Book Review: INTERSTATE by Chard deNiord

9780822963899 Interstate
Poems by Chard deNiord
Pitt Poetry Press, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

The word interstate can be defined as involving, existing between, or connecting two or more separate states. Often this links to the physical—a road we travel in our beat-up 87 Volkswagen, windows down, crossing state boarders in summer skin. But in Chard deNiord’s newest poetry collection, Interstate, I find myself at the intersection of the metaphysical, crossing not spaces on a map, but the wanderings and wonderings of the mind: “If I look at the stars and see anything but stars— / pinpricks, diamonds—then so be it. /  I have another eye that sees the rebus in things.”

Yet, to say this collection involves a speaker solely located in the mind would be to neglect one of the main threads carried throughout these poems. The natural world is as present as our hands on the wheel, turning with every poem. Interstate is divided into four sections, with poems titled “In the Grass,” “Confession of a Bird Watcher,” “Under the Sun,” and “Head of the Meadow.” deNiord uses nature as a way for his speaker to access emotion. The reoccurring image of a window, for example, is a symbol of this processing. In “Confession of a Bird Watcher,” the speaker admits how, for years, he has watched birds fly into the window and break their necks, and continues to because, “how else to live among them and keep my view.” While this addresses the literal action of the poem, the speaker then shifts to a metaphorical thought, ending the poem here: “With a heart that rejects its reasons in favor of keeping what it wants: / the sight of you, the sight of you.”

The true emotions, brought to light through the natural world are often feelings of fear, loss, and pain. Multiple poems are dedicated or in conversation with a woman named Ruth, who died in 2011. The fourth section specifically brings these themes to a head. The poems are brief and compact, as if the speaker has lost words, or at least the desire to communicate. One of my favorites in this section is titled “At the River View Café.” Though nature is still at play, the language is more direct. The complexity found in deNiord’s writing is ever-present: both light and dark simultaneously exist, the metaphysical matched with reality:

The wind blew all summer after you died.
A friend asked what I was feeling now
that you were gone. I said, ‘A great emptiness
and fullness at the same time….’
I sat at my table above the river and listened
to the wind flap the umbrellas like a tattered name.

Although the collection addresses heavy, often-painful topics, deNiord doesn’t overstate or override his collection with such. It’s not until the fourth section, really, that we thrust open the window and sit amid the pain. This feels realistic, our minds and words cloaking our ability to process until the pain we’ve imagined has happened. Then, and only then, are we struck with how we must deal in the face of the whole, beautiful world.


Book Review: WHEN THE MEN GO OFF TO WAR by Victoria Kelly

9781612519043 When the Men Go Off to War
Poems by Victoria Kelly
Naval Institute Press, 2015
Hardcover, $27.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

It’s convenient to think wars are distant worlds across the sea. To think of them as containable and separate, only affecting the lives of soldiers and the towns they occupy. It’s convenient to limit the loss. But here, in Victoria Kelly’s poetry collection, When the Men Go off to War, we are witness to the intrusive, residual displacement women experience as their husbands deploy. For brief moments, we learn about the battles that take form inside the bodies of those left at home.

Kelly divides her collection into three sections: “Departure,” “Absence,” and “Homecoming.” This division sets the stage for the speaker’s life; her own time is marked by the location of her husband. Already we can imagine the emotions, and thus the themes, this separation awakens: anxiety, wistfulness, and haziness. Simultaneously Kelly balances her speaker between hyperawareness and distraction. She writes, “How merciful to be unaware, for a night, / that one is condemned to dance forever somewhere / between this world and the next…”

The poems are narrative and straightforward, tight stanzas as precise as a gun. But inside the frames of the poem, the mind wanders. Often, after staring at the sky, we shift to the past and learn about the speaker’s grandmother, who “had a small life too, her needlepoint and the tidy compartments / of her mind that would be closed off in widowhood, / one by one, like the rooms of a half-used manor.” The presence of family and the consciousness of age are rooted at the core of these daydreams. In the poem, “Reverie on Leave,” the speaker finds a carousel and is transported back into the edges of her memory, imagines,

[parents] looking
nothing like you last saw them, when they were rigid…
Your grandmother
leans into a lawn chair, because there is
no hurry, you are never too old
to be young here.

