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
$12.00

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
$19.95

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.


 

Book Review: A MORAL TALE, AND OTHER MORAL TALES by Josh Emmons

A Moral Tale, and Other Moral Tales
by Josh Emmons
Dzanc Books, 2017
$16.95

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.


 

Book Review: THE DOG LOOKS HAPPY UPSIDE DOWN by Meg

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

Reviewed by Bryce Johle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Reviewed by Kelly Dasta

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

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

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

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


 

Pacing a Poem

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lit from within.

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

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


Book Review: KUBRICK RED by Simon Roy

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

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Leaps of Faith

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so finally after dark…
     
No, too narrative.

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

now that I’ve waited till after dark…
     Clumsy

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

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

Reviewed by Bryce Johle 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: HEADING HOME: FIELD NOTES by Peter Anderson

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

Reviewed by Isabel McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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


 

On Ekphrastics

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

photo by Leila Myftija; poem by Gerry LaFemina


 

Book Review: AN ACCIDENT OF STARS by Foz Meadows

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

Reviewed by Maeve Murray 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

For Future Reference: Notes on a Writer’s Desk

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: BRAWL & JAG by April Bernard

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

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: A BLISTER OF STARS by Jason Irwin

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

Reviewed by Shelby Newsom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: THE CANOPY by Patricia Clark

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

Reviewed by Marie Orttenburger 

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

The poems quietly knocked the wind out of me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

The Eternal Return of the Same

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: RUST BELT BOY by Paul Hertneky

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

Reviewed by Kelly Kepner

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

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

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

Of the collapse of the steel industry, he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Reviewed by Shelby Vane

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: A CONTRIVED WORLD by Jung Young-Moon

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

Reviewed by Heather McAdams

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Ten New Year’s Resolutions for American Poetry, 2017

by Gerry LaFemina

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

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

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


 

Confessions of a Could-be Confessional Poet

by Gerry LaFemina

A recent collection of essays, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, raises some issues about confessionalism, autobiography, and the role of the lyric I. Confessionalism, that moniker lodged against Lowell by M.L. Rosenthal that was then owned by an entire school of poetry, has of course led to numerous classroom discussions in which students declared that anything they wrote in lines that expressed their feelings was poetry: I’m just confessing how I feel. The more melodramatic, the better.

Of course, that’s where many of us start, and I want to say that most of my poetry still “expresses my feelings,” insofar as my obsessions–emotional, spiritual, psychological—are my obsessions. These are my truths, and they are the cornerstone for the lyric I of my poems. I am less bound to the notion of fact: adherence to details for the sake of documenting what happened is the place for journals or diaries. The poem is about the reader as much as the writer, it’s an exchange in the marketplace of the line, in which the poem has to have relevance for both. The sordid details that we’ve played over and over again in our heads may offer a cheap thrill (though in this age of Facebook posts and selfies, of Instagram photos and Yelp reviews, I think not). The fact is, we’re already bombarded with the tabloid details of people’s lives on a regular basis: what does poetry offer as a place of confession? As a place for autobiography?

In my college yearbook, I have a quote from Simic: “I can imagine many lives in which I could be perfectly happy or perfectly miserable.” It was my understanding of being an artist, something akin to what Kinnell says in “Poetry, Personality, and Death”: “We move toward a poetry in which the poet seeks an inner liberation by going so deeply within himself… that he suddenly finds he is everyone.” What must we be liberated from if not the ego that begs for the facts of our lives to be told beyond the small cadre of confidants we would normally share those facts with.

Fact is, I’m less concerned with my life stories. I’ve told them. They hold no secret for me to get something more. When I tell a story about my son’s birth or my father, and someone says to me (as happens regularly), “You should write a poem about that,” my reaction is always the same: “No!”  A good anecdote does not necessarily make a good poem, in part because so many poets tend to write the poem as if the anecdote were more important than the poetry.

