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Category: Poetry Collections

My Review of Angela Voras-Hills’ LOUDER BIRDS is Now Live at Green Mountains Review!

Hi everyone! I’m happy to announce my latest review, Angela Voras-Hills’ Louder Birds from Pleiades Press, 2020, is now live at Green Mountains Review!

You can read it here!

Elizabeth Powell at GMR recommended this book to me and was a true joy to work with. I greatly hope to have the opportunity to review for them again in the future.

This book is absolutely gorgeous: imagistic, lyrical, eerie, dreamlike, rural, violent, sexual… It reminded me how important it is to take risks in our work—and also how OKAY it is to sacrifice a little of our poetry’s accessibility in the name of beauty, language, and truth.

Because of this, it also challenged me to revisit my own work, to question where I’ve turned complacent, and where I’ve become too comfortable.

Constantly wrestling with new terrain and images, Voras-Hills’ collection is anything but safe, anything but complacent. Her work challenges what is beautiful, what is normal, even what promotes happiness in poem after poem—if not line after line.

I found myself particularly identifying with Angela Voras-Hills’ work because of her lyric and subtlety, as well as several of her core themes and rooting in Midwestern living. Reading this also repeatedly took me back to the work I did with Shaindel Beers‘ latest collection, Secure Your Own Mask, from White Pine Press, which wrestles with similar themes.

I hope you will find the time to visit Angela Voras-Hills’ collection. I cannot stress enough how lovely, complex, and memorable it is.

Before I go, here’s a poem I particularly love from Louder Birds. I hope you enjoy it, too.

MAPS OF PLACES DRAWN TO SCALE

Ten minutes from a two-week vacation,
a van flips on an exit ramp. In a small town,
the van is bigger. On the highway,
it’s just a van, heading toward a hotel. This
is global positioning: a man is ejected and the van
lands on top of him. In a small town, a priest
knows the man’s name, but Death does not
concern itself with formalities. It also does not take
the man whole: only his legs and anything else
it can grab below the waist. At a Chinese buffet,
Death is stuffing her cheeks
with crab rangoons, while a family
stands behind her with empty plates. Nobody stuck
to the vinyl booth finds “You will suffer”
inside their cookie, but it’s implied
in the parking lot. A child breaks free
from her mother’s arms and runs head-first
into traffic. In the city, there are always
detours. But in a small town, there’s one
name for each baby born, and eventually
it’s on the lips of everyone in the street.

—from Louder Birds and previously featured on The Adroit Journal

If you’d like to see more, I have one other poem by Voras-Hills posted on my website already. You can read it here.

ANGELA VORAS-HILLS is a poet, community organizer, and instructor living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She spends a great deal of time running around city and watching birds in the backyard with her children. Her first collection of poems, Louder Birds, was chosen by Traci Brimhall for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, New Ohio Review, Memorious, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, and Best New Poets, among other journals and anthologies. She has been awarded grants from The Sustainable Arts Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar, as well as a fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston. Before moving to Milwaukee, she also co-founded a literary arts organization, The Watershed: A Place for Writers, which evolved into Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison.

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An Interview with Shaindel Beers!

Hi all, and Happy Monday! I hope you enjoyed your weekend. It’s been a little quiet around here while I work my way through some new projects, but I wanted to take a moment to share one of the successes: My interview with Shaindel Beers, author of the lovely poetry collection, Secure Your Own Mask, is now live with The Rumpus!

You can read it here.

Thank you, all, so very much for your support. I hope you have an opportunity to read it; our time discussing these questions was so much fun, and Shaindel’s poetry is lovely, and comes highly recommended!

*

Shaindel Beers’ poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently an instructor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, in Eastern Oregon’s high desert and serves as Poetry Editor of ContraryA Brief History of Time, her first full-length poetry collection, was released by Salt Publishing in 2009. Her second collection, The Children’s War and Other Poems,was released in February of 2013. Her most recent collection, Secure Your Own Mask, won the White Pine Poetry Prize for 2017.

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The (Im)Precision of Language, Nature, & Violence: Reading Shaindel Beers’ Secure Your Own Mask

[Hi everyone! Happy Friday! My greatest apologies to you as my readers, and to Shaindel Beers, for the delay! I had every intention of posting this review on Wednesday evening, but then I heard of Marni Ludwig’s passing and felt it was best to push it back until I had posted a tribute to her memory and work, which happened on Thursday. So, here we are, on Friday, but hopefully better late than never? Thank you, all, for your patience and understanding.]

In December, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to poet Shaindel Beers about her latest poetry collection, Secure Your Own Mask (White Pine Press, 2018). We discussed in-depth how personal her poems are, the role of the political and violence in her work, and even (after discovering we’re from geographically-similar places) the Midwest. (Our interview will appear in The Rumpus this February; I’ll be sure to come back with a link when it’s live!)

In the meantime, I wanted to share my thoughts on Secure Your Own Mask, because it was easily one of my favorite reads of 2018.

For me, poetry that values nature, that in some way echoes Plath, that deals in some of our harsher subjects, like abusive relationships, already interests me. But poetry that delves into the confusion and misgivings of reality and false memory, dreams and escapism?—well, let’s just say I’m all in.

Shaindel Beers’ poems are gorgeous, highly memorable, and shocking in places. Where it might be suggested that there are enough nature-focused poems to go around, Beers challenges this through her inclusion and admiration of nature. Several poems in particular stand out with their inclusion of animals, both realistically and metaphorically: “The Mechatronic Bird,” “The Secret Rabbit,” and “After Mary Oliver,” to name a few (though there are more, and just as lovely). In these poems specifically, there is the presence of, both, the metaphysical or metaphorical animal, and the realistic one. For example, in “The Secret Rabbit,” there is the analogy of running over a rabbit in the car and what that act might suggest for the overall story, only for the persona of the poem to later confess that they had run over a rabbit in real life, and what the implications were. In both renditions of the rabbit—the one from the story (metaphor) and the one from the larger body of the poem (reality)—we witness a physical, living and breathing, rabbit, but its role shifts in what it portrays, and this shift is a recurring movement for several animals across the collection. This serves as a reminder of the importance of nature in our writing, not only for nature itself but for its implications, and what it can thematically teach us about other areas of our lives.

Not to mention the role many current events and concerns take as a backdrop to some of Beers’ poems. Highly prevalent to this collection is the role of domestic violence, and the “surprise” of where violence is witnessed: often behind closed doors with someone we trusted, as opposed to out in nature among wild animals where the possibilities may seem more open. From the first poem forward, we follow interactions with an abusive partner, often partnered with nature imagery, politics, and escapist poems. My favorite pairing, however, are poems that incorporate memories of Beers’ son growing up, and how he represents an evolving male figure. These poems become some of the most beautiful and touching of the collection for me, surely because I am a mom, too, but also for the hope they instill in what we can teach our children, and how our world could be better.