As complicated as marriage is, Kelly illuminates the true weight of companionship. There are few moments in When the Men Go off to War that feel complete; this is not to say the poems are unfinished, but to say the taste of longing is always present. We can’t put our feet up; we cannot settle or rest. The full-body consumption of an absent partner is made apparent in “Homecoming.” The speaker is at her brother’s wedding. In the parking lot, she talks with a guest,

“Where have you been,” he asked sleepily,
leaning against a lamppost. “Married,” I said, and he
laughed. “Girl,” he said, “married isn’t a place…”

It would be false to say there were not moments of lightness here. But Kelly is skillful; even in the happiness we know it can’t last. We know there will always be another war, another stage of departure, absence, and homecoming. So we appreciate what we are given as readers, as the speaker too appreciates when her worlds collide and rest, if only for a moment. This appreciation is represented perfectly in “Birth,” as her husband holds their daughter. The three sentence poem ends “She is only / six weeks old and there are no other / pleasures: everything is ageless here, everything / is here.”


Book Review: THE NERVE OF IT by Lynn Emanuel

51+A-OhCOGL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_ The Nerve of It:
Poems New and Selected
by Lynn Emanuel
University of Pittsburgh Pres, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna 

As a younger poet beginning her career, I’m interested in the process seasoned writers undergo when compiling a new and selected. Can the inclusion of older poems be likened to a band playing that first single, ten years later, at the encore of every show? Are the ghosts of who we were, at least as artists, a burden to bear? Or are the words a reassuring reminder that we’ve changed at all? I may never know my own answers to these questions unless I’m one day lucky enough to have a similar project. But here’s what I do know: Lynn Emanuel embraces these disparate spaces of time. Instead of arranging chronologically, The Nerve of It is based on “linkage” and “collision.” Old poems nestle against the spine of new poems, the new poems sparking fresh context and narrative through the words we’ve read and loved. This re-imagining gives a real pulse to this collection, as Emanuel points out “This is the wonderful thing about art / It can bring back the dead.”

Art as a medium of expression, as well as the work of the poet, is a major thread here. From the first page we are met with a poem titled “Out of Metropolis,” which details a train trip into the heart of America. The first stanza lures us with romantic images of the Midwest:

             We want cottages, farmhouses
with peaked roofs leashed by wood smoke to the clouds;
we want the golden broth of sunlight ladled over
ponds and meadows. We’ve never seen a meadow.

But in the second stanza we experience a shift in tone. Our visions are broken. Suddenly, urbanization pops our country bubble with “a Chevy dozing at a ribbon of curb,” and “the street lights on their long stems.” A second train fades into the distance and “there is a name strolling cross the landscape in the crisply voluminous / script of the opening credits, as though it were a signature on the contract, as though / it were the author of this story.” At this point, I wonder if Emanuel is talking about the train anymore or the scene outside the window. That maybe, instead, this is the journey of the poet; we must imagine beauty where it has long ago fled. Or, as writers, we are often disappointed by the real world in comparison to our own creations. Perhaps Emanuel is suggesting both.

Another poem that stands out in this collection is “Frying Trout While Drunk.” Though an older poem, it still remains a bright light in contemporary poetry. Here we are witness to a mother struggling with alcohol and a speaker who locates herself within this addiction. The images have not wilted over the years; “In his Nash Rambler, its dash / where her knees turned green,” “The trout with a belly white as my wrist,” “Buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.” And probably most famously:

She is a beautiful, unlucky woman
In love with a man of lechery so solid
You could build a table on it
And when you did the blues would come to visit.

In these lines we are reminded of why Emanuel has a new and selected. And tomorrow, when I cringe at what I’ve written today, I’ll think of the trout frying and know, eventually, I’ll find the right words, because,

A new planet bloomed above us; in its light
The stumps of cut pine gleamed like dinner plates.
The world was beginning all over again, fresh and hot;
We could have anything we wanted.


Book Review: BEAUTIFUL ZERO by Jennifer Willoughby

 photo 4042b9ef-b604-49c9-9f58-b60394dff9ae_zpsbacgrk0u.jpg Beautiful Zero
by Jennifer Willoughby
Milkweed Editions, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Today, late January, the sky opened up and let the sun break onto the snow. On top of a mountain in Claysburg, Pennsylvania, I watched as skiers peeled their clothes off; their bare skin blushed against the slopes. This moment matters, and maybe only because I let it, which is something the poet Jennifer Willoughby understands and explores. She writes: “If January is two trains / traveling in opposite directions, I am not / on either train. Maybe if I go away, I’ll / embrace what it means to be here.”

