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.”


 

Book Review: THE CANOPY by Patricia Clark

clarkcanopy The Canopy
by Patricia Clark
Terrapin Books, 2017
$16.00

Reviewed by Marie Orttenburger 

I often found myself without breath while reading Patricia Clark’s new collection of poetry, The Canopy.

The poems quietly knocked the wind out of me.

The collection dwells in loss and the ways death can take things from us, both slowly and all at once. It characterizes the incremental erosion of memory, the whiplash of unexpected loss and what enduring both feels like.

The poems in The Canopy are incisive, and Clark’s calm delivery is stealthy. It deals blows to the gut not unlike the kind felt in grief. The speaker endures them as unflinchingly as Clark delivers them, “letting the knife settle where it will, blade nestled between a rib and a rib.”

Clark possesses a talent for capturing stillness–accessing revelations through meditations on nature. The speaker walks through forested landscapes, alive with movement and wildlife. The natural environments are usually introduced as a refuge but inevitably reflect the reality of death. Such is the way of grief, who visits whether or not you greet her at the threshold.

Still, there is solace to be found in nature’s frank disposition. The poem “Double Vision” begins “Nine long years ago I had a mother . . . I walked in rain, in sun, not thinking of her then not knowing as I do now in bones, fiber, skin, what a body takes, then leaves.” It ends with the sight of a red fox, mid-stride, “a live gray thing struggling from its mouth to get away.” Death pangs in an emotional context–the speaker’s anniversary of becoming orphaned, her reflection on life before that day. But in nature, death is truth: quotidian and essential. We are not so separate from nature.

The poem from which the collection gets its title compares life’s brevity to the window in which forest wildflowers grow and bloom in spring, before the trees’ canopy closes above them. The canopy is the end for the spring ephemerals, but the forest will continue to grow, “up and up / to white oak, American beech.”

While death and grief are certainly central focuses in this collection, it has other gifts to offer. Clark’s poetry is also playful and joyous. As it mourns loss, it celebrates steadfast love. In “This is for the Snow Drifting Down,” Clark deftly uses language to float the reader, like a snowflake on the wind, through a harsh winter scene, landing safely into a bed with “S”:  “Twining vines, that’s what we are, holding on like English ivy, this is for that fasthold, tentacle, grip.”

For all the pain in The Canopy, the poems are a delight to read. Clark is truly a painter of words, efficiently dropping the reader in a scene and a feeling with a turn of phrase.


 

The Eternal Return of the Same

by Gerry LaFemina

Sometime in the late nineties a writer friend of mine said that if you ever wanted to write a Charles Simic poem all you needed was the moon, an alley, a young child, a woman in a babushka, and perhaps a chicken. I thought of this recently after finishing up a first draft of a new poem. Some first drafts make me feel like there are miles to go before the poem gets to sleep, some make me want to throw it away, and a few, like this one, make me feel excited about poetry. Then I reread it, and it felt like it hit a few of the check boxes of some of my poems: a bit of physics? Check. A train? Check. Nostalgia–often in the form of adolescent love? Check. Catholicism? Check. The moon (ala Simic above)? Check.

Fortunately, somehow, I managed to stay away from snow or rain. And birds of any sort. And New York, punk rock, and fire (this last is an image that permeates my forthcoming collection The Story of Ash).

My friend Joseph Fasano writes about horses. His books could run all the races in an afternoon at Belmont. The first section of Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid is filled with poems working similar themes, using similar phrasing, form, and imagery in new and different ways. Poems work not by rejecting previous convention but by taking conventions—even those of our own design—and turning them in new ways. By establishing patterns, we can establish reader expectations and then subvert them.