My mother tells a story about giving a group of cousins one of my books because in the poem “The Barely Visible” my great aunt Sophie appears in factual glory, she who “survived/ two husbands, a daughter/a granddaughter and a great grandson.’ As a matter of fact, another person who appears in the poem, a boy I knew in grammar school, appears in hyperbolized detail. And the historical figure Amos Stiles, a shipwreck survivor whom I read about in the shipwreck museum on Lake Superior also appears in the poem. Though they appear, the poem is about none of them, but rather about an obsession of mine then: how our species survives adversity and tragedy.

More to the point, though, a couple of these cousins called my mother asking about the “facts” of some of the book’s other poems. And my mother told them what she’d come to understand: the poem’s facts are the facts of some alternate reality, one that looks a lot like ours but isn’t ours.

Actually, my saying that’s what my mother said is me making up another detail to support the truth of this essay, my current obsession, while simultaneously being disinterested in the facts. Rather, my mother said something like “Gerry isn’t writing an autobiography.”

That’s not to say there aren’t autobiographical details in my poems, there are, but more often than not they are diving boards from which I leap into an imagined life. As I said some twenty years ago when interviewed by a student newspaper, “The guy speaking in my poems is everything I hope I am and everything I’m glad I’m not. We’ve shared a lot of the same experiences, but the ‘I’ of my poems isn’t me exactly.” I’m imagining those lives that Simic mentioned. My goal is not to tell my stories, but to enter an experience of discovery, one that I hope generates a feeling (and, I hope, empathy) when the poem is read.

In my poem “After Reading Rexroth I Step Outside,” the speaker recounts finding the bones of a dead child while morel mushroom hunting. The poem’s title is counterfactual: I had not been reading Rexroth, nor have I ever found the bones of any creature. The point of autobiography that I led to the poem was seeing mushrooms in the grass at work:

Low moon tonight & nearly full.
See how it illuminates the alien bodies of mushrooms
colonizing the weedy lawn.  They’re a surprise after six weeks
of near drought, delivered, no doubt,
                                                                      by the drizzle that followed—

their fibrous necks lifting up their heads so they seem to look
in wonder.

Everything else is imagined not to trick the reader about my life experience, but rather to engage the reader in the same experience of discovery I had in writing the poem. In this way I’m expressing what Adrienne Rich called “our desire [for] a poetry in which the ‘I’ has become all of us, not simply a specific suffering personality, and not an abstraction which is also an evasion of the poet’s own specificities.” That said, once, after a reading, a woman came up to me and asked, “What happened with the dead child?” I said I didn’t know because the poem ended: I wasn’t interested in a moment beyond the lyric experience explored in the poem. She was very upset and felt that she had been manipulated.

My argument—both with her and in this essay—is that I’m an imaginative writer. If I wanted to write my autobiographical experience, I’d be writing memoir (and we know there have been numerous debates about the license some memoirists take with fact). I write poems because their lyric intensity and compression, their language and structure, allow for a more powerful affect. I write poems because my favorite poems had such an effect on me: reading them led me to imagining those lives detailed in them.

Even in my love poems (and I’ve written a number of love poems), the poem is an attempt to metaphorize and understand the feeling. Love, at its best, is one of the most transcendental of feelings: we become part of the other. As Kinnell notes, “As with poetry, so with love: it is necessary to go through the personality to reach beyond it.” The details about the relationship, about the beloved, are secondary to the poem’s attempt to capture the insights and feelings of being “in love.”

Of course, this is my way of thinking about the poem. This is not meant as a complaint against those whose lyric selves are closer to their personal biographies. Many of my favorite writers write a much more autobiographical poem. It’s a large table, and we all can sit at it. And whether we metaphorize our lives or explore them in their autobiographical details, the importance of mediating those experiences via poetry—those aspects of craft that the art form offers–is key. In its discussion of confessionalism, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes that it “should be considered not as a prescriptive formula held by one group but as a general permission felt by most poets…to treat personal experience in its most intimate and painful aspects,” and dare I say its most pleasurable and joyous aspects, too. Although I’m sure the quote is using “treat” for its third American Heritage definition, “to deal with in writing or speech,” I prefer to think it actually is using the sixth definition, “To subject to a process, action, or change, especially to a chemical or physical process or application.” Writing a poem about experience ought to change the event(s) in question; it must find its truths if it is going to not just entertain our readers, but engross them, make them participants in the poem itself—in its language and breath and imagining; the discoveries in it become part of their experiences.