Willoughby’s collection, Beautiful Zero, won the 2015 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions and the award is well deserved. Her poems are compact, independent little worlds, all equally weird and bright. It’s almost impossible to pick the lines apart, for each letter is carefully chosen. These poems are cosmos, bursting inward: “Life is / my new enemy but life / vibrates. Sometimes you / can’t take your hands off it.”

I struggle with language poetry. Frequently I feel that these poems sacrifice meaning for the sake of sound. When I’m lost in Beautiful Zero I’m never truly lost, for Willoughby interrupts her claustrophobic stanzas with lines that echo throughout the collection, like “Just because you know me doesn’t mean I am real” or “In the lemony heat, love brings love to whomever / refuses to fall to her knees,” and then, “There’s / nothing we can’t replace with something else.” Too, Willoughby plays with words in fresh ways, creating verbs as “we pass out cigarettes and horray our / way home” and “boys jellyfish our alley on their way to oblivion.” Because of these linguistic choices, I remain in whatever twisty, self-interrupting moment Willoughby brings me to.

Dark isn’t the correct adjective, but heavy seems appropriate to describe Beautiful Zero’s overall tone. The narrator is simultaneously direct and convoluted, her sentences abrupt yet her thoughts never completely over. I don’t feel comfortable in any of these poems, but sometimes we have to stop being comfortable. This collection reflects the wackiness, the hollowness and dimensions of our world, and perhaps more, of those who exist in it. Often the narrator turns to the trees, who “treat me like fire,” and “The trees don’t know if / this will ever get better.” Even nature gets caught by the strange, which is somehow both isolating and comforting.

The title, Beautiful Zero, reflects this—the idea that nothingness can be beautiful, that the lowest point of our lives or the lowest part of this world can still be worthwhile. The sun can appear in January and we can reveal our summer skins. And we can dream and “Because I dreamed, I was allowed my wounds. / Maybe we found a way to survive.”


Book Review: DON’T GO BACK TO SLEEP by Timothy Liu

 photo 15b7535b-208f-49bd-b253-cfca597443ce_zpsufct1y9b.jpg Don’t Go Back to Sleep
Poems by Timothy Liu
Saturnalia, 2014

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Robert Pinsky, in his essay “Responsibilities of the Poet” says we must answer for what we see. What about what we can’t see? How do we answer for such things? In Don’t Go Back to Sleep we see Timothy Liu grapple with lasting affects of the Nanking Massacre: a mass murder and mass rape by Japanese troops against the capital of the Republic of China, beginning in December, 1937. Since then, most documents detailing the massacre have been destroyed and many claim the events have been exaggerated or fabricated. Yet, Liu’s personal history, his family, and his Chinese heritage are intrinsically linked with this disaster. So we enter pages filled with historical questions, an obsessive and circular wondering of love, and a subtle despair for the death of his mother. Translation: the attempt to understand identity within a forgetful, uncertain world.

The collection opens with a poem that extends the length of the first section, a rough eighteen pages, titled “A Requiem For The Homeless Spirits.” It begins with the speaker looking at an image of a Chinese soldier’s head, and we quickly learn the decapitation is a result of a contest (the first to kill 100 Chinese), for which the winners received their picture on the front page of a newspaper. Liu documents the violence of the massacre, repeating the phrases “This is not how anyone would want to be remembered” and “Photos exist.” While the documentation is important, especially in spite of so many records being destroyed, Liu’s poem reads more like newspaper highlights and a fragmented narrative. As a reader, I’m searching for the language that takes these events beyond the page, that makes them transform from a research paper to an event I can feel sharp under my skin and mourn. Perhaps I’m not given that because, in a sense, the speaker has not been given that. Still, the moments I most connect to are when the speaker breaks into the stanzas and self-reflects on the magnitude of such as massacre:

Few of the survivors remain alive.
Few of the perpetrators remain alive.

Some of their stories have been recorded.
Many of their stories will never get told.

What should any of us do while they are still alive?

