Forest for the Trees

by Gerry LaFemina

If you’re ever on the island of Tobago, I urge you to take a tour of the Main Ridge Rainforest with Fitzroy Quamina. He’s worked in the Reserve for years; he grew up on Tobago and studied forestry, so he knows his stuff. I met him when he pulled beside us as we walked through Castarra and asked if we had been looking for a rainforest tour. We had been, and quickly, his warmth and enthusiasm led us to trust him. We scheduled the tour for the coming Saturday, and off we went.

In the back of his truck, he had several pairs of Wellingtons in different sizes to ensure that we weren’t trekking through the mud puddles and waterfalls in our sneakers; his capacity to hear a distant call and identify it in a couple of notes could have made him an extraordinary contestant on Name That Tune, the tropical bird edition. The thing that impressed me most though was his ability to look to the left and point out the closed den of a trapdoor spider, then notice a flash of color in the distance 200 feet away and call our attention to a bird we hadn’t seen before: a green honeycreeper

Fitzroy saw things I couldn’t see. Even after an extensive tour, I still knew little. I was a novice with an expert. I asked a lot of basic questions, the way my students do. They often complain that they don’t see what I see. They have to be taught to pay attention to the poem in ways that writers do when looking at their own work: that’s one of the things workshop teaches–the crucial close reading that allows us to see the poem. Revision is a journey into the rainforest of the poem. We need to see everything, hear everything, and we need to tread carefully.

First off, it’s important to be prepared for the poem. I’m particularly thinking in terms of revision. We need to wear our Wellies, rubber boots with good traction, but loosely laced so that our ankles have flexibility. Not too high as to be uncomfortable, but not too short that water might get in over the top. Fitzroy made sure we had water and pointed out places to pluck mangoes. Sometimes it’s hard to be prepared to edit poems. In the workshop class we hope that entering the classroom, the supportive, scheduled environment will be preparation enough, but for editing on our own, it helps to have a clear head, lots of time, and our Wellies: which is to say we need to be ready that we might get into some deep mud.

Often, a student will point out a phrase in an early line in a poem, saying it “doesn’t work” or that she doesn’t know “why the poet chose that word.” Other students might agree, and just as I see the poet getting ready to cross the word out of the poem, I might point out how the sounds in a word on line 2 resonate with a sudden burst of internal rhymes in lines 17-20, thus the phrasing that didn’t seem to work actually was preparing the reader in a way for the aural sensation the poem emphasizes later on. The poem, like the rainforest, is an organic whole, and paying attention to the anthills underfoot (“don’t stand still too long, those ants will bite if they climb up your leg”) and the purple flora at eye level simultaneously is crucial. We have to be paying attention both to the various aspects of the poem and the poem as a whole.

The part and the whole are symbiotic. Forest and trees.

Often novice poets talk about the line break as if the most important aspect of the line is the word it breaks on, what resonates at the right margin, that word sitting at the end of a branch in its feathery finery, is the most important thing on the tree. But the break is only as important as the line it is part of. The break defines the line, not the other way around. More, the break also defines the next line by defining what’s on the left margin. The bird flies away; the branch remains. How sturdy is it?

Fitzroy pointed out the invasive bamboo that grew amid the forest. It looked beautiful like it belonged among the other flora of the preserve, but no. How do we recognize if something in our poems is alien, that it doesn’t belong in what we’re working on? Some rhetorical flourish or interesting metaphor might enamor us? Often, I’ve heard a student in workshop say to another poet, “I really love this image…” about a simile only to have me point out that the image has nothing to do with the rest of the poem, that it calls attention to itself in ways that might not help this particular poem. “Kill your darlings.” The invasive bamboo is beautiful, but it needs to go.

With that, of course, is the conservation and reforestation of other aspects of the poem: develop, pursue, push this image, that sound. Maybe add a metaphor that reconsiders phrasing from earlier in the poem?

In order to do this, we need to know the poem. Novice poets often begin workshopping as they read along the first time, crossing things out even before they’ve gotten through the poem once. Read the poem. Read it again. I’m Fitzroy in these moments, trying to point things out about the moment of line 3 and the whole poem simultaneously. Then, begin the work of editing it. Revise. Revise. Remember the poem is an ecosystem, a rainforest we’re trying to experience. We’re fostering growth even as we suggest paring back; every line break and image has to contribute to the experience. That doesn’t mean there aren’t tensions in the poem; it just means the poem is like a forest made of trees. Try to see both in the process of revision.

The fact is we need to pay attention. The rainforest is continuously changing, and the more Fitzroy’s seen, the more he’s aware of what’s new (to him) in the Main Ridge. Fitzroy, in the end, was always listening, always looking, always keen for what’s possible. Sometimes, it’s easy to think we wrote the poem, we know the poem—what’s there to pay attention to? The temptation is there, no doubt, to give the revision process less attention than the composing process. Give the fortieth trip through a rainforest less attention than the first, and we might find ourselves sliding down the wet rocks of a waterfall.


Decorating the House: An Allegory of Revision

by Gerry LaFemina

stanza: late 16th century: from Italian meaning station, stopping-place, or room.

Four years ago, I bought a house, a small three-bedroom ranch in Frostburg, Maryland. I liked its mid-century modern touches (archways, a telephone nook) and its humble size on a good plot of land. I was moving from a two-bedroom apartment and would have to fill the space. I’ve lived here four years, and things still aren’t “finished.”

I lived with the white walls, each rectangular space and unblemished page, added among them the old living room furniture, the preexisting art. What would the space ask of it? And what would I ask of the space? What was the vision of the house? Who was I in this house, at this time in my life—parent of an adult child, professor, poet, rock ’n’ roller—and how would this space reflect that?

Every change creates a ripple effect. Take a painting down and there’s the blank space. Get a new painting and consider how it talks to the other paintings, the furniture. Get a new couch and love seat, black-and-white leather with funky pillows, that begs the paintings to do more work to bring color into the room. Get fed up with the dull wood paneling wall behind the fireplace and get it tiled in stone strips. But the muted blues and reds and grays of the stone beg for something more, something else. Get a new rug. Keep the art deco wall mirror. Put two Miro lithographs up, one on either side of the mirror. Consider pitching the coffee table. (I’m still not sure).  The light blue curtains work. Note to self: take the valance off the bay window and paint it gray.

That’s the same gray as the accent wall in the dining room. Remember, the rooms talk to each other. In here line the walls with poetry broadsides, framed. The poetry bookshelves are here, too: poetry is a type of sustenance. Change the light fixture for something more modern. Find a dining room table, without chairs. Look for chairs that will suffice short term: they’re cheap, and they wobble, but they hold weight at least for a while. Keep looking for the right chairs: antique stores, furniture stores, online. Repeat. Finally, take a chance and hope it works out. It does.