 

Excerpts from PARIS SCRATCH by bart plantenga

Paris Scratch: The Children Snapshots

[Les enfants instantanés]

 

excerpts from Paris Scratch by bart plantenga
(Sensitive Skin, June 2016)

Walking, like writing, leads from an oft-known destination to an unknown one. From the familiar to the unfamiliar. While living in Paris I fell from natural fascination into rote routine & so I decided to attain a more wide-eyed approach during my walks both utilitarian [buying food] & those categorized as aimless or dreamy. I consciously pushed my awareness of the hidden/forgotten details of everyday life. At a rate of about one per day.

  1. Nez de la Gare [Train Station’s Nose]

The kid faces the men at the bar, wearing a mask with a big nose. Suddenly everyone is still as a photo in a frame. Even the cigarette smoke hangs there like a scratch etched into a carafe of thick air. The boy thinks it is his mask. While each of the bar’s patrons think s/he is the only 1 who has ever felt that odd rumble in the gut when the trains pull out of Gare de Lyon. & then the fat-fingered man reaches out past his drink into an area where he has not been for some time & grabs the big nose. Just like that. Just for the hell of it.

  1. La Boit Subliminal [The Subliminal Box]

The box at the curb simply said:

ROBOT

JEANNETTE

MOULINEX

& the kids de la Côte d’Ivoire take this box of secret messages & launch it into the gurgling water rolling down along the curb of rue André Antoine & as the sewer ate the box 1 hears the gleeful cries of triumph. They dance around the signpost on slender legs that seem to grow by several centimeters over night. It was 11 PM on a warm night.

  1. Une Chatte Enscenté [The Scented & Enchanted Crotch]

The morning is host to school children running with bright packs on their gleeful backs. The petite écoliére in pink slicker runs up the deserted early cobblestone street by the gutted television with her blue rucksack bouncing on her back, late for school. As if there is no end to the running. As if more pleasure is always just around the next corner where, looking somewhere else, she runs into the hooker who laughs, as the little schoolgirl’s nose nuzzles right into her perfumed chatte d’amoure. & she caresses the girl’s head. Runs her hand through her hair with a forlorn & tender wisp.

  1. À suivre de la Seine Urine [Following the Seine of Urine]

The petite fille squatted in the corner of where the pharmacy meets the cabaret along the northern edge of the 9th. She pees with her panties down at her ankles & watches with utter satisfaction as it runs down the sidewalk. She points proudly down at her etching as if the sidewalk is France & her urine is the Seine cutting through it. She begs maman to “Voir maman! Voir!” As if volition, art & cause & effect had suddenly become so clear for her. But maman is late for something, somewhere else & she’d seen it all before & takes forceful hold of her daughter’s wrist as if to emphasize that dreaming & movement were indeed inversely related.

  1. Le Sourire Synchronizé [Synchronized Smile]

The 4-year-old girl sits absorbed in the luxurious radiance of her own smile, suspended in the thick air on the #1 Line. These are the moments that the tick of writing or other arachnids & disease vectors try without fruit to burrow into. & as she chews her Brooklyn gum, I chew mine & with each chew we fall more & more in synch. & this secret knowledge of our giddy reconnaissance makes her smile which makes me smile into the rest of the day.

  1. Kids Sont Toujours Kids [Kids Will Be Kids]

The kids are too young to be smoking but are smoking nonetheless & precisely because of that very fact. Near their school along the Qaui des Celestins, they affect the stance & expressions & drag & puff styles of cinematic heroes like Vincent Cassel or Jean Louis Trintignant or Kevin Bacon or Richard Widmark. Periodically they give the finger to the woman (peut être the mother of 1 of their schoolmates) in a blue suit with white piping, directing traffic. & they run & run away until they’re out of breath & there is nowhere else to run & they are falling all over themselves with laughter & triumphant smiles dripping off their faces. A rolled-up Asterix comic book falls out of the back pocket of 1 of the écoliers.

