57th High School Class Reunion

by Nola Garrett

Since our 50th reunion we’ve met every year on the east bank of French Creek, not in Waterford, PA where our high school, Fort LeBouef still stands six miles north, but a hundred yards from the intersection of U.S. Route 19 and U.S. Route 6N just across Polick’s Bridge on the site of what used to be Mitchell’s farm machine shed. We are the guests of our classmate Marvin Cross, who has worked hard and prospered well enough, I suspect, to buy out the rest of lock, stock and barrel.  However, you’d never get Marvin to own up to my suspicions. Marvin bought this abandoned farm from the many Mitchells who could never get around to settling the family estate. Too many Mitchells. Too much work to farm, even though these fields hold some of the best soil in the entire state, courtesy of French Creek’s yearly flood deposits on the glacial moraine that make up these hundreds of flat acres, a couple of miles from Mill Village. Marvin tore down the main house, a couple of hired-man houses, other outbuildings, and uses the restored main barn for winter storage for some of his road construction company equipment.  Marvin has planted these fields with soybeans, the most lush bean fields I’ve ever seen, and he’s renovated the machine shed into a summer cabin and picnic space that holds in comfort what’s left of the Class of ’58 and their spouses.

At 2:00 p.m. the second Saturday of August, Marvin’s wife greets us at the door. Marvin provides the beverages, strolls, jokes constantly among us while pouring good quality red wine and soft drinks for those us who can no longer drink alcohol. We pay ten dollars apiece for a simple catered supper delivered at 4:00 p.m., and Marvin patrols, garbage bag in hand gathering our wine glasses, plastic, and paperware. We talk. We use the bathroom a lot. We keep talking, looking at class photos, newspaper obituaries, remembering, wondering what happened….

I’ve attended our 5th, 15th, 20th, and the most recent three reunions. This year for me was different, or rather this year for two reasons I felt different. First, I’m happier and more content than I’ve ever felt in my life. I’ve accepted the reality of my second husband’s divorcing me and embraced living and writing alone here in what has become my condo. And, my classmate and long time friend, Susan Duran Heide, flew from Naples, FL to stay with me for a few days before we drove to our reunion. Susan was our class Valedictorian (I ranked fifth), and she, like me, married a Lutheran pastor. I was the maid of honor in her wedding. She was widowed in her mid thirties, returned to college, earned an English education degree, taught high school English in the Upper St. Clair schools for many years, then returned to Pitt for her doctorate and taught at the University of Wisconsin until she retired to Florida.

Susan and I always have a lot to talk about. This visit was especially warm and talk-filled. It was good to have a buddy while getting dressed to figure out if there is any suitable attire for a 57th high school reunion. Because she still has good legs, she opted for Bermuda shorts. Given my veiny legs, still punctuated with the scars from my recent shingles bout, I wore footless, black leggings under a knee-length, hand-dyed, batik cotton dress that I had bought at last year’s Arts Festival. However, it turned out that there is a suitable women’s uniform for a 57th reunion—long polyester pants topped with a print cotton blouse.

As I chatted with classmates, I kept hearing that Alice Robinson, who had become a registered nurse, was quietly sitting in a far corner, and had recently been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Although Alice and I had both attended Mill Village grade school and Fort LeBoeuf high school, I never knew her very well. She was a big-boned girl with dark wavy hair who pretty much kept to herself. I was a small boned, skinny girl with brown straight hair who read a lot. Both of us always wore dresses sewn by our mothers. She lived at the other end of the diagonal of Mill Village’s single square mile from my house. We never seemed to encounter each other in town.

My most vivid memory of Alice happened in Mrs. Clark’s 5th grade class where I was the teacher’s pet, so I was assigned a seat nearly touching Mrs’s Clark’s desk. Alice was assigned a seat in the last row near the coats. One Friday when a weekly spelling test was returned, Mrs. Clark was so angry Alice had misspelled every word that she yanked Alice out of her seat on to the floor, grabbed her legs as if she were a wheelbarrow, pushed Alice, weeping silently, around the entire perimeter of our class room. I was appalled. I was shocked Mrs. Clark could be so mean. Somehow it made it even worse that Alice was wearing a dress. I didn’t know what to do, but I never felt the same about Mrs. Clark again, and I was a little ashamed to be her pet. What I didn’t do was say anything to Alice, something that has drifted in and out of my mind ever since. Sixty-seven years later, I still didn’t know what to say to Alice, but now I knew that if I was ever going to do the right thing for Alice, today would have to be that day.

I gradually made my way through my name-tagged classmates to Alice, who had brought with her a scrap book holding all of our Mill Village grade school class photos from first grade though sixth grade. As soon as I sat down with Alice, she urgently asked me to identify the names of the students in our first grade photo taken on the side steps of our school. I was surprised at myself that I could name almost everyone, except for a couple of boys in the back row, including Johnny Spencer who always had a runny nose that he wiped on his sleeve. Alice was standing beside Johnny.

Alice and I bent puzzling over each of the class photos until we came to Mrs. Clark’s class. At that moment I looked up at Alice and said, “Mrs. Clark was mean to you.”

Alice said, “I could never get math very well in her class.”

Had Alice forgotten that horrible wheelbarrow spelling incident?

Immediately, Alice began telling me about how mean her father had been to her, how he had whipped her with his belt. And, I told Alice how my father had done the same thing to me. And, Alice told me how mean her father had been to her mother, how her mother had attempted to protect her from him and paid the price of also being whipped and beaten by him. And, how sometimes boys threw stones down on her from the railroad bridge, but the stones never hit her and how they would call her father Daddy Long Legs, which Alice commented was because her father was so tall. All the while I was remembering the two Kermeyer girls who lived across the street from me showing me the black and blue marks on their buttocks where their father had beaten them with the stiff-bristled milk brushes used to clean his farm’s milk house. And, Alice was then telling me how her father had kept her from doing her schoolwork and kept her up late on a school night to start painting a bedroom yellow at 9 p.m.

Alice didn’t tell me about her cancer diagnosis. I never did get to tell Alice of my silent shame back in Mrs. Clark’s class, but we did get to talk about how our mothers had saved each of us from our fathers and how thankful we both were that we were blessed with good mothers.

It may be that next year Alice won’t be at the 58th class reunion and/or neither will I, but this year we were held safe in our memories of our hand sewn dresses, and I was shriven.


 

Book Review: THE KINGDOM AND AFTER by Megan Fernandes

 photo 65800822-251c-4470-97a1-3540ea39b78e_zpsffikbmt6.jpg The Kingdom and After
Poems by Megan Fernandes
Tightrope Books, 2015
$19.95

Reviewed by Alyse Richmond

Former Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship awardee, Megan Fernandes,is an American-Canadian poet and author of the full-length poetry collection, The Kingdom and After (Tightrope Books, 2015). She serves as poetry editor of the anthology Strangers in Paris and is the author of two chapbooks of poetry: Organ Speech and Some Citrus Makes Me Blue. The Kingdom and After greets us with a mysterious and worldly look inside Fernandes’ personal timeline, from family history to strange heartaches borne out of maturation. Her characters are sentimental, melancholic at times, and ask us to slow down, to absorb into shades of yellow and green, and to befriend unsolicited ghosts.

Often unnerving, Fernandes’ devotion to recounting her relationships is hypnotic. She employs couplets and lone lines with finesse, allowing the reader to carefully envision the rooms she enters, the landscapes she gazes upon, each stanza thriving in its own space, as in “Dig”:

…Inside, spiral of Alpine skies
dissolving into platinum wires,

binding screws and toffee cake teeth, rampant
suds of incandescent heat weave into tub dreams…

Her language is lyrical on the page and when read aloud, yet it maintains a sort of methodical sadness, an old clock that still ticks but somehow loses time—again, as in “Dig”:

…One day,

you will have a wife, and
I will have a daughter and

we won’t meet like this again.

Divided into three sections, The Kingdom and After is thick with a sense of place, whether it’s India, Africa, or nonspecific locations such as “the forest” or “the sea.” Each scene is vividly drawn and filled with animals and seasons, while her telling, unyieldingly honest language acts as a magnet. It pulls hands to our chests over and over again without allotting time to flounder in sorrow. Fernandes instructs us to move forward, keep connecting the dots in her life in poems like “The Baby”:

…when you finally said
you were a wreck and no,

do not touch me and left…

…I need to tell you
that sometimes,

in half-light,
I think about it.

This fresh take on nostalgia never lingers too long, and is balanced with “feel-good” moments, as in “Lung, Cheek, Air,” where she provides a morbid, but welcomed, sort of comic relief:

…when
the vessel began to dive and the two grown men

on either side began to lose their shit,
I thought, “Great. I am going to die between

these two idiots, going to Canada no less,”…

Rather than indulging in the never-ending “whys” of yesterday, Fernandes dives into a world of free association, almost forcing answers to surface. In reading her title poem, “The Kingdom and After,” one can’t help but attempt to pull lines apart from one another like necklace chains balled up in a jewelry box:

…God, we are so poor.
I am so poor that any loud night is decadence.

Any boy on any staircase is Hollywood.

Her tone and use of the second person point of view are both confessional and accusatory, telling us what she feels we need to know in order to understand, to empathize. Fernandes wants her readers to form opinions about her characters, to judge them, in a way. And while blatant omission in poems like “Queens” can be quite alarming, it is implemented thoughtfully, generating flashbulb images and jarring juxtapositions:

…The swamp air is peached and
can be spooned, the animals are calm and low to the dust…

Then:

…I know what you make little boys do.

I know you are queens and not gods.

Fernandes engages us in her narratives unapologetically and sometimes without permission, but we walk away unable to keep from mulling over her words, her reasons for wanting us to see the things she has seen. Her reflective voice is present from beginning to end, though she is skilled at camouflaging it with blunt dialogue and lines that seem to trail off into thin air; making The Kingdom and After read as a box of old letters to home, fully immersing us in her unparalleled verse, displayed in “Rising”:

…I was in the center feeding the world
and the other ghosts were making themselves
bodies in the grass, rising
like puppets to come find me.

She closes The Kingdom and After in a beautifully abrupt manner— the way birds take off when startled—with “Jules et Jim, 2005”:

…She called you

chubby once, he had said and I hated you,
but you were dead and how could I, with you

all butchered up, underground in White Plains?

It is impossible for us, as readers, to dismiss the power behind Megan Fernandes’ stories that are strung together like a well-loved sweater— soft, ever thinning, and peppered with tiny holes that enable us to experience the chills of the not-so-sunny days gone by.


 

Book Review: LOVE MAPS by Eliza Factor

 photo 02a78057-fe1e-48a8-bad3-aabe022bb389_zps7cmcgonp.jpg Love Maps
by Eliza Factor
Akashic Books, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bingler

Love Maps, published in May by Akashic Books, is Eliza Factor’s second novel. Her first novel, The Mercury Fountain—about a utopian society that mines mercury in order to reap its “magical” benefits—was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice in 2012. Factor considers The Mercury Fountain and Love Maps as the first and third novels, respectively, in a series of three. Although both novels are thematically different—Love Maps, unlike The Mercury Fountain, does not contain any elements of magical realism—they exist in the same world, feature many of the same locations, and have many overlapping characters. Love Maps focuses on a more realistic (albeit often bizarre) portrayal of life: it is about dysfunctional relationships—whether they are romantic, platonic, or familial—and the consequences of unusual or unintended expressions of love.

Love Maps begins in Connecticut in 1997. Sarah Marker, the protagonist, receives a letter from her long-absent husband Philip, informing her that he will be visiting her after nearly eight years. During his absence, Sarah gave birth to a son, Max, of whom Philip knows nothing about. Suddenly, it’s 1981, and Sarah is a thirty-one year old painter living in New York City. She wakes up to a telephone call from her godmother, Tori, informing her that Tori’s husband, Conningsby, has died. And that is how Sarah meets Philip for the first time, at a funeral parlor where they are expected to pick up Conningsby’s ashes. The novel juxtaposes Sarah’s past with her present through chapters alternating in time between the 1980s and 1997, dominantly following her relationships with Philip and her sister, Maya.

The title of the novel comes from a series of paintings Sarah creates, which documents her various romantic relationships throughout time. They mimic a subway map and show different colored dots for locations of breakups and hookups. Factor has described Love Maps as being fueled by the “friction between pride and desire.” This statement is most obviously demonstrated by Sarah in 1997, for it is this friction that causes her to drink and thoroughly examine her past relationship(s), and decide whether or not she should forgive Philip for leaving her. She desires Philip because he is “decent,” but she is too proud to admit this because of how he has treated her (which was the result of how Maya treated him). A subtler version of friction can be seen through the novel’s, or Sarah’s, understanding of time: the 1997 chapters are in the past tense, and the 1980s chapters are in the present tense. This move warps our linear expectation of time, and shows that the past feels like the present to Sarah, and vice versa.

Despite Sarah’s role as the novel’s protagonist, her sister Maya overshadows her throughout the story. Maya is consistently selfish, manipulative, and violent; she ruins Philip’s life and destroys his relationship with Sarah. Her singing career is mildly successful; she makes her fortune by selling real estate. But it is her cruelty and failure that make her an interesting character, combined with the fact that Maya, a middle-aged woman, has never been able to properly imitate her idol, Rita Hayworth, let alone mimic her career arc. Sarah lacks agency as a character, and it is this that makes her less interesting; she responds passively to Maya’s continuous violence towards her and Philip, and she cannot effectively communicate with either of them or reveal to Philip that they have a child. But it is this that makes the novel more “realistic,” for these characters are flawed and confused—they’re not witty, and they often act like they’re still in their twenties. Despite my frustration with the qualities that made them more realistic, the novel was entertaining and suspenseful—mainly because of Maya’s antics—and the drama moved the story forward and kept me reading.

Factor intends to continue her series with the novel that connects The Mercury Fountain and Love Maps, which will focus on Sarah’s parents and their life in the circus during WWII. Sarah’s parents were intriguing characters in Love Maps, but we learned little about them other than that they were adventurous, secretive, and died in a plane crash. It seems that Factor has left us the best for last: her third novel promises to be much more ambitious, and even more entertaining than her first two novels—after all, she has been mulling over its contents for more than twenty years.


 

Book Review: ALL NIGHT IN THE NEW COUNTRY by Miriam Bird Greenberg

 photo 492e4d0d-12ce-4aa4-ba83-925acd7a39fb_zpsubqabdms.jpg All night in the new country
by Miriam Bird Greenberg
Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013
$10.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

What do we become when stripped to our barest selves? By delivering us into an apocalypse laden with memory of the world that came before, Miriam Bird Greenberg’s All night in the new country goes a long way toward answering that question. A catalogue of grisly images and bittersweet hope, these poems inhabit a new era that illustrates what could happen were society reclaimed by nature and ruled by caution, panic, fear, and desire – the most basic animal sensibilities.

Greenberg’s strength in this chapbook is her ability to craft sensual images in very few words. Her sweetheart steams “a pot of wild mustard flowers / by the roadside, rain sizzling on the lid.” Ghosts patrol “eagle-eyed / for half-smoked cigarettes.” Each detail adds a perfect note to the nightmarish lullaby she sings, her voice threadbare from “twine-bound tobacco that throat-parched and ember- / spat well enough to do anyone in.”

Among these images, hope and despair are juxtaposed to create a space wherein life is always at its most dire. This is a landscape where

…people

go out to the woods (no – are sent) with shovels.
Fallen fruit sweetening the air, pungent
where saplings will sprout from the stones
in spring; but the pits they are digging
are meant       for a different thing.