The kitchen is large with a lot of open space that goes underutilized and not a lot of counter space. It took a year to get rid of the lace curtains (Not that I didn’t know they needed to go, but I wanted the right ones…), though a dishwasher went in right away (I recognized it was missing and that the kitchen needed a dishwasher), though that requires the removal of a cabinet, reworking the electricity. I put up a ceiling fan: something with a little pizzazz but not overpowering the fifties vibe. It’s a balancing act: what does the space need? Paint the kitchen a smoky light blue. Talk to friends; an ex-girlfriend who used the kitchen with me suggests a floating countertop, and I talk to a handyman. We can’t find a match for the existing countertop, and since I won’t replace all of them I go with a tile top. Subway tile, to go with the framed New York City Subway maps scattered throughout the house. The subways are a subtle theme throughout the house. Four years on, get a new refrigerator, and it requires the removal of some trim from the bottom edge of a cabinet, so I break out the Sawzall; small ornamentation get removed for a better appliance. The kitchen works.

The public rooms finished, the rest of the house goes the same way. I live in the house. It needs to please and to be functional. It has to aesthetically arrest me and engage me and be comfortable. It reflects my taste.

The office room gets two accent walls painted purple and a large black corner desk. The old futon goes in here: modern looking with a gray and black pattern: its designed as a couch for me when I work. As I play more music, the guitars slowly move in here like a set of sculpture. There are conflicting shelves of literary criticism and musical theory. It’s still not right. It’s identity-less, held together by artwork and force of will. I think when I can I might add a new room for music. Think about drywall and framing in the basement.

My old black bedroom furniture goes into the guest room, so it easily holds together. I decide to keep the room white as it’s a neutral color for guests and add white bookcases that I fill with my fiction. I know most of my guests are more likely to read fiction than poetry. I add one of two paintings by Michigan artist Joe Donna in it. (In my bedroom I’ll put another). There’s still a long narrow painting I need to hang above the bookcases. Hang black curtains, keep it minimalist. Every time I go in there, something nags at me that’s not right. It’s the light fixture…

The master bedroom is last. I buy new furniture, a hodgepodge of mid-century modern pieces. Some require stripping and staining. Hang a Miro litho. Hang the other Joe Donna painting. Add a bookcase. Buy too many books. Get a bigger bookcase. Change the light fixtures to match the preexisting chrome touches on the window valance. Paint two walls red and paint the window valances black. Keep the chrome decorations on them. Add gray curtains. Keep buying art, switching out.

The dresser tops are a mess, I know. I throw things out. I reorganize, things still get cluttered. I tell myself to do better. There’s an acoustic guitar I rarely play in the bedroom. My first electric guitar. A chrome and glass modernist sculpture I moved from the living room. (It makes so much more sense in the bedroom).

Last month, I visited the poet Nancy Mitchell. Saw how little space she kept between paintings on her walls. Think about the paintings in storage, the art I still want to own, consider the possibilities to decorate the walls of this space differently. It’ll never be done, I know. Every change, even the smallest, changes everything else around it. I think about the books I’ve written, how even in these finished poems, I’ve crossed some words out, written new words in.


Book Review: THERE SHOULD BE FLOWERS by J. Jennifer Espinoza

There Should be Flowers
by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016

Reviewed by Kelly Tiernan

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s There Should Be Flowers is an unyielding call for compassion in a world that continuously tries to suppress the voices of marginalized groups. The collection outlines her journey from a young boy whose silence is the only protection to a woman who refuses to let the injustices and hardships faced by the trans community go unspoken. The journey is filled with pain, anger, and utter determination. Life and death, art and politics, identity and community are all perfectly wound into the fabric of this unforgettable narrative.

Life and death take a central position in the collection. The need for survival but also the lack of interest in what the physical world has to offer are at the forefront of the conflict in this narrative. In “My Body a Sieve” she writes, “After long enough it doesn’t feel like anything. / After long enough I forget. / Nothing can be retained if I am to survive.” Survival lies somewhere between life and death. In her version of survival, she does not feel she has the ability to enjoy life nor is she allowed the release of death. The speaker craves an escape from the uncertainty of life but understands the necessity to keep working for the rights of trans people and offering a voice to their experience. The poem “I Imagine All My Cis Friends Laughing at Tranny Jokes” exemplifies the connection of the political to the personal. She says, “I read another comments section of an article / about trans women and I want to die. To not exist. To let / them win. I don’t let them win.”

In the poem “What I am Given,” Espinoza writes, “I’ve never kept a diary / Because I want to forget everything” but it is clear that this book and these poems are a diary, open to anyone willing enough to listen. In an interview, Espinoza says that “I think I was writing this particular book on some subconscious level long before I realized what I was doing.” The fact that the book was not crafted to fit a certain aesthetic makes the collection feel honest without any underlying pretension. The language is accessible and allows for any reader to connect with the work. Regardless of race, sexuality, or gender identity, this is a rallying cry for women to stick together against the society that persistently pits us against each other and against ourselves. She enlightens her audience and creates an open dialogue between poet and reader.

Espinoza reminds us as we get lost in her most intense poems that “there is no such thing as apolitical art.” It is evident that emotion and creativity are not the only contributions to the poems, but rather this is a book is inspired by the ugliest realities in life that we push into the furthest corners of our mind. These stories are a much-needed reminder of our own faults. In my reading, the most striking lines appeared in “Poem (Let Us Live).” She begs the question, “How long can I keep tricking you / into thinking what I’m doing / is poetry / and not me begging you / to let us live?” The shift in tone is unmistakable as Espinoza steps outside of her narrative to address her readers and tell them that this is not just poetry, this is survival. Moments like these are strewn throughout providing obscene clarity in the absurdity of everyday life. Her unforgiving honesty calls out her readers for participating in the choreographed dance that defines reading and responding to trans literature. Espinoza’s narrative screams for her readers to do more for the marginalized and the struggling. Be the change. Let their voices be heard.


Variations on a Theme of Birdsong

by Gerry LaFemina

One of the hardest things to think about in terms of revision beyond the first draft is seeing what’s possible outside the margins of what’s already written, which is to say not how to make the poem longer, tighter, musically  more compelling, but, rather, to explore the alternative poems running parallel to the original. What would the poem look like, I often wonder, if I had begun with a slightly different take on my triggering image?  Slight change to an initial word choice, a slight reframing of an image, can lead to extremely different end results.

