages.

Anger is described as “dripping hot,”“the heat like a wet brand” in the speaker’s chest when she is fired from work, when she faces the wind instead of an intruder with a butcher knife, when she loses a fellowship, when she throws a pot of hot coffee that just misses a man’s head.

These instances ricochet back to a memory of the speaker’s father spanking her at the age of twelve and she recalls, “my vision went red-black and / I did not forgive.” Instead of forgiveness, the speaker steps over the line to feel the pleasure of wielding power herself.

In Brawl & Jag, Bernard’s weapon is her words which shock and command, delivering a blow of emotions. At times her fight is playful, working the space on the page like a performance stage with persona poems such as “Bloody Mary” in which she claims “They never / loved me enough / It must be said: They were a disappointment.” Bernard uses literary and historical references to dig into the hidden and shadowy parts of the self.

At times these poems are less playful and more like a saw cutting through the center of the speaker’s grief. Her first instinct is to hit back, but tenderness arises from her desire to protect others from pain. In “City-Born,” the speaker considers a newborn “grappling with the cutting away of the veil, / the letting in of the almost-hurt that is light—” as they confront a harsh, new world.

As the book progresses, in poems like “City-Born,” the sour bite we have grown used to as readers sweetens. “In your first evening in this world, / pomegranate fills our mouths. It is a little tart; / let me taste it first for you.” In bittersweet moments such as this, the speaker’s humanity endures. Brawl & Jag is as physical as poetry gets on the page, clawing at intimacy and tonguing the soft marrow of grief and despair to taste the “sluice of sweet delight” running through them.


 

Skill Set: Notes on Tom Lux, Poetry, and Teaching

by Gerry LaFemina

In the two months or so since Tom Lux died, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to have been his student, which in turn has led me to thinking about what it means to be a teacher of poetry. Much, of course, has been written on this topic, and much has been written about Lux as a teacher these last few weeks. He was a poet of rules about poetry, and a man passionate about teaching, poetry, baseball, among other things. He never asked his students to write poetry like his, which is a good thing because I never did. What he asked from his students is that we love poetry, that we challenge ourselves, and that we stick to our rules about poems. He taught me to read voraciously and widely.

When asked once what Robert Lowell taught her, Anne Sexton said he’d taught her taste. I think surely Tom taught me taste. He taught me to read, carefully, often aloud, to listen to the sounds of the words, the feel of syllables in the mouth and in the ear. Tom never demanded I share his taste, but like a culinary master teaches an apprentice chef, he taught me to develop my palette.

And he taught me discipline and craft. Mostly by demanding that I revise a poem, letting me know when lines didn’t work (“That’s a terrible line, Ger. Read it aloud.”), knowing I would go back and revise and revise and revise. I wanted to please him, wanted his acceptance. Many of us did, in those mid-eighties Sarah Lawrence classes, and through that wanting, we worked our poems—draft after draft on a beat up Brother typewriter.  He didn’t like Wite-Out. He wanted us to care to make the poems perfect. He wanted us to be disciplined.

Sometimes I get frustrated when my own students are sloppy. (“No typos. No dummy mistakes.”) I’m not sure if it’s something I’ve done, I wonder if I’ve failed them in some regard that they don’t work harder (but really, did all of Tom’s students feel the way I felt, I know better, now, to know they didn’t). It’s difficult to teach discipline, the discipline to draft, to push beyond the first sense of the poem, but it happens, slowly over the course of semesters, that students fall in love not with poems but with the work of poetry. And I try to teach my students to love poetry, to teach taste by giving them books from my personal collection, by having “library days” during a class session in which we discover books of poetry (and I order 20-30 titles, mostly from small presses, every year).

More and more, though, I’m interested in what I can’t teach, those essential skills of being an artist, those intangibles. Patience, for example. Patience is the skill Lux couldn’t teach me. I was 19, 20, 21. I didn’t want to wait for any of it. I wanted to rush poems into existence, to fight with them quickly, draft after draft. I didn’t give them an opportunity to breathe, to grow, to challenge me. Patience, though, is surely a skill chefs know: you can’t make something cook faster. As I get older, I’m more patient with poems (though, ironically enough, less patient with some of my students’ proclivities for “dummy mistakes.”)

Furthermore, I can’t teach courage. Most novice writers have some courage, they must, if they’re going to write poems, to put themselves out there, to share their verses in workshop. But there’s more to it: the courage to challenge their own beliefs about poetry is important and to challenge their teachers’ beliefs is crucial to developing their own rules and their own aesthetic. The challenge to write in form if they are a free verse poet or vice versa, growth requires change and change is a challenge. There’s also the courage to challenge their peers and the cultural dynamic of the workshop/writers’ group: I’ve seen some writers groups get into a tizzy when a member brings something radically different to a meeting.

Here, then, we find the third thing no teacher can teach that every artist needs: receptivity. The receptivity of criticism, surely, is necessary. One needs not to be defensive when their work is being critiqued, but that’s not the kind of receptivity I’m talking about. I’m talking about being open to possibility about a poem, to listen to it, to exist in the world where poetry might happen easily, readily, where language in all its quotidian vibrancy is happening, and then when it catches our attention, it’s trying to touch something in us, in our capacity for language. We have to be receptive to the possibility a poem is underneath it.