More than just a play of birth against death, these lines employ an ominous correction and a dramatic pause to ramp up Greenberg’s creepy atmosphere. Her poems are delicate balances, the entrance of a violin’s soothing moan just before the worst scene in a horror movie. “Remember” introduces a boy who dies in a well; his friends “boil tea from melted snow” to deal with the lack of clean water. Young girls in “Knowing” wear necklaces of feathers “speckled like the guileless / faces of dice loosed / on dim floorboards just before / loss.” A few lines later, the dice become freshly-pulled teeth in a grotesque divination. In this new country, sweet comes always with grit, and smiles with blood.

Yet, for all its misfortune, there is real love here. A clever break ends the first poem’s opening line with a caring address to the reader: “Before the world went to hell my sweetheart…” Despite searchlights and militias, war and devastation, Greenberg’s new world retains compassion, even faith. She suggests

There are many ways to talk about loss;
it is like a body walking next to you in the night, ghost
of the lost one keeping you
company, or only your own grief stumbling
beside you in the darkness.

Later, a girl tells the speaker, “They didn’t say it would be / like this… empty as a smile.” Somehow, we are as comforted by our own melancholy as we are by strangers suffering the same calamities as us. If truly “there are ways to make violence / into an offering,” Greenberg accomplishes that transformation in these poems which remind us of the community we are driven to make even in the most dangerous and desperate of times. It is that natural urge to come together and go forth that saves the people of Greenberg’s new country, that sensibility which steels them to believe in the face of continued struggle:

The lavender fields where we first arrived
were forever symbolic to us, the scent
not somnolent but a promise
of our new future.


“Prayer For Marilyn Monroe”: brief discussion and translation

by John Samuel Tieman

A friend and student of Thomas Merton, Ernesto Cardenal is a Catholic priest in Nicaragua.  A proponent of Liberation Theology, Cardenal served as Minister Of Culture in the Sandinista government. The story goes that Rev. Cardenal wrote this poem right after reading, in an article in Time, of Marilyn Monroe’s death.

For my part, I lived in Mexico City during the 1980s. When I moved home, to St. Louis, I did this translation as a tribute to Cardenal and to Liberation Theology.

Among other considerations, in the broadest sense there is always the attempt, in all translations, to attend to the poetics of the craft, as well as the replication of the original vocabulary. In this case, there is one other consideration, one I feel is perhaps the most important. I hope my translation honors the holiness of this prayer. In our secular world, it is very easy to simply forget, frankly, that Father Cardenal offers a prayer. A prayer. A prayer in which he sees a woman exploited by capitalism in this life, and liberated by God’s love in the next. A prayer in which the poet acts as both priest to this woman and prophet to the rest of us, who closes his poem with our “Amen.”

(In 1993, this translation appeared in River Styx. In 1995, it was published in The Best Of River Styx.)

Prayer For Marilyn Monroe

by Ernesto Cardenal
trans. John Samuel Tieman

Lord
accept this girl known over the world by the name of
          Marilyn Monroe
though that was not her true name
(but You know her true name, the name of the orphan
          raped at age nine
and the name of the shopgirl who first tried
          suicide at sixteen)
and who now presents herself before You without her makeup
without her press agent
without photographs and without signing autographs
alone as an astronaut facing the dark night of deep space

While still a girl, she dreamed she was nude in a church
          (according to copy filed by Time)
before a prostrate multitude with their heads on the ground
and she had to tiptoe in order to avoid stepping on the heads.
You know our dreams better than psychiatrists.
Church, house, den, all are the security of the maternal womb
but also something more…
The heads are the admirers, clearly
(the mass of heads in the darkness beneath the beam of light).
But the temple is not the studio of 20th Century Fox.
The temple – of marble and gold – is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands with His whip in His hand
driving out the money changers of 20th Century Fox
who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.

Lord
in this world contaminated by sin and radioactivity
You do not only blame a shopgirl alone
who like any shopgirl dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was reality (Technicolor reality).
She could not but act according to the script we gave her
–the story of our life–the script was absurd.
Forgive her Lord and forgive all of us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production in which we all had a hand.
She hungered for love and we offer her tranquilizers.
For the sin of not being a saint
                                                       we recommended psychoanalysis.
Remember her growing hatred of the camera
and the hatred of make-up – she insisted on make-up for each scene –
and how her terror grew
and how her tardiness grew.

Like any shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was unreal as a dream a psychiatrist interprets and files.

Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
that when the eyes were opened
were uncovered by the spotlight
                                                       then the spotlight was turned off!
and the crew struck the two room walls (it was a set)
while the Director walked off with the script
          this scene now a take.
Or like a voyage of a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception in the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
          viewed from some slum tenement.
The movie ended without the final kiss.
They found her dead in bed, hand on the phone.
And the detectives never discovered who she was going to call.
It was
like someone who dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and hears a tape saying:  WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who is wounded by gangsters
who stretches out her hand for a disconnected phone.

Lord
whoever it is she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one at all
or Someone whose number is not in the Los Angeles Directory)
          You answer that call.

Book Review: THE BRENTWOOD ANTHOLOGY


 photo 7fa87b73-000e-4a44-a045-bb3360a3d3e2_zpsttblahhi.jpg
The Brentwood Anthology
Poems by members of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange
edited by Judith R. Robinson and Michael Wurster
LUMMOX Press, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Since re-locating from Boston to Pittsburgh in 2009, I’ve noticed a commonality among Pittsburghers: they like creating against a rough background. They like growing art out of the soot, finding alternative beauty and ways of expression—damp poems written in the dark corners of bars, but altogether valuable, thoughtful, and hauntingly concise.

When the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange was founded in 1974 by Dieter Weslowski, Lloyd Johnson, Vic Coccimiglio, J.W. Jansen, and Michael Wurster I wouldn’t be born for another 17 years. I wouldn’t step foot on Pittsburgh soil for another 18 after that. I wouldn’t meet one of the Exchange ’s poets who would reach national recognition, Joy Katz, until she became my professor and mentor in 2013. What I’m saying is this: the work that exists in this 100 plus page anthology stretches far beyond what I’ve read and learned and experienced. There is a history that comes across as past and current poetry Exchange members contribute their work—from Joan Bauer to Stephen Pusateri. Together in this collection, we are witness to where the Exchange started and where it’s going.

The Exchange was originally founded to provide community services such as readings, workshops, and a network of information to those outside the university loop. This anthology, in fact, is the first time poetry associated with the Exchange has been published in a single book. About the anthology Wurster, the lone co-founder still involved with the organization, says “It represents the richness of poetry, literature and the arts in Pittsburgh in general, but it also represents, if I may say so, the poetic brilliance of these 22 poets.” While the editors claim there are no overarching themes, I think the most telling, consistent theme is a Pittsburgh mentality, obvious in each poem—the I can create art from dark spaces. I can find worth in the mundane, the deteriorated, the forgotten. Joan Bauer hints at this towards the end of her poem “Duckweed”—

…I’m learning
what grows on backwater ponds & streams.
It’s worth half-wrecking the tires,
driving down this gravel road to find
the smallest flowers in the world.

Similarly, Jolanta Konewka Minor’s “River” discusses the pollution of natural spaces, specifically a river flowing not with rocks and driftwood but disposed appliances and bottles. Yet, there is hope in these discarded places as she ends, “the water flows—still / still beautiful / determined / though it cannot / sustain life / at this / very moment…

Stylistically, these poems are concise, ominous, subtle, and conscious of the simple image bumping up against life’s bigger questions. I read and I’m left, often in the last stanza, by a moment or insight so powerful the poem must end. For example, in Michael Albright’s “In Name Of” the speaker paces the halls at Mass General. The day before he lets “her go” and walks into the chapel, reading the guestbook entries, of which the poem ends on—

And then, in the next box,
a blinking yellow light,
Help me,
with the initials written in,
then inked completely out.

One of my favorite poems in the anthology is Sheila Kelly’s “The Accident.” Fast-paced and microscopic, we rush with the speaker as she hits a woman with her Honda. There is an attention to color, to the musicality of language, the circular panic the mind travels in terrible moments:

in white August sun—my Honda, my blouse,
her headscarf – white, white, white—and
turning left I hit her. And I jumped from
the car, it went something like the song
and the singing—bluesy, bruising—bodies
in amber…

While I pull quotes from Bauer, Konewka, Albright, and Kelly, these are only a few of the talented poets compiled into this anthology. All poets and poems in this collection not only represent a Pittsburgh aesthetic, but a community of artists who have supported and created together for years before my existence, and hopefully for years after.


 

Dance Review: DANCE AFRICA PITTSBURGH at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Friday evening kicked off a weekend of events that honored African music and dance, and African diaspora. Presented by The Legacy Arts Project and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Dance Africa returned to Pittsburgh for its fourth year.

Founder of Dance Africa, Dr. “Baba” Chuck Davis, started the show with a tribute to the “elders” in the audience. Davis asked those over 55 to stand, as a way to honor the life experience and knowledge they possess.

At that moment, a single drumbeat from behind the curtain began the official performance. Dancers, musicians and community members proceeded down the aisle and onto the stage singing traditional songs, sometimes in a call-and-response fashion with the audience.

With a theme of “healing,” there was a therapeutic feel from the beginning. As the group processed off stage, local dancer, Anthony Williams, walked on. A list of names was read as Williams moved, acknowledging prominent blacks who have kept African art and culture alive in this country. Williams used slow, deliberate movements that gave him a regal look, leaping and turning with clarity and grace.

Act One featured the Balafon West African Dance Ensemble of Pittsburgh and Washington, DC (including their youth group), and Legacy Arts of Pittsburgh. “Foko” opened the show with ten kids playing infectious and intricate rhythms on the djembe drums lining the stage. Their music and intermittent movement had passion and precision.

The second piece, “OYA,” was dedicated to the women of African diaspora. Six women joined the youth in movement alternating between slow undulations through the spine and arms to fast-paced and rhythmic foot patterns. Similarly, “The Forest” celebrated the coming of age for women, and utilized both children and adults. The dancers’ energy was contagious; the audience cheered and clapped throughout.

The first half concluded with an interlude from the drummers that led into a high-energy section of dance. The movement began with cartwheels and somersaults from two young girls, and ended with ten women performing individual solos that highlighted their skills. Most impressive was the stamina and athleticism required to get through the section, and the performers’ ability to maintain their energy with absolute joy.

Act Two featured the Kulu Mele Dance and Drum ensemble from Philadelphia. “Yemaya,” their first work, was based on the goddess of the living ocean who is said to cure infertility in women. The performers wore dresses of blue and white to mimic the waves of the ocean. As it is at sea, there wasn’t a true moment of stillness in the piece. The movement was circular and hypnotic, and the dancers rippled across the stage as if entranced by the power of the goddess.

“Ogun” was inspired by the divine warrior of the same name who is believed to make the planet a better place. The trio of men were clad in bright green, and carried swords in a show of tenacity. Each of the dancers maintained a fluidity in their strength, power and dexterity.

The show crescendoed into a series of shorter works. “N’gri” featured three women in complex rhythms and exciting jumps inspired by a gazelle. “Soboninkun” was a short solo piece with the dancer masked and costumed as an antelope. The dance itself is traditionally performed following a harvest.

“Manjani” is a dance to traditionally “test the skills of the dancers” and was performed by three women who exhibited community more than competition. Another trio, “Hip-Hop to African Rhythms,” fused old and new styles. The men took turns showing off their best moves, competing in good humor with big jumps and gymnastic handstands.

The last piece, “Fula Fare,” brought the men and women together in a dynamic group section that celebrated the Fula people of Guinea. The work demonstrated the spirited nature of African dance, a community feeling sometimes lacking in modern day arts.

Erin Perry, Executive Director of Dance Africa, said in her program note, “We can all attest to the necessity for more healing energy worldwide…Such is the work that we are called to do, to utilize our gifts and share them for the betterment of humanity.” The unique program worked to uplift us and remind us of our oneness.


 

Book Review: PROXY by R. Erica Doyle

 photo ec8f7e8d-c0fa-45b9-819b-be0317652c86_zpskhwdqiwy.jpg proxy
Poems by R. Erica Doyle
Belladonna, 2013
$15.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

For a while now, we’ve been a society fascinated by the use of science as a lens to scrutinize human emotion. The practice dates as far back as The Twilight Zone, but more recently has been taken up by writers like Margaret Atwood and Brenda Shaughnessy. The Nolan brothers’ film Interstellar received critical acclaim in 2014 for its use of theoretical physics as a means of depicting human relationships. Even Broadway threw its hat in the ring with Brian Yorkey’s If/Then telling two tales of one woman’s life, each version a series of choices leading to alternate possibilities and realities.

Erica Doyle’s proxy exists in the realm of these other projects, namely by using a mathematical sensibility to reflect on failed relationships, queer love, and race relations, while bringing a fresh perspective—something aggressive, erotic, precise, and distinctly textual. Through wordplay and an intense poetic gaze, Doyle delves into the extremities of human behavior to render a world that is at once intoxicating and off-putting. “You hope to perform an autopsy,” she writes, and excavate she does. Readers are bound to recognize lust, desperation, discomfort—and to be surprised by the writing at every turn.

Doyle borrows her epigraph from David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus: “Under the mathematician’s hands, the world contracts, / but it becomes more lucid.” The collection is crafted decisively with this concept in mind. Each page offers another contracted, solid, untitled prose block, but each poem—each individual word—has the potential to explode into a thousand various meanings. The section titles (prologue, palimpsest, proxy, phasedown, and petroglyph) are our first cue. Each signifies a person or object at least one layer removed from immediacy, a choice that situates readers at a distance from the work. Doyle’s approach puts us all in the role of scientist, examiner, observer. And yet this rigid, logical tactic creates a verbal tension that allows for some of the most beautiful lyrical leaps I’ve read in poetry lately. For instance, in “palimpsest”: “On the sonogram, your ovaries like asteroids against the tulips of your fallopian tubes.”

Fully depicting the rigor and beauty of proxy would be a futile attempt in such a small space—these condensed poems beg to be read repeatedly, more voraciously and deeply each time. What I love most about Doyle’s collection is its stark honesty. Our speaker, who enters with the book with such bravado, admits later, “When you thought you swallowed, you were consumed.”  One poem finds her in the bathroom:

Everything she’s given you has expired. The lotion
from
Provence. The tangerine bath gel. Empty. Cleaning to see
this gleam. Leave enough filth to make a difference. On a
ledge, cells and cells of hunger.

But these poems, even in their most powerless, desperate moments, are not shy. “Blistered gums and wet cunts, mustard colored dream eyes” are what our speaker longs for. This is where the collection separates from “love is the fourth dimension” feel-good themes like that of Interstellar. Doyle demands that we account for every degree of human experience. Or, as Berlinski writes, “a critical point / lying between points marking . . . regular behavior.” In proxy, we are always at the critical point.

Having read this collection, one thing is clear: Doyle is a poet who cannot be missed. She takes risks and challenges her readers. Her eye is keen, her tongue sharp. She doesn’t hide from issues of race and sexuality. Her accomplishments are many, and she will surely continue creating visceral, meaningful worlds. In short, these poems need to be read.


 

Dance Preview: CHARETTE at PearlArts Studios

Previewed by Adrienne Totino

Many professional dancers studied their craft in a college or university setting where students are often expected to create their own work in choreography and composition classes. The environment is supportive and helpful, with feedback from professors and peers.

But as in all art forms, we improve with practice. Some choreographic skill is honed in those four years of study, but one’s craft is far from perfected at graduation. By then, the competitive world of professional dance can be overwhelming. Joining a company is an option for only an elite few; many end up making their own work, simply to have an opportunity to perform.