After the first section, we are thrust into a series of obsessive love poems, sexually charged, somehow both slow and frantic. Though at times the subject, whether the husband or the beloved or someone else entirely, is not consistently clear, Liu fills these poems with raw, physical images and a gritty vulnerability. I’m often surprised by such tenderness amidst the roughness, with lines like, “There are places in our bodies / no one has ever reached” or “not knowing if / I have a name, not unless / he calls.”

In one of my favorites, “Without You,” Liu experiences the absence of a romance, his own body now foreign and slow for “Without you I’m a tray of coffee mugs / the waitress spills in slow motion / on the night she got fired.” The poem is filled with these metaphors, repeating the title “without you” at the beginning of multiple stanzas. At the end, I find the most powerful moment among all the love poems:

Love whomever, then return

For without you, I’d have forgotten
the many doors through which
the world disappears

This disappearing world is the motivation behind Don’t Go Back to Sleep. The speaker in Liu’s collection is driven to find himself; his own family origin story under threat by those who wish to bury the Nanking Massacre. Liu does the work necessary to fight this erasure, navigating facts and molding them into an art form, of which he is able to share and memorialize with many.


Book Review: BRIGHT DEAD THINGS by Ada Limón

 photo d33cd3af-b947-490f-8bc1-27101e7cc62f_zpsiynsh6o3.jpg Bright Dead Things
Poems by Ada Limón
Milkweed Editions

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

In 2010 a classmate handed me Limón’s first collection, lucky wreck, published by Autumn House Press, in the college dining hall. The classmate thumbed through the thin pages and pointed to her underline, the beginning of “First Lunch With Relative Stranger Mister You” which begins, “We solved the problem of the wind / with an orange.  / Now we’ve got the problem / of the orange.” Because I had just come into poetry and because it was a sad year and because this classmate, who was schizophrenic, wrote the most beautifully unrealistic images in her own poems, I saved Limón’s words. I now work for Autumn House and haven’t heard from that classmate in over four years, but I still think of our orange moment. Of how answers are fleeting, how we are thrust next to people who are equally broken and bright. Now, I hold Limón’s newest collection, Bright Dead Things, and it feels inevitable—these poems solving our impossible need for answers.

The collection is divided into four sections and we follow the speaker as she defines her place during a move from New York City to Kentucky, the loss of her stepmother, nostalgia, and falling into love. Each transition awakens new problems, but we’re reminded that within each problem we persist—we are still willing to whisper in the darkest of rooms, to still exist.

In the first poems of the collection, I watch the speaker fight against gender constraints, questions of “the roll of the woman” suddenly sparked by a move into a more conservative, southern state. These lines are heated with a power struggle, a defense against silence, a kinship with the forceful and fearless parts of nature. Most obvious in “How To Triumph Like A Girl” the collection opener, where the speaker details her affection for female horses. She writes,

…As if this big
dangerous animal is also a part of me,
that somewhere inside the delicate
skin of my body, there pumps
an 8-pound female horse heart,…
Don’t you want to believe it?
Don’t you want to lift my shirt and see…

The need to be animalistic stretches beyond the Kentucky landscape. In “I Remember the Carrots” the speaker remembers herself as a child, how she would rip carrots out of the ground, breaking their roots, ruining her father’s crop. She called them her “bright dead things.” Now, she tries to be “nice” but resents this desire, ending the poem on this line: “What I mean is: there are days / I still want to kill the carrots because I can.” Sometimes, we want to act without hesitation, to be an animal, to not be quiet and polite and it’s this tension—this wanting without action—that creates the friction within Limón’s poems.

We trek through the complicated mourning of death, in which the speaker navigates her sorrow with survival, writes,

But love is impossible and it goes on
despite the impossible. You’re the muscle
I cut from the bone and still the bone
remembers, still it wants (so much, it wants)
the flesh back, the real thing,
if only to rail against it….

In these moments nature serves as a reflection of our own human impulses. In a poem about silence, about paying respect for those bullied by hate crimes, Limón ends with a peacock “screaming, at first harmless, / then like some far-off siren.” Even nature, usually described as delicate and beautiful, can be a warning, a “bright dead thing.” Oddly, I’m reassured by this, for no single moment is entirely one thing—no brightness is ever endlessly light, no death forever dark. We will move on to the next moment and it will be equally complex, as Limón utters “I am beautiful. I am full of love. I am dying.”