Recently, I had the image of a bird sewing his song through the morning light, and as I often do, wondered where such a vision might take me. Then I remembered, that I have a “no birds” rule in effect right now (such moratoriums are ways to ensure that I don’t continue dipping into the familiar image bank), so I thought to use this as a teaching moment. How might this triggering image be transformed in various ways to develop multiple universes—multiple poems—based solely on the framing and language of the first line? All of the poems are titled “Before March” and none of them have been significantly revised beyond these initial re-framings; the goal is to get us to explore what possibilities might exist tracking beside the original.

 Before March

First songbirds of February
embroider cool mornings
with fine needles of their notes.

Sunlight burns the last of last week’s snow
into mist. The neighbor’s

two kids have begun throwing
a game of catch, the steady thump
of ball in glove
like the pulse of new desire.

This short lyric begins with a nurturing sensibility: embroider as a word choice comes complete with positive connotations; it’s a word we associate with a mother or grandmother, perhaps, and the poem fulfills that word’s promise by ending on hope. In the end, this version of the poem engages the familiar tropes of “spring” (birdsong, baseball, new love) in a lyrically imagistic way. Even the title emphasizes March over what it really means (February).

The second version of this poem plays on “needle” in a different way:

Before March

First birds of February
push the needles of their notes
through cold morning. They attack the feeder
out the window
then shit on the car’s hood.

No time to clean up.

Already salt on the fender eats away
at the metal. Tomorrow
the forecast is icy rain or sleet.

The needles, here, carry with negative connotations—they are things that pierce, things that hurt.  I’ve further emphasized this darker sensibility by having changed “songbirds” to the less chirpy “birds.” I could take this transformation further by choosing a type of bird, as in this line: “First grackles of February.” Just the sound of the word grackles with its guttural opening and its hard K sound would further establish a more negative sensibility to the poem.  Consider even the change of cool to cold for the modifier of “morning” as a way of creating an alternate reality from the first poem. Ditto, its relationship to the title has changed, emphasizing the winter implicit in the title.

A third version of the poem continues with another variation on the word needle, this one the tattooist’s tool.

Before March

The first songbirds of February
tattoo the images of their perfect mates
on the air which each note.

The neighbor’s windows are open,
Celine Dion singing My heart will go on

Then the garbage men arrive,
truck rumble silencing everything else
before carting away the thrown away
photo albums, the old notes,
all of yesterday’s refuse.

As birdsong is a way of attracting a mate, this poem begins with hope, with the synesthesia of song becoming visual.  As she is wont to do, Celine Dion changes things, makes the poem go dark (as if she could do anything else). I didn’t want her to dominate the poem, so I needed to pivot quickly away while simultaneously acknowledging that the song is one of heartache, of loss: it establishes something not in the other poems, a gesture of grief. This move to the garbage men led me to wonder what was being thrown out—and the poem then becomes about failed love, another type of “cold” working against the traditional associations of spring.

This version of the poem makes a similar linguistic move as the first version, repeating a word in a different way in quick succession: “the last of last week’s snow” is echoed in “carting away the thrown away.” Further, this last version plays on the dual meanings of “refuse.” In the end, this poem plays against the expectations established in the first lines, which seem to preview an attempt at nesting.

There are multiple other variations on this theme. Three more opening lines that establish possible poems look like this:

First songbirds of February
sew patches of melody over the morning’s holes…


February’s first birds purl their songs
into small flags they’ll unfurl over the nests they build
outside the bedroom window…


First birds of February pull the sutures of their songs
tight this morning, light bleeding
through the curtains…

Of course, there are numerous other potentialities, and each choice creates the poem we make but also creates the opportunity for an alternative. Here, the poems are all working as observational lyrics (deliberately so), but the potential for a more personal or more expansive mediation, a narrative, even a fractal exploration of birdsong or sewing or both are possible. The goal, here, is not a study of aesthetics, but rather of the possibilities beyond the initial draft that happens by reconceiving our triggers. Conscious choices allow us to say, “I’m in territory where I’ve been before” what happens if I choose to look at this in a slightly different way? What’s possible? It’s this feeling of possibility that is the excitement for me when an image beckons me to language.

Every poem, in the end, is about the poems we chose not to write, those series of parallel universes, alternate versions we chose either not to pursue or not to explore. Those are legitimate artistic choices. It’s important, though, to be aware that they exist.


Book Review: OBJECTS OF AFFECTION by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough

Objects of Affection 
by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough
Braddock Avenue Books, 2018

Reviewed by Zoe Kovacs

Polish-born Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has made a life out of translating, that fraught, “imperfect art which depends on what Czesław Miłosz called ‘the conscious acceptance of imperfect solutions.’” It’s the leveling of two languages and two cultures on ground foreign to each, at minimum a compromise and at most a deliberate marriage of the two. One might understand her debut collection of essays Objects of Affection as a reckoning or a theory of translation— a translation that extends far beyond the written word and into the realms of identity, memory, and what it means to be an immigrant. Through eighteen essays, the focuses of which span favorite authors, childhood memories, Poland’s history of war and communism, family, transforming nationalities, swimming, and even hairstyles, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough presents the reader with a lovely, complex reflection on what it means to bridge worlds.

One of Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s greatest strength is undoubtedly her ability to weave many threads subtly through the varying subjects of each essay. In “Afloat,” for example, which is ostensibly about swimming, the author reflects on the lakes and pools of her childhood in Poland before transitioning to the Massachusetts pond where she now swims. With all the artistry of a poet (which Hryniewicz-Yarbrough repeatedly assures us she is not), she explains that “no other activity makes us enter an alien element the way swimming does,” echoing back her earlier meditations on immigration, on immersing herself in an environment unfamiliar to her and adopting unfamiliar language and customs in the process.

Objects of Affection is salient not only because it represents the oft-demonized perspective of an immigrant at this particular moment in history, but also because Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s biographical essays function simultaneously as an invaluable firsthand account of Polish history. The reader gains so much insight from these pages about what it means to grow up in a country defined by its past of war, one where the threat of future turmoil lingers even during the calm. Echoes of the author’s upbringing among Polish communism and war-paranoia are unavoidably present in each essay. In “My War Zone,” Hryniewicz-Yarbrough recalls childhood games parodying Nazi invasions, and her youthful imaginings of America and Australia as impervious safe-spaces, which later transforms into a reflection on the effects of 9/11. Other essays—“In Zbigniew Herbert’s Garden,” “Objects of Affection,” “Our Daily Drink”—utilize a favorite childhood writer, the author’s love of antiques, and a discussion of beverages she used to drink in Poland to analyze her personal experiences of freedom and choice after moving from a communist country to a free market economy.