Finally, there is the role of the real in the collection—well, the real, dreams, memory, and escapism. One of my favorite poems appears at the beginning of the collection, describing an acrobat act at the circus. Beers shared in our interview together that she used to dream of running away to the circus, and I believe it: the surreal and whimsical quality of the images in this poem alone, let alone others that reference the circus, bring to the collection an authenticity of longing for something better that is certainly implied elsewhere, but becomes more real in these specific poems.

I cannot recommend this collection enough. It’s lovely, raw in places, imagistic and surreal—many of my favorite qualities of contemporary poetry. I hope that you will give it a read, and take your time with it, and enjoy.

A note on how I read this book: I know every person approaches, digests, and appreciates poetry in their own way and by their own right, but I implore you: give yourself a chance to revel in the poems that are of an average-length in the book (1-3 pages), and give yourself time to slowly creep through and sit inside the long ones. Don’t rush yourself. And even more importantly, think about what the persona of the poem feels and why, and think about how reading the poem in that light makes you feel. These poems are significant beyond their lovely writing, because they place in front of us subjects that are prevalent to us right now (such as the #metoo movement) and encourage us to consider our understanding and stance on such subjects.

Finally, before I go, here is one last favorite poem from the collection: Shaindel’s favorite, and also one of mine. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy:

The (Im)Precision of Language

How far the ring-necked dove is
from wringing a dove’s neck. The way
a stand of trees can hide a deer

stand, concealing the hunter who
will shoot the deer. The deer, who will
fall in the fall in the fallow field.

Once, someone who was dear to me
threatened me with a deer rifle. Cleaned
it random times, out of season when

he was upset. Said, I don’t want to be
divorced. We can make this work, while
working the polishing cloth along the metal

barrel of the gun. My blood barreled through
my body when I would see his truck in the drive.
I was never not scared to come home, to fall

asleep, to say the least little thing wrong.
Language became a tricky game where saying
nothing meant everything, where saying everything

meant nothing left to fear. I sang my sorrow song
to anyone who would listen, recognized the panic
of birdsong, the desperation of the killdeer

feigning its broken wing. Anything to lure the predator
from its nest. Its broken wing was strength
of a different kind. I figured showing my weakness

might help me. Someone might understand the bird
of my heart always crashing against the cage
of my ribs, the moth of hidden fear fluttering

to escape from my throat. Once, in my Shakespeare
class I learned that brace meant a pair, a brace
of kinsmen, of harlots, of greyhounds,

a brace of warlike brothers. In another time
I stood at the front of the classroom in a chest
brace because my husband had collapsed

the cartilage between my ribs. I couldn’t reach
the string on the movie screen and had to ask
for help. I said, I’m wearing a brace, so I can’t
stretch. I thought of the grimace stretching
across the nurse’s face when I said, I know, 
this sounds like domestic violence. It was an accident,
just goofing around. I wrapped the Velcro belt
around my ribs each morning as he ribbed me
that I should have given up, What was I trying

to prove by staying in a submission hold
until he cracked my ribs? How could I be
so stupid? So stubborn? I didn’t know he

was grooming me for greater violence,
the rock thrown at me in the car,
the wedding ring pressed so tight

by his hand holding mine that I bled.
Which brings us back to the dove,
the difference between ringing

and wringing and where language leaves us 
when someone controls every word we say,
when we have no one left to talk to.

SHAINDEL BEERS‘ poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently an instructor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, in Eastern Oregon’s high desert and serves as Poetry Editor of ContraryA Brief History of Time, her first full-length poetry collection, was released by Salt Publishing in 2009. Her second collection, The Children’s War and Other Poems,was released in February of 2013. Her most recent collection, Secure Your Own Mask, won the White Pine Poetry Prize for 2017.

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“My Face Resembles / The One Reflected in the Water”: Reading David Dodd Lee’s And Others, Vaguer Presences

 
The thing that I love about erasure poetry is how interactive it can (and should!) be with the original work it is pulling from. I think, for some writers who attempt this form, the goal is to reinvent the words that are on the page, than to accept them and attempt to draw something new out of the woodwork. But I find this to be problematic: if the writer chooses to engage with another writer’s work, and distance their resulting works from it, what are they truly accomplishing? How have they challenged themselves? What are they implying about the original work?

On the flip-side, when the writer takes what the other writer has done, celebrates it, and points out some of the facets we may have missed in the previous work, by performing this erasure, then I believe those writers are onto something. And I believe this is where David Dodd Lee comes in, with the two collections of erasure poetry he has compiled of John Ashbery’s extensive work. Just as Ashbery himself notes in the blurb for this second collection, that the poems “were actually written by the poems themselves, which had definite ideas about what they wanted and didn’t want” (2017). This suggests to me that David Dodd Lee not only remained true to what he believed John Ashbery had originated on the page, but he created new poems that were reflective of what he believed the original poems wanted to be.

Whatever John Ashbery’s original intentions with his work—that question could easily take up a series of blog posts in and of itself!—the poems that Lee generates in their place are energetic, intense, and surprising. True to the persona of a Lee poem, they are nature-centric, imagistic, and politically-focused. Much like John Ashbery’s poems, these new erasures examine relationships, specific memories and images, and where we fall within nature ecopoetically, as well as where we live within the political landscape.

To explore these ideas in more detail, I have selected one of my favorite poems from the collection, titled “Summer,” and based on John Ashbery’s poem, “The Double Dream of Spring.”

 
SUMMER

There is that sound
                                like forgetting
                                                             somebody
time hardly seen
                             the twigs of a tree
                             the trees of a life
We,     among all others

                                  And suddenly,
                to be dying
                                    a little mindless construction
of pine needles
                            and winter
                of cold stars
                            and summer

I step to a narrow ledge.
                                My face resembles
             the one reflected in the water.

 
Isn’t this lovely? This is truly one of my favorite poems from the collection, for its imagery, use of white space, and what it reflects in, both, Lee’s and Ashbery’s work (again, my favorite form of erasure—when it can reflect both of the writers involved). I admire the work that goes into erasing poetry, and I’m definitely of the mind that the work should still embody that work from which it has borrowed, and I think that’s achieved here rather wonderfully. First, the opening phrase, contained in the first three lines of this poem, are highly reminiscent to me of my all-time-favorite Ashbery poem, “At North Farm,” which opens with, “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you.” This line has stayed with me for years, from the first time I ever gave that poem a read. There’s something about the combined certainty of both of these phrases, in Ashbery and Lee’s work, as well as almost the removal of agency from the persona at hand: we can’t help that someone is approaching, much like we can’t help the process of forgetting. Both of these things seem inevitable, and hardly memorable or noteworthy most of the time, but there is both trouble and comfort to be found in that inevitability.

Second, I’m very interested in how this poem works visually, and what both white space and short lines bring to John Ashbery’s work. Admittedly, I’ve always read his work very slowly, and I read more pauses into his lines than is technically warranted by how the poems are laid out on the page. However, I think there’s something that can be said for that—their density and complexity, their need for breath. While it could be argued that Ashbery’s poems could be laid out differently to better encapsulate their imagery and movement, which I think is on the list of what Lee has achieved here in his retelling, I think it’s important, too, to recognize that density is as welcome in a compart form as in the sparse ranges that so many of us now seek out in our most contemporary reading cycles. I think on some level this is addressed through Lee’s embodiment of these poems, in his repurposing of the longer lines into something more minimal, but still rich with imagery, question, and complexity.