Make it new, the Modernists implored. And we try to. We really do. Our obsessions may evolve, but perhaps not so much our metaphoric objects. And let’s face it, no one ever said to Monet, Claude, perhaps we should talk about your haystack obsession. Or to O’Keefe, Georgia, another flower? No one ever says to a math professor, X again? Can’t we mix up the variable? The fact is that I can write rules for myself (and I do), telling me to avoid certain imagery, but that doesn’t mean my variables for understanding the questions of the universe differ. The go-to catalogue of images are ways of defining and understanding the world of the poem, and through that, understanding the world around us. They are hallmarks of a style just as much as form, voice, or perspective might be.

And the fact is, after recognizing that the poem in question shared some imagistic and thematic hallmarks with my other poems, I thought to make some changes. Could the trains be trucks? Could the middle school students in the poem be senior citizens in an assisted living facility? Variations of the poem answered that perhaps these changes could be made, and the poem’s outcomes would ditto be radically different: If you alter the numbers, the equation at the end will be different, and where this poem wound up surprised me and seemed right. So I made the choice to keep the majority of these “familiar” images. If the poem’s conclusions felt like I’d seen them before, the poem would have required the major re-workings above. Instead, to use the math analogy again, one can do different equations with the same numbers, just by changing the functions (addition and subtraction, multiplication and division…). Ditto, we can draw new conclusions by how we choose to work with those returning tropes.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra talks about the eternal return of the same. Things repeat. Time is a circle (is it any wonder the face of a clock is round). Or to stick with physics, I might mention the oscillating universe theory: the universe ends in a big crunch which is then followed by a big bang, and so on.

Or let’s think of it this way: our obsessions are our obsessions and our sensual stimuli— surely a potential basis for many of our go-to images—are often things we see every day. The world of things is where the ideas lie, and it’s where we live. Is it any wonder writers love to travel? New places provide an opportunity to restock the image warehouse, to provide us with new rhythms, to break us from the familiar. Remember familiar shares an etymology with family. Eventually, we do have to return home. For the poet, that means a return to our home images, our home subjects. Our alleyways and chickens. Our subways and pigeons.

In this way, I am no different than many contemporary artists in general and poets in particular. The goal isn’t to always come up with fresh images so much as we have to come up with ways to make those images seem new. Chefs, in the end, only have a limited number of entree options. The goal for them is to re-imagine what one does with a filet, more so than it is to get a different protein to work with each night. Ditto, my “physics” wasn’t the Big Bang or String Theory (both of which have appeared often) but Dark Matter. Just as a writer of a villanelle has to make the repeating lines not seem the same (and now, it’s become common practice for those repeating lines to only sort of repeat), so, too, do we have to write our familiar images and themes in new ways. They’re familiarity ought to provide comfort for experimentation and function as a leaping off point for us to explore new potentialities. The goal is for them to repeat but not be redundant.


 

Book Review: RUST BELT BOY by Paul Hertneky

RustBeltBoy_Cover-194x300 Rust Belt Boy: 
Stories of An American Childhood
by Paul Hertneky
Bauhan Publishing, 2016
$21.95

Reviewed by Kelly Kepner

Paul Hertneky exemplifies Western Pennsylvanian familiarity in his new essay collection, Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood. Hailing from a place known for its bullshitting, a gift explored in the essay, “Humility and Its Opposite,” Hertneky masters the craft to tell his stories like a true Pittsburgher. The tone of the book feels conversational, and each essay flows together like a chat between friends, or like rivers winding, collecting bits of the shore, and converging gloriously at the point.

Rust Belt Boy includes twenty-six essays that vary in content from early Springsteen concerts, to Priesthood, pipe manufacturing, and football. Throughout the collection, Hertneky balances flawless prose, and humorous personal narrative with historical research, to describe Western Pennsylvania with an energy that rivals that of the 19th century industrial boom, which put Pittsburgh on the world map as a manufacturing epicenter—a reputation that still colors the shores of its rivers today.