Hryniewicz-Yarbrough has lived always in the crossroads and the in-betweens of communism and capitalism, of the “old” and “new” Europe divided by the fall of the Iron Curtain, of Poland and America. Interpreting her beloved author Zbigniew Herbert, she writes of “otherness as something positive that allows the traveler to notice what natives can no longer see. … Otherness has two senses: [immigrants/travelers] are obviously ‘the other,’ but the world we encounter is also ‘the other.’” The author credits her “outsider” position—one that never fully goes away, no matter how long she has lived in the United States, no matter how long she has stood at the axis between English and Polish—for rendering her as uniquely external to all of the things about which she writes. This vantage point grants her the ability to evaluate them at a distance that those of more singular identities are unable to. In Objects of Affection, Hryniewicz-Yarbrough transposes that balancing act between seemingly contradictory identities and experiences into the written word, into a collection that is as treasured for its beauty in prose as for its insights. She has achieved, then, a most glorious act of translation, a reconciliation of complexities that speaks many mouths into one voice.


Book Review: PERSONAL SCIENCE by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Personal Science 
by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
Tupelo Press, 2017

Reviewed by Zoe Kovacs

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram writes under the premise that all of her writing is essentially a continuation of the same work. As she puts it in an interview with The Rumpus, her work is: “a single life project,” the books are “artifacts that mark points in time. They are discrete objects but my work itself is not discrete.” In a way, Personal Science is an explicit nod to that, a poetic formulation of the author’s method—and difficulty—of apprehending herself.

For all of its strangeness and abstraction, Bertram leaves anchors for the reader sprinkled throughout the book: clues in her titles, or moments of solidity in the form of prose, which remind us of what is at stake, or what she seeks at the end of this exploration. The book opens with an excerpt from John D. Niles’ Homo Narrans, which provides a context and a theme for the following pages:

Homo narrans: that hominid who not only has succeeded in negotiating the world of nature, finding enough food and shelter to survive, but also has learned to inhabit mental worlds that pertain to times that are not present and places that are the stuff of dreams. It is through such symbolic mental activities that people have gained the ability to create themselves as human beings and thereby transform the world of nature into shapes not known before.

Bertram is a homo narrans, a being who forges her own world through mental cosmos of words, who straddles the physically inhabitable realm and the one that cannot be touched. She leads us through these worlds, through dreams and absurdity, in this bizarre portrait of existence that is at once detached and immersive.

But Bertram is aware of the confusion of a dream-world to an outsider, and she addresses this via poems like the first, appropriately named “A little tether” before she takes us off the ground: “A self being an object,            I can construct / the object I am trying to get to.”

Arranged in sections, the collection begins with “Legends like these I keep keeping.” The first few in this series are obviously grounded in Bertram’s “real” life (i.e., the physical one), but the reader is quickly plunged in and out of her dream world, such as “when we lie,” which is riddled with repetition and strange language: “with the wolves we cheeks / crimson / in bluedark bluedark       we  / cheeks underfoot / face up underside the princes the princes!” And just like that, the next page takes the shape of a prose poem, the recollection of a conversation with a friend, clearly back on Earth. The style speaks to the sometimes fuzzy barrier between our lived realities and our dreams, particularly in our more confused moments. As the book continues into the following sections, “Homo Narrans” and “Cerebrum corpus monstrum” the division blurs even more.

For me, Bertram’s strongest moment comes mid-read, in the form of a lengthy section of narrative entitled “Forecast,” in which the author details the obsession and anxieties of some third-person “she” surrounding plane crashes and air travel. After so much abstraction, the narrative feels extra crisp, like a photograph over-sharpened. Presumably, since the piece is otherwise set in the autobiographical “I,” the “she” is Bertram herself, but the third-person creates a sense of detachment and distance. The remaining poems after the prose section are by and large even more abstract than those before it, often featuring themes of violence.

The reading experience is almost that of solving a puzzle, similar to the fraught quest of self-understanding. Bertram employs different variations of the same symbol between the chapters, which may denote levels of abstraction in the poems—or not. She riffs on the same titles, staying true to theme while twisting related ideas under the light to give us new perspectives.

Personal Science keeps the reader guessing, on a quest to assemble the pieces Bertram has provided into a means of understanding an undoubtedly complicated portrait. It is a reckoning, a fragmentary way of examining our complex, confusing existences, and an exploration that leaves readers questioning themselves, too.


Quantum Poetics

by Gerry LaFemina

Atomic Structures
If a word is an atom and a line is molecule, then the poem is a compound. Change any item in any given line and you alter, in some way, the molecule/compound. Even if the alteration is minor, such as replacing that article a with the, we change the compound slightly just as replacing a Hydrogen atom (H) with a positive ion, H+ changes the molecule and compound.

String Theory
What are strings if not lines? Every poem is a lesson in strings, every poetics a string theory.

The theory of a multiverse suggests the possibility of multiple universes. Consider: every decision opens up another alternate universe in which the other choice co-exists. Consider: each revision we make creates a new version of the poem, while maintaining the original, if only in the memory of the writer (though, if you’re like me, you hold on to every draft).

Furthermore, linear theory suggests every change in the line alters the entire universe of the poem.

Gravity, or gravitation, is a natural phenomenon by which all things with mass are brought toward (or gravitate toward) one another. In poetry, perhaps, that might refer to images, those physical presences in the poem. Images provide, metaphorically, mass and the best images bring a sense of emotional depth—call it gravitas, if you like—to the poem. Often the image attracts an emotional response, or as Dennis Haskell has described the Deep Image technique, images engage the “rational manipulation of irrational materials”: by irrational, we mean non-intellectual, such as emotional or unconscious material.

Theory of Special Relativity
E=MC2 . If we consider energy as the emotional potential of the poem, we can posit the speed of light as the speed of the line, or the rhythm of the poem. Mass, of course, is the imagery, those things that bring matter into the poem (see gravity above). The best poems have emotional energy—in the form of relevance to the reader—generated by the rhythm and imagery of the poem, how it creates a contextual connection between poem and reader.

Super Symmetry
In physics, there’s a desire for balance in the universe: for every boson there must be a fermion and vice versa. If we take Aristotle’s sense that metaphor is the most important skill of the poet, that capacity to find a balance between two very disparate things via analogy, then we are looking for a kind of leap that generates energy. The leap has to be between symmetrical (i.e., relevant) and equally powerful or surprising attributes.

Bosons, fermions… of all the sub atomic particles, the quark is the elementary particle which is the building block of matter. In the poem, we can consider it any non-syllabic sound that in combination creates a syllable: the building block of the oral/aural aspect of language.