Finally, from a thematic angle, both of these writers spend admirable amounts of time exploring and celebrating nature, and our place within it, while also addressing many of our vulnerabilities, both ecopoetically and politically. In this poem that I’ve shared above alone, there are questions about our dealings with memory, as well as our approach to death, and our recognition of ourselves at various stages in our lives. These are topics with heavy, underlying questions that both of these poets have tackled beautifully and even ruthlessly in their own work—so it only seems fitting that such questions would appear in the crossover of erasure. They are themes that can be troubling, yes, but are important and should be addressed nonetheless—and I believe how they are arrived at in these erasure poems is both organic and surprising, leaving us with twinges of their intensity and rereading for more.

Whether or not you’re new to the process of erasure poetry, or John Ashbery’s work, or David Dodd Lee’s work, I think this collection can be a wonderful starting place for the reader interested in investing in one or all. These poems are highly indicative of both writers’ breadth and quality, as well as the extensive process that goes into well-written erasures. If you aren’t so new to the process or these poets, you’ll bring with you hindsight that highlights some of the more secret elements of these poems, and what they illuminate about each poet. Basically, if you haven’t read this collection yet, there is a reason for you to do so—and then you’ll more than likely find, like me, that you immediately want to read it again, more slowly this time, because the ideas and images always seem to keep going, rather furiously, and the last thing you want to do is miss a breath.

 
DAVID DODD LEE is a visual artist and author of ten books of poems, in reverse chronological order: And Others, Vaguer Presences, a Second Book of Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlazeVox, 2016), Animalities (Four Way Books, 2014); The Coldest Winter on Earth (Marick Press, 2012); Orphan, Indiana (Akron, 2010); The Nervous Filaments (Four Way Books, 2010); Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, the Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlazeVox, 2010); Abrupt Rural (New Issues, 2004); Arrow Pointing North (Four Way Books, 2002); Wilderness (chapbook) (March Street Press, 2000); Downsides of Fish Culture (New Issues, 1997). As Editor, he completed: The Other Life: the Selected Poems of Herbert Scott (Carnegie Mellon, 2010); Shade 2004 & 2006 (fiction and poetry anthologies) (Four Way Books). As publisher, he managed: Half Moon Bay, a chapbook press, with titles by Hugh Seidman and Franz Wright. He is presently Editor-in-Chief of 42 Miles Press.

 
Lee, David Dodd. And Others, Vaguer Presences: A Book of Ashbery Erasure Poems. Buffalo NY, BlazeVOX Books, 2017. To read, find it here and here.
 
 

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“Black Light / Her Name in a Cup”: Scenes & Impressions: Reading David Dodd Lee’s Animalities

 

animalities-cover-for-web2David Dodd Lee has been there with me since the beginning—not since the beginning of my reading and loving poetry, but of my writing poetry and taking that progress seriously. Of taking poetry seriously, and the idea that there was something to be taken from poetry, to be understood, to be had. Like a physical object you can pull off the page each time, and put in your pocket, and take with you.

That’s how I feel each time when I read a poem, let alone a collection, by David: that I am taking something with me—whether or not it is my choice. Some burden almost, some understanding, some new being even. Something in me has changed after having read David’s work. I tend to feel calmer, a little newer, but unsettled, too. Good poetry tends to do that to me. It will renew me first, and then it will rattle me. That’s what happens with David’s work, every time. Sometimes it takes a minute to go inside, knowing that; and it takes a minute to come back out. It takes a minute to shake it off.

More and more, I find myself drawn not only to David’s images (I’ve always loved David’s images—and his blending of perceptions), but his use of narrative, and how he bends it. I’m particularly interested in the somewhat sinister quality that creeps into that narrative from time to time, but also the female figures that he introduces, who are obviously not all the same woman. This interest is not all the book’s doing, of course; partially, this is just where I am in my own writing life, and where I draw my personal inspirations from… but I believe he’s doing imagery, narration, the sinister, and the female figure exceptionally well in this collection—hence the term Animalities, or, our animalistic (or more primal) qualities. How fitting. But not too fitting—that would be too clean.

At any rate, before I say too much more, here is one of my absolute favorite, if longer, poems from the collection, that I would like to use to explore these areas that I’ve highlighted. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have:

 

FOR THE COUNTRY

                (Happy Days Café, Wakarusa, Indiana)

 

We’re buzzing and adrenal
with contempt,

then laughing—

a cork pops out of the life raft.

The cook wears a pea coat.

Northern-based diet, everything a smothering,
while the flickering reel
of a window

helps give life texture: a bird
poles a small
wagon under a traffic light . . .

at home she has finally gotten up

she can taste the air coming in through the screens

*

It’s in the drink,
just north of Wakarusa,

sassafras in the joints,

the blur of test tubes where a tear might throb . . .

The usual contingencies and then this
tertiary

black light

her name in a cup,

the pine needles.

*

Elaborately complicated
by candlelight,

her fingertips stuck to my arm like sawdust.

Yes, though, I said, to the fresh
gleam of the wood and the yellow rope,

her spasmed anxiety,

the orange she’s allowed to eat each day at 6 pm,

the time it takes
for the claw-footed tub to fill up.

*

“Hot Blooded” surges
on the radio

an unfortunate marriage of circumstance
and nostalgia

a nice haircut

a kiss on the cheek

crows on the phone lines like her little black shirts

*

The waitress’s blood ran down the bright front window

He’d given her a photograph of “an ocean.”

She took it, held it close

A mayonnaise jar full of weeds in some warm creek water

 

Isn’t this poem lovely? Doesn’t it just stop you in your tracks? It floors me, every single time—and it’s that pea coat, that black light, that claw-foot bath tub, and that ending—those last four lines, so unsettling. As I stated earlier, I’ve always loved David’s imagery—and this “ocean” and mayonnaise jar are as vivid as they come—but I’m particularly impressed with his latest use of narration, and how that pairs with his imagery, especially in these poems.

As a poem in five sections, I’ve considered time and time again its sequence—but I’ve realized the where and the when is somewhat inconsequential. I assume it is evening, but I’m more interested now in the repetitions and variations: every sequence includes flesh and water, and nearly every sequence includes food, but not every sequence includes music—but somehow there’s an echo of it just the same. It’s that distortion of perception that I’ve come to love in David’s work, and that’s why I’m addressing sequences. For example, in the first section, the two characters are on a life raft; in the second, they are under a black light; and in the third, they are under candlelight, and “her fingertips [were] stuck to my arm like sawdust” (30). Such a strange, beautiful progression—from location to location, from light to light, from sawdust to a bathtub to a windshield and a mayonnaise jar. These movements are what I look for, out of instinct, in David’s works now, because I love them, and because I believe this is what makes them tick.