As a baby boomer growing up in Pittsburgh, regional history never made it onto Hertneky’s class syllabi. In his essay, “A Turning Tide,” he writes, “We were taught to look ahead, not back. Conquer nature, explore the frontier, exploit the resources, manifest destiny; if anything truly important had happened here it would have been included in the textbooks that came from Boston.” This collection gives voice to the unspoken past. The pages glow with flecks of historical context that leave readers wondering how they had never heard any of this before.

Of the collapse of the steel industry, he writes:

 The steel industry alone lost nearly 300,000 jobs in the blink of an eye, setting off a widespread exodus, one that equaled the largest internal migration in US history. Ironically, roughly six million African Americans fled into the north when the industrial revolution began, and the same number of industrial workers moved out when the era ended a hundred years later. But the Great Migration north took fifty years to unfold, whereas the emptying of the Rust Belt took place in only twenty years.

Readers are reminded that Pittsburgh left its thumbprint on thousands of structures and bridges, first drafting, then manufacturing, and shipping the pieces far beyond the reach of its own murky rivers. The manufacturing company where Hertneky’s father worked, American Bridge, drafted plans for the Astrodome, the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Woolworth Building, the Sears Tower, Hancock Towers, Varrazano Narrows Bridge, and San Francisco’s Bay Bridge.

“The Nation’s First Economy,” the eighth essay in the collection, reveals the unique origins of Harmony and Economy, small towns upriver from Pittsburgh that were founded by George Rapp, a self-proclaimed prophet from Germany. It is an essay devoted entirely to historical research, but Hertneky manages to detail a century of information with efficient prose and lively pacing. Reflecting on Rapp’s decision to plant his community north of the city, he writes, “How could he resist this magnificent stretch of land, rimmed by gentle slopes and ridges, blessed with virgin forests and riverbed soil, perfect for vineyards and orchards?”

The language in Rust Belt Boy never falters or falls short of vivid. Hertneky demonstrates an ability to make anything sound luxurious. In “Sanctuary,” he writes beautifully about millworkers: “The string of workers threw back shots of whiskey and beer chasers, then, like hot billets traveling down the rolling mill, exited the front door on the corner…” In the same essay, readers experience the Laughlin Memorial Library of Ambridge, Pennsylvania. The childhood recollection feels familiar, yet deliciously unique:

Noticing the sunbeams had slipped from the table and climbed the walls, I resurfaced with the feeling of having been swimming undersea or through a passageway between worlds—I remember it as if it were yesterday because it still happens. I feel woozy, shaking off a familiar disorientation, wiping my palms down the length of my torso as if some slime remained from a membrane through which I passed. How long had I been away?

Hertneky repeatedly pulls readers through time and space with his use of sensory details. In the essay, “The Prurient Power of Pierogi,” readers are whisked into the basement of Divine Redeemer church, thankful for the Catholic doctrine that no meat be eaten on a Friday. Hertneky proves that the language of food bridges cultural and spiritual differences, and whether it’s spelled “pirohi, pierogi, or pirozhki” the experience remains the same:

With my fork, I cut the firm potato pillow in half, exposing the fine filling placed there by ancient hands, refined through generations of argument, fulfilled by sunlight, pitchforks, and cauldrons of boiling water. I flipped its gaping side down in a pool of butter and smeared it across the plate.

The exemplary writing in Rust Belt Boy is undeniable, but one gets the sense while reading the essays, that the descriptions come from a deep love of the subject, not just a professional understanding of language.

Hertneky divulges his intentions to honor the characters that kept Pittsburgh alive in his opening essay, “A Turning Tide.” Neighborhood mothers, former lovers, and millworkers saunter as fully and confidently across the pages as if they came from our own memories.