  1. Vélo, How Are You? [Bicycle, How Are You?]

The boy skidded to a halt on the shiny vélo, a bike still too big for him. He likes the noise & the dust he leaves behind in the Parc Monceau. He looks at me & smiles a smile I haven’t been able to wear for at least 20 years. What wears the smile out the most? His voice suddenly transforms into the roar of a motorcycle & he is off again, just within view of his maman, sitting on a bench, acting like she is not keeping an eye on him—close but not too close—& that is the orbital relationship he craves. When I get home that evening I try his smile on for size in our salle de bain mirror.

  1. Nausée de Rire [Nausea of Laughter]

The petit garçon takes aim from behind the door barely cracked open in the fire station. His green water pistol emerges from the crack &—squeeze, squeeze—gleeful laughter as he dashes off, gazing over his shoulder to make sure the pompiers are giving chase & indeed they are until they find him doubled up, totally immobilized by his own laughter out back. He can’t move another inch & the threat of the firemen tickling him makes him even more nauseous de rire.

  1. Poubelle et la Puberté [Garbage & Puberty]

Les petites filles in their full after-school gaieté, their weird beaded braids & open jackets are dancing a jig or more like a French gigue, which requires some ballet, which it seemed the group of girls all wanted to some degree affect. & suddenly, just for a second, because fortuity sometimes allows a peek into a hidden part of truth, you could see exactly what these girls were going to look like in 20 years. Meanwhile, the old woman in white go-go boots & orange plush housecoat rakes leaves under the bare elm. It is early in the morning & the girls help the woman pick up the leaves & stuff them into a public poubelle near Buttes Chaumont before they run off in a direction the old woman remembers well.

  1. La Perceuse Mystificateur Too Early [The Too-Early Mystifying Drill]

The 5 jeunes étudiants in their school outfits of some color & little leather shoes were standing very still, holding hands, fixated, mystified by the huge drill that is pecking into the pavement of rue St. André des Arts at a time many will consider much too early. Then 1 let go, breaking the circuit, breaking the spell & holds his hands cupped over his ears. He wants to go. School is just around the corner.

  1. The Voice Sans Souci [The Unsuspecting Voice]

Le petit garçon is in the Luxembourg Gardens, behind a hedge where his maman cannot really keep an eye on him & so how long will this idyll last? He is poking around the leaves & dirt with a stick & singing, humming, la-la-ing a tune. It is a happy song with a lilt he cannot quite reach. It is a tune no 1 has ever sung before & so it is his. He really did not seem to have many cares yet. & then I hear his maman raising her voice: “Mon Petit! Mon petit! Où es-tu?!” But there are plenty of us impatient to introduce these cares to him. Although I now know where he got his nice voice from.

  1. Flipper King de Perdre du Temps [Flipper King Of Wasting Time]

The écolier was playing flipper (pinball) in the café with the floor already littered with sugar cube wrappers because he is way too early for school & he is enjoying it, winning free balls, wasting the time of the world like a little king. Until the proprietor, not his father, calls out “Jean,” & nods toward the clock to let Jean know that his time as the king of wasting time is running out.

__________

bart plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic (Autonomedia, 2017), the short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & the novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man. His books Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World & Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is one of the world’s foremost yodel experts. He’s currently working on the Amsterdam-Brooklyn novel Radio Activity Kills with his daughter, Paloma. He is also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & now Amsterdam since 1986. He has written about working with refugees in Amsterdam for Truthdig & Vox Populi: The Refugee Center & Guarded Hope. He lives in Amsterdam.

  • Read the review of Paris Scratch in Coal Hill Review
  • Listen to the Paris Scratch soundtrack as you read
  • Also Read: The 2nd part of the diptych: NY Sin Phoney In Face Flat Minor, Sensitive Skin, November 2016.

Book Review: THE SILVER GHOST by Chuck Kinder

410xMiGufnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ The Silver Ghost
by Chuck Kinder
Braddock Avenue Books, 2016
$16.95

Reviewed by Tori Bovalino

It is the late 1950s and America is a lush, electric, song-filled garden for teenage truelove, and Jimbo and Judy fully expect that their own truelove will grow and grow until the end of time, until the twelfth of never.