For Staycee Pearl, director of Staycee Pearl dance project, it is important that choreographers continue to receive feedback on their work. She says, “We all get stuck in our creative bubbles and we get other people stuck with us…we fall in love with our own processes.”

Pearl goes on to say that she normally receives constructive criticism before presenting a new piece, and that it can be equally helpful to have someone outside the dance genre offer their assessment.

After this year’s newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Pearl spoke with many artists who were craving commentary on the works-in-progress they had just presented. She says, “People were asking for it, people who don’t have the resources to get it.”

As a leader in the Pittsburgh dance network, Pearl thought she might be able to help.  Not by offering her own advice, but by holding an event that would allow dancers to showcase their choreography, giving them an opportunity to perform, but to also receive feedback from members of the arts community.

Mark Taylor immediately came to Pearl’s mind as someone to moderate the event. Taylor is the former director of the Pittsburgh Dance Alloy, and currently runs the Center for BodyMindMovement. He has had a relationship with Pearl since her early career, and she has always valued his opinions and advice.

In addition to Taylor’s longtime experience, Pearl notes his genuine quality. “He’s open-minded and gentle…he’s not going to tell you what to do, but he will give you things to think about.”

Taylor came up with the name of the event, charrette. He and Pearl have been using the  following definition for the word: a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions.

Each event will follow the same basic structure. Taylor will begin by interviewing a choreographer, so the viewers might gain insight into their style and process. Then, the artist will present ten to fifteen minutes worth of material. To follow, 2 or 3 skilled professionals in varying genres will give their reactions to the work. Some of the professionals include Lenore Thomas, a printmaker and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Aaron Henderson, a videography also at Pitt (and former STREB dancer), and a few local dance makers.

After the initial feedback, Pearl hopes to have discussion between the choreographers and responders; the performers might ask questions and receive more direct feedback if they need or want it. The audience may also have a chance to comment. This is something Pearl is still considering.

On Thursday, July 16th, presenters include Anthony Williams, Moriah Ella Mason, Pearlann Porter, and the Slowdanger duo. For the Thursday, August 20th showing, we will see Darcinda Louise Shaffner, Shana Simmons, Jamie Murphy, Joan Wagner, Alexandra Bodnarchuk, and Ariel Stanton-Penkert with Marissa Guthrie. One of the choreographers will receive free studio time at PearlArts Studios to continue the development of their piece. They will then present their updated work at a later date.

Pearl cares deeply about the craft of movement, and explains that although choreographers often see their own creation thoroughly, it still might not translate to the audience. The “charrette” process will help to elevate the choreography representing Pittsburgh today.

Event Details:

Where: PearlArts Studios: 201 North Braddock Avenue, 6th Floor, in Point Breeze

When: July 16th and August 20th, 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6:30)

Cost: Suggested donation of $5, at the door


Book Review: FUGITIVE COLORS by Lisa Barr

 photo 9ded5c00-4ca5-4b5d-95a5-f4be0899ec1b_zps1ivs7cbv.jpg Fugitive Colors
by Lisa Barr
Arcade Publishing, 2014
$24.95

Reviewed by Jessica Smith

Set in Europe on the cusp of World War II, Lisa Barr’s Fugitive Colors is the story of Julian Klein, a boy who breaks free from a culture and lifestyle not conducive to his art by moving across the Atlantic, from Chicago to Paris, to grow as an artist. There he falls in with a group of artists who serve as his teachers and his inspiration. There is the couple Adrienne and Rene, two talented artists, and also Felix, whose inferior skills become apparent as the group gets instruction from famed artists and begin to show their work in galleries and elsewhere. As Julian becomes embedded deeper into their social circle, dissentions within the group threaten to tear the friends apart—jealousies between old friends, new feelings of love and lust. The introduction of a new character, the beautiful and sensual model Charlotte, is the beginning of the end. It finally breaks the tenuous connections between the artists. Then comes the rise of Hitler, the fear of punishment for those in the art world, and the conversion of one of their own into an enemy of the art they create.

Barr’s knowledge of both art and history is present throughout the novel. Her four years of research for this book combined with her compelling characters (whom she calls composites of real artists, real art dealers, and real Nazis) make this book enjoyable for all, even those with little familiarity of the art world. This book will broaden any reader’s comprehension of such a fascinating group of people during the tragedy of Hitler’s tyranny.

Fugitive Colors spans the lifetime of the narrator Julian. As with many worthwhile books Julian does not at first appear to be the most interesting or even the most talented character. Deserving of being called most talented would be Rene, a fact that fuels Felix’s jealousy, although Julian’s art does hold promise. Julian is passive, allowing the other character’s dramas to take precedent over his own talent and feelings. In the end, though, it is arguable as to which of the main characters is most deserving of being recognized as the most dynamic character, which is a testament to Barr’s ability to craft dynamic people within her story.

The novel begins with a thief stealing a book from a library. This event opens up the novel with energy that never slackens. Never once does Barr allow the reader to believe the characters will be safe for even a moment. Tension is braided into each page; even during parts of the book where the character is not in immediate danger, Barr is setting up future complications. For example, upon Julian’s arrival in Paris, as he is meeting his future friends, seemingly small interactions between the characters tempt the reader with the possibility of a love triangle. Julian admires Charlotte and yearns to paint her, attention she returns with a subtle smile despite the presence of her boyfriend. Starting with this instance the book never slows down, from betrayals within the group to threats from others. When it seems as though the characters struggles have been pushed to their limits, loyalties change and the reader knows that no one is to be trusted.

The descriptions of the paintings that the characters create are one of the most compelling parts of the book. The first time Julian witnesses Rene and Felix paint is a whirlwind of color that captivates the reader in their passion for art:

Rene began to caress the wall with midnight blue pigment, lightly dragging his brush across the white plaster, creating an undulated effect. He added in light dabs of orange, and the texture changed completely… He swept from left to right, blending in various shades of yellow, green, and red into the blue. Each stroke, each poetic movement, was mesmerizing.

This loving way of writing about their art is kept up through the very last pages of the book when Julian’s art is viewed through the eyes of a character in particular need of inspiration as the story comes to a touching and hopeful conclusion.

Barr creates dynamic characters that the reader can love and hate while weaving together a complex plot. As Fugitive Colors educates the reader on art history, the book gives the reader a portrait of how far a character can be pushed while under duress, both physically and emotionally. In the end, Fugitive Colors is about resiliency in one’s passion for art as well as resiliency in friendship and love.


 

Treachery

by Nola Garrett

     I first learned about treachery when my family moved the 3 miles from our small house and farm on U. S. # 19 to a sixteen room house in Mill Village the summer I turned eight. I don’t exactly remember reading that word, treachery, or hearing the word, treachery, used by my parents, but somehow I knew the word meant some kind of deep betrayal, theft and/or trickery by a blood relative or a spouse.

When we moved to Mill Village, I discovered that Mr. Rowe, who used to be the hired man for a widow, Mrs. Whitaker, who lived on a small farm on Camp Mystic Road, a mile or so from our small house, had moved alone to a cottage at the dead end of our Mill Village street. He had sided his new home with square, green shingles. Mr. Rowe kept busy with a few chickens, odd jobs for neighbors, and his garden so meticulous it reminded me of Mr. McGregor’s garden of Peter Rabbit fame. A few months later I overheard my parents saying that Mrs. Whitaker had moved in with Mr. Rowe, though they weren’t married. Seems that Mrs. Whitaker’s son arrived back home and had fired Mr. Rowe. The son then persuaded her sign over her farm to him with the promise that he’d take care of her for the rest of her life. After the deed was transferred, her son started to make plans to put her to the County Home. Just in the nick of time Mrs. Whitaker escaped, moved in with Mr. Rowe. My parents and the rest of our community seemed to approve of Mr. Rowe and Mrs. Whitaker’s living arrangements, and went on calling them Mr. Rowe and Mrs. Whitaker.

However, around the same time I accompanied my parents to a New Ireland Evangelical United Brethren Church council meeting and overheard their discussion and decision to deny a young married couple’s request for membership because both of them had been divorced.  Both my parents voted with the council’s majority. I was puzzled and almost outraged. If I had been a teenager, I’m sure I would have questioned their judgment, especially on a New Testament basis. What I took from those two approaches to marriage was that divorce was shameful, unforgivable; but somehow “living in sin” was acceptable if the couple was old.

It’s taken me decades to intellectually and emotionally sort through those treacheries.

So, recently when I read a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, I immediately downloaded his novel and read it straight through in a day, partly because the main characters were my age and partly because it began with 70 year old, widowed Addie Moore walking a block to her widower neighbor’s home to say to Louis Waters:

I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

Frankly, sex was the least of their arrangement.  Foremost was their conversation. And her grandson. And her grandson’s dog. And baseball. A two night camping trip, complete with roasted marshmallows instructions. Mid-western town folk. Addie’s son. And, Kent Haruf’s clean prose, stripped down so far, he eschews quotation marks. Last Saturday, when I read Our Souls at Night, I felt as if I were eight years old reading easily and quickly for the pure joy of moving along through a story. Nothing else mattered, except for Addie and Louis, and treacheries.

Later after I finished reading, I took my bath, slept deeply, dreamlessly.  However, ever since I woke Sunday morning I’ve been thinking about that story. I’ve thought about why 40 years ago after my first divorce from an abuser that I so gladly left behind the stern United Brethren to join the grace-filled Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I am thankful for my education and my career as an English professor and now as a poet. And, I’ve been thinking about how grateful I am that last June, Pennsylvania’s updated divorce laws kept my second husband from draining my savings and enabled me to keep living here in my downtown Pittsburgh condo. Though I do not share my bed, I do have long time women friends who love to write detailed emails and to talk sometimes hours on the telephone.

Onward.


 

 

Book Review: NEIGHBORS by Jay Nebel

 photo 68520020-644a-433c-bfed-a400281c054c_zpshze5wm4t.jpg Neighbors
Poems by Jay Nebel
Saturnalia Books, 2015
$15.00

Reviewed by Rebecca Clever

Perhaps what remains most poignant for the reader after studying Jay Nebel’s Neighbors, winner of the 2014 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, is reverence for what many of us may deem mundane: the everyday. The 3-bedroom colonial next door we pass by without a thought. The freshly cut lawn across the street. The quirks and eccentricities of friends and acquaintances who reside on the proverbial block.

Whether observing or questioning, the largely narrative poetry in Neighbors is never without an element of surprise that starts in one location but ends somewhere unexpected, yet no less important than its origins. For example, in “The Cleanliness of Porn Stars,” a piece that by its very title takes one aback, he seems to question the purpose of existence, among other lofty ideas. The fifty-line rant introduces the reader tangentially to an adopted son a third of the way through, then culminates in reflection on that same son:

I want the faith
of the blind hamster who sniffs over the edge
of the kitchen table and pushes off,…
to believe as some of my friends believe,
in jumbo neon crosses and radio stations,…
…in the cleanliness of porn stars,
that when the knife enters the cake
it will exit sans batter and entrails…
…I want to believe that in an hour
my son will walk through the front door
and look at me like I’m his father.

What Nebel has done in his first full-length book is taken close note of the dynamics of the familiar: local families, moms, dads, children, next-door gays and PTAs…up to and including towns and neighboring States…in addition to the personal ponderings of the individual “I.” At times, his insightful meditations are downright nosy; always revealing, but not without empathy. In the ekphrastic poem paying homage to the landmark collection of photographs, “Robert Frank: The Americans,” Nebel writes:

The Jehovah’s Witness grips a pamphlet, back to the wall,
white knuckled, mercurial. Three drag queens boast
fresh manicures. The shoe shiner, bent over
near the urinals, blackens
a pair of scuffed wing tips.
You know us. We’ve always been here.
Our elbows tacked to the diner counter, our hair greased back,
half eaten BLTs and Coke bottles resting
in front of us. We wear Stetsons and lean
against fire hydrants, or we pass by in Cadillacs
and on city buses where we stare forward, hypnotized
by the sound of water slipping from the roof.

The poet’s pervasive thoughts—wonderings of belief & doubt, ponderings on significance vs. insignificance in his immediate microcosm as well as the world at large—are prevalent throughout the book. Nebel seems, also, to pose unspoken questions of whether the I’s thoughts are unique, or those of every individual. For example, in “A Blessing for the Neighborhood” he says:

A working fan can make anyone religious
and when I feel religious I say things:

Bless my mighty neighborhood,
bless the morning glory, and God bless
the fucking PTA…

…I’m writing a letter…To anyone
who will listen, in the kingdom
where I am little more than a mosquito
dropping its landing gear
on the forearm of the beloved.

While one may garner a too-close-for-comfort sense about some of the free verse included in Neighbors, it is intentional; a welcome intrusion for the reader, like warm apple pie given on a front stoop, right in the middle of your afternoon nap.


 

Book Review: ALL THAT YELLOW by Chuck Kinder

 photo download_zpse8alxwye.png All That Yellow
Poems by Chuck Kinder
Low Ghost Press, 2014
$8.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Kinder’s debut poetry collection All That Yellow studies the “last spoke of yellowish, old-timey photograph light alone.” These poems remind me of the saying the more we remember something, the more we forget. Kinder preserves memories, crafts poems that travel wide spaces of time in a matter of lines. The grandness of this collection suggests a real necessity for each poem, as if the potential for forgetting, or miss-remembering, is right on the following page.

The beginning poem, “The Secret Life of Memory,” holds three sections: “Poem Full of Past,” “Poem with Wings,” and “Long Distance Poem.” The first section begins “The poem full of past has grown extreme like a baggie with too many memories …” and continues later with “The memories may appear to grow smaller through the / Membranes. Don’t believe it. It may be that you aren’t / Looking closely enough. Concentrate / Like the hedges, can you honestly say you see some buds?” As Kinder calls for our attention, his craft demonstrates the tangential nature of both poetry and memory. Each line begins with a traditional capital letter and there are few end stops or punctuation. The lines often fall away as they stretch the page, break off, and jump to a new image entirely on the following line. While this causes a start and halt effect, it speaks towards the disjointed flashes we experience from reflection. For example, “Poem with Wings” keeps short, brisk lines, reads,

Into a winter field
If you could just
Get yourself together
The white exhaust idles over a fresh snow
So far from the old love poems of the past
You can move anywhere alone now
Just now you follow the little cloud
Toward a single leafless tree…

As much as these concise lines reflect bits of memory, it also feels as though the speaker is short of breath. Again, this calls on the necessity of the poem, for the speaker runs out of breath trying to convey all that is relevant. In All That Yellow the voice sounds from a place of wisdom, as if the speaker has gathered and taken notes through the years in order to communicate his findings. Yet, often the second person address is less directed towards the audience, but back at the speaker. This provides the sense that an older, more critical version of the speaker is looking back on himself, on these moments, to shed some insight. The physical bodies of Kinder’s poems attest to this—“The Unbearable Mass and Beauty of Absence” is an expansive eight page poem. “The Secret Meaning of Old Movies as Seen on Late Night Television in Those Star Caves We Call Cheap, Lonely Motel Rooms” has a part a, b, and c, with part c also containing number sections. The entire poem spans fifteen pages. It’s safe to say Kinder has a range, and both the out-of-breath lines and the fifteen page poems show just how much Kinder has to say.