In “A Flame That Water Fed,” Charlie, the uncle who drank seawater from bottles he kept in his closet, is often seen “…standing at the kitchen sink, absentmindedly catching and caressing the stream running from the faucet.” Hertneky’s boss at Armco Steel, Rocky Marschuk, had a “…sullen nastiness [that] repelled anyone who dared approach, and he went through helpers like a weasel in a warren of bunnies.” Then in “Itching All Over,” we see another boss, Jonesy who “weighed about 260, torched fifty smokes on a slow day, bit his nails to the quick and lay under a spigot of vodka every night.” Hertneky’s profiles are dynamic and complex as he reminisces, reflects, and challenges what it means to be from the American Rust Belt. “Light and Nature,” an essay about an ex-girlfriend, showcases a broad range of descriptive ability as we move from the grit and clamor of industrial Pittsburgh to matters of the heart:

 When I visited Liz in Athens, we spent most of our time outdoors, where she seemed propelled by breezes and softened by sun. Natural elements took possession of her and, within the reach of music, she seemed to rise straight out of the pitiless world.

Rust Belt Boy offers an honest glimpse through the windows of mid-century Pittsburgh duplexes; from immigration, corruption, complacency, and resiliency, Hertneky lays the scaffolding of the city’s past and leaves readers feeling optimistic about the next wave of innovation. For “like tempered steel, the locals have been made sharper and stronger through extreme stress” and there is always “rescue among the ruins.” But the collection is sure to move beyond Western Pennsylvania, to incite meditations on, and conversations about readers’ own coming-of-age. About where we come from and where we’re going, and how to accomplish it all together.


 

Book Review: THE LOSS OF ALL LOST THINGS by Amina Gautier

31FD2h4bvTL The Loss of All Lost Things
by Amina Gautier
Elixir Press, 2016
$17.00

Reviewed by Shelby Vane

Not all loss is created equal. As I read Amina Gautier’s third collection of short stories, The Loss of All Lost Things (Elixir Press 2015), I tried to imagine the extent of loss I could endure. The loss of a child or partner was the pinnacle. The loss of myself—mind and body control—floated selfishly somewhere in the ranks. Consider all the ways we as a collective choose to respond, or not respond, to pain and loss in everyday living. This is what Gautier does so powerfully, wherein the reader is left vulnerable and dependent on any echo of hope these stories, and loss, may unearth. The Loss of All Lost Things is populated with characters, spanning race, class, and culture, battling varying degrees of loss and its effects. Gautier creates a space where the reader can experience emotion alongside the stories’ characters, instead of simply reading about it. This collection serves to demystify any preconceived beliefs of loss and pain, to “let out a breath you hadn’t known you’d been holding,” as a way to remind us how human we really are.

The collection’s opener, “Lost and Found,” is told from the point of view of a kidnapped boy and is perhaps the most heartbreaking of the stories. The boy, abducted by a man known as “Thisman,” refuses to see his abduction as the end, referring to himself as lost instead of taken: “Lost is much better. Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found.” This first story is mirrored by the title story, “The Loss of all Lost Things,” in which we experience the effects of the boy’s kidnapping from the parent’s perspective, who “hate each other for their weakness, for the living that muscles through.” Both point of views renders the process of loss as ongoing; the loss is all that is left, and to let go of it would mean losing the lost thing in its entirety.

One of the collection’s many strengths is Gautier’s ability to create full-bodied characters. These characters are widows, single mothers, and divorced husbands. They work as librarians, academics, or secretaries. They live in whole or fractured families. They spend their time learning to process the world they inhabit. In “A Brief Pause” we see loss through the lens of a narrator who works in a college admission’s office. She holds the power of rejecting students; she is the bearer of their failed admittance. She does not experience the loss herself, but rather witnesses the loss occurring outside of her. She confesses:

If I listen closely, I can hear the rejected applicants when they cry. During that pause, while they are waiting for me to undo what I have done, I can hear them pull themselves together…They clear their throats, struggling to make themselves unaffected, but if you listen, you can hear how hard it is to let go.