Book Review: IF YOU FIND YOURSELF by Brian Patrick Heston

 photo 4196d00b-7872-4e79-85bf-193f9300ef46_zpsc1pbxhub.jpg If You Find Yourself
Poems by Brian Patrick Heston
Main Street Rag, 2014

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

One thing Brian Patrick Heston gets right in his collection, If You Find Yourself, is how death creeps into the lives of children. How it changes them. Heston opens on this moment of change—summer around the way, “latchkey kids” in Adidas dodging traffic and abandoned factories, to reach the tracks, “having / heard of a boy who walked without / looking, how they collected him, / in pieces, for days.” The poem, “Tadpoles,” ends with a character named Boo saying “Watch / your back. Can’t never / tell when something’s coming.” And so we enter Heston’s collection looking over our shoulder, conscious that our “asphalt lives” are breaking into a larger, more destructive world.

Set in Philadelphia, we move with the speaker down each city alleyway, past every shot body, and somehow, still, come out in a parking lot watching a peacock. These poems are brutal, consuming, both long and weighted. Yet, I don’t want to leave these poems to themselves. In “Childhood” the speaker talks about the first dead man he’s ever seen, states, “I was nine. The man, about eighteen.” Is the speaker too young to recognize the closeness of their bodies? Or is eighteen truly old in this place, this poem? Can we only survive in this life if we distance ourselves from these moments?

Heston doesn’t provide much in the shape of answers. The collection divides into three sections, yet there is no climax then brevity, no mounting towards softness. Every poem has a monster. This feels realistic to me in a way most collections don’t.

In the face of the monsters, we find distorted beauty. For example, “The Trails” tells of a sixteen-year-old clubbed and hacked to death with a hammer, hatchet, and a rock by his girlfriend and friends. At the moment of impact Heston writes,

…At first Jay was yelling
but he went away, his voice turning
into a bird….
…it pulled me into a world so big,
I could barely keep myself from floating off.

Or during “The Robbery” when “Shahid Seri was shot execution style,” a single star “claws its way from a cloud.”

In the final poem, titled “If You Find Yourself On An Unknown Street” the speaker advises his sister on how to walk through the world safely. He tells her to avoid the man in a golden fedora and the “cindering eyes of rats / will shine your way.” Nothing will be perfect and safe. If is a matter of maybe in the collection’s title If You Find Yourself.  But what Heston does leave us is the possibility for explosive, internal survival—

you won’t see God, but your voice

will continue butterflying until
your mouth is unable to contain it.

Book Review: DO NOT RISE by Beth Bachmann

 photo f9a7b430-e451-467e-9f99-fe3b43aa913e_zpslb2loqlj.jpg Do Not Rise
Poems by Beth Bachmann
Pitt Poetry Series, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

You be the garden   I leave             my boots in when I walk                  barefoot

after drought. Do to me what no one has done.

These lines come from Bachmann’s poem “garden, and a gun,” a title that brings to light the collection’s most powerful creative device—positioning nature beside the harrowing images of war. At first, this seems like a classic juxtaposition, the delicate punctured by the violent. But in a collection centered on the PTSD of soldiers, we quickly learn nature isn’t delicate—human or environmental. In war everything becomes contaminated, the garden next to the gun, the stars turning into animals, “the snow says, blood  -shed…is tired of fearing where to lie down,” “the flowers feel like sacrifice: opening and opening and / upending the golden light.” In this way, we know the battlefield is as wide and endless as every moment, stretched into a life, where “The reader is not unlike the killer: you could be / anyone. Beauty is futile.”

The repetition of images throughout Do Not Rise hints to the often incessant, haunting, and lonely experience soldiers endure. As readers we can’t escape in this collection the mud, the snow, the ominous you. Even within the poems, each word seems to lead to the next. This is especially obvious in the poem “daffodil,” where Bachmann writes,

bulb in the gut   butt of the gun I am   numb soldier suicide    is

everywhere        the narcissus    is narcotic   mother I am…

The lyrical quality of Do Not Rise only adds to the uncomfortable already present. In a way, these poems are made beautiful because of their sound, yet how can any of this be beautiful? But perhaps this rhythmic quality keeps us reading, and thus, reminding us of what the soldiers can never forget.