 

Book Review: PICTOGRAPH by Melissa Kwasny

photo 2cf430db-864c-4600-bee7-a2975236942e_zpsmjasuqto.jpg Pictograph
Poems by Melissa Kwasny
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by Ian Vogt

While reading the prose poems in Melissa Kwasny’s Pictograph, I was often reminded of Andrew Grace’s most recent effort, Sancta, another book of prose poems set in a specific natural place. Whereas Sancta sticks to a strict word count of seventy words, Pictograph’s poems tend to hover closer to around two hundred words. In this way, Pictograph sacrifices some terseness for narrative and imagistic depth. I’ll be honest, I found it hard to settle into a method of reading the poems in Pictograph at first. Because the titles of the pieces often begin with the same word, the images are sometimes stacked upon each other, and the poems look so similar page to page, it is easy to enter into a sort of trance wherein the work begins to lose its magic. I found that reading and savoring one poem at a time in a quiet space was the preferred method for enjoying Kwansy. This says something about the importance of ritual in this book—that the poems require the reader to enter into a meditation with Kwasny, to focus on a now in which we are simultaneously “Always interfering with something sacred still going on” and a now in which we are tracing “A fading language that might be bridge to our existence here.” Pictograph required me to pause, to consider the rhetoric of the natural world and contemplate the sometimes vast and sometimes diminishing space between humanity and the earth.

It was during my break at work today that I revisited the poem “The Sentience of Rocks.” This poem from the first section of Pictograph captures what I most enjoyed about Kwasny’s book—both the intimate personal details addressed from speaker to reader, and the larger meditations on place and our transient relationship with it. She writes, “As we age, we drape less…Suddenly, we have microscopes for eyes.” The humor is disarming and welcomed. “Surely, we will be given time to explore the diverticula of the heart,” she continues. A lesser poet would not be able to write a line like this and have it stick, but the wisdom and effortlessness of the poetry—specifically the word “diverticula”—somehow sheds new insight into a tired concept. Rhetorical questions like “What is form but the reigning in of desire?” and then later, “Do our dreams prepare us for our eventual deaths?” also run a risk—that of pretension or philosophical meandering—but the space of the poem is perfectly crafted for meditation, and the questions are expansive there. I looked up after disappearing within the poem, and I had overshot my break time by fifteen minutes.

What is masterful about Kwasny’s book is that it consistently surprises. The prose poem form suits her style perfectly; peppered through the stone of the text are seams of coal, diamond. Polished images, philosophical questions, and personal quips, wind together in descriptive passages and narrative stretches. There is also compressed emotion coupled with compressed syntax. The poem “Counting the Senses,” which I believe to be the strongest poem in the collection, illustrates this well. I want to transcribe the whole poem here, but these lines will suffice:

To sense in ever-refined levels the dissipating cloud-layers of oneself, what Ezra Pound named an “aristocracy of emotion.” In the spruce copse near the confluence, you left your hair. Last night, we played Scrabble. My first word was divine. You added an s to it, doubling your score. In this very room, fourteen years ago, you turned over and found the lump. Your hand rose to it, as if guided by a sense of love.

Every sentence here contains a left turn, a brilliant shock. Not listed here are the previous infinitive phrases that further detail the senses, but the final one listed here is a succinct and powerful image, one that truly honors Pound’s belief that writers should treat their subjects directly and use no superfluous word. The next sentence introduces a new player in the narrative—one who leaves behind their hair in the spruce copse. Then, the commonplace game of Scrabble sears to life with the word divine and divines. And finally the hand rising to meet the lump “as if guided by a sense of love.” There is something so powerful about this, about the love extended to this seemingly awful thing—the uncertainty and curiosity of that first touch—that reaches out far beyond the page.

Pictograph captures the poetry of Annie Dillard’s masterwork, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is truly the highest praise I know how to give. This is a deeply spiritual book of well-crafted poetry. When the speaker asks in “Past Life with Wooly Mammoth,” “How can the soul’s memory remember this?,” I want to answer, “Because it’s such enduring, damn good poetry.” I will remember these life-affirming poems for some time, and any reader of poetry would do well to commit these poems to memory as well.


 

Book Review: I ATE THE COSMOS FOR BREAKFAST by Melissa Studdard

 photo 66fc6125-e74e-405f-b95e-595fedfbe885_zpsmnwjv9nw.jpg I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast
Poems by Melissa Studdard
Saint Julian Press, 2014
$12.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

There is a universe inside each instant—if ever a writer has taken that statement to heart, it’s Melissa Studdard. Her fourth book, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, turns a keen eye on life’s smallest moments to pay homage to the astronomical range of human experience and emotion.

Studdard opens the collection with one grand overture before the small moments, “Creation Myth.” Here, her deft hand paints a new world in broad strokes:

So there God lay, with her legs splayed,
birthing the screaming world

from her red velvet cleft, her thighs
cut holy with love

for all things. both big and small,
that crept from her womb like an army…

A few simple word choices—her, screaming, velvet, army—and we’ve got a radical poem that sets the tone for its counterparts to come. Studdard shows us the beauty in ugly things, a God “in love with her own making, infatuated // with all corners of the blemished universe.” This God is a prescient predecessor for Studdard’s other speakers.

“In Another Dimension, We Are Making Love” reminds us that our human capacity for understanding is limited while illustrating alternate possibilities and emotions that can change on a dime:

Like you, I believe most in what
I cannot see or hear. Anger: a wounded steam
rising from the cauldron of your throat.
Alchemy: the steam dissipates, and you reach
across the table for my hand.

Studdard’s mastery over metaphor collapses the most immense of concepts—humanity, the universe—into understandable images. She plays at shifting sizes and shapes, using the canvas of available objects as a screen onto which she projects the human drama. “What you mistook for a person / is really a country,” her speaker informs us; yet all the necessary things to remember “can fit on a scrap of paper / smaller than your hand.”

Perhaps the simplest of Studdard’s extended metaphors, “If I Saw the Airports in Your Eyes,” is exemplar of how sometimes only comparison can make emotion decipherable. The lover is an airport, departing planes, packed luggage, a trolley. The speaker: a city, a building, brown sugar packed tight. Then, a pause in the images—“I’d say Don’t remind me / Please don’t remind me.” This flash of concentrated feeling fleshes out the rest of the metaphor so that, when the lover’s “exhaust…punches through my sky / like a fist,” we all feel it.

These pained poems of love are the jewels of Studdard’s collection. Her incinerating diction and expert craft elevate the love poem, so long made shameful by clumsiness and cliché, into a series of glittering surprises. Two favorites include “A Prayer” and “For Two Conversion Therapists Who Fell in Love and Became Gay Activists.” No, Studdard doesn’t shy from love, religion, or politics—gasp!—yet still creates successful poems. I’d argue it’s due to her talent for making a thing comprehensible. Reformed conversion therapists, like us, are people whose “atoms have come to worship / and rejoice at the temple of the familiar.”

Close readers will note that I Ate the Cosmos, from its very first poem, is a galaxy of a collection constantly collapsing in on itself. Ideas are compressed into more accessible, digestible chunks as new emotions and concepts become part of the reader’s known universe.  And so, the final poem, a diminuendo. “The Soul is Swaddled in Body” doesn’t try at anything other than reminding us how the littlest moment can be immeasurable. For this, and all its other poems, I am grateful.

If I could do it all over again,
I wouldn’t write a damn word. I’d
just make love to you in the meadow
with the cows watching, and the cats
chasing mice through the straw.

 


Book Review: DOMESTIC GARDEN by John Hoppenthaler

 photo 67ba9653-a6e2-423a-8686-187125df83aa_zpsqpjfjbx5.jpg Domestic Garden
Poems by John Hoppenthaler
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate

John Hoppenthaler’s Domestic Garden begins with a ghost switching the names of roses in a garden, and ends with a speaker at a Chinese buffet who’s “given in…to desire so that [he] might die fat in your arms.” In between, we encounter boy scouts, a traveling circus, an immigrant uncle, a modern Lazarus, Pekin ducks, and even Jesus.

Here we have poems spoken in real voices set to a lyric of domestic life. But the epigraph from Keetje Kuipers gives us a clue that what Hoppenthaler is up to is anything but ordinary: “If the garden / is not a garden, and if its tiny lamps illuminate only / their own darknesses, we must hold ourselves inside / forever.” This book complicates the domestic, asking us to think again about what we consider “intimate, familiar, at home.”

Hoppenthaler is at his best in a poem like “Home Movie,” in which the narrative and lyric impulses work together with their different energies to lead us somewhere new. Clipped sentences set the scene of the poem: “I watch a Super 8 saved from the attic / when Mom moved to Florida.” Structured in neat quatrains, the form attempts to contain the chaos of the central subject: a beloved uncle who died suddenly while chainsawing trees. The speaker encounters his still-alive Uncle Eddie through a home movie shot by his Dad’s “shaking” hand: “Uncle Eddie clamps five / lead split shots to line’s end. I’m casting / into the road. One month later he was dead.” He tells us what he remembers beyond the frames, the figure of his “grieving mother / almost losing her grip” but lingers in the film, focusing on a place where the film catches:

There’s a point, a splice
more than halfway in, where the film
catches a little. I’ve watched the movie
six times through — and lost, each time,
those images back to where the end slides

out, slaps like a razor strop.

He keeps threading the film through again each time it catches, to these moments just before Uncle Eddie died, a recursive resurrection bringing him back each time: “I’ll slowly reel it in again, sinkers / stealing through the uncut grass.”

In “Side Porch of the Elizabeth Bishop House,” Hoppenthaler explores how the death of Uncle Eddie ravaged his mother, altering the universe of his childhood: “When policemen came to the door and she began to scream, // real horror shivered my eight-year-old back…and it seemed suddenly / that the world was ending, some vital part of it.” Hoppenthaler holds us in the horrible grief, moving us deliberately along with his long couplets:

my mother whimpered as they let him down.
I tossed a fistful of cut flowers in the hole

while an aunt and uncle held up my mother,
muscled her back to the gray limousine.

Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood memories color the speaker’s memories, as the scream becomes disembodied, emanating from an unknown patient in a distant hallway of the nursing home. The speaker is with his mother, suffering from dementia, “wheeled up / to a dayroom table, spinning wild narratives / and taking no prisoners.” This poem haunts the collection, showing what Hoppenthaler can do with the longer, more associational narrative. As the speaker in the poem tells us, “Everyone else / is someone, too, but never quite themselves.” That slippery sense of identity delivered in a direct voice is key to this collection, to its sense of play and authority.

A buoyant spirit runs throughout Domestic Garden, despite the loneliness, mortality, and darkness it often tells. The third section is comprised of love poems. The strongest poem, “The Weather Down Here,” is grounded in a particular place, Washington, North Carolina, and uses sharp local details, “a quick stop at Food Lion for beer & whole wheat buns, / then Hog Heaven for pints of barbecue, baked beans, / & slaw.” We learn “In Beaufort County, storms are upon us in minutes; roiling / cells shear through the skillet-flat fields of tobacco & cotton.” A storm could strike at any time, the speaker tells us, “they startle me like you do, dear,” as the poem moves to its “To His Coy Mistress” moment:

Come gather after; slip
your hand into my pocket & kiss my sunburned neck.

Recite with me again the capricious
                                                 nature of our Carolina weather.

Hoppenthaler woos us with his easy, conversational rhythms and sounds, as the speaker revels in the unpredictable.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a male poet using the title Domestic Garden, one so clearly associated with the feminine, would explore masculinity directly at some point in the collection. In “Some Men,” we meet a variety of men, some pitiable, some lonely, some just trying to make a living: “Men who’ve been barbers / of the dead and were happy for the work, // men who’ve become what they’ve microwaved, / who overvalue the quality of their erections // and fawn over them as they do the town’s new Walmart.” This poem tells a narrative but elliptically, lending an eerie power to this cadre of men “who’ll trim their nose hair // at your sink.” Hoppenthaler implicates the male perspective, creating an anthem of sad, sneaky characters who complicate the other male speakers in the collection.

Hoppenthaler’s garden is lush, straightforward, and slippery. It leaps unexpectedly from voice to voice and place to place. Hoppenthaler’s poems, like the subject of “Anna’s Garden,” “enable the garden’s / growth in all directions and ask no pardon.”


 

Loose Ends

by Nola Garrett

Mid-April, I received my yearly Travelers car insurance bill. It was nearly two hundred dollars higher than it was last year. I’d had no claims or speeding tickets on my 2011 Honda Fit which only I drive. Nothing had changed, I thought, until I phoned my agent who informed me that because my divorce was final: I’m now single. And, that fact means I’m a higher risk driver. I was pissed! Later that day I talked with a recently widowed friend who told me that her insurance company, State Farm, told her the same thing, except that they were raising her rates not only because she was now single, but also (to add insult to injury) because she was a woman! She seemed pretty accepting of that higher rate, said she kept her policy because her late husband had chosen that company. I was amazed.

I called Travelers to see if I raised my deductible, I’d have a lower bill. Turned out the bill would go down…some, but they would mail me a form to sign off on the change. When the form arrived, it was addressed to my ex-husband, and my name was nowhere on the form even though last June I reported the divorce, requested the insurance to be listed under only my name, and this year’s higher bill, indeed, had come in my name. I was even more pissed! I began looking for a new company. Within a half hour I had a quote from Erie Insurance Exchange more than three hundred dollars lower than my last year’s bill, and they didn’t mind in the least that I’m a single old lady. Furthermore, when I added my condo insurance into the mix, I had an additional $173.00 to spend on poetry books.

I calmed down and went back to arranging my new poetry manuscript. Then, the Spring Issue of The Georgia Review and a check arrived for the publication of my recent small poem, “The Pastor’s Wife Considers Her Chops,” the very last pastor’s wife poem I shall ever write. This poem’s fierceness still appalls me, yet I know I needed to write it. I had to honor that persona, who was a better person than I ever was, and who served me well for so many years. She deserved the best I could give her—a tough, witty, tender, ars poetia emerging from the depths of my being. As I read Stephen Corey’s introductory editorial essay to that issue and found an entire paragraph devoted to my other pastor’s wife poems published by The Georgia Review, I wept. A few days later, I discovered Stephen Corey had written a longer essay about those other pastor’s wife poems and posted those poems in The Georgia Review’s Vault web site. Again, I was undone.

Once more, I went back to work on my poetry manuscript, and I was idly thinking I ought to add some epigraphs to help the reader understand something about the three sections this manuscript contains, something that would unify all three parts, including the selected sestinas third section. What kept intruding into my mind was words from the first line of a John Donne poem: “Batter my heart, three-personed God….” I looked up the poem, found it was number XIV of his Holy Sonnets:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit You, but Oh, to no end!
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

Perhaps, for modern tastes this entire poem is a little much for a poetry book section epigraph, but what if I broke up the poem, chose just a few lines from Donne’s sonnet to head each section? “The Pastor’s Wife Considers Her Chops” that opens Section II may well deserve Donne’s words: “Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,…” And, Section III, the selected sestinas that brim with my experimentation with that form:

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow burn, and make me new.

Maybe?

Meanwhile, within the last three weeks, two windows have fallen out of my 50-year-old condo building. The most recent fell from the 15th floor. Orange cones and crime scene-yellow tape now block three sides of my building. Engineers have been called. Seems our building’s double-pane windows, which open out six inches, consist of a fixed-frame inner pane and a removable outer pane, forming a clamshell, bound with finger hinges which allow the two panes to be separated for cleaning. Our finger hinges are failing, and what falls is the outer pane. Tomorrow evening I’m going to attend what I expect to be a very serious condo owners’ meeting. “As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend….”