Jimbo Stark lives in a place somewhere between reality and fiction, where the events of his life trickle into movie scenes in his head. The reprint of Chuck Kinder’s forgotten novel, The Silver Ghost, marries the nostalgia of Hollywood golden era movies with the bittersweet experience of growing up. Kinder’s coming-of-age novel showcases his easy style of writing and evolving voice as he follows Jimbo on the most important adventures of his young life.

The Silver Ghost begins with Jimbo’s exile to his grandmother’s house in the middle of nowhere. This sentence is inflicted by his father after he sells his father’s prized collection of war figurines to buy a ring for his girlfriend. Jimbo loses both his family and girlfriend in one fell swoop after his girlfriend, the fickle Judy, decides she would rather be going out with somebody else. He struggles with his feelings for Judy throughout the story, but is never really able to overcome his love for her – even after Judy decides to marry another man.

Jimbo’s troubles don’t end with his personal relationships. While running away from home and Judy, he tangles himself with a criminal who goes by the name Jake Barnes. Kinder captures the dark, charming character of Barnes and models him into a cool-guy role model that Jimbo looks up to by framing Barnes as a movie star himself— Barnes is the Humphrey Bogart to Jimbo’s James Dean.

The scenes in this novel are like fish underwater. They are shimmery and blurred but every few moments, one surfaces and sparkles in the sun, fully exposed. For instance, Kinder fleshes out the character of Jake Barnes by first alluding to his exciting life, then giving specific details about his adventures:

Jake Barnes had been about everyone and done about everything all right. As they drove south that night and the following day, taking turns behind the wheel, Jake told one story after another about his wild youth. When they passed a chain gang chopping brush beside the road in the early morning, Jake told about the six months he had once spent on just such a chain gang before finally escaping…

Kinder’s style frames his mysterious, foggy characters in the terms of Hollywood actors and actresses of the period. Jimbo’s internal struggles are described in vignettes of James Dean smoking cigarettes and tangling with boys from school, then disappearing into the dust in his silver Porsche. The narration blurs reality with the perfection of misunderstood youth that could only be conveyed by the silver screen. Jimbo Stark is not just a troubled teenager – he is “old Captain Rebel Without a Cause On the Road, steely eyed, grinning tightly, his soul whopeeing.”

Kinder’s protagonist captures the weighty confusion of growing up mixed with a movie-styled implosion. Jimbo is not intended for some sort of wholesome redemption or solution to his familial troubles. In fact, his only chance for happiness means running away from everything that he has ever known, or else he faces a depressing future of unsatisfying late-night drinks at the bar by himself. Like James Dean, Jimbo ends the narrative in the car, “as he pushes the pedal relentlessly down, as he tries with all of his heart to hit 110, escape velocity: as he tries with all of his heart to become perfectly himself: as he tries with all of his heart to blast off that great starfield in the sky.”


 

Book Review: ICONOSCOPE by Peter Oresick

9780822963806 Iconoscope: New and Selected Poems 
by Peter Oresick
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016
$16.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli 

It’s rare to find a poet with such a laser focus on creating a lifelong legacy. From Definitions in 1990 to Warhol-o-rama (2008) and anthologies like For a Living (1995), Oresick devoted his life’s work to making, fostering, inspiring, and highlighting art for, by, and about the working class. To read the sequence of his latest collection is to appreciate and be captivated by a project more than 25 years in the making: the democratization of poetry and a true, beautiful expression of the working class experience in America.

No other poem in the collection so perfectly captures Oresick’s essence as “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair,” from Definitions. Covering a sweeping chunk of history from the 1300s to the late 20th century, the poem betrays the immense depth of research and intent Oresick brought to his craft. With pitch-perfect imagery, he transports us into a childhood of “the Kwik-Mart on the corner… mother’s footsteps, / the tonk of bottles, / the scraping of plates,” where grandfathers and machinery sputter simultaneously. As its narrative threads come together, the poem’s core rises, gleaming, into sight. For the children of immigrants and tradesmen, the inborn need to build something of meaning—something that will outlast us—is inescapable.