In addition to his sequential work, there is also the sinister nature of many of his poems, including the ending of this one, and the transformation of his female figures. I’ve really never felt that David’s poems are overly sinister (and there are certainly some poets where this is arguably the case); there is simply an element, an edge, to his poems—supplying a woman with an image of nothing short of a murder scene when she requested an ocean? Sinister. But after all of the surreality, and the beautiful imagery work earlier in the poem, the poet is able to get away with this, and the moment is even unstated, because it achieves such a balance. It achieves an edge, rather than dominance. Pair that with this female character in particular and, well, it’s just a gorgeous poem. I can’t arguably say what draws me so much to this particular character, except for how she is presented through distortion—which, once again, just reinforces my point for this poet’s handling of perception and the rewriting of perception. All of that being said, I know there are other poems, which I will not take time to list here, where the female figure is much more present and solidified, but perhaps what I love so much about this is figure is how her personality and perspective is impressed upon by what happens around her.

Really, what else is there to say—I greatly admire David Dodd Lee’s work, I have enjoyed this collection repeatedly, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you have read his work before and enjoyed his imagery, you will not be disappointed, and you will appreciate the newfound relationship with the narrative. If you are new to David’s work, you are in for a treat. Imagery, narrative—and throw in wonderful sinister (and sometimes sweet) edges, and female figures like in this poem—you can’t go wrong.

 

DAVID DODD LEE is the author of eight previous books of poems, including The Coldest Winter on Earth (Marick Press, 2012). His fourth book, Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, the Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlazeVox, 2010), taught him how to write the poems in his next books: The Nervous Filaments (Four Way Books, 2010) and Orphan, Indiana (University of Akron Press, 2010). He is the editor of two poetry / fiction anthologies: Shade 2004 & 2006 (Four Way Books) and The Other Life: The Selected Poems of Herbert Scott (Carnegie Mellon, 2010). His poems have appeared in Court Green, Denver Quarterly, Field, Jacket, The Nation, Nerve, and in many other places. He is also a visual artist, writes and publishes fiction, publishes chapbooks and full-length titles as editor-in-chief of 42 Miles Press, and teaches classes in poetry, publishing, art history, and the art of collage at Indiana University South Bend, where he is assistant professor of English. He lives in Osceola, east of South Bend, where he kayaks and fishes on Baugo Bay.

 

David Dodd Lee’s latest book, And Others, Vaguer Presences: A Book of Ashbery Erasure Poems, is now available for pre-order from BlazeVox Books and Amazon.

 

 

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‘This is Not a Pipe’: The Powers of Nature & Grief over Perception & Definition: Reading Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

 

ross gay_gratitudeI don’t know about you, but in my mind, perception and grief are united. This is not to say that one cannot exist without the other, but only that our perceptions vary based on our state of mind—especially when we are talking about grief. On an average, typical day, we know very well that the image of a pipe is not the same thing as the physical pipe we hold in our hands; but when we are grieving, we may see this image as a sign from a lost loved one, and we may believe this so well as to think that we may reach into that picture and pull the pipe straight out, leaving nothing by caramelized canvas stain. We may even believe we can turn into the pipe, or the pipe into the one we are missing, or the pipe into ourselves. I’m not saying this is 100% the point that Ross Gay was trying to get at, but there is also value in what poetry might make us think of, whether or not it is what the work intended. Being entitled “Gratitude,” I ponder my extreme invasion with my thoughts on grief, but maybe gratitude is like a pipe, ready to go somewhere:

A man sings
by opening his
mouth a man
sings by opening
his lungs by
turning himself into air
a flute can
be made of a man
nothing is explained
a flute lays
on its side
and prays a wind
might enter it
and make of it
at least
a small final song

Ross Gay’s collection opens gently, though quickly and persuasively, with the assistance of poems like this one—“Ode to the Flute”—where we are immediately challenged with questions of perception and even agency—what an object or person can do, or has the omniscient right to do. This question of agency, in connection with loss and grieving, and nature, recurs again and again across this collection, whether we are talking about a man “turning himself into air” or a flute being “made of a man” or of spreading bits of a father’s ashes so as to place him everywhere—who has the right to do these things, but more importantly, what actually happens when we do these things? But ultimately, that becomes an inane question; the true question, the one that plagued me and accelerated me through this collection (in celebration, I might add) was the question of what the narrator thought or believed happened when he did something… and to me, the answer goes back to that darn painted pipe having the ability to be the pipe itself. The man can turn into air, the flute can be of the man as easily as Eve, the pipe is a pipe, and when we spread a loved one’s ashes over all the lands they used to love, they’ll stick, and their new form of consciousness will remember those places as if they had just visited them again. Grief can be a celebration, and grief can be a doorway into a higher realm of believing.

And ultimately, I think what makes this collection work so well, and why it’s able to immerse me so well in these ideas, is just how beautiful beautiful beautiful Ross Gay’s poems are. I know I’m writing a review, and I’m here to say something more, but sometimes you just have to proclaim how wonderful a writer’s work is, and Ross Gay’s collection demands that of me: these are wonderful, determined poems. With the use of such short lines, encapsulating these long, thin poems in so much white space, we are accelerated straight through to the meat and bones of these poems, straight to the heart of them, and the endings of these poems always amaze, delight, and harm (in the best way). These poems are powerful, and they read new every time (which is the greatest compliment I can give—that a collection can keep on surprising me at every turn, every time). Much like nature, much like grief, these poems live in a place of urgency and remembrance and even joy and celebration and praise for nature. Even when we think of the idea of “giving and taking away,” these poems find a way to praise that and find beauty in that return. They are strong, witted, and beautiful. I’ll probably be sharing more of these poems with you tomorrow, but in the meantime, start reading. You’ll understand.
 
 

ROSS GAY is the author of three books: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and is nominated for an NAACP Image Award. He is also the co-author, with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, of the chapbook Lace and Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, in addition to being co-author, with Richard Wehrenberg, Jr., of the chapbook, River. He is a founding editor, with Karissa Chen and Patrick Rosal, of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin’, in addition to being an editor with the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press. Ross is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Ross teaches at Indiana University.

 

 

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Dialogue of the Body, Dialogue of a Storm: Reading Sandra Marchetti’s Confluence

 

Sandra Marchetti_ConfluenceSometimes I find myself thinking so much about what poetry is or what it can do that I forget to think about how it can make me feel. Perhaps that is the sign of a lesser poetry, a poetry with holes in it: one that goes through the motions, the mechanics, of writing, but drives forward without an emotional core. The best poetry, though, leaves me feeling a little raw, a little open, a little more real. And sometimes that feeling comes by way of sadness or joy, but sometimes it is at its most memorable when it comes by way of awareness: awareness of the mind, of nature, and of the body. This is where Sandra Marchetti’s collection, Confluence, leaves me: with an awareness of the body, a clarity of mind, a reconnecting to nature. Marchetti’s poetry demands it, and hers is a poetry that leaves me happy to oblige.