Dark Energy
The universe, we are told, is composed of roughly 68% dark energy. It can’t be seen or measured; it’s really, in many ways, unfathomable, but physics—the math—tell us it must exist. It’s in the space between the stars and planetary bodies and the various matter of the cosmos. There is a dark energy of poetry, too, in what is unsaid in a poem, what might be inferred or brought to the poem by the reader’s schema. Some poems fail, after all, for they say too much.

Black Holes
One might think, here, that I’m going to discuss the fear of failure, that emotional suck from which no light seems to escape. But no. Every galaxy it seems has a super massive black hole at its center around which that galaxy revolves. Consider Lorca’s sense of duende, the life force of our best poems, that gives art its life. Let duende be the black hole around which the galaxy of our poems swirls.

Big Bang
Let’s just call it “inspiration”: the moment when tip of pen(cil) first touches paper (or, if you prefer, the first blink of the cursor when the word processor first boots).

The Invention of Heavy Metals
The heavier elements are a result of the fusion reactions in the first stars and followed by what happened when they eventually went nova. The first stars were reactors of hydrogen and helium in their furnaces; atoms came together so that hydrogen and helium became carbon. When these suns began to burn out carbon, helium, and hydrogen atoms fused to form oxygen through iron. Then the stars went nova and their explosions spread the elements iron through uranium across the universe.

Our earliest poems are those early stars. As we write more, we grow as writers, we see the failures and shortcomings in this work until they vanish, replaced by stronger material, heavier metals, our strengths and skills honed, our use of technique more effective. Those are the heavier elements made from the explosion of our work, the fusion reactor of our poems, in which we combine various elements of craft.

Inertia, momentum, and friction
The line in poetry, its rhythm (both in traditional verse and free verse), is the source of momentum. Assuming the line had no break (ala the paragraph) we can say that it would be subject to inertia: it would go and go. Friction is the force of the line break and caesura on the poetic line.

M Theory
“According to Witten, M should stand for ‘magic,’ ‘mystery,’ or ‘membrane.’” The poem is a multidimensional membrane, giving, elastic, but finite. The best ones are full of mystery and magic; they are enigmatic and revelatory.

Some items can be seen as having contradictory and mutually exclusive properties: light, for example, is simultaneously a particle and a wave. The poem exists this way: both visual and aural (oral), both line and sentence, and (see above) enigma and revelation.

In physics entropy works as a measure of the disorder of a system and its constituent molecules. Every poem ought to have a little entropy, a frictional force disordering and energizing the constituent parts (consider the sonnets of Hopkins, how they explode the form, the rhymes of Dickinson, a good trochaic inversion in blank verse). Managing entropy is a way of creating formal energy.

God Particles
In the end, we’re talking about poems. They’re chock full of god particles.


Book Review: AT THE WATERLINE by Brian K. Friesen

At the Waterline
by Brian K. Friesen
Ooligan Press, 2017

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

Inspired by his firsthand experiences while working on the Columbia River, Brian K. Friesen’s debut novel, At the Waterline, is a reflective, multi-faceted story. The book follows Chad, a man with a penchant for the water, through his mission to find himself after his tragic divorce. A student of literature and writing, he lives in his broken-down boat and works in a shop on the marina, spending much of his time examining the people around him, comparing them to himself, and searching for meaning in every interaction.

Upon starting the book, every reader should appreciate the two sketches Friesen included in the front. The first is a guide to the landscape of the novel, and the second offers a diagram of boat anatomy. Both proved helpful along the way. Much like Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, being able to follow the characters of At the Waterline around the simple contours of the map added a layer of entertainment. And the boat diagram is something I always felt Moby-Dick lacked, as a book that employs an abundance of nautical terms. It isn’t exhaustive, but as someone unfamiliar with boats, I referenced it frequently.

The novel contains a large cast of characters, and everyone in the story is unique, pulling dread, resonance, and love from the reader in their own corresponding moments. I found the most compelling characters to be Moe, a Native American allegorist, and Barry, a former priest. Moe is only present in the novel for a short time, but his spirit persists through the characters’ thoughts and memories of him for the duration of the story, continuing to influence their lives even when he’s gone. Barry’s story is surprising; as someone who is introduced subtly and initially seems to be a minor character, the layers Friesen continuously adds to enlighten the reader of his fall and return to priesthood are unexpected, yet delightful.

Friesen does a touching job of nudging characters towards realizing the flaws in their present situation and begin tending to their self-fulfillment. He often does so with interpretive metaphors, such as the moment Moe details the fish he found in the bilge of his boat. Nobody (including Moe himself) can fathom how a fish could have gotten there; Moe insists that it isn’t about how it got there, but the significance lies in the very nature of the fish being there at all. This seems to be an implication of Moe’s isolation (or fish-out-of-water-ness) as a Native American adopted into the marina life. For Moe, the fish appears to be a significant component in motivating his departure from this life to one more faithful to his own culture and religion, as he decides to head back into the water and sail upstream.

Chad is clearly the main character, and as a recent college graduate, a divorcee, and a man searching for himself, he’s relatable on many levels. Unfortunately, he’s often lost in the alternating of points-of-view—and with upwards of a dozen characters, this happens a lot. While each character Friesen manipulates is no less interesting than the next, I wanted to hear the major events of the story filtered through Chad, rather than cycle through the eyes of each character. I craved development for Chad, but this took time.

I enjoyed every character’s unique path because Friesen fuels their motivations with authentic fretfulness and surprising reactions, but several of them only directly interact with one or two of the other main characters. Coupled with the shifts in POV, it made for a relatively uneven narrative and lessened the impact of many of the greatest events.

Despite the issues, the book is a success because of the passion behind the prose. Simple moments are turned into religious experiences in the blink of an eye, like Barry’s concerned empty fuel tank turning into a blessed sailing trip that presented him with an abundant river of flying Coho, a fish thought to be endangered.

Even with the waterfall of sound, he felt peace and a great fullness in his chest. There was music in the wind. A song that played in the sails and jib sheets and whatever it was that pulled him upstream. The din of traffic from the highway blended with the crashing of the water, but there was music in that, too. What he could only think of as a violent peace had taken hold of him, as if peace were not silent at all but rather a wild, roaring blessedness.

Even Jack, the ancient aggressor of the Marina, has some poetry to offer with his wisdom in the rare moments he isn’t paroxysmal:

Sometimes a line is all that stands between you and the chaos that the wind and the river can bring. It doesn’t matter how big or fancy your boat is. If you don’t have lines, you’re fucked. You’ve got no way of tying yourself off to anything, and life on the water just isn’t possible unless you’re hanging on to something else, whether it’s a dock or an anchor or your own damn balls. Without the line, you’re just drifting.