Oresick, of course, built worlds with words. And, from his explorations of a blue-collar upbringing to meditations on his “Rusyn brother” Andy Warhol, there has always been a commitment to keeping things intelligible. His poems glitter like ornate glass drinking bottles—beautiful, yes, but equally aware of their utility. Difficult emotions must be expressed simply; images must be reliably understandable to readers of all backgrounds. These poems defy the canonical tendency toward opaqueness and ethereality. Take, for instance, these lines from “Morning, Allegheny River.”

Silence. No moon in the heavens.
Stars that spin and pivot, nuanced,

never resting. Again a longing—
forget it. Suddenly, everything is dimly

visible, not yet flushed by dawn.
The bushes dewy, the cinders slick,

the train rails glow light & cold
& bluish. I piss & spit. A breeze

flutters; my body responds with a
shudder of delight. The dog smiles.

Twice the poem seems to catch itself becoming too lofty. That longing is inexpressible? Forget it. We’re lingering on the color of train rails? Enter piss. But the eye still catches the beauty we can all recognize in a quiet morning; our bodies all respond with a shudder of delight.

This seems to be Oresick’s great message, and I am grateful for it: that we all live a life that is capable of rising to the status of art. My father has been a delivery man all his life, my mother a secretary and a bartender and a government employee. The people in Oresick’s poems are my people, too, and their lives do have beauty and meaning and lessons to teach. Which is not to say they’re idyllic—there’s still piss and spit and layoffs and drinking. But isn’t that the point? We take it all together and wake up in the morning to do it again, forever, as our parents did and our children will as well. And hopefully, when we’re gone, we’ve left something to remember us by. Or, as Oresick says, in lines that ring true of his own legacy—

No endings. The pure
notes of a car horn ascending.


Specs of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

One might think the title is a typo, that I meant “Specks of Dust.”  Speck, from the Middle English “specke” and deeper still to Old English, “specca,” meaning “a small spot, mark, or discolorization” (American Heritage Dictionary).  But it’s no typo. In this case I’m referencing the Latinate “specere”—to look at, to see. As poets, our job is to see but also to present in such a way so that others can see.

I’ve put my spectacles on for this. I’m near sighted with an astigmatism, so they help me see. Seeing (along with the other four senses) is one of the most powerful tools for a writer; furthermore, the poem itself functions as a presentation of those images—literally they help readers imagine. In this way the poem itself functions as a kind of pair of spectacles to help the reader see what the writer saw—literally or in the imagination. What we see then, what we ask others to see with us, must be vibrant and vital, must be endowed with life.  We are asked then to pay attention.  As writers watching, it’s not what’s familiar that catches our eye, but what’s unfamiliar. As the City of New York used to say in its ads after 9/11: “if you see something, say something.”

In that regard then, the poet is spectator, a kind of witness. The spectators at a baseball game spend a lot of time watching nothing happen waiting for a homerun or a dramatic diving catch or a play at the plate. Ditto, the spectator of the world watches the mundane waiting for the world to deliver something worth reporting on. If we’re distracted, we might not notice something, might find ourselves not bringing it to life in a way that captures the imagination.  More importantly, what we see needs to be something that captures our imagination, it needs to find its language within us so that we can bring it to life for the reader.

In this regard, then, we become speculators in both senses of the word.  First off, in our writing, we are making new thoughts. We are considering the importance of our images, and thus we are speculating, and by that I mean “to engage in a course of reasoning often based on inconclusive evidence; conjecture or theorize.” The best poems think through images, engage the material in creative ways. The best poems provide the reader with this new thinking. In that way, the poem is an act of commerce, an exchange of time and energy for the linguistic experience found in the poem. In this regards, the poet is a speculator in another way, too, “engag[ing] in the buying or selling of a commodity with an element of risk on the chance of profit.” Each image chosen, each word chosen to bring this image to life, is a commodity brought into the poem, and with it comes the possibility of a successful poem. Ditto, the possibility of failure.