This is after all, the art of paying attention, and that is surely the most important skill any artist needs, and one that can’t be taught. Don’t pay attention in the kitchen and you might burn the dish, or worse, end up with the fire department stopping in. Don’t pay attention to the poem, and it comes off as half-baked. Tom Lux taught me to pay attention to the craft of a poem, but it took years for me to realize that there were other situations I needed to pay attention to, and those required receptivity, patience and courage. I needed to pay attention to the poem, to what is hiding beneath those early drafts, to have the courage to explore what’s not yet in the poem, and the courage to discard some things that are in the poem (be patient with me, I know you’ve heard it before: kill your darlings). I needed to be receptive to the possibility that I didn’t always (still don’t) know what a poem might be doing. I had to trust my capacity as an artist.

And perhaps that’s what Tom did: he taught me enough about poetry and the process of writing that I could trust myself to figure the rest out. Surely that’s what I try to do in the classroom or with the private students I work with. I try to demonstrate a way to think about the poem, and to think about poetry, I try to give them the skills to engage the work, and I try to help them trust their own ability to make their own rules about poetry. To pay attention and have patience with themselves. And courage to continue.


 

Book Review: A BLISTER OF STARS by Jason Irwin

317rYWc5OOL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_ A Blister of Stars
by Jason Irwin
Low Ghost Press, 2016
$8.00

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

Winner of the Transcontinental Poetry Award for Watering the Dead (Pavement Saw Press, 2008) and author of the chapbooks Where You Are (Night Ballet Press, 2014) and Some Days It’s a Love Story (Slipstream Press, 2005), Jason Irwin’s most recent collection, A Blister of Stars, delights with glimpses of beauty rooted in experiences of illness and survival.

In a hospital room, the ostomy bag is “a translucent pouch / that shimmered like a jellyfish / in the overhead light.” A room where, pages later, the speaker wakes from surgery, “my mouth a desert; / my eyes two stones / sunk in my skull— / some small part of me had died; some small part was reborn.” A stark hospital room transforms into the edges of a dreamscape, where nightmares are pitted against fear. In “Hospital Room,” the speaker asks:

Who am I in this night, soaked with fever?
Whose eyes watch this shadow play
of animals; the skulls of little children
dancing in the green-haloed light?

At times, the grinding needed to stay alive strips the speaker’s identity away. Nightmares and the wildness of nature conjoin at the blurred edges of our speaker’s reality. “I am swallowed by the light / that hangs above me / like giant insect eyes.” The speaker’s struggle and endurance in sickness stretches to contain the animal instinct to survive.

Irwin ensures that his readers are conscious of how closely we live our days alongside the possibility of death and how quickly time slips away from our grasp. In the collection’s opening poem, “Ouija Board,” our speaker asks when and how he will die. “After that I waited, counting down the days and weeks. The years.” What starts off as pretend-play, his cousin asking the “usual questions” about “boys and marriage” and “toys under the Christmas tree,” soon lights on more sinister questions about death:

Sometimes
I lay on the couch with a towel over my face
and instructed my cousin to pretend it was my funeral.

It would be on a Tuesday.
Would it hurt? Would there be blood?

The book pivots around these questions, the speaker sometimes falling into despair, and at other times, wonder, but always with a tender vulnerability. In “Reborn,” the toll of sickness on the body is compared to a ritual that marks the passage of time as growth, in inches. “I can mark time by the surgeries; / the way my grandmother / marked my growth / with pencil slashes / on her kitchen door frame.” Here, we find an aching for normalcy and celebration in the everyday, for what Irwin describes as “making our way one step at a time.”

In this collection, time passes quickly and our speaker ages at what feels like a brisk pace. A new awareness of our human fragility and a deepened appreciation of our day-to-day existence arise when the nights spent in hospital rooms end. Towards the close of the book, the strongest impression we are left with, however, is a sense of waiting—still—to begin living. In “The Place You Once Belonged,” this hesitation is evident:

the morning aromas of burnt
toast, coffee, cigarettes,
and the view from the living-
room window, where you watched
the seasons, waiting for your life to begin.

Even in his improved health, the speaker seems to hold back, disengaged from the outside world’s intense experience of living. In his careful eye for moments of beauty and risk, we can sense his yearning for a more intrepid existence. “Outside a boy is standing in the street jumping up and down / on each crack in the pavement, fearless.” We begin to wonder if our speaker will also challenge the stories he is told about death.

A Blister of Stars begs the reader to do more than survive, to hold onto any sliver of innocence still present in our lives, and to mine our day-to-day existence for moments of fearlessness and wonder. In a poem titled “One Day,” he warns:

One day we’ll be gone from this earth,
our bodies eaten by the very ground
we tread, turned over, shovelful by shovelful,
but until then we’ll continue to search
for that one moment in our lives
when we can say with confidence: “I am. I am.”

Like the severed bird’s head our speaker finds and carries in his hand in “The House Sparrow,” Irwin asks us to scoop up moments “with no thought of time” and carry them “like a coin, or talisman,” reminding us that we, too, can be as fearless as the boy jumping on every crack in our street until the moment arrives where we are able to finally say “There’s nothing more I want or need.”