Brian K. Friesen’s At the Waterline is pervaded with rot, knots, and rust. It shimmers with history and knowledge from experience and shared tales. It’s about the people at the waterline, how they treat each other, and how they treat themselves. It shows us how the marina life both bolsters and degrades you. Above all, it’s a story of running away, living in stagnation somewhere in between life and death, and finding a way to leave it safely behind you in the wake of foam.


The Mouth of the Poem

by Gerry LaFemina

Often, we’ll talk about the ear of a poem—its aurality, how the poem sounds. We talk about alliteration and rhyme and the elusive “flow” of the poem and figure out that poems are about how they sound in our ear as listeners. And why not? We go to poetry readings, sit in the audience, pay rapt attention to the sounds of each poem. Even books about poetry writing (and poetry reading, for that matter) talk about the sounds of poetry. Poems make sounds. We hear them.

But that’s not solely the case. Poems make sounds because we as writers make them. More and more I think about the orality of the poem: not how the poem effects the ear of the listener, but how it effects the mouth of the speaker. This is alien, I believe, because we often read other people’s poems silently and so our mind’s mouth is doing the work, and our mind’s ear is hearing the sounds. Speaking a poem is dramatically different than reading it silent. We become aware of the complexity of breath, of how our mouths and tongue move in the making of words.

Consider, for instance, the opening stanza of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” by speaking it aloud:

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

The sibilant easy sounds that start us off immediately are followed by a dental T sound forcing our tongue high in the mouth. Furthermore, “too” carries with it an implied pause. Line two moves between plosives, which force our mouths to shut and push breath outward, “Put” and “BlueBlack” and guttural K sounds, in which our mouths are slightly open and again we’re forcing breath out: “Clothes, “blaCK,” and “Cold.” These force us to stop, shift our mouths and breath. That line ends on the dental D sound which forces our teeth shut as we inhale. These dental sounds continue in combination with gutturals in line three forcing our mouths to open and shut, particularly at the end of the line as we must go high in the mouth for the long A sound, followed by a guttural and a dental. It continues like this moving our mouths high and low, making our lips, teeth, tongue, and breathing “labor” in order to reflect the physical labor of the father’s work, and the conflicts in the house.

This is important to the poem as how Hayden shifts his use of sounds as the speaker’s attitude toward his father softens. Say the last stanza aloud and you will hear my point:

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Yes, there are numerous types of sounds here too, but their relationship to each other is not nearly as close together, our mouths don’t have to perform acrobatics in order to say them. As William Packard puts it, “the secret of effective [poetic] closure is more musical than meaningful, and has more to do with the resolution of syntax and diction than it has to do with imparting any pretentious philosophical summary of the way this universe works.”
We see something similar when a poet uses too much alliteration so that certain lines might feel like a tongue twister when we try to say them aloud. Several times in recent workshops students have had trouble speaking lines in their poems due to the “tongue twister effect.” Their response to the obvious question invariably is something akin to this: “I don’t read my poems aloud when I’m writing or revising.”

Looking at another famous poem, we can see that not only is the relationship of consonant and vowel sounds important to the orality of the poem, but the line itself and how we break it is crucial to our ability to speak a poem. Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous “The Pool Players” teaches us a lot about how a line break, enjambed, forces our breath to change.

We real cool. We
Skip school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Consider how the enjambment happens right after a new sentence begins, forcing a hesitancy at the line break immediately after a full stop. We are forced to reconsider our normal breathing in speaking a sentence. Adding to the internal rhyme and the occasional alliteration, we have a chronic reaffirmation of the lives of these “seven at the golden shovel,” lives that are cut short along with the line at the poem’s end on “Die soon.” We’ve conditioned our bodies in the seven previous lines to expect to take another breath with a hesitancy, a breath that never comes.

Line is often all about breath. Again, we’re left considering the orality of the poem—what it takes physically to speak the line as given. We might hear cadence and the variable foot, but just as we hear rhythm in the speech of people in a restaurant or a song, we have to be able to speak/sing the line of the poem. This is best exemplified in “Howl” and how much breath it takes to say just the opening line:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for
an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

Having read Ginsburg’s poem aloud several times, I’m keenly aware of the physical experience of reading it: it’s akin to speaking a marathon, and not only because of its length so much as because of the length of its lines. Although there are pauses in the line that allow us to catch quick gulps of air, the line refuses to let us actually breathe. Remember, a howl, is one long exhalation. By poem’s end we’re “beat.”

All of which to say that reading poems is not a passive act of listening to the voice in our head, it is a physically interactive act. The best poets are considering not just the cadences of their words and phrases, but the biophysical experience of speaking those lines and how those active sounds help make meaning. If we agree with that poetic cliché that “form enacts meaning” then we need to consider the form not only in terms of line and stanza, fixed and free verse, but the form of our mouths as we speak the words, the lines.


Book Review: I DON’T THINK OF YOU (UNTIL I DO) by Tatiana Ryckman

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do)
by Tatiana Ryckman
 Future Tense Books, 2017

Reviewed by Kelly Dasta

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman is a poetic novella about love, heartbreak, and distance. Over a short but powerful 110 pages, Ryckman details a gender ambiguous narrator’s struggles in a long-distance relationship. Striking imagery and metaphors construct the longing the narrator feels when away from their love. They see their partner in every object and conjure an ideal of them to fill the empty place in their heart. Even in the fleeting moments the couple is together, the narrator is unsatisfied because of their struggle to reconcile the idealized version and the real version of their partner. This novella forces the reader to feel the compulsion and allure of a cyclical and often miserable relationship.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the language. It’s a novella, but it almost reads like a poetry collection with a non-linear plot and short blocks of text artfully arranged on each page. In a way, it reminded me of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey; the author strikes strong emotional chords with short blocks of text. To achieve this emotional affect, Ryckman carefully arranges her words to put the reader in the head of the narrator: “Alone in bed, I’d say, I’m dying, over and over again. But nothing happened. My cells rearranged at the same rate.” This line exemplifies the common dilemma of existing despite feeling like reality is crumbling around you. To further connect with the reader, the ambiguity of the characters allows anyone into the story. At one point the narrator speaks of their love: “I hadn’t thought of you as The Other, only as The. As Me.” Without gendered pronouns, this line shows only the reaction one feels when they are deeply connected with someone. Through her language, Ryckman recognizes the complex and deeply human feelings of infatuation.