Bachmann’s titles sweep vast spaces: “revolution,” “privacy,” “dominance,” “humiliation,” in a Jo McDougall-like boldness, while the interior of her poems breaks down language to its barest of selves. She is calculated, fragmented, and hollows-out each word before placing it on the page. In “shell” she begins,

Fingers          in the mouth make mud

into a poultice to warn         the dead….

but the eyes. The dead we   burn; the living we bury in our faces.

Every word feels heavy and I read with hesitation, careful not to miss the purposeful pauses, the weight it takes to construct an image, a thought. I read as though watching the slow movement of a soldier’s lips, his shifting the physical on his tongue and knowing that each time, whatever he sees, will lead to the same picture, the same conclusions, like a revolving film. In light of Bachmann’s precision, we aren’t given certain specifics, such as individual characters, particular wars, or even a location we can point to on the globe. This isn’t a mistake. By emitting these details, Bachmann reveals the placeless nature of war—how it follows us home, chameleons into our daily struggles, and stays warm long after the guns have cooled.


Book Review: THE STUNTMAN by Brian Laidlaw

 photo 3acff49d-3b31-48f3-8929-07bd853b261f_zpss1xujivf.jpg The Stuntman
Poems by Brian Laidlaw
Milkweed Editions, 2015

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Brian Laidlaw’s proves himself a fearless, acrobatic poet in The Stuntman. Bold and unapologetic, the poems weave layers of lyrical images amidst logic. Described as a literary miner, Laidlaw is both playful and somber. Realistic inside the imaginary. This complexity, so fluid throughout the collection, is accurately depicted through the cover artwork—a map folded into a bird. An object normally rectangular, straightforward, and directional, is now creased in ways that creates a new purpose, a new image. This is the work Laidlaw embarks on in his poems, investigating new ways in which language can function and thus, new ways we read language. If we find ourselves ever lost, it’s because we are still looking at these poems as a map.

The formal series, “[Telegram]” opens the collection: “THE EARTH BROKE OPEN CAUSE WE BROKE IT OPEN, FIRE CAME OUT IN THE FORM OF AIR.” Although we are unsure if these telegrams are being sent or are being received, the structure of the telegram evokes necessity and urgency. The capitalization reiterates this. Yet, the information inside the telegram, on the surface, describes a cause and effect, a statement with little surprise. On closer inspection, these lines dispel a misconception: the earth isn’t just broken, it is broken because we broke it. Further, with the fire as air, Laidlaw suggests what we see is not what is true, or more, that what we see is malleable.

Laidlaw’s reasoning continues, and in the second installation of “[Telegram]” he writes, “IF YOU’RE BLEEDING YOU’RE BLEEDING, THAT’S HOW CAUSALITY WORKS IN AN ENVIORNMENT” While this logic is relatively sound, he continues with “WAR MUST BE FUNNY BECAUSE PEOPLE STILL CAN LAUGH.” Here, there is a shift in the poem. We move from statements to deductions. The purpose of these deductions is no clearer than in the above line, for Laidlaw shows the darkness that exists when we look on the surface of most things.

While reading, I get the sense there is the general belief that the world and people outside the poems are unaware, often senselessly moving, relatively un-intelligent, or simply lazy. At times I reject this, but for the most part Laidlaw cautions against a “calling-out” or distancing. Instead, he shoulders half the responsibility by using the collective “we.” In “[Altitude Sickness]” the speaker describes the need to witness what is uniquely beautiful, forcing himself to notice the miniscule, how “the pinecone flowers/ like a rose & is beautiful, / but not the way a rose is…” The speaker acknowledges he is part of the problem, writing “today the dummies ripple around me, / I am part of the collective / idiocy…” Harsh, but at least we’re all in this together.

One of the strongest poems in the collection, “Terrarium Letter #3” balances Laidlaw’s whimsical logic with a central, grounding location. While the speaker in the poem feels lost, I don’t. We get concrete details about Minnesota and a character named Mr. Pocket, along with the speaker’s intentions as he begins, “I should keep a record of poetry’s death in my dumb-dumb heart…” It’s a sad and snarky poem, hinting towards our world’s inability to express emotions. The poem ends on this note, as the speaker asks, “Tell me what the billboards say in Wyoming, I’ve driven thru but I couldn’t read back then.” We’re left with the speaker reaching for clarity, yet clarity in a superficial and materialistic art form. It’s a modest victory, and one I doubt The Stuntman would even categorize as a victory. Which is perhaps the entire point—we’re always only halfway towards the goal, believing we’ve understood the entire picture, when in truth we’re just beginning to unfold.