 

Book Review: EASIEST IF I HAD A GUN by Michael Gerhard Martin

 photo download_zpswa3mxpcb.png Easiest If I Had A Gun
by Michael Gerhard Martin
Alleyway Books, 2014
$16.00

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

If I’ve ever encountered a title that instantly sets the tone for a story collection, it’s “Shit Weasel is Late for Class.” The first tale in Easiest If I Had a Gun is an angry, bitter story of self-loathing from the mouth of a bullied high school nerd. Cheery stuff.

But he’s not the only one who’s mad. Michael Gerhard Martin’s stories are an anthology of brokenness—of characters who lash out and fight back against their surroundings and the people that abuse them. Oftentimes, their abusers are their loved ones, and that only made each tale resonate deeper with me. I felt their sadness. Their “otherness.” Indeed, each story details a life—the unspoken lives of the ones who oftentimes can’t speak for themselves. The outsiders, the misfits, and the discontent.

Seemingly standard fare when it comes to literary fiction, right? But Martin’s characters consistently haunt with all their detail and personality. They’re frighteningly real. From the bullied nerd Josh in “Shit Weasel,” to the discontented craftswoman Elsa, who deals with her Alzheimer’s rattled father in “The Strange Ways People Are,” and petty theft in “Made Just for Ewe!” The final story, “Dreamland,” introduces Emilie, a high school girl who tries to find solace in her artwork, after a lifetime of caring for an alcoholic mother.

Let’s get back to that first story though. You know, “Shit Weasel is Late for Class,” which, as I’ve alluded to, is one of my favorite titles I’ve read in years. The first painfully descriptive sentences: “After fifth period theology, Brian McVey backs me up against a painting of the Virgin Mary and smacks me around while his toady, Billy Moyer, calls color. I think it’s because I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance.”

In stark detail, Michael Gerhard Martin creates a high school scenario that’s all too real—the thoroughly unpopular kid, driven to suicidal despair by his harassers, brings a gun to school. Thankfully, he never uses it. Instead, the reader watches as something much more subtle occurs—a slow, creeping transformation that hardens the protagonist into the contemptuous bully he’d always hated. It’s a brutal high school reality—the oppressed become the oppressors, if given the opportunity. But really, it’s just a human reality. The fact that it takes place in a high school setting is almost incidental.

These are characters that know longing inside and out. For instance, the protagonist in “Seventy-Two-Pound Fish Story” is a hyperactive, kind of annoying kid that wants more than anything to go fishing with his dad. When his distant father pawns him off on another father-and-son fishing trip, the boy finds himself simultaneously obsessed and repulsed by his new surrogate fishing family. “I wanted to crawl up on Lute’s lap and bury my face in his shirt, and I was disgusted by him.”

In terms of setting, Easiest If I Had a Gun takes place around Pittsburgh. The city, the suburbs, the dusty pits and valleys of the Alleghenies. There’s one instance in “Bridgeville” where Jack, the protagonist, attempts a surprise visit up to Indiana University of Pennsylvania—a last-ditch attempt to salvage his relationship with his emotionally distant girlfriend. Because it’s Halloween in Western Pennsylvania, however, a snowstorm predictably strikes out of nowhere, nearly running him off the road several times. How many times has that happened to me on the turnpike? Too many. It’s one of the myriad details that allow these stories to hit close to home.

Aside from all this, the writing itself is beautiful. I’m a sucker for great imagery: “The boat stank of fish and men and diesel fuel. Paint peeled from its sides in long strips. Rainbows hung in water so full of trash there wasn’t room for fish to swim.” Gross, but a fantastic sentence.

The book’s not just gorgeous writing and darkness and gloom, though. There are nuggets of humor speckled throughout that had me cackling. And the final story ends on an unexpectedly sweet note—one that had me smiling, rather than furrowing my eyebrows in concern, like I had for much of the rest of the collection. A strange meeting of two of the most heart-wrenching stories that brought the collection’s world into full focus, and made it seem that much more real.

For a shorter collection of fiction, Easiest If I Had a Gun consumes the reader—every page draws you deeper into the broken world of our backyards and our steel mills. With all their faults and their anger and their hurt, these characters mattered to me.


 

Dance Review: PROGRAM C of the newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Few cities have the audience for an entire festival of contemporary dance, yet Pittsburgh has arrived on the national scene as a place for this lesser known performing art to grow. Now, in its sixth year, newMoves is thriving with local and national dancers, and viewers from various artistic and non-artistic backgrounds.

Program C of the show took place Saturday night at the KST, after the festival’s headliner, BodyCartography Project from Minneapolis, presented work at the Alloy Studios in Friendship. The show featured mostly works-in-progress, giving multiple choreographers the chance to put their fresh ideas to the stage.

To open the show, Brady Sanders presented The Screen Between Us, a quartet that investigated our addiction to smart phones. The dancers used their own hand-held devices to light their faces, a perfect reminder of how we disengage from others in exchange for less meaningful communication.

With perfect wit, Sanders chose Vic Damone’s version of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to accompany the dancers. In one moment, two performers looked down at their screens during the lyric, “…pardon the way that I stare.” The effect was humorous and frightening at the same time. Sanders was successful in many ways, from the blend of text and music to the exceptionally talented dancers. His work places him on the Pittsburgh scene as a choreographer to watch.

Jean-Paul Weaver, originally from Denver and now living in Pittsburgh, slowed the pace with a solo called Lalin (Latin for “moon”). Weaver was interested in the tide, pull and fluidity of life, as represented by the lunar phases. His movement reflected his ideas well; fluid is a perfect way to describe his technique.

An image of the waxing and waning moon was projected behind Weaver as he ebbed and flowed through long lines, quiet jumps and circular transitions. The piece lulled the audience into a lovely state of calm.

From Ohio came the Factory Street Studio dancers, four seniors in high school who co-choreographed Revolution under the guidance of Elizabeth Atwell. Their dance-making process began with a prompt – what is dance? – and ultimately became an expression of their community.

The quartet began with simple walking patterns that transitioned into duets. Most impressive was the partnering skills of the dancers, something not often seen at their age. The movement was light and lyrical with an emphasis on technique and integration, a nice change of pace from televised dance for young women that focuses heavily on tricks.

Megan Mazarick, from Philadelphia, brought an impressive solo, monster, to the stage. Mazarick was inspired by a residency she did in Egypt and the “inner ferociousness” of the women she met there. The choreography also dealt with female identity and being “unlady-like.”

Mazarick traveled down a long diagonal, using movement that she stopped and started, froze, and rewound (a remarkable feat). Her technique was powerful and athletic, articulated from her eyes to her toes. The performance was rich with highly intelligent imagery, a standout of the evening.

To close the show, Anthony Williams presented a group piece, beingHUMAN. Williams is a local choreographer who recently performed a residency at the Alloy Studios. This time, his idea came from an imagined future where our technological obsession has persisted.

Williams used pop music, silver costuming, and flashing light to create a high-energy piece with a futuristic feel. The movement ranged from big and technical to intricate gestures, like fingers tapping a keyboard. Each dancer had their own unique style, but the cast performed particularly well as a unit.

The festival proved Pittsburgh’s dedication to contemporary dance, and also the high level of work we present. Director of the KST, Janera Solomon, wondered if the program might highlight our local dance aesthetic. More than anything, the three-night run showed our experimental nature and our diversity of artistic voices.


 

Book Review: WANTING IT by Diana Whitney

 photo download_zpseq3gvkra.png Wanting It
Poems by Diana Whitney
Harbor Mountain Press, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Whitney ends the second section of her four-section collection, Wanting It, with these lines:

My fear?

…that the room keeps me safe
and boils me down, makes me an offer
of soup-bone, ash.

That I’ll never leave here.
That I’ll leave.

As someone who concerns herself with place and the necessity of constant exploration, I find Whitney’s fear at the base of my own existence. How we can need a place and simultaneously push against it. How we mistake needing for contentment. Wanting It speaks towards the intangibility of desire—we travel through seasons, our faces pressed to the window, watchful, but of what exactly it is we’re wanting, can’t be so easily named.

These poems are expansive, and as we move through the seasons in each section, we are also moving lengths within each poem. I read Whitney’s eye like a kaleidoscope, pulling details from all directions, bringing scraps together to create a complete picture. In “Hindsight,” the first stanza is solely dedicated to describing the night, which gets compared to syrup, damp cloth, steam & ginger, cash crop.  In “Making Babies,” halfway down the page Whitney begins “It’s the color of my morning glories finally blooming now that the days are cool…” and takes off for eight lines, without a full pause. While in other collections I would jot in the margins words like “mixed metaphor” and “run-on” I don’t here. The natural world becomes a force in these poems, a character in itself, leading the narration on winding sweeps at times, burrowing into the center cavities of the speaker’s body. I don’t dare try and contain it.

With that said, I wonder if at times the descriptions hold the place of honesty. If Whitney writes herself into the poem. For example, “First Super Bowl At My House” is a thick, three stanza poem. It begins with a trip to the General Store, notices a woman eating pizza in her minivan. In the store we switch to a thought of a man, which descriptions travel through the store and back to the house. But I’m more interested in the final lines:

…and I know
how she feels, the minivan woman, alone with her bundled-up,
red-faced hunger, an engine running that’s not her own
though it keeps her warm, it gets her home. I don’t know
football but I know weather.

I worry that in places we’re wanting these moments of simple clarity amidst eloquent description.

The strongest poem “Wanting It” begins the themes of womanhood, the violence of desire, and the contradictions between what the world wants from us and what we can give.  Whitney’s repetition of  “wanting it” sends a cold wave through the stanzas. He language is different here—direct, focused, tight. Her images punch us. The verbs are physical and wet, like “tongued the wheel,” “Those boys / who juiced the halls with slouch,” and “They wanted to kill me / back against a locker. I could feel my body jammed up on metal…” The craft of this poem should be the envy of writers, as should be Whitney’s masterful, subtle, complicated depiction of a woman. It’s in these moments that I find myself most in the middle, for “A girl can’t stand it, / all this beauty— / it makes her want to scream or hold perfectly still…”


 

Book Review: MY FRIEND KEN HARVEY by Barrett Warner

 photo 21b3d45a-d2dd-456d-b58a-ebf1a44627e6_zpsz5ggpyzr.png My Friend Ken Harvey
Poems by Barrett Warner
Publishing Genius Press, 2014
$7.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Nostalgia and sentiment were dirty words in poetry until Barret Warner’s My Friend Ken Harvey came on the scene. Here we have a chapbook that shows us the many forms of love, how relationships can be measured as “not enough war or too much war in someone’s life,” and how the simplest moments can be transcendent, all while dipping in and out of the sepia tint of memory.

Warner’s epigraph for the chapbook is borrowed from Jack Spicer’s “A Poem without a Single Bird in it”—there are no birds here, either, but we are surrounded by all the recognizable accoutrements of life. Bluebonnets and plumbers, cabins and raked leaves, these are the objects that populate a world where “bodies fall asleep against anything that doesn’t move— / floors, speakers, boxes, furniture.” These poems are much like the stories Warner’s friend Timmy Reed tells, where “instead of ogres and orphans there are shovels and lawnmowers, / and everyday people just trying to sort it out.”

And after a life spent among countless people, there’s a lot to sort out. What is a friend, for instance? A man like Bomba, who appears again and again in Warner’s reflective lines, or childhood acquaintances like Zenaida and Barbara Carmody who flash before our eyes only once? One small ode starts “My friend Tracy Dimond probably doesn’t call me a friend. / More like, someone she knows.” Yet each person illustrated here is drawn with the tenderest touch and the deepest respect. Though some poems linger almost long enough to be cloying, Warner always returns to the tangible to show us how deeply a moment can affect us.

“My Friend Julia Wendell” transports us to a brief interlude in a hospital bed, just long enough to sip briefly from a bowl of bullion before heading back to sleep. But when the speaker awakens from his rest, he finds himself immeasurably cared for—“When I wake up she’s gone and my hair is beautiful.” The things we do for the ones we love, these are the actions that add up to a life.

Warner spends much of the chapbook remarking on his own shortcomings—he doesn’t visit often enough, he isn’t as admirable as all his many friends. He laments about

The things [he’s] bashed. The cars. The lives. The dogs.
The sweat that flew off [his] brow. The wasted muscle.

The things [he] learned… The things [he] never learned.

But I’d argue he’s learned a little more than he gives himself credit for. Surely this is the best way to honor people, immortalizing their genuine graciousness to remind us of the goodness this world can hold. Even after years spent apart, he reminds us, our old friends and lovers can be just as immediate as ever through memory. Whether we keep up with each other doesn’t take away all that they’ve meant to us, their omnipresence in our minds—as Warner says, “I like not knowing / I like looking in every direction and wondering where [they] could be.”


 

The phony cry for poetry that speaks to our time

by Djelloul Marbrook 

Give us poems that speak to today’s issues.

How often have you heard editors and critics dine out on that rhetoric? That false rhetoric exposes a fundamental flaw in their understanding of poetry. Poetry, like all art, is the news of the day. It is the cutting edge of our sensibility, whether it talks about Ted Cruz’s latest loony tune or the horrors of moneyed suburbs.

The problem is not with poets who fail to rise to the grandiloquent challenge. The problem is with the intellectual lassitude of the bogus challenge, a challenge suspiciously similar to complaints about inaccessibility and opacity in poems. What a son-of-a-bitch you are for trying to make me think harder, probe deeper—that’s what these highfalutin complaints are about. They are admissions of torpor.

The poetry volumes discussed here are examined in light of this premise.

download(Zen and the Art of Poetry Maintenance, Non-Sutras, Seb Doubinsky, Leaky Boot Press, UK, 120pp, 2015, $14.95)

In confronting the grand and ferocious limitations of poetry Doubinsky defines its grandeur. “Poetry is positive catastrophe,” he writes on page 27. That’s all, one line, one poem. Could you say it of a newspaper, a broadcast, an industry, a state? No, and therein is poetry’s grandeur, in its tragic confines.

These terse, unpunctuated, uncapitalized poems have a Stoic’s austerity—the unflinching mind of Marcus Aurelius comes to mind—but not the asperity. They’re elegant, instantly classic, and more than any news story or analysis, they stare our lies in the face:

banks do their laundry
democracy shrinks
kids laugh in the garden

Even on the rare occasion when the pronoun appears it exhibits the dervish’s yearning to disappear.

I erase the words about to be
I erase the images about to be
I erase the rhymes and lines
I am Shiva the Destroyer

Doubinsky doesn’t rise to editorial demands for contemporary relevance, he exceeds them, and in so doing he diminishes them to their rightful place among the bogus and pretentious pronouncements of our time.

* * *

The problem with demanding poems that address contemporary issues is that it presumes editors know what those issues are, but it is the function of poetry and art to define our issues, not to allow the press, with its canned and authorized versions of everything, to define them for us. Such editors are acting out of an omniscience that is not theirs to claim. It’s an adolescent trait that later wisdom should dispel. They’re laying down a spread of assumptions that belong more properly to the newsprint world with its addiction to punditry and didacticism than to art. For example, the press persists in talking about conflict in geopolitical terms, somehow managing the stupendous feat of doing so without context, but refusing to address the issue of who profits, which tells us everything about conflict. A poet is far more likely to do the latter, which is one of the several reasons the press is always writing poetry’s obituary, because it so often embarrasses the press.

* * *download (1)

(Paradise Drive, Rebecca Foust, Press 53, 94pp, 2015, $12.92)

John Wayne is forever associated with the word “pilgrim,” which he used in the films McLintock and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Will Geer used it speaking to Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson. The word derives from peregrine and means someone from outside your country. Wayne, a right-wing icon, was predictably concerned with belonging and unbelonging. But when Rebecca Foust uses it in Paradise Drive, her prize-winning book of sonnets, Pilgrim might be herself, her outsider self looking in on her own life with the stark succinctness that only the sonnet could achieve.