To start us off, I’m going to include three of my favorite poems from this collection, to share and discuss:

 

THE LANGUAGE OF ICE

 

Crowns of birds emerge and sink,
skid to the river in blinking beats.
Jagged as glass, ice flashes match
memories of church windows, a glacial past.
Lines of a pencil afloat mark a bobbing post,
bags beneath drift, seek their currents like fish.

Twist—the tree calls us to see roots straight to meet
concrete then broke above like floes pulled up;
a stretching shrine, bark chases the water’s
spine—a blind grasp toward glinting.

Branches reach behind their back,
trill the stream to sing
a glad racket of sounds that smack
of crowning winter’s gleam.

 

SKYWARD

 

The moon resolves
to a crescent of sparrows;

their cloud snags
the telephone poles.

Beaks pass
the car’s roof,

become a lone
jet headed west,

a transformation of loft.

The birds disappear—
they were never here—

a bait and switch
after which I point.

 

MIGRATION THEORY

 

The womb a tent,
lit from within, flutters
golden on the wind.

I’m given to pregnancy
dreams again.

Sleeping, the world becomes round once more—
sleeping atop my midriff. Sleeping in
silence and veins and skin—a globe, a missive.

I’m told the child
is ghost; instead

the sleep is lifted into,
alight with curiosities
curling out from the hand.

Sleep. The light sheet ruffles within.
White moths in flight
lift from the body—the skin.

 

Two of the three poems I have included here involve birds, and obviously not all of Marchetti’s poems do—but it’s the beauty, the migratory patterns, and the mindfulness that Marchetti instills in and observes in these birds that teaches me so much about this world she’s created through these poems. What I love so much about this collection is its involvement in what was and what could be: old and classic traditions of poetry and poetic form, where Marchetti grew up, and that age-old idea that we can never go home again, unchanged or without consequence. This concept continues to be of great interest to us, because at some point, we always have to leave something we are connected to—home, a relationship, a workplace, a tree pulled up at the root—and we desire to return to that thing we’ve left. Even the concept of migration is not immune to this: though these birds may fly out and reappear in the same place, these occurrences are months apart, and things will have changed—something as large as the changing of the landscape, a building constructed, or something as small as an onlooker who observes the sky at once full and empty of birds. This concept of mortality of place is a recurring one in Marchetti’s work, and it is handled well—so well, in fact, that despite its darker truths, I am comforted in the knowledge that I can relate.

And perhaps why this is all at once such an appealing and vexing concept is because of how Marchetti portrays her personal investments, and reminds us of our own. Through our connections to nature, where we grew up, and our loved ones (and even entertainment venues, like a favorite movie theater or ball park), we grow invested, which means we inevitably have something we could lose, or one day have to leave behind. These poems are aware of the body and nature, and recall the domestic and the pastoral we observe in the classics. These connections to the past leave us feeling nostalgic and lead us to think about those things specific to our lives that keep us nostalgic, that make us call into our own pasts for the things we lost or had to leave behind.

These concepts of leaving and missing home or a relationship or a place are hardly new, and many of us experience these phenomena often. However, these themes continue to work in Marchetti’s poems because of her employment of the writing as a reflection of the emotional core. By writing about past memories and places, we are encouraged to think of our own memories; and by using forms reminiscent of formal poetry, we are encouraged to think of where we have been as a larger (literary) community. And perhaps this is only me, but the involvement of these forms, or echoes of forms, make these memories all the more resonant. Perhaps it is the way that sound and rhythm impact us: the sounds in these poems, and their rhythms, lead us to read these poems at varied paces, cause us to pause, challenge us to hold our breath, take a breath; and this kinesthetic relationship impacts us emotionally. Reading “The Language of Ice” with its rhythm that is almost observant of rap, excites me, and makes me think of the choppy, sharp edges of ice; while reading a poem like “Skyward,” with its recurring s-sounds, makes me read the poem more slowly, making me think of the slow and easy passage of birds across an icy surface, across the sky, and their slow disappearance, so slow sometimes that I begin to question if they really were there at all.

Sandra Marchetti has produced a really beautiful, and careful, collection that observes beauty, nature, and the body in a way that is thorough, alert, but unapologetic, honest and open. This is a strong deviation away from the old forms that I really admire: her ability to invite the sexual, entertainment, and pop culture, into her poems, while still employing careful images, rhythms, and sounds (as well as some internal and end-rhymes). If you haven’t already rushed out to read this collection, find the time to slow down and read this one, and give yourself the time to read it slowly. The images and the line-work deserve it.

 

SANDRA MARCHETTI is the author of Confluence, a debut full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications, and a co-author of Heart Radicals, with Les Kay, Allie Marini, and Janeen Rastall. Eating Dog Press published an illustrated letterpress edition of her essays and poetry, A Detail in the Landscape; and her first volume, The Canopy, won Midwest Writing Center’s Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest. Sandy won Second Prize in Prick of the Spindle’s 2014 Poetry Open, and her work appears in The Hollins Critic, Sugar House Review, Ecotone, Green Mountains Review, Blackbird, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. She is a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at Aurora University, outside of her hometown of Chicago.

 

Did I mention that Sandra Marchetti also makes me want to read Wallace Stevens? What a wonderful problem! I’m going to go read some Wallace Stevens now…

 

 

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“Look Where That Has Gotten Me”: The Potential Self-Awareness & Honesty of Poetry: Reading Tracey Knapp’s Mouth

 

Tracey Knapp_MouthLet me begin by playing a round of Two Truths and a Lie… We all know how this works, right? The speaker shares two truths about themselves, and a lie, but the lie must not be easily distinguished from the two truths, and the other players are supposed to guess which statement is a lie. So, here it goes: As a reader, I most often seek and yearn for poetry that is self-aware, but does not apologize. I want poetry that, to utilize a cliché, is honest to a fault. And I want poetry that physically makes me hurt: makes me cringe, makes me pause, makes me close the book for a hot second, makes my (again, cliché) chest hurt—we’ve all read those poems, right? But now here’s the trick: these are all true. Again, they are all true. This combination of elements in one poem, or one cumulative collection, is one I yearn for as a reader, and as a poet, but which I do not often see done, or done well. Tracey Knapp, in her debut collection, Mouth, performs these tasks beautifully. These poems are capable of being self-aware but unapologetic and far from self-important; they are honest, and overly, brutally honest at that; and they pull me out of my corner and face me with my own concerns, with my own hurts. And these poems are capable of doing this over and over, no matter how many times I read them.

Undeniably what lures me so steeply into this poetry is Knapp’s unapologetic self-awareness and bluntness. Her persona is extremely realistic, logical, and unlike so many personas that point out their own faults or shortcomings, unapologetic.

 

Continue reading my review of Mouth on The Rumpus . . .

 

TRACEY KNAPP works in graphic design and communications in San Francisco. She received graduate degrees in creative writing and English from Boston University and Ohio University, where she taught literature, composition and creative writing. She has received scholarships from The Tin House Writers’ Workshop and The Dorothy Rosenberg Poetry Fund. Mouth is her first full-length collection.