Along with strong language, I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) delivers a powerful message about what it means to love someone. So many times, long distance or not, people find themselves idealizing others, such as when the narrator is laying in their bed at night: “Your turned head faded when I watched my memory too closely, your lips disappearing from my wrist when I thought I had felt them.” It’s passages such as this that depict the construction of a fantasy to fill the holes around a fleeting memory. Because of their tendency to fantasize, we get the sense that the narrator is never truly happy. Ryckman speaks to the complexity of human relationships, which is more nuanced than a traditional love story where the couple lives happily ever after. With this distance and romanticism, comes an accurate depiction of modern love. The narrator mentions many times “the impossibility of a relationship neither of us were willing to give up anything for,” which speaks on how people put their job before love, but at what cost? The narrator doesn’t even seem connected to their job, rarely mentioning it despite that it keeps them from their partner. It’s in the tangle of idealization and unhappiness, that Ryckman successfully depicts the difficulties of a long-distance relationship.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) is a brief but insightful read, perfect for a rainy Saturday or your morning commute. It’s original, written with its own poetic style, working to draw the reader in through emotions rather than plot. The content is relatable, heartfelt, and oozing with intricacy. Ryckman made me reflect on my own love life and the love lives of others. And that’s what a good story should do: force you to look at the hard truths in life through empathy.


Book Review: ALL THE NEWS I NEED by Joan Frank

All the News I Need
by Joan Frank
UMass Press, 2017

Reviewed by Casey Reiland

The fear of aging is a common concern; our society stresses over it and the media highlights it as a negative process. Finding wrinkles and gray hair is a disastrous discovery, and there is always the worry of becoming too static. This cycle of life is natural, so why is growing older perceived as something to be ashamed of?

Joan Franks’ newest novel, All the News I Need, confronts this question by suggesting that these concerns have become too normalized and prevent people from believing fulfillment can be achieved after a certain age. Through the development of conflicting characters and the raw, poetic language, Frank captures the anxieties of aging and prods the issue from every angle until there is a satisfying acceptance, until readers peacefully come to terms with the ever-tugging of time and moves on.

The book centers on Ollie and Fran, two lonely people in their mid-sixties attempting to maintain a friendship while simultaneously engaging with and finally facing their vulnerability. Fran is an outgoing, indiscreet widow, while Ollie is a reserved and self-conscious gay man who has recently lost a lover. The clash of Fran’s and Ollie’s personalities is comical and endearing. The two of them create a list called, “The Rules of Aging,” a set of promises to ensure they will not act bitter towards the youth or allow themselves to grow careless with their looks, Ollie revealing his nervousness about having “strange body odor” and the two of them banning the phrase, You kids get off my lawn! from ever leaving their lips. Their banter is witty and blunt, keeping the reader grounded by the candid voices of the characters.

The language of this novel also forces the reader to be as rooted in the story as the characters themselves. The sentences are short and crisp, yet they are packed with images that heighten the reader’s senses. While Ollie and Fran hike through the mountains near their homes in San Francisco, the narrator illustrates the scene around them, describing, “Afternoon air like cream up here, sky a secret, shy blue as if surprised to find itself naked so soon.” The portrait feels almost like a flowery stanza: gorgeous and concise. Yet, the diction juxtaposes the concealed turmoil of the characters that they fail to vocalize. Frank depicts Ollie and Fran’s interactions to be relaxed and smooth, but there is also a restraint in their conversations, their true desires and terrors only appearing they are alone with their thoughts. The tension builds as each chapter switches between the two different voices of the characters, the shifts unsettling and highlighting anxiousness.

When Fran suggests that they travel to France together as a way to escape their mundane lives and to hopefully boost Ollie’s confidence, the easily identifiable trope of self-discovery begins to raise its head. Yet, Frank veers away from this easy trope by challenging the characters to push up against their flaws and scrutinize their insecurities. Fran admits that she feels isolated and struggles to connect with people, and Ollie can only see his fragility mirrored in the bleakness of the cities they visit. This cumulation of frustrating moments leads to a fight in the middle of a street where Frank is unapologetic with her characters, her words undressing their doubts about sex, self-acceptance, and mortality until they are naked and quivering in front of one another. Even when Ollie and Fran return home there is no promise that they will change, Frank exemplifying the universal struggles that humans face when it comes to admitting mistakes and weaknesses.

The rocks that Frank throws at her characters are large and brutal, but they force Ollie and Fran to reexamine their previous scars and repair themselves. This novel does not coddle its characters. It does not suggest that chasing an Eat Pray Love moment during hardships will bring gratification or happiness, rather, it emphasizes that the only way people can change is if they look internally and analyze their shame and fears. Age does not define our perseverance or stubbornness, it is our thirst for a fulfilling life that does. All the News I Need invites readers and characters alike to not mourn the loss of youth, but to find that sense of joy and juvenescence in others around them, encouraging people to modify their lives for the better and to thrive in their existence no matter the bleakness of circumstances.


Slant Rhyming Images

by Gerry LaFemina

Mark Doty’s “Broadway” begins with this opening: “Under Grand Central’s tattered vault / —maybe half a dozen electric stars still lit— / one saxophone blew….” It’s an opening that places us, and highlights the constellations on the ceiling of Grand Central’s main terminal. A page later into the poem we are told “The rooftops were glowing above us, / enormous, crystalline, a second city// lit from within.” At poem’s end a subway poet gets the final word, saying: “Our ancestors are replenishing / the jewel of love for us.” These images are not the same, the poem does not return to where it started, the way, often many poems try to close with an image that directly references the opening image. Yet, the images are connected, and we get the satisfactory closure here of feeling like it has come full circle, even as we’ve come so far.

In his groundbreaking essay “Rhyming Action,” Charles Baxter highlights “the unsatisfactory nature of thinking about fictional form as a circle becomes apparent after a second or two.” I might argue this is true of poetic form, too. Yes, the art form is filled with fixed forms that require a repeated line to close the poem, and, yes, there are times when a return to an earlier image is exactly what is needed. But such closures, too, become formulaic, don’t inspire surprise in the reader, and so rather than feeling like it closes the poem out, a repeated line could be like a rerun airing when you’re expecting the next episode of a dramatic TV show. Unsatisfying. Been there. Seen that.