At first glance it’s another book about savage privilege in the suburbs, a book that would satisfy an editor’s demand for with-it relevance, but once you stop glancing and start reading you’re enmeshed in a pitiless, ruthless and at the same time profoundly compassionate autopsy of a life not willing to end with the mistakes it has made, not willing to blink. Foust goes back into the burning house and brings out the frightened child.

In her hands the sonnet is a scalpel. Everything that is familiar, our preconceptions and her names for them, is turned inside out and upside down, weighed, measured. It is as if she woke up one morning, found nothing familiar, not even her own face, and wrote this all down in a tsunami of finely cadenced prosody, and we are reading it aloud as the flotsam and jetsam of her new vision ebbs out to the horizon. It is a stunning feat, executed with a mathematician’s focus.

Well, what the hell is there to do
besides sling words like arrows back
into Fortune’s outrageous face?

It’s page 47 when she asks this. It’s what she has been doing, and she wants to know if you have a better idea. It’s the poet’s classic question, and all criticism falls short of answering it. Notice that this is not the iambic pentameter of the Elizabethan sonnet. The line is spondaic, the words are sprung, but in the midst of this modernist tack she capitalizes Fortune, because she wants us to remember we have a boatload of hack ideas to deep-six, all of us.

Foust reminds us there are no used-up subjects, just hack approaches to them. “I miss your tongue /on my spine,” she writes in “Bourbon Elegy,” “the crack of your fist / on my jaw.” 

The press that claims to tell us how we live doesn’t. The press tells us, like standardized tests, what to think. Poetry helps us think. Poetry is witness; the press recounts, redacts and omits. Poetry is happening; what we read in the press happened, or perhaps not, and rarely the way it’s described. Here’s what I mean:

The Swede to her left leaned in
to discuss Pilgrim’s “Asparagus” son,
worried, it seemed, that his own son
might be part green vegetable too.

These four lines in “Elocution” convey the sense of still going on. The Swede is still leaning in, and although he is technically the foreigner, Pilgrim is more so, because she’s describing in. She’s here and she’s there, and we’re with her. This is the shape-shifting quality of poetry that the press cannot faintly resemble. Poetry is always about what is happening. The press is about what somebody has decided happened. Foust is with it in a way the editors demanding with-it-ness fail to understand.

* * *

One reason editors and critics go unchallenged when they demand political poems, poems about the injustices and inequalities of society, is that they have settled for definitions imposed by the so-called news media. American society, stem to stern, defines news according to the principles of 19th-century press lords and their minions, men like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The latter was an exception, but most of these press lords were arch conservatives. They defined news not in terms of how we relate to each other, not in terms of how ordinary people think and feel, but in terms of geopolitics. And they defined politics in terms of hierarchies. In the 21st century we should challenge these narrow and misdirecting definitions of news. News is not what trained journalists and their corporate bosses say it is, it is what we feel, what we experience, and what we do. The press as we know it is reporting a chosen microcosm and claiming it to be “the news” of the hour. We should be fit to be tied by the claim of The New York Times that it prints all the news that’s fit to print. The news ought to be about the limits of human perceptivity, the frontiers of the mind and imagination, not what one damned fool after another says to a microphone.

Without intending to, not consciously anyway, Michael T. Young’s handsomely produced volume of poetry, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, addresses just this predicament.

* * *

23593548(The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, Michael T. Young, Poets Wear Prada, 76pp, 2015, $1.40)

Titles of volumes of poetry in their striving to connect often mislead or turn out to be irrelevant, but this title is key to understanding what the poet is doing. By being lost in the moment we adore it, we respect it, and, above all, we do not forfeit our lives to remorse and anxiety about what comes next. By becoming lost in these poems one finds one’s life.

With some poets, even the most acknowledged, you sometimes get the sense of a striving for elegance, but Michael Young conveys that incomparable sense of having an elegant mind—

I like to think of Lot’s wife not looking back,
but going on to another city with her husband,
Hebron maybe, or Gaza, even a small unknown town,
where she gives birth to two daughters and a son,
lives in a house with vineyard and a view of the sea.

—not just an elegant mind, but a gracious one.

The poet, while seeming to speak casually, is metrically painstaking, aware always of the pervading melody of his impulse.

His work is the apotheosis of the disquieting contention that poetry is the news of our time, not the strings of events, the blather, the dissonance of what we call news. Here, live in this moment, join its molecular structure, and you will be the news, not merely its partaker, its observer, but its interactive maker, the poet seems to say. Otherwise you are mute and passive, a couch potato. But in poetry you live the moment and therefore are a more active builder of tomorrow than if you had just voted.

Crossing the Hudson River on a ferryboat
I’m distracted by the sensation that the river
appears as if it should be draining, spilling
over some remote and unseen rim.

The news media, as we know them, can’t impart this sense of presence, this immediacy, this conviction that something is happening. They are always about what has happened and what may happen. They leap over the moment while pretending to be up-to-the-minute. But their irrelevance to the very thing to which they claim to be all-important is even greater, because, unlike the poet, they omit, they disdain context and history, whereas the poem is all about connecting the dots.

In some ways a collection of poems is like jackstraws. Too many editors look for overt and obvious themes, but the poems drawn from a certain period or experience in a poet’s life have their own themes. They fall in their own pattern, like jackstraws. And trying to impose an overlay is like pulling out a straw and subverting the natural whole. Perhaps the situation is not unlike comparing classical to natural geometry. The theme that emerges in The Beautiful Moment of Being is that only by exploring the moment can we fathom the momentous.

This poetry deserves the production values Poets Wear Prada have bestowed on it. We can’t hear enough of this poet.

* * *

(The Cave, Tom Holmes, The Bitter Oleander Press, 73pp, 2014, $11.40 )download (2)

Tom Holmes in The Cave undertakes the ambitious project of searching the present with Paleolithic light. Just as starlight takes millennia to arrive, so understanding of the past arrives with its own light slowly through the labors of time travelers like the poet.

The poem “Fireside” gives a hint. It begins:

A time revives,
I gather those embers

and give them away—
presents of what may arrive,
an horizon suggesting light.

The Cave provides just what the 21st century, operating in the vast chambers of cyberspace, ought to and so spectacularly fails to provide: historicity, context. Take the poem, “Paleolithic Person Explains Her Footprints”:

I needed something to burn,
something to light this hollow of the cave,
something to warm me against the wind,
I was sucking marrow from a bone.

This one amazing stanza could be employed as a metaphor for our times, for any time. And it could be read in many different ways. We need something to burn, don’t we?

And that tells us something we need to know about Tom Holmes. There is all too often about contemporary poems a there!—take that! quality, a can-you-top-this? exulting that comes through in spite of the poet’s attempts at modesty. But doing what this poet is doing, using the poetic sensibility to search the cave—it doesn’t matter if it’s Plato’s or a cavewoman’s—requires a great soul. It’s something like a mother’s compulsion to nurture, a scholar’s quest to instill. It requires a generosity rooted not in a quest for recognition but an obsession with shedding light.

“Hearing from other worlds is rhapsodic,” the poet says in “Paleolithic Person Explains Hand Art.”  Hart Crane would applaud.

Rarely has any poet explained so well and succinctly what he is up to as Holmes does in the poem “The Invention of Inspiration”:

Down here, the sun is a deep pond,
and I’m a diaphanous shadow—
the air tastes good to my palate
and the slow colors rise in me.

Beasts leap from my hand.
I may never return.

We don’t know if Tom Holmes has returned. We’ll know by his next poems. But we know he is a light bringer, while a pretentious commentariat today brings us gewgaws and gimcracks. We know that he has journeyed, not like a conquistador in quest of riches, not like Columbus, but like Thucydides and Abd al Rahman Ibn Khaldun, to tell us where we ourselves have been when we wore other faces in other times.

The Cave is a book of beasts leaping from the hand. They have been set free and will not readily return to the book. Of how many books of poetry today can we say such a thing?

Bitter Oleander Press has honored this memorable adventure with high and handsome production values.

* * *

To borrow from Giordano Bruno, the heretic priest and magus burned at the stake in 1600, the poem is a star beast whose favor is sought by the reader in order for collaboration to begin. Celestial figures are drawn by connecting the dots, exactly what the press fails to do, which may explain the obscene eagerness of the press to write poetry’s obituary. Poetry is a collection of the dots, and it is up to the reader and the instrument, the beast, to operate in the heavens to generate light and influence events. Orion is a clutch of stars until it is discerned by connecting the stars, the dots.

Another way of putting this idea of the poem as living instrument is via Aristotle’s idea of the common sense being the aggregate of the five senses. News as a mess of incidents is not a fit idea for the 21st century and the accommodations of cyberspace. Poets make common sense of the incidents and thereby push the limits of human sensibility. Contrarily, news as we now define it fragments, polarizes, divides, and conspires against the idea of oneness, against ideas like the Chaos Theory.

These four poets—Doubinsky, Foust, Young, and Holmes—affirm this distinction between what we regressively call news and the real news in which we are all swept up and are invited to influence.


 

Book Review: CROW-WORK by Eric Pankey

 photo 7d9e1dcb-0b9f-4286-a71d-5ae73962eaf4_zpsjlvu7wbs.jpg Crow-Work
Poems by Eric Pankey
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

Pankey’s collection begins with the ominously titled, “Ash.” Ashes are inscrutable remains, something that shows that there was a previous form, but reveals little about that form. “At the threshold of the dive, how to know/but indirectly,” the poem begins, establishing this theme of inscrutability. Pankey hedges, debates which image to use to express his idea, and finally settles on “a Buddha, handmade, / four meters high of compacted ash, the ash / remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer.” Of course, this icon would be delicate, as, “With each breath, the whole slowly disintegrates. / With each footfall, ash shifts. The Buddha crumbles.” The very act of approaching it destroys it. Finally, Pankey gets at the meaning of his non-meaning, “An infant will often turn away as if / Not to see is the same as not being seen. / There was fire, but God was not the fire.”

Opening with such a powerfully, purposefully non-narrative poem sets a clear tone for the collection. Many of Pankey’s poems mirror the themes and images of “Ash.” Buddhist imagery and ideals permeate the collection. Many of the poems settle onto fleeting hints of scenes and images before skittering off, tantalizing the reader with meaning and significance. Pankey has removed the poet’s ego from the poems; he crafts evocative images but rarely assigns his personal emotional stamp to them. Rather, the joie de vivre of observation is his sustaining celebration. In “Spirit Figures,” he writes, “To hew a living flame, I let the pear / dissolve into its own muddy sugars; // I mix powdered bone with seed, / toss it high, / and let each handful fall as a crow upon the snow.” He describes a scene: “A lanky fox noses at a dead hawk: / startles, backs away, circles uncertain.” And, later, returns to the image, “Alive with hunger, wired with fear, the fox, / your envoy, said nothing. / I understood.” To put it simply, Pankey is trying to suss meaning from meaninglessness. In, “When We Meet On that Beautiful Shore,” he begins, “I keep speaking so as not to disappear.” He examines many sources of supposed comfort, in life, “There is no cause, / only correspondence.” and describes, “Pleasure no greater for its deferral.” Finally, the image which hints at what it is to be alive, “The stone rests/as water moves around it.”

The title poem is a meditation on meaningfulness, or meaninglessness. In the first stanza, he describes crows settling onto a field. Then:

There must be an equation for defining
The long odds that Vesuvius would erupt
On Vulcan’s feast day, or that a baby’s birth

Beneath the fall of a comet might result
In the slaughter of a thousand innocents.

Pankey then brings us back to the crows, “The crows scavenge what they can, are efficient. // The crows, in their crow-like way, do their crow-work, / Tidy up the wreckage, the aftermath.”

Though Pankey definitely has a Buddhist bent in his poems, he also has a heavy Christian focus. He references Christian paintings in a series of ekphrastic poems—personal favorites of mine in the collection. There’s also a heart of deeply personal poems, cementing the collection. “My Brother’s Insomnia,” is one of these, immediately followed by “My Brother’s Ghost.” In Insomnia, Pankey describes the interests and fears of a young boy:

He cares little for snakes, but fears spiders more.
The recluse spider is his least favorite.

Some nights in bed, he holds his breath and is dead.
Some nights in bed he holds his breath and listens

To wind rattle the unlocked front door,
To time rustle and scratch in the attic like mice.

He cannot remember if it is summer
Or winter, if sleet or a wren pecks the window.

There’s a timeless element to Pankey’s descriptions; his brother is forever captured in this moment. In “Rehearsal for an Elegy,” Pankey gets at hard-learned truths with lines like, “After years of use the millstone is a mirror,” and, “If the past were honey / One could scrape it away / With the flat of a knife and be done with sweetness.” When Pankey considers religion, his isn’t a blind faith. As he states in “Fragment,” “What comfort to think that the great beast / Will be thrown into a lake of fire.”

Pankey’s poems remind of meditations. Many of them are titled some variation on the idea of a fragment, and work more as groupings of similar themes than coherent narratives. This isn’t, in any way, a criticism; Pankey links these themes coherently, giving his poems complexity and verve. I’ve read several of Pankey’s collections, and he continues to impress me with his exact language and his ability to get at the stuff of living an intellectual, spiritual life without coming off as didactic or overly vague.


 

Dance Review: WRITTEN ON WATER and SNOW by Pontus Lidberg Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino 

With only one remaining performance next month, the Pittsburgh Dance Council season is officially winding down. On Saturday night at the Byham Theater, Pontus Lidberg Dance brought uniqueness to an eclectic lineup.

Lidberg is a Swedish choreographer and filmmaker whose dance work has garnered attention since the company’s debut in 2011. Lidberg’s experience in film translates to the stage, with highly visual and rich movement palettes. His Pittsburgh debut was no exception. In Written on Water and Snow, the choreography evoked lush imagery.

Written on Water opened the show, as a prelude to Snow. Originally, the piece was conceived as a pas de deux for the American Ballet Theater. Since then, it has been expanded and now includes three dancers.

The piece highlighted the partnering skills of the dancers, which Lidberg thinks of as a conversation with the body. Dramatic string music by Stefan Levin set the scene, while bright light came up on Lidberg and Barton Cowperthwaite. The third dancer, Kaitlyn Gilliland, entered sporadically while the men conversed in light leaps and lifts, then deep, grounded pliés.

The pace quickened when Gilliland joined the men in a more definitive manner. Upright, balletic shapes were easily interspersed with undulation through the spine and off-center release that took the dancers to the floor. The movement itself was the high point, intricate and imaginative.

Near the end, a waltzing lilt had the dancers moving through quick, technical phrases with moments of stillness and gestures of touch that showed the vulnerability and uncertainty of human relationships. A dusting of “snow” fell from the rafters, enhancing the feeling of fragility. To finish, the three stood face to face, as if in realization, then turned away from one another as the lights faded.

Snow followed intermission and, in a way, picked up where the trio left off. The piece featured four dancers, adding Christopher Adams to the cast. As a fifth character, a Japanese-style Bunraku puppet also played a large role.

The quartet was originally choreographed to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but has since been reworked to an electronic score by Ryan Francis. During the creation of the piece, Lidberg was interested in the thoughts and desires that animate us, and in contrast, the detached way in which nature occurs without thought.

To begin, three of the dancers, masked and in shadow, manipulated the child-like puppet. The fourth dancer brought a balloon to the stage, which momentarily carried the child/puppet away. Mary Poppins came to mind, swinging from her umbrella with glee.