 

 

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The Rhythm of Reading & Hearing Poetry: Reading Three Beautiful Collections by Susan Lewis

 

Do you ever find yourself in a reading slump? Or too unreasonably busy to even consider finding a way to fit reading in? And when you finally do have the time and energy, do you find yourself searching for that writing style that just throws you back in, every time? Well, this summer, as I mentioned in some of my more recent posts, I have been going through a series of transitions: out of an MFA program and into full-time, one-year-old motherhood, and finding my place at my work, and there just hasn’t been much time for personal pleasantries such as reading, let alone writing something about it. But finally I have made the time, and I discovered a really wonderful poet who has reintroduced, thrown, and forced me back into the beautiful, haphazard, yet peaceful art of reading and writing: Susan Lewis.

I spent some time with Lewis’s following three collections: State of the Union, How to Be Another, and This Visit, and while all different, her work largely capitalizes on rhythm, sound, and reinvention. To be quite honest, these qualities are not what I often look for in contemporary poetry anymore, because, while sound is still valued, and rhyme and rhythm are still indirectly employed, I do not often read poets who still demand these recurring sounds,
Susan Lewis_State of the Unionand these pentameters, in their poetry. But when I read Lewis’s poems, I read them rapidly—I felt the need to read them rapidly, an urgency in the line—and the phrasal combinations, as well as internal and slant rhymes leave me reading these poems quickly, and with a popping enunciation. And while reinvention, internal examinations, and redefining are hardly a thing of the past in contemporary poetry (and wondrously, this is true whether we are discussing narrative or experimental poetry, and any form in-between), Lewis employs and demands these characteristics of each and every one of her poems. Looking at a poem such as “This is Not a Movie” from State of the Union, we see how Lewis employs reinvention and challenges the limits of playing with language and what can be said when a phrase is altered mid-sentence (whether incorporating a “naught” in parenthesis, implying that we could read it or omit it, or inserting an oppositional phrase after a comma, implying what could be an alternate universe in the poem—what is and what could be).

THIS IS NOT A MOVIE

but now & then it feels like one, & often has the same
symptoms. With this overload of blurred identities,
it may be advisable to drag our feet through the
conceptual mud, a necessity devoutly to be resisted.
Unless it’s preferable to jump ship & sink on our
merits, like grief-stricken elephants. Which is not
to say you shouldn’t arrive at your reunion prepared
with garters, buckshot, & dungarees, in case the
situation goes south & you’re feeling peckish. The
man in the moon may bring his husband. As acolytes
they are dry, sometimes even down in the mouth, but
never dead in the water. Come to mama is what they
might think, if they weren’t too worn & weathered to
fall for anything an order of magnitude more inviting
than this insidiously tempting razor’s edge.

As you can see in this poem, the ability to reevaluate a phrase or surprise the reader is highly important to Lewis, and this is an admirable constant in her work. But not only do we see beautiful work being done at the level of the line, we also see, implied in the title, How to Be Another, the presence of the Other, the role of isolation, and even her challenging of relationship dynamics, which came to be some of the more important themes I searched for and prized in her work. If we reread “This is Not a Movie,” or even the upcoming poem, “Dig,” from How to Be Another, and look for these complicated relationship dynamics, or the role of isolation, or one or more figures presented as the Other, we will not be disappointed. The idea alone of being a “grief-stricken elephant” or coming prepared with “garters, buckshot, & dungarees, in case the / situation goes south” at a family or high school
Susan Lewis_How to be Anotherreunion is funny, interesting, and a little shocking to the senses. Knowing the heart-wrenching, almost-infamous level of grief felt by elephants, and pairing these feelings and preparations for the outdoors with a reunion makes the occasion feel that much less civilized and severe and suggests the physical level our emotions can reach when things go south, which isolates the reader (the “you”), as well as the narrator, who warns us of these possibilities. So too we see the level of isolation preserved in the relationship between the narrator and the addressed in “Dig,” through the physical act of digging and the passive, perhaps voyeuristic, act of watching. Through the withholding of information, of intimacy, of mutual ground, in the poem, the narrator is left with little but the ability to keep digging, with the hope of arriving at some sort of consensus when whatever is being searched for is found, if it does, in fact, exist. This concept, too, of existence, is an odd constant in these two poems and suggests not only the possibility of what could be that I mentioned earlier, but also that gnawing possibility that what we are expecting—things going south, or finding something in the ground—will never turn up… but it is, indeed, important enough that we must continue to hope or look for it, even if it will only ever be a haunting in our lives. Lewis’s ability to connect with her readers through these hauntings and desires is indisputable, and these moves, particularly in these two poems, have stayed with me, rigorously, over the past weeks.

DIG,

is all you ever say, & I do, becoming ever grimier & less
enlightened. If only I had a daughter; she would, no doubt, cheer
me on. She would have good faith & long eyelashes, perhaps even
a tiny butterfly tattooed beside the corner of her coy little mouth.
I don’t know this; I’m just saying. Dig, you reiterate. Which revives
my surprise that you have nothing else to do. In the past I have
asked for justification—or, at the very least, suggestions. But
answer came there none. I have asked for reassurance: a caress, or
even the briefest wink. I have asked for a daughter, either plain or
tattooed. Once, during our third or fourth eclipse, I thought you
might speak. I wouldn’t mind any of it, if only you would tell me
where to look. I have burrowed, you see, in every possible
direction. So far, I have unearthed no secret treasure; no new
perspective; no offspring of any kind; not even the slightest touch
of your still unsullied, impossibly smooth, irresistibly trembling
hand.

Susan Lewis holds a lovely command of rhythm, sound, and the weird possibilities that enter our relationships and life events. Whether we are reading her prose poems, like “This is Not a Movie” or “Dig,” or we are admiring the line breaks and white space of her linear poems in This Visit, we are always thinking about our connection to the narrator and the imposed distance from everyone, and everything, else, reflecting that same isolation
Susan Lewis_This Visitwe may observe when moving through our own lives and being aware of our impact on others, and their impact on us. I found these poems to be wildly interesting and thought-provoking, and they have stayed with me for weeks since I closed these three books and left them on my desk until I could review them. Sometimes a writer will do something in their work that gets a tight hold on me, and Lewis’s ability to surprise me through the narrator’s reactions to average goings-on (the digging, the hunter’s gear) has such a tight hold on me, and I don’t want it to let go. These images are so vivid and, cliché or not, leap off of the page and challenge my perceptions. Whether you are struggling like I was to find time to read and enjoy, or if you are simply looking for the next book to buy for your shelves, get your shovels and travel gear ready, and look Susan Lewis up. I am so happy to say that I picked such an excellent writer to turn to for my first day back to reading and reviewing books, and I’m sure, with not the slightest sliver of doubt in my mind, that you’ll enjoy her work, too, and become haunted by it.