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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: ALL THAT YELLOW by Chuck Kinder

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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


Book Review: WANTING IT by Diana Whitney

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

My fear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: RIVER HOUSE by Sally Keith

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

reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

…I reread a favorite poem

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

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

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

…We would keep

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

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

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

Book Review: The Insomniac’s Weather Report
by Jessica Goodfellow

 photo 191aa37b-6ade-4a8f-9854-e4c1f323fc71_zps775efc45.jpg The Insomniac’s Weather Report
Poems by Jessica Goodfellow
Isobar Press, 2014

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Jessica Goodfellow’s book The Insomniac’s Weather Report tumbles into a world of water, semi-consciousness, and circular logic. The collection is divided into four sections and these divisions seem to offer the only real stability in the work. To hold onto anything here is illogical, for anything is nothing, and then everything, all at once. I read as if tiptoeing; I don’t trust that the poem will state without taking back, without it, somehow, claiming it’s not a poem, not not a poem, either. And when the narration does spin, I follow it without question, as if obviously, it’s foolish to think anything is definite.

The first section, “Uses of Water,” lays the foundation for the circular narration that carries throughout the collection. Water moves each poem, as it’s positioned as the central image. This works well as a beginning, for water is the source of all things living. It’s necessary for existence, yet it’s constantly shifting form and location. This shifting property of water extends to a larger discussion on instability. The poems are titled “What You Measure If You Use Water As A Clock” or “What You Lose If You Use Water As A Preservative.” Water is never simply water, but a tool. In “What You Dampen If You Use Water As A Boomerang,” the speaker talks of the body as fact, then shifts in the fourth stanza, she writes,

…The sea
is not a boomerang, returning
unchanged—who boldly inked this
edge of continent on map? As if

blue roofs of ocean
shift and slap in maneuvers—
familiar and chaotic—the body
and its households recognize.

The speaker rejects water as stagnant and firm. Yet, the word “water” can be replaced with the word “body,” so the title reads “What You Dampen If You Use Body As A Boomerang.” Again, water seems to be a tool, simply a means towards what’s spoken about.

The other sections continue to focus on the theme of instability. Section two introduces an insomniac who

…longs to transliterate
rain into a human alphabet—
French, maybe. A lullaby, a chanson,
a hymn. A baptism of sleep
as unstable as water.

Section three, titled “Flotsam and Jetsam,” rinses tension on the poems’ shores. The speaker sounds the most disillusioned, circular, questioning. The poems match this in both form and content; they refrain multiple lines or build on a singular statement. For example, in “The Geometry of Being,” the first stanza begins with 3.1, then the second 3.14, then the third 3.141 until the poem ends with 27 lines of pi blocked against the page. Here, the speaker is called irrational, which becomes the link between the mathematical and the human condition. The poem draws its logic and language from both worlds:

they never reach an end, never reveal any patterns, never repeat.
I think of the ancient Greeks, how their words for irrational
meant measureless number.

When you call me irrational, I hear that I am measureless…

Still, the poem ends with a moment of uncertainty, a desire towards a definitive: “Tell me, is it hopeful or hopeless, / this confluence of spirit and flesh.”

The final section, “Alphabet Fugue” is the longest of the four. The poems build on one another, the end title word beginning the following title. In “Roof: Fugue:” Goodfellow defines “fugue,” as the act of fleeing, a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated, a disturbed state of consciousness, a “loss of memory coupled with disappearance from one’s usual environments,” among others. While these definitions mark the section, they also represent the collection as a whole. Our world, our bodies, these poems, are fugues. Goodfellow puts it best when she writes,

Here we are then: in a world where logic doesn’t function,
or else emotions can’t be trusted. Maybe both.
All known tools of navigation require an origin.

Otherwise, there is only endless relativity and then
what’s the point of navigation, in a space where
it’s hard to be lost, and even harder not to be?