The performers remained masked throughout, a lighter covering over their faces while they danced, and a darker tone with a heavy hood while they engaged the puppet. Snow fell continuously; as winter can be both wistful and somber, so was the piece.

At times, the dancers skipped playfully into rollicking phrases reminiscent of youth. But an eeriness took over when their unison or partnering broke away, and when the puppet shivered with cold, rubbing his hands together for warmth.

That haunted sense continued when snow pushed forcibly from the wings, pressing the dancers back with indifference. Later, the balloon popped, bursting the astonishment of young life.

Neither the puppet or snowfall detracted from the beauty of the movement. Like the first piece, the choreography stood on its own. Eventually, all four dancers swept through individual motifs that melded into a circular unison mimicking the spiral of seasons.

In closing, the force of movement halted swiftly. Before the dancers shed their masks entirely, the lights went to black. While the unveiling could have been cliché, the result felt genuine. Lidberg succeeded in presenting the universal grace of both art and nature, the unrelenting storm of life experience.


 

Oak Groves

by Nola Garret 

Last week mid-March, at my condominium committee meeting, I became aware that more than half the committee members had no way to discuss landscape planting decisions because they had no nouns to identify even the common names of any trees, bushes, or plants.  What they readily admitted was that as they walk though Gateway Park and on our condo’s property what they see is concrete and green stuff.  In the summer some of the green stuff they see that’s not green may be flowers that cost more money.   At the other extreme were two condo committee members who are Master Gardeners (certified by the US Agricultural Extension Service), and they know the common and the botanical names, the hardiness numbers, the light/water needs, and the difference between annuals and perennials of all that green stuff.  And, there I was a vicarious gardener (book shelves filled with gardening books, including Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1976 edition of Herbal) and a poet analyzing the committee’s language crisis while attempting to explain the time line of planting to the seers of green stuff for the Master Gardeners.

During that committee meeting I did what I could by way of translation and interpretation, but what really was needed was Joseph Wood Krutch’s approach as he explains in his Introduction:

Closely regarded, everyone of the individual plants will be found useful, beautiful, or wonderful—and not infrequently all three.  Perhaps the chief charm of the Herbalists (and certainly the one this book would like especially to suggest) is just that they are more likely than the modern scientist to impart a sense of beauty and wonder—both of which the scientist may feel, but considers it no part of his function to communicate.

What I really love about Krutch’s Herbal is that in that wondrous spirit he includes drawings of both weeds and flowers along with tales of trees that are either food sources or poisonous.  It seems as if he thinks of plants as unheard melodies for which there may be many lyrics for each song.

What I think as I walk under the dappled shadows of Gateway Park’s pin oaks is how good it is that pin oaks have no tap roots, otherwise they wouldn’t have been planted here in soil that’s barely three or four feet deep, hauled in to cover the underground parking garages and the four office buildings’ connecting service tunnels that are the pragmatic reason Gateway Park exists.  Otherwise, fifty years later most trees’ deep tap roots would have long ago broken through a host of BMWs and crawled down into Pittsburgh’s rumored fourth river.  Instead what we in downtown Pittsburgh have is an oak grove that’s pruned twice a year so the pin oaks won’t exceed the garage roofs’ weight-bearing limits.  We also have a squirrel habitat, a pigeon hang-out, a sculpture garden, a pedestrian short cut from Penn Avenue to Fort Duquesne Boulevard a backdrop for selfies and wedding party photographs.

And, an oak grove for a local poet to amble through to remember the Welsh folk tune, “The Ash Grove” that she used to sing during Music Assemblies when she attended the Mill Village Grade School, and the same long-lined tune that’s repurposed for several hymns.  Yes, I know that tune is for ash trees rather than oak trees, but in England and Wales ash groves and oak groves are equally magical and/or scared, therefore, suffice for me.  My knowing the names of the trees and of the under story plants and bushes—azaleas, mountain laurel, roses—enlarges and charges the universe of my condo home.

One of my favorite poems, “Names of Horses,” by Donald Hall recounts life as it was lived on his grandparents’ farm when horses were not only the most common mode of transportation, but also the live machines that made the hard work of New England farming possible.  His poem ends

For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground—old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

Hall’s list of those proper nouns—the horses’ names—empowers each reader’s imagination, enlarges each reader’s mind, each reader’s soul.


 

Book Review: THE SPIRIT BIRD by Kent Nelson

 photo e4be8c9f-af43-4ffc-9432-3c181c61e91e_zpsqi1bd6o7.jpg The Spirit Bird
by Kent Nelson
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$24.95

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

The line between reality and imagination is very thin in The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson. This collection of short stories, told from both first and third person point of view, looks at the inner demons within all of us, the beautiful landscapes that reflect the confusion of our minds, and the differences between who we are and who we want to become.

Nelson has a magical way of twisting ordinary descriptions of people and places and making them come alive for the reader. For example in the self titled story, “The Spirit Bird,” a college professor and a student, Eric, venture into the woods to discover more than just a bird. Powerful sentences showcase a tightly wound tension:

I hear splintering, breaking, and I find Eric behind a boulder tearing pieces of wood apart, separating boards nailed poorly together. He’s stacking them in the small clearing. For a moment I think he’s going to build a fire, but the wood is wet and rotten and wouldn’t burn. He’s not piling but throwing it down randomly, throwing it away.

Nelson creates and then quickly destroys the tension between the two central characters in order to reach the dramatic climax. Here the professor understands why she wanted to look for a mysteriously rare bird, and Eric gains a friend despite his past. Also in this story the reader gets a sense of what The Spirit Bird book is all about—an out-of-the-box way of thinking and a desire to transcend the normal.

“Seeing Desirable Things” and “The Path on the Left Hand” are some of the most striking pieces in the book. They set up the main characters, Allen and Myron respectively, to make big life-changing decisions that will reveal more about themselves than what they hope to achieve. Allen will have to decide if another woman, who is not his wife, is able to sexually pleasure him, while Myron will have to choose whether or not to sleep with another man for the first time. As the stories come to a head, the characters’ inner thoughts are often reflected in powerful descriptions of flashbacks and scenery. In certain instances, these descriptions help heighten the tension that pushes the reader further along in the story and creates an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and resolution when completed.

These stories do not just explore a familiar coming out saga or racially charged tale, but instead reach beyond those typical narratives to come up with something even more engaging for the reader to connect with. In “The Beautiful Light,” Glenna works as a car mechanic in a male dominated field. As the pressure from the male workers at her job grows Glenna tries to escape work and the more she ventures farther and farther away from her usual neighborhood. Nelson does a wonderful job of creating the longing and desire for understanding that Glenna so painstakingly needs. Nelson does this through powerful sentences, such as, “Down the street was a boarded-up Blockbuster, the Uptown Florist, Disc-Go-Round, a movie theater. Dozens of wires crossed overhead. Glenna liked being anonymous, but at the same time, she wasn’t invisible. She occupied a place in the world.” Once Glenna meets Helen and starts to break away from her job does she let herself begin to explore her passion for writing and exploration of herself. The story ends with a beautiful description followed by, “Helen stood up, and Glenna did, too, and Helen took her arm.” Here, the reader can interpret the ending in a variety of ways that allows for a closer look at the descriptions, the characters, and the way Nelson paced his narrative that forces the reader to go back through for a second look.

One of the best stories in the collection is “Who is Danny Pendergast?” Here, humor is used as a way to visually represent the desire to be seen as a whole person. In other words, the story starts out with the protagonist, Danny Pendergast, explaining that he sometimes becomes a donkey. He goes from a normal everyday life as the CEO of Darwin Enterprises to being paranoid of becoming a donkey at any moment. Seen by others as a little weird and an outsider, his transformation allows for humorous moments between the woman he’s seeing, Luisa, and his desire to be liked by her. With witty dialogue, scenes of trying to channel his dead parents’ ghosts, and the feelings he begins to associate with his transformation, Danny realizes a pattern has developed. The thrilling climax comes when he sees Luisa again and finally understands why he started to become a donkey. Nelson does a great job of continuing the storyline without being overly sentimental or detracting from the humor of the piece. The raw emotions only help to further a deep connection with the reader and a better understanding of why such an affliction happened to Danny in the first place.

Ultimately, The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson highlights the desire to be whole and a reason to reach for more acceptance from other people and one’s self. Wrapped within many layers of race, religion, and sexual orientation, the book looks at complicated narratives of real life issues and pushes the reader to react to these sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious stories by forming deeper bonds and connections to the characters. Still, at the end of each story the reader will feel a sense of accomplishment while simultaneously trying to puzzle out exactly what happened to each character in the end.


 

Book Review: ISLAND OF A THOUSAND MIRRORS by Nayomi Munaweera

 photo edab3839-5d51-4b54-91f5-8592586ee0c6_zpscemeg08y.jpg Island of a Thousand Mirrors
by Nayomi Munaweera
St. Martin’s Press, 2014
$24.99

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, has received rave reviews since its initial release in Sri Lanka back in 2012. It’s been published in the United States less than a year, and already its prestige is noted by award-winning authors internationally, as well as stateside critics from Publisher’s Weekly. It won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was long-listed for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and short-listed for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. NoViolet Bulawayo, the award-winning author of We Need New Names, said the novel was “…tender, beautiful, and devastating,” a statement I can defend effortlessly.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a fictional work depicting the very real Sri Lankan civil war, which only ended back in 2009. Munaweera’s novel was timely, and provided an intimate look at life in Sri Lanka during this conflict. It focuses on the lives of two young women and their families—Yasodhara, from a Sinhala family, and Saraswathi, from a Tamil family. Two people on the opposite sides of the war, their lives separate and yet connected. Munaweera’s narrative ties them together through tragedy, and shows with fatal accuracy how far-reaching and devastating the consequences of war can be.

Long before the war, Yasodhara tells us of a beautiful island. She describes “beaches [her father] does not know are pristine,” and “an ocean unpolluted by the gasoline-powered tourist boats of the future.” She talks of mango trees, avocados and condensed milk, and the back room where the children gathered and grew up. Munaweera’s prose is poetic, “tender [and] beautiful,” as Bulawayo said; it mimics the intimacy of a memoir beautifully:

                                I am ten and Shiva is at my window, holding an unlit kerosene lamp. “You won’t believe what I’ve found!” he whispers. When I climb out, he pulls me along the side of the house, pushes aside jasmine vines to reveal a dark crevice… I am suddenly blinded, claustrophobia clawing at my throat when he fires up the lamp, and blue walls spring up around us. Such color! Cerulean, turquoise, flashes of emerald, like being swept underwater.

Saraswathi’s tale is not much different. In fact, the lives of the two girls—their families, their dreams, their innocent perspectives on the brewing chaos around them—are almost indistinguishable from one another. Yasodhara, like Saraswathi, is drawn to books and learning. Both are expected to marry well and reproduce, and both have dreams apart from that expectation. And both watch as their home falls apart.

Yasodhara, on the Sinhala side of the conflict, is afforded with the opportunity to flee to America with her sister, Lanka. Saraswathi, on the Tamil side, is not as fortunate. Munaweera tears these women apart, but in completely different ways. Neither is left unscarred by the war, despite the differing paths they take. While Yasodhara is literally torn from her family and place of her birth, Saraswathi’s body is torn apart by soldiers, an event which divides her from her family. Yasodhara enters a loveless, arranged marriage, and Saraswathi enters boot camp to become a Tamil Tiger, a mercenary. Up until this point in the novel, Munaweera does an excellent job keeping the two voices in equal proportion. As Saraswathi slowly slips into madness behind the lines of war; however, readers lose her voice. Her sections become shorter and shorter, like clipped thoughts. This reader wonders why Munaweera would choose to silence Saraswathi in this way, just as she is approaching the end of her life. I wanted to see the terror she had previously experienced as a victim and how that informed her new role as the oppressor. Instead, these sections are mere blips; we see what happens to her, but do not fully experience Saraswathi’s shift from fear, to anger, to total brainwashing and devotion. This change happens very quickly, despite the resilience Saraswathi exhibited earlier in the novel. She says, “I am fearless. I am free. Now, I am the predator,” and suddenly she is murdering people without thought, wishing to take her sister away to become a soldier, and all the while expressing nothing of the woman we grew to know throughout the novel prior. By chapter 11, Saraswathi’s voice is cut to mere sentences beside pages of narrative from Yasodhara; the two are no longer equal, and I am perplexed by Munaweera’s decision to do this.

Indeed, the novel is devastating. As it comes to a close and we see Saraswathi blown apart and Yasodhara’s sister lost in the blast, it is clear that not one soul is left untouched by the war that ravaged the island. The novel’s poetry wears chaos well, and departs to us a haunting experience from a time not soon to be forgotten.


 

Book Review: DAY UNTO DAY by Martha Collins

 photo eabefdb6-8172-4baa-bb09-88a81bda3f9c_zpska7prier.jpg Day Unto Day
Poems by Martha Collins
Milkweed Editions, 2014
$16.00

Reviewed by Emily Mohn-Slate

This April, the Internet will be flooded with legions of poets writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month. Whether or not you decide to answer the NaPoWriMo call, you might do well to pick up Martha Collins’s sixth full-length collection, Day Unto Day. Collins invokes an older source than NaPoWriMo—Philip Pain’s Daily Meditations and Quotidian Preparations for Death, said to be the earliest original verse published in America (1666). Pain wrote four six-line verses each day for sixteen days; Collins wrote one poem every day of one month each year (and she is still writing them—Night Unto Night is in the works). The book takes its title from Psalm 19, “Day unto Day uttereth speech, / and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” In this Psalm, David is full of praise for the world God has created, and deems God’s law “perfect.” But don’t let the title fool you: this is not your ordinary poetry of meditation or praise. The law of this book is attention; it is the “eye always open.”

Day Unto Day consists of six sequences of poems, written over the course of six years. Jean Valentine calls these poems “little lights which sometimes sound like prayer.” Each spare, musical poem is indeed a “little light,” which Collins shines on the mundane, the philosophical, the political, and the cosmic. Collins has said that she set up rules for herself as she wrote—some governing the number of lines in each poem, some governing the repeating patterns. One of the most compelling formal choices is the repeating pattern in the first and fourth sequences, “Over Time” and “Moving Still.” The last word of each poem becomes the first word of the following poem. Thus each poem spins into the next one, carrying forward an image, a sound, a word; the repeated word is a hinge that opens onto the landscape of the next poem. Collins plays freely within this structure, crafting a cyclical, layered meaning that echoes throughout the book.

With its focus on loss, mortality, and the natural world, the first sequence, “Over Time,” seems to shift away from the political engagement of her recent books, Blue Front and White Papers. But near the end of the sequence, the “newsy world” enters in poem #22 in the form of the World Series and partisan politics:

God is not a Republican
Democrat Yankee Red
Sox fan of him or her—

But him is whom our bed

is holding, him my one is home
again, oh bless him keep him safe

this little time that is our life.

God becomes entangled with sports, politics, and the recovery of the speaker’s beloved. Collins offers us life as it is lived, the boundaries around experiences inevitably porous.

The final poem of the first section considers mortality as it loops back to the first line of the first poem in the sequence: “not.” The speaker is keenly aware of her own waning time. However, while Collins gives us the language and image of negation, the speaker’s voice remains crisp and strong: “I’m here, much / less less. Not yet not.” “Not,” a staccato metonym for death, signals the way Collins approaches death at intervals:

Over and over again
and again, time

after time, stone
upon hallowed stone.