Each character in this collection seems hand drawn, with realistic personalities and situations that make for an engaging read. There’s Bernice in “What’s Best for You”—a librarian who is attracted to a soulful and compassionate janitor who rejects her due to class discrepancies. Or there’s Ray in “Resident Lover” who ventures to a writing retreat to cope with his wife’s affair, and eventual departure. Most, if not all, of Gautier’s characters are recognizable. What makes this collection worth reading, though, is the evident pulse that still exists within the characters, despite the pain and loss they experience.


 

Book Review: A CONTRIVED WORLD by Jung Young-Moon

A-Contrived-World A Contrived World
by Jung Young Moon
Trans. by Jeffrey Karvonen & Mah Eunji
Dalkey Archives Press, 2016
$16.00

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

Constructing A Contrived World, Korean writer and translator Jung Young Moon layers thoughtful vignettes, pulled from his narrator’s vivid imagination, to weave fiction and reality together. Set in the streets of a fictitious San Francisco, the narrator’s world projects beyond the boundaries of his reality and into the multiverse of possibilities for the people he encounters and observes. Moon’s readers follow a wandering train of thought as observation melts into digression that leads to an aside that then bleeds into a dream and spirals off either into further delusion or into some sort of symbolic lesson from the narrator.

Exploring the streets of Moon’s fictional city, the narrator reflects that “San Francisco seems a decent place for the deranged” and wonders if that’s not why he’s there:

Sometimes I think about the possibility of losing my mind. Of course, no amount of effort might be sufficient to attain derangement, and derangement might not be attained by effort alone. Nothing seems to be keeping me from becoming deranged, considering that I have always lived in a world of distorted reality, that I’m often trapped in uncontrollable emotions from which I cannot easily escape or absorbed in my ideas (especially nonsensical or morbid ideas, because thinking only seems meaningful when excessive), that I seek refuge in those ideas, that I’m writing a novel that reeks of a deranged person’s memoir, and that I sometimes talk to myself.

The collision of the narrator’s feverish rambling and chilling realizations leave him in a constant fog. Fog, in its own right, is almost always present in the novel. Always looming, always creeping in slowly and seductively to draw in its victim, a disorienting daze manifests itself as an alcoholic haze or drowsy reverie—and, of course, as the ever-present mist that lurks in San Francisco’s atmosphere. The narrator repeatedly falls into a poet’s laze, pondering life and language as if in a Parisian salon. But so often, this behavior leads him to depression, isolation and suicidal thought.

A Contrived World exists at the corner of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and a sociological study of The Sims. Moon successfully deconstructs the creative process by crafting characters to watch and follow within the confines of an imagined life. The narrator’s recurrent encounters with bridges, alcohol and suicide seemingly allude to Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz in Big Sur. The text is smart and savvy—and absolutely worth a second read.

Originally published in 2011 in Jung Young Moon’s native Korean, A Contrived World was published in English for the first time in 2016 by Dalkey Archive Press. For their work, translators Mah Eunji and Jeffrey Karvonen received two grants from the Literature Translation Institute of Korean and a grant from the Daesan Cultural Foundation. Fortunately, Eunji and Karvonen had the patience and the insight to beautifully reconstruct Moon’s dreamlike novel for his English readers. I hope there is more to come from the author and his translators.


 

Ten New Year’s Resolutions for American Poetry, 2017

by Gerry LaFemina

These are resolutions for poetry. For readers. For writers. For what’s possible. For some, they may seem curmudgeonly. So be it. For some, they might seem frivolous. So what? We live in a time when there are more poems being written, being published in journals, published in anthologies and books, and yet, as someone who’s been reading poetry seriously for thirty years, I find myself often looking for poems that satisfy me beyond a first reading, and those seem harder to find. So here’s a list of resolutions for 2017 for American Poetry. They’re meant, in part, tongue in cheek, of course. But only in part.