 

SUSAN LEWIS lives in New York City and edits Posit. She is the author of This Visit (BlazeVOX, 2014), How to Be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014), The Following Message (White Knuckle Press, 2013), At Times Your Lines (Argotist Ebooks, 2012), Some Assembly Required (Dancing Girl Press, 2011), Commodity Fetishism, winner of the 2009 Červená Barva Press Chapbook Award, and Animal Husbandry (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Lewis’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been published or is forthcoming in such places as The Awl, Berkeley Poetry Review, BlazeVOX, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Cimarron Review, Connotation Press, The Journal, LunaLuna, Monday Night, The New Orleans Review, On Barcelona, Other Rooms, Otoliths, Ping Pong, Pool, Phoebe, Propeller, Raritan, Seneca Review, SpringGun, Truck, Verse, Verse Daily, and Word For/Word. Lewis received her MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and her BA and JD from UC Berkeley. She taught creative writing at SUNY, Purchase and has served as an editor and guest editor on several publications.

 

 

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“The Way Poetry Evokes Things / Only Potentially There”: Perception, Identity & Heritage: Reading Allan Peterson’s Precarious

 

Allan Peterson_PrecariousIn the quiet moments, when we stop to take a breath and think, we may realize that all of our thoughts, our questions, our hopes, are connected—that is to say, back to two main ideas: Where am I going? and Where have I been? Again, as if to say something toward longevity, What am I leaving behind? How will I be remembered? Whether or not we want to admit our involvement with these questions, they are always there, always looming, and they impact where we go, who we become, and even how we perceive where we’ve come from. They impact what we do and what results from what we do. The irony of this is that not all things can be controlled, nor left to chance, but the same way we are sometimes challenged to perceive all of our decisions relating back to those two opening questions, we are sometimes motivated to prove the opposite. We want to prove our actions can be impulsive and unrelated to our lives, and we expect some occurrences to be left without explanation. For instance, when we imagine something as being precarious, we think of its synonyms, something that is “insecure” or “dependent on chance”—something “dangerous”—and perhaps that is Allan Peterson’s point in the titling of his collection, Precarious. These poems are rooted in the exploration of connection—of the identity, of connection through the landscape (via geographical exploration) and one of heritage. What’s more, Peterson’s poems are passionate in their study of these elements, as well as images and the greater concept of isolation, particularly as it relates to a narrator searching.

I love these poems, their introspective nature on the external, the inevitability of it, and, of course, their deeply-intellectual involvement with image. I will admit, it took several readings for me to feel as if I were truly grasping the sensation of these poems—not for lack of interest, but for their intellect. We say this often about poetry, but truly, these poems are layered; they appear to spend their time in the act of observation and introspection, and they surely do spend time here, but they are also greatly involved in considering our connections across landscapes and heritage, and consider how little we can do in forbidding these connections; these poems, in the end, suggest that these connections cannot be severed but only realized and built upon. That is an ultimate challenge for our humanity—realizing what we are, knowing what we cannot change, and ultimately, making the best of it. Then, when we are able to mobilize that idea, and bring it to something as visual and feeling as poetry, that seems to be a step in the right direction.

What I found myself fixating on the most in my reading of Peterson’s work was his use and complicating of images. If we take, for instance, of my favorite of his Precarious poems, titled “Heat Escaping through My Head,” we can see not only the inevitability of connection, but of the beauty, and the complexity, of it:

 

HEAT ESCAPING THROUGH MY HEAD

 

Granite remembers fire like Gulf sand

the mountains of Carolina

Ilex leaf shadows on weathered wood grain

reconstruct fragments

of a Qashq’ai rug so that this remembrance

might drift in

below the angel’s warm garden o’s woven

that the calories

might escape like a lace scarf

But freezing now

the stiff plants have turned to lettuce my heart

sticks close recalling

thoughts of the tram that cannot leave its wire

 

I love this series of images and their relationship—how one element remembers another, impersonates another, and how we connect deeply to, both, the natural and the mechanical elements around us. It truly is impossible to avoid earthy relations, which are both beautiful their lasting and troublesome in their loss, but they also help to define us, what is important to us—in this case, the outdoors, nature, the ability to travel; it’s telling. And Peterson’s poems naturally work in this fashion, giving us snippets of understanding, giving us man-made locators, such as a Hardee’s or a Books-A-Million, or more natural, if man-named, places like the Carolinas, as well as creatures we coexist with, dogs and stingrays… Despite the time we appear to sit fixed, thinking about the message and sentiment of these poems, we are actually firmly surrounded by living beings and goings-on, all the time, on every page. It’s astounding, really, even a feat to have been captured.

Which brings me to another element I found myself returning and returning to—as I started referring to them, mile-markers, places the narrator has been that more easily locate the reader to a place, if a not a time, and there’s that unusual element of elevated connection to another human being when we discover that they, too, have been out of town to a particular spot—how we suddenly have something more to talk about, a new point of insight. And these idea is interweaved into some, if not many, of Peterson’s poems, through his references to particular geographical landmarks, store and dining locations, and even pop culture. While some writers may steer clear of such references, fearing whether or not they will bring a heightened awareness or cloud the sentiment of the poem with other references, Peterson uses these fearlessly, and they become more so the side commentary that might appear in a conversation of another subject, contributing though not stealing focus. These small inclusions make for even more honest poems than they were originally, and they create for us references where the narrator has been in the body and where the narrator is currently in the mind.

Because along with intellectualism and the act of reflection, there comes a certain amount of personal isolation. While these poems are lovely and explorative, there is an element of loneliness and perhaps even a certain of sadness, intertwined with observation and admiration. It reminds the reader of our and the world’s impermanence, as well as the questionable nature of identity, after-life and religion. In giving these poems the opportunity to connect through relatable and familiar places, references and acts, the reader is given a greater opportunity to relate, and while this does not occur in the poems themselves, there is a suggestion of evolvement on the part of the narrator, as readers “get to know” the speaker through reader, introspection and familiarity with references.

Allan Peterson handles writing about extremely sensitive and personal topics—the things that most shape us—with surprising ease and continuation. While I have focused more so on the value of the image and the connections made to readers on the part of the narrator, these poems also do beautiful work in answering questions about the role of heritage and a higher power in our beliefs, everyday lives and identity. These poems are complex, imagistic and feeling, and there are beautiful parallels of self and sea, natural and man-made places. These poems take time, patience and thought, but they are well-worth it. You read them, and you find yourself sinking, taking it all in, and you come out on the other side all the wiser. These are poems that should not be missed; take the time to read them; they’re worth it.

And before I go, I would like to share with you two of my other top-favorite Precarious poems, because they deserve and need to shared with more readers, and interestingly-enough, they are placed in close proximity to “Heat Escaping through My Head,” right at the book’s center. Cheers.

 

FEELING LIKE THE AFRICAN

 

Where I am, with me is

Frances to whom my muscles are attached,

dogs that perk with a whistle,

catching urgency from whatever state I call.

Even the strangest will do the same:

And what has flown low below me, stingrays,

loons, hooded mergansers

the almost frozen wolf eel ribboned in the depths,

whose beauty is my god’s

revenge on austerity, whose cloudy wrist tells time,

white as a moonstone.

But I have no god. It is just me feeling like the African

figure full of nails

that says the future is likely all rust and worms, muscular,

attentive, but with extra dogs.