More than bones, ghost-
thin skin, I’m here, much

less less. Not yet not.

Reading this book demands that you quiet your mind to hear the “hum of words / under words.” These poems model a way to pay attention to the world through a close examination of a particular image, object, or phrase. Within the structure she has set forth, Collins plays with white space, dropped lines, and a variety of voices and tones. Her unexpected syntax continually engages the reader in making meaning. She is never stingy with her sonic pleasures. For instance, take the lines from the third section, “Under Green,” “creeping phlox on an old grave,” or from the third section, “Coming Through,” “Because we are snow, snow / on bones, snow hearts with snow / veins branching out into stick / fingers.” Because of Collins’s linguistic play, we need the moments in which she touches down to give us a more grounded image: “My love checks / his blood now, wet rubies / on his fingers.”

Emerson wrote, “The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.” We are made aware of this thread connecting all of us, with its potential for good and for terror, perhaps most intensely in this poem:

Centered, surrounded by pines, one
could forget the uncentered world

except for the parallel cables and wires
scratching the landscape, the cloudless sky,

stretching all the way to a vest strapped
to a six-year-old boy who is told that flowers
will spray out if he touches, here, this button.

Collins lets us see her mind at work, attentive to the ebbs and flows of our complicated world, to try to figure out “how to save / what’s been lost oh little world.”

It’s as if each poem in the book is a frame within a series of stop-motion pictures; the overall form stays the same, with slight variations of length, spacing, and structure. Within each poem and sequence, images change and recur, colors weave in and out, speakers lament and praise and question. These poems evoke momentum as much as stillness. They show us how we often are stuck in the same places, while the stuff of our lives recurs, whether it’s ongoing war, the fear of losing one’s parents, or a religious holiday. Isn’t this what we often need, and what drives us to keep a journal, to meditate, or go to therapy—to pay attention enough to see the contours of our quotidian lives so that we might be able to change something? As Collins puts it—“seeing things is changing things.”


 

 

 

Book Review: HABITATION: COLLECTED POEMS by Sam Hamill

 photo 7a97ec38-b442-4e6a-acc8-c2230f2c680d_zps92dlv4bt.jpg Habitation
Collected Poems by Sam Hamill
Lost Horse Press, 2014
$25.00

reviewed by Mike Walker

Sam Hamill has had a long and diverse career as a poet, publisher, editor, and translator—his work as a translator of poetry from ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Greek alone would place him in a rare arena of those who have contributed greatly to expanding our literary sphere over recent decades. As a poet, he has explored the physical and culture landscape of the American Northwest in a way few others have, bringing to his efforts an uncanny eye for not only detail but for what the Japanese in their complex program of traditional aesthetics call “mono no aware,” a concept with no direct analog in English or most European languages, but one centered on the idea that nothing lasts forever. This is a key and intriguing concept for those from any Western tradition: while much of Western religion and culture trumpets the benefit of the eternal, mono no aware is based in the sense of mujo, or the lack of lasting in most things, whether natural or man-made. It is undoubtedly a concept Hamill would be well aware of via his work in Japanese literature, but it is one he seems to locate in the most organic of senses within his explorations of the Pacific Northwest as well. Topical poetry that in the hands of someone else, no matter how gifted, would come across as tragic (in all meanings of the term) becomes something more in Hamill’s approach; he can concern himself with a fire that consumed a skid-row hotel and the effect is completely different from what one would expect, not centered in pathos nor condemnation but in the mujo understanding of how easily things can dissolve—how easily lives, how easily structures, how easily cultures, all may find themselves in ruins, in ashes.

This collection offers something of Hamill’s work that is essential, which is the ability to approach it in a vast anthology. Many of his poems work very well alone or in a multi-author collection, to be sure, but here one is able to get a real feel for the poet, despite Hamill not being an easy man to read in any regard. His poetry is approachable, inviting even, but it can be difficult, it can demand that you read one long poem and then five more to really place that first one where it belongs and garner its full worth. This task is possible with a collection such as Habitation. Poems such as “In the Company of Men” can be approached fully on the beauty of their language or on the separate if connected beauty of their descriptions of natural habitats, but they deserve further inclusion in the scope of work that Hamill seamlessly makes at once autobiographical yet isolated from the poet. Hamill has taught in prisons, an experience that expectedly carries over into his poems, but he doesn’t treat this experience as do many other writers who have taught in prisons, inner-city schools, or other institutions thought to be challenging. In poems such as “The Egg” he is able to write about his father in similar terms, able to talk about memories and experiences in a subdued manner that doesn’t demand attention but instead invites the reader to consider everything on their own terms. However personal his poetry becomes, Hamill retains a deft ability to take a step back at almost all instances, a skill I feel he probably learned as a translator of poetry and perhaps one of the greatest skills we who translate from other languages pick up in our work.

In “Requiem,” one of the longer poems collected here and one dedicated to Kenneth Rexroth (an ambitious and daunting dedication if ever there has been one), Hamill is able to unite much of what we see now and then in his shorter poems, these references to landscape and the muted colors of the Northwest, these inclusions of man’s hand on that landscape in references to things like new houses with their indoor plumbing, this overall stretch to be inclusive yet retain a light hand, as if the words he’s using are only replicas for the meanings of those words—and how acute that truth is when using those words in critical situations. Anyone who knows of the ways in which both Chinese and Japanese replicate meaning in a character, how meaning is built into language like blocks more than in any extant Indo-European language, will see at once where Hamill is coming from, why he knows of the merit in treading lightly.

Nobody knows what love is. Nobody understands the past.

This is from “The Cartographer’s Wedding,” a shorter yet very powerful poem. It’s a line that could just as well be in a torch song or heavy metal rocker from the later 1980s—it’s not exceptional and is in fact expected, trite even, when it stands alone. But in the context of the title, the idea the map-maker is getting married and there is no map for the territory ahead, the idea that folly is basic to love yet the world is vacant without love, that the past is unable to inform despite being the entire reason for a wedding—that tradition cannot serve well the best service it should provide us. All of this puts far more power and depth into this two-page poem than we could even hope, and it carries off its feat with flying colors. Mystics and oracles turn up commonly in Hamill’s poems and they take on the roles they’ve had since their early days in Greek theatre, the roles of soothsayers, of explaining the future, yet no one understands the past, how ironic, considering if there is anything that an oracle actually is good for, it is the legacy it brings forth from its tradition, especially its Greek tradition. The oracle, the mystics who see the planets align, the Three Weird Sisters—all of them really are adept at telling of the past, not the future. The languages Hamill has built his translator’s career around are languages steeped in tradition, ancient and of great value not only for their literary merits but their historical ones. When we come back to the fact that Hamill made so much of his career in the Northwest, we have to contend with another truth: this region of the United States for decades was at once considered under-known, new, removed, remote, but also holding some of the oldest of Native American culture traditions and some of the most-ancient of geological ones. Therefore, the return to mystics, the return to the question of the past, the return to a timeline uncertain, lacking in accurate waypoints, devoid of constant stewardship and predicated on the mythical seems apt.

His joys were neither large nor many.

But they were precise.

In this, in speaking of an old Chinese poet “in the October of his life,” Hamill hones in on something often missing from like-minded poems: that sense of mono no aware, that sense of neither pity nor sorrow but of understanding and gain. A joy precise in a world lacking in certainty and exact joys is a prized thing, even if not great in size, worth, or number.

I have recently started watching an animé called Noragami; I wrote a thesis on architecture in Japanese animé and have long been concerned with the genre as a fan and critic alike, yet Noragami is different.Noragami’s plot tells of a “stray god”—a young god without worshipers or temples—and his regalia, or sword, he uses to slay demons and perform other feats. This sword is not forged of steel, but is the afterlife manifestation of a young teenage boy’s soul—of a soul that departed before its time. So, the animé which for all of its fantasy and cartoon humor actually follows many Shinto and Taoist traditions quite well, is built around the characters of a teenager who is a god without godship and his weapon, which is the soul of an even younger teen. I bring this up in the midst of reviewing Hamill’s poems to make a very clear point: the spiritual conception of Japanese religion and of the place of that religion even today in society is complex and of an outlook very different from Western faiths. While watching this animé and reading Hamill’s poems I kept seeing similar themes appear, often in subtle ways, but certainly present. What is regalia in America or the United Kingdom? It is the formal trappings of a king or university president or bishop. 式服 (Shikifuku) is not regalia, though it translates as such into English. Shikifuku could be a formal scepter of pomp and circumstance but it also, per Shinto beliefs, could be the manifestation of a soul as it is in Noragami with Yukine, the boy transmogrified into a sword. The Chinese in the Taoist tradition speak of the 神器, the fetishes, or holy weapons of the gods, which are of the very same idea. In Hamill’s work, we find though never fully explicated as such, a similar theme: the transient soul becomes etched in the service of others, its flaws their strengths, its immortality the tangible touch of physical world.

But I am dumb. Winter draws in its nets of silver.

The above is as random a line as I could pull out of one of Hamill’s poems, but I wanted it to be this random. I want an appreciation of his language even when separate from its context. This idea—the harmony the Japanese call wabi-sabi—of cohesion found in nature across the board from blade of grass to human life to forged sword (which, again, Noragami reminds us could even be made from an innocent soul) is central to how Hamill writes. It is for him a calling card, an invitation that allows entry into places most of us cannot go, into the response we need to allow at the ready in order to ask if there is evil in the world (this, a question in a poem asked and answered sublimely by Hamill). It is both blessing and curse of Hamill’s writing and his age that he has so many answers ready to his own questions, but overall it is a welcome aspect of his poetry. Also, as I’ve found expectedly with other older poets, there are ample tributes to peers, wishes for the departed, all those issues older people dwell upon that those of us in our youth do not, though as I write this I learned that an airline pilot in his late twenties probably crashed an airliner into a mountainside, taking his life and those of 149 others aboard. Perhaps we all need the somber face Hamill provides at times here, regardless of age.

“life after life after life goes by,” the poet said

When Hamill quotes others, it is oft like this: it is the warrant for his vocation, the reminder that he’s in the right line of business and is one of a long line of distinguished gentlemen plying this trade. He reminds us often, but never in a self-serving nor arrogant manner, of the role of poet in society. He again often turns to Chinese traditions, to places and points in the scope of time where poetry mattered more to society. Hamill is not aloof, but he realizes his own worth. He remarks in a poem of the value in getting poets to translate poetry—not a non-poet translator. He reminds us often, maybe even constantly, of his study of the Orient but he reminds us of such in the best way possible, by showing not saying, by providing a depth of understanding of what he writes. It was when I was watching Noragami and reading his poems and found the Zen aspects most not in those poems that speak of such on surface level, but in the poems that do not when I realized Hamill was, for lack of better term, for real. He was able and adept of bringing the core values we find in writing based in Taoism to life in cases where he was writing of Greece, or of Jesus. As life goes by, Hamill is fixed upon its trajectory. And also, we have to remember, Hamill has translated poetry from Greek—he is very aware of Greece as Greece when he writes of it, but he writes of it nearly as if it isn’t Greece but maybe Honshu as the specter of Asia has followed him to this topic, yet with beautiful, awesome, results.

Overall, Habitation is a greatly impressive collection, though at times due to its sheer volume it can at once overwhelm and depress. Part of my reaction in this manner is probably due to a difference in age and outlook I have from Hamill: I’ve noticed often that collected works by older poets have this effect on me. There’s too much emphasis on departed friends, on other poets they knew, on the wistful in general. It is hard for me, with my interests and approach to life, to connect with some of this though I understand how at their age and station it would be apt. Hamill can pull off tributes better than most though, due to the mono no aware sense you get from his poetry. He can write about loss or passing in a way that retains fully all necessary dignity. That said, many of these poems focus on the past, not the present nor the future, just as I complained of the soothsayers I mentioned when they appear in his work. Everything tells us about the past, and for the past, is not that an unfair share of the attention? When nature is the topic, Hamill is at his best. In “Malbolge: Prince William Sound” he offers us that view of nature we’d hope for in the best of poetry and still a very personal view. In “Blue Monody” he uses the same techniques but due to the personal-historical nature of the foci I find them less compelling, though no less astute and well-crafted.

There is no doubt as to the worth and the scope of the work collected in Habitation. Hamill’s career, despite his many and diverse accomplishments, is still under-known and perhaps this will be the volume to remedy that situation. There is repetition despite the diversity of poems and at times, if you’re reading much of the book at once, that can become tiresome. However, it’s a powerful and very intriguing collection and shines a light on Hamill’s many general talents as a writer, allowing not only an exploration of his poetry but via that poetry also insight into his work as a translator and what a rich background has allowed for these poems in the first place.


 

Book Review: RIVER HOUSE by Sally Keith

 photo 88ca6d79-48be-4bb8-845e-83bb586abd43_zpssx4nev4g.jpg River House
Poems by Sally Keith
Milkweed Editions, 2015
$16.00

reviewed by Alison Taverna

In her fourth poetry collection, River House, Sally Keith straddles this world—oriented, logical, with the world of grief—timeless, aimless, consuming. All sixty-three poems are elegies to the speaker’s mother, even though she confesses “I used to like to teach a course on elegy, / But I don’t anymore. / The form no longer interests me.” Each poem fits on a page, clearly numbered as a title, followed with a period. I read this mathematical, clean ordering, first, as a mask. Create order in the chaos, the disillusionment. Too, though, I see this counting as a process, a heavy-footed, day-by-day movement through suffering. As if living doesn’t have a name anymore. Each moment indistinguishable from what follows, and what will follow, for “There isn’t really an order that would be correct.”

Reading, we find ourselves pulled by the river. At times Keith’s stanzas flow in a linear narrative. Other times we chop through lines, spin around quotes and references from authors and artwork. These jumps are intentional as Keith explains,

Forgive me for all these quotations.
I take notes when I read. There can be instances of real clarity.
I always hope I might remember them.

The mother rents herself a house by the harbor, where the land sits on the same level as the water, the house on stilts. What is usually separate, the land and the shore, now exist together. This landscape, these poems, all grief conflates into survival. The speaker finds comfort in this survival, this movement—

…I reread a favorite poem

In which a speaker in mourning sits by a river thinking.
That the river does nothing but move makes sense to me.
In the margin, “grief” was the word I once had written.

The voice in River House strikes me as overtly controlled. The collection opens with thirteen sentences in sixteen lines. The final stanza in the opening poem hints towards this straightforwardness: “Because our mother is gone, we do not need the house. / We tell ourselves this. Soon we will clean out inside.” Directness avoids sentimentality for the poem, and is a method of coping for the speaker.

Still, this direct voice does not limit any emotions, for I’m mourning with the speaker, each poem somehow more shattering than the one previous. In what I consider the most striking moment of the collection, the speaker discusses promises made to the mother during the aging process,

…We would keep

Her nails trimmed, her hair combed. We would keep
The bright lipstick from bleeding up, away from her lips.

As the collection continues, Keith begins to step out of the poem. This happens in 55. The poem discusses the mother’s wooden drawer that only opens via a special code. At the beginning of the fifth stanza a volta occurs. The speaker breaks the wall and acknowledges the poem and audience, a meta-move. More, the speaker doesn’t just step out of the poem, but gives up on the poem, for “By now, you must already have figured the rest, / How the poem will end with the code…” I find this one of the most honest moves in the collection, suggesting that yes, sometimes writing doesn’t ease the constancy of loss. But Keith writes through these moments, forces forward, towards another poem, towards a life where everything can exist as solely itself—

The message in the waves is the waves.
Don’t work harder. Don’t allow me to weep,
Talking about the river. The river exists. The house exists.