All writing in some way is about what’s on our spectrum, in this case meaning the “band of colors produced when the wavelengths making up white light are separated, as when light passes through a prism or strikes drops of water”—in other words, what’s visible to the eye. We train our writer’s eye to see things, but often what we see says more about what our filters, our unconscious thinking, our obsessions, than the world as it actually is. Consider the infrared and ultraviolet frequencies of the seeing self. Ask a group of spectators what they saw in a particular moment, and they’ll give you an equal number of narratives because what they see says as much about their interior world as it does about our shared exterior world.

We are asked, then, to speculate, to wonder. To ask questions not only about what we see, but to also ask why we see it.

For those of who find in our present world the nostalgia for the lost world, the past that is gone and yet remains, for those of us who, as Stanley Kunitz put it “Anyone who has lived to the age of five has enough for a life time of poetry” we are dealing constantly with specters, those “ghostly apparition[s]” of a life we can’t shed. Memories are a kind of thinking. Ditto the imagination. By working with both, we create specters for our readers, the best poems become part of their memories if we get the language right, the music right.

Because the poem reflects its writer’s obsessions for the reader, because if reflects the world seen by the poet and not the world as such, the poem functions, then, as a kind of speculum.

Our language exists on a spectrum; the more we read and write, the more we experiment with the elasticity of the language, the more we go searching for Coleridge’s “best word” the broader our spectrum of possible words get. Ditto our craft skills exist in a spectrum. We grow as poets engaging in what’s possible and needing to expand that field of possibility we broaden the spectrum of our prosody.

Spectacle is the name of the quarterly journal of the circus arts, from the second American Heritage definition: “A public performance or display, especially one on a large or lavish scale.” I like to think of the poem as spectacle, too, though more akin to the first definition: “Something that can be seen or viewed, especially something of a remarkable or impressive nature.” At least, a poem should. Each line crafted from the best words, the images, the musicality of the language.

The poem should be spectacular.


 

Book Review: BRUJA by Wendy C. Ortiz

Bruja Bruja
by Wendy C. Ortiz
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016
$15.95

Reviewed by Melissa Grunow

Wendy C. Ortiz’s Bruja is a collection of dream vignettes that pull us into a moment of life that is often unseen, and even more so, unspoken.

Each dream scene is written in language that is sharp, but not simple, as it shakes us awake to consider the implications of our own dreams. Is there more to life that what we know? What are the possibilities beyond our immediate awareness? Is there potential for hope, even in the darkest moments? When we can stave off the fears of the real world, we can journey to new places within ourselves in the dream world, awakening desire, valiance, and certainty of self.

The word “bruja” means “witch” in Spanish, and this new “dreamoir” is certainly bewitching as it delves into the darkest corners of the mind to investigate what lurks there. People are mostly unnamed and given first initials only to make room for Ortiz’s self to emerge from her unconscious as unaffected archetypes:  the sexualized lover, the caring mother, the old crone, and—of course—the bruja who can shapeshift into all of them.

The book ultimately explores who or what is in control and presents a number of dream sequences in which Ortiz’s character is in a position of subordination to another. She’s trapped in a house with grating hosts. She’s escaping dynamite tossed onto the rooftop of her apartment. She’s wishing, longing, for a different place or people who fill in the spaces in her mind.

“After the car went down the side of a short cliff, I said with extra calm in my voice, Do you want me to drive?” … “On the side of the road in the dust, we switched positions. I became the driver.”

There are other moments like this one in which Ortiz maintains a centered and calm persona while confronted with risk and uncertainty. Repeatedly, she is the hero of her own dreams, rescuing children and animals and jumping into the metaphorical driver’s seat to steer the dream, and ultimately one’s life, toward resolution.

Symbols are ever-present in Ortiz’s dreams, some subtle and others obvious. She writes, “The enormous ‘lucky 13’ tattoo on my left forearm was exquisitely detailed. The black was rich, and there were subtle flames and careful shading that made it jump off my skin. Still, I wasn’t certain I wanted to have that on me for life.”

Like all of us, Ortiz’s dream persona questions and doubts decisions and is full of wonderment at what desire and the self will be in the future. The story reads as though it is on loop: there is no beginning and no ending, only a series of isolated moments of existence that simultaneously trap us and shape us into who we will be in our waking lives.