“The immediate return of a story to its beginning would be like a rhyme that insists too quickly and bluntly on itself… [it] would turn every journey into a trip around the block,” Baxter insists. Repetition, one of poetry’s key tools can liberate us or imprison us. Free verse’s capacity to be unconstrained by rules, often leads poets to not know how to close poems, and so that return to the earlier image can be very tempting. You know I started with the ascendant moon, perhaps I can end with it, large and orange on the horizon, waxing

Or maybe not. Baxter suggests fiction writers think of rhyming action, and by that he means something that hints at a previous event in the story. A rhyming image, therefore, wouldn’t be the same image, but perhaps one that we can find an associative connection. Note in the Doty excerpt how the first line’s “half a dozen stars still lit,” imply ones that aren’t lit, ones that are broken, burnt out. The second excerpt notes the city lights as “crystalline” and again, notes that the lights are above us, making a connection from stars to crystals, which then lead us to “the jewels of love” at the end. “Jewels of love” that need “replenishing.” In other words, they’re burn out, too. These images rhyme without any sense that anything has been repeated; perhaps, it’s more accurate to say they slant-rhyme. We may not even notice such a gesture at first read, what we experience, instead, is unconscious satisfaction–something feels right without, at first glance, being able to explain what. Baxter suggests such a feeling is akin to déjà vu.

The fact is that using an image that rhymes is a way to create a kind of closure—or just connect various moments in a poem—without going around the block and returning home.

Such techniques, though, are never quite that easy. “Using echo effects and rhyming action can feel contrived or corny,” Baxter warns. It’s the problem with the five-paragraph form that we teach kids to write, the one in which the introduction says what they’re going to do, the three body paragraphs support what they say they’re going to do, and the conclusion tells us what they did. I don’t need the conclusion to tell me what they’ve done; it’s only been a few paragraphs. Ditto, the rhyming action needs to be both completely organic and completely surprising, and enough time needs to have elapsed in the poem that we’re surprised by the return, perhaps so much so, we don’t recognize it at first as a return at all. Again Baxter: “The image or action or sound has to be forgotten before it can be effectively used again. Rhymes are often most telling when they are barely heard, when they are registered but not exactly noticed.”

Perhaps this is what’s so compelling about slant rhymes, and why I like the Doty example so much: these rhyming images are loosely connected: clearly there, but also not calling attention to themselves. In part because they come out of where the poem takes us (from saxophone player in the subways, to (is she homeless?) woman uptown, to the subway car poet—in their asking passersby for change in their way, even they are rhyming images), these rhyming images feel organic to the poem’s choices, to the poet’s vision rather than a contrivance.

Technique that calls attention to itself, that highlights its artifice instead of its artistry wears such moments as contrivance. When rhyme is forced, whether phonically or imagistically, the poem’s closing gesture will fail. Ditto when rhymes are easy, unsurprising, ordinary. The power of the slant rhymed image is its ability to both surprise and feel completely expected and right.



A Moral Tale, and Other Moral Tales
by Josh Emmons
Dzanc Books, 2017

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

Josh Emmons’s first collection of short stories follows a man, a woman, an artist, a tiger, an egg, and more through a menagerie of tales consisting of both brand new concepts and classic fables rethought with refreshing imagination. A Moral Tale, and Other Moral Tales is aptly titled, as it exposes the reader to stories and vignettes that never slacken the reins, slinging eloquent and witty prose from beginning to end, all the while serving the world a measured dish of surprising lessons.

What makes Emmons’s book so successful is how diverse and balanced it is. Nothing about his writing style feels stale. Many writers fall into character and vocabulary patterns, but A Moral Tale consistently feels raw and unexpected with each new story. Every detail he employs is natural and necessary, constructing innovative plot architecture with firm support. Even Emmons’s very short stories are no less impactful than any other entry. “Jane Says,” a mere three pages-long, has a thirteen-year-old male prostitute hired by a different breed of deviants who pay him to do things like study math while the client does her taxes. Brevity does not steal poignancy from Emmons.

While reading the book I was also thrilled by the new bits of mythology and biblical allusions I was introduced to. The most informative or philosophical pieces for me were “Nu,” “Arising,” and “Humphrey Dempsey.” In “Nu,” I learned about Egyptian mythology, specifically Nu, which are “the primordial waters from which all matter originally came.” “Arising” takes us back to the time of the biblical deluge, but does it from the point of view of a tiger who is distracted from looking for his family and finding the ark by the same snake who tempted Eve. It’s one of the most overt moral tales, but it overflows with originality, especially for a story that’s been told a million times. “Humphrey Dempsey” is another case where Emmons takes a new spin on an old, familiar rhyme. He reimagines the story of “Humpty Dumpty” with an older hand, making the popular children’s song into an allegorical story of politics and deception. The moment after the reader realizes how clever Emmons is with these three stories in particular is the moment Emmons feels like a teacher to look up to and wait with hands under seat for the next word he has to offer.

The most classically dramatic selection was “Concord,” which read with a sensation akin to that of watching a romantic drama film. As a stickler for sticking to one point of view, this story drove at me with its three rotating main characters, but eventually showed me how beautifully it can be implemented if executed with skill. Emmons alternates fluidly in a way that brings each character’s path to a meeting point for a kismetic, hopeful effect. And his ardent conclusion is unforgettable:

And some of us were meant to find that one person, that fabled corollary who’d make the inadequacy we feel vanish due to the profusion that would be us, but there was to be no guarantee that the timing would be right or the foreknowledge reciprocated or the luck ours to do anything about it.

Josh Emmons is talented and versatile. Every turn of A Moral Tale’s 152 pages is uncomfortable and surprising in the best, most moving, even inspiring ways, which is why I say with confidence that it easily makes it into my top five books of the year. This isn’t a read that must be “taken on,” but rather a slick collection of episodes to carry with you, to keep on your person and meditate on its immortal messages.



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

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reviewed by Kelly Dasta

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

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

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

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


Pacing a Poem

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lit from within.

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

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

Book Review: KUBRICK RED by Simon Roy

Kubrick Red
by Simon Roy
trns. Jacob Homel
Anvil Press

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leaps of Faith

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so finally after dark…
No, too narrative.

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

now that I’ve waited till after dark…

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

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

Reviewed by Bryce Johle 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: HEADING HOME: FIELD NOTES by Peter Anderson

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

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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


On Ekphrastics

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


photo by Leila Myftija; poem by Gerry LaFemina


Book Review: AN ACCIDENT OF STARS by Foz Meadows

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

Reviewed by Maeve Murray 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For Future Reference: Notes on a Writer’s Desk

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: BRAWL & JAG by April Bernard

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

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: A BLISTER OF STARS by Jason Irwin

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

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: THE CANOPY by Patricia Clark

clarkcanopy The Canopy
by Patricia Clark
Terrapin Books, 2017

Reviewed by Marie Orttenburger 

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

The poems quietly knocked the wind out of me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Eternal Return of the Same

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: RUST BELT BOY by Paul Hertneky

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

Reviewed by Kelly Kepner

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

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

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

Of the collapse of the steel industry, he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Reviewed by Shelby Vane

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

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

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

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

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