    1. No more hyperbolic blurbs, particularly with comparisons to other poets. No, I don’t believe someone’s first book is as groundbreaking as Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium. I don’t want to hear that we haven’t seen an original voice like this since Dickinson. I’d rather see blurbs written like they were discussing coffee blends: ‘These are rich, earthy poems with a robust line and a bitter but strong aftertaste.”
    1. Stop confusing content with poetry. I understand the importance of what’s being said. But poetry is about how it’s being said. When we celebrate a book of poems, can we talk more about what writing about this subject as poems does for the subject? And what the subject does for the poems?
    1. And speaking of subject matter. Poems about writing poetry: please, stop. The subject has become cliché. I get it. We write poems. Writing poems is a magical, remarkable, inspiring, frustrating, aggravating thing. Yes. And since the audience for poetry is often mostly writers of poems, we get it. We really do. Nothing feeds into the popular criticisms of poetry more than poems about writing poetry.
    1. Of course, we write about our experiences (including our writing of poems). But does the I (or its most noble of stand-ins “you”) have to always be involved from jump. Poets, let’s forgo the openings that announce ourselves. “I’m sitting by the window staring at the windblown leaves…” What’s wrong with “Out the window, windblown leaves…”?  The I is implicit. When the I finally does show up in the poem, I promise (see what I did there?), its subjective power will be that much more effective.
    1. The I, though, is a powerful thing. Let’s continue our commitment to diversity. One of the joys of being a lover of poetry (and a poet who teaches) is the capacity to have people from all walks of life, with all sorts of voices, of all backgrounds, religions, and sexualities speaking. Part of the reason I wrote this list is to encourage them to be challenging and to challenge themselves.
    1. And let’s challenge authority, too. The biggest concern about the Trump election in terms of poetry for me is the rush to write poems about the election, about Trump. The easy poems are already present: “Grab them by the pussy” and “nasty woman” and “bad hombre” and “huge” are going to be in a lot of them. Poetry has to be more than just reactions; let’s write challenging, beautiful mediated responses. Let our challenges be complicated and powerful, not familiar, not political cliché. Trump’s hair is bad. His skin is Dorito colored. Surprise me.
    1. We can learn a lot about what surprises readers by reading the great poets of the previous few generations. Right now, it seems like most readers of poetry are reading their peers, and maybe the peers of their teachers. The twentieth century is rich with poets whose work should be celebrated, names that are slowly being forgotten: reclaim the poets of the sixties and seventies. The thirties and forties.
    1. And yes, yes. These are a great time for poetry. Let’s all subscribe to at least one or two (more) literary journals. Let’s support the editors and publishers who allow us to keep doing what we do, who keep insuring we have an audience. Ditto, let’s all buy several more collections of poetry than we did last year.
    1. Let’s read those journals and books with our most demanding selves. Let’s not settle as readers. Let’s not settle as writers.
    1. Bring poems to the streets, to the pulpit, to the classroom, to the bar…. For poetry to remain a living art, it is up to us. Give books of poems as presents to those who don’t normally read poems. Be excited about poems, and not with just other poets. Celebrate the poem, not just your own.

As for myself, I have my own resolutions as a poet. They are: 1. Read more (I already read a lot, but still), Facebook less. 2. Toughen the standards for my own work. 3. Correspond more with writers I admire—let them know I’m thinking of them and their work. 4. Order more books for the University library; why wouldn’t I spend their money to support presses and poets I’m grateful for. 5. No more pigeons, subways, or punk music in my poems (whoa, nelly!). 6. Write more in fixed forms—I used to write in forms a great deal, but recently, the desire to write in forms has vanished, but form teaches us so much about free verse. 7/ Say no to people’s requests more often (I don’t have to write every blurb I’m asked to write) so I can give more time to the writing and editing of poems. 8. Keep being grateful, patient, and attentive; those are three attributes every artist needs, which can’t be taught. 9. Experiment with new poetic strategies, while keeping in mind that experimentation doesn’t have to mean white space, language poetry lite, or other postmodern trappings of the avant-garde. 10. Teach, write, revise, live, repeat.