 

DON’T FORGET US

 

Autotomy in spiders is a voluntary act.

With such surprises, anticipation should have them

humming like the truck of wear-dated carpet

that idled all night in the Hardee’s parking lot.

Yesterday at the falls above the old quarry

a man put a running shoe on his plastic leg

for a fleet and normal look the way poetry evokes things

only potentially there, things attached for survival.

Then what was taken from the cliff became a lake

bathers spun down to on a single string.

What comes after is unknown, how a spider throws a leg,

us leaving our pennies where they fall.

What could it cost the present if a few heads were missing,

discovered eventually black as frostbite,

meaning don’t forget us, we are leaving things behind.

 

*

“The way poetry evokes things / only potentially there” is taken from Allan Peterson’s poem, “Don’t Forget Us,” as it appears in Precarious (42 Miles Press, 2014).

 

ALLAN PETERSON is a visual artist and poet living in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and Ashland, Oregon. His poetry has appeared widely in print and online literary journals. He has published five full-length collections and seven chapbooks. Honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the State of Florida and ten nominations for Pushcart Prizes, as well as a variety of poetry prizes and appearances in anthologies. He also has a lengthy record of visual work in national, regional and invitational exhibitions. His mixed media work has been represented in corporate, university and private collections.

 

 

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The Waking, Danger & Consent of the Body & Love: Reading Lisa Mangini’s Bird Watching at the End of the World

 

Lisa Mangini_Bird Watching at the End of the WorldWhen we spend a lot of time reading poetry, I know we can become critical of the pursuit of love and the defining of boundaries in poetry—but sometimes, a poet chooses to address these exact topics, and they get everything right: they create something new, something meaningful, something entirely worth reading, whether it is within the context of poetry or not. Lisa Mangini makes this exact achievement in her premiere full-length collection, Bird Watching at the End of the World, as she addresses danger as it relates to the body, various forms of physical awakening, and hope, and the complications that come along with it. These poems are incredible, and unique, and lovely, and they invite us with such great ease to consider questions of our reality, of our awareness, and our consent.

Because this is a complex collection, I found myself beginning to categorize the poems, in a sense. While the collection is much deeper than this, I began to see the collection as exploring two story lines: the medical ups and downs of Mabel, who is primarily addressed as a “you” in her poems, and the otherwise growing-up of the central narrator, focusing on childhood, sexual awakening and the maturation of a romantic relationship. What is so fascinating about these two story lines is not only how they explore varied themes, but how these two story lines complicate the themes of the other.

For instance, there is the role of danger that appears in these poems, in the form of the medical, the mechanical and the everyday. As an example, I would like to share one of Mangini’s “Mabel” poems, a poem titled, “This is Your Body Speaking (ii),” which appears in a series of poems by the same name, inserted throughout the first section of the collection:

 

THIS IS YOUR BODY SPEAKING (ii)

It is impossible, you think, to identify
anything in this nearly all-black
celluloid of your guts. You think back
to tenth-grade biology, but can recall
only the stench of formaldehyde,
the serene look upon the piglet’s face.
You think you recognize the white tines
of ribcage, the twin kidneys, the long
crinkled streamer of small intestine.
But on a large slab of gray, you see
the white mass—which you do not
recognize from any diagram—
round and obvious as the moon,
and somehow, whatever it is,
know it can shift the tide inside of you,
send everything swaying in its pull.

 

Though this poem doesn’t overtly represent every form of danger addressed in this collection, it touches on the medical and, in some ways, the mechanical. Like many of the medically-focused poems in this collection, there is a thorough examination of the body and isolates its parts: “the white tines / of ribcage, the twin kidneys.” And there is also a hint of the mechanical in the “formaldehyde” and the “large slab of gray,” even the reference to “any diagram,” which not only points us to man-made products and scientific exploration but the acquaintanceship of the body with these objects. Some other poems more thoroughly explore the mechanical, though, as well as the everyday, in the form of a car or an MRI machine, even a shopping cart or childhood heirloom. These forms of danger lead us to a place not only of fear, but of isolation and intrusion. These poems are wrought with feelings of fear, pain and sadness, yes, but due to the isolation of a person that occurs during an MRI, or while riding in a car, and due to the isolation of body images, there is also a sense of hopelessness and loneliness. These poems are incredibly focused and lovely in their authenticity and thoroughness, and these explorations of areas and reckonings with the body are among the most memorable aspects of these poems.

And these explorations are deeply, deeply connected to the various forms of awakening that occur in these poems—the sexual, of course, and the medical, too. Several of these poems—again, not the one I have included in the review—address sexual awakening, the strangeness of it, the things that surprise us, that we fail to expect, but even more poems explore the strangeness of medical procedures, which in a way interact with our bodies in the same ways as sexual intercourse: disturbing, disrupting, surprising, intruding… But little is said about our agency and our ability at consent, because so much about medicinal procedure is implied as agreeable after signing paperwork, despite all of the intrusions that may occur, depending on a body’s needs. Understandably, it’s strange to think of these procedures in this way, but I feel Mangini’s poems do explore the medicinal from this strange angle, largely because it is a viable concern—besides the fact that it is interesting to think about. So much about these poems is rooted in truth and the strangeness of truth, which can be so deeply explored through our physical connections to the world and where truth resides.

Despite all of these remarks of intrusion and danger and negativity, there is also a sharp glimmer of hope—even if it is complicated. Beginning in the second section, poems about a successful, healthy, long-distance relationship begin to appear, and they are both lovely and extremely hopeful. However, staying true to the other poems in the collection, there are slighted reminders of isolation contained in these poems, as you will see below, and there are also poems that seem to operate in another dimension, describing a similar long-term couple in the third person, but who are also struggling with a terminally-ill partner: the reappearing Mabel from the first section. So while hope is invited into the collection, there are still reminders that hope can be compromised with other goings-on in our lives, and that hope isn’t as “simple” as a successful relationship (though, obviously, successful relationships are anything but simple—but let’s leave that for another conversation). Here is one of my favorite “relationship poems” from the collection, “Every Time We Go to IKEA”:

 

EVERY TIME WE GO TO IKEA

it’s raining. It starts as a light spray
across the windshield, so slight the wipers squeal
against the glass. But there’s no fighting

against the allure of clean lines, the illusion
of better organization, despite that no
number of cubed shelves can tidy up a life.

And every time, there is a young woman
assessing the sturdiness of a crib, sometimes alone,
sometimes with a man or her mother beside her,

and I do my best not to meet your eyes. Every time
we weave through the model kitchens, I make a bee line
to the sink—farm apron, stainless steel, undermount—

and press my palms against its cool basin; if it’s not
crowded, you’ll lean your hips along my back, rest
your chin on my shoulder, trying to see what it is

I’m seeing. We’ll look for a chest of drawers
for your apartment, debating Malm versus Hopen,
birch finish or espresso, and I’ll scribble

their dimensions in inches with a tiny golf pencil.
We’ll emerge with a cardboard box on a dolly
to a downpour, and against your wishes, I’ll insist

on moving the car to the loading area myself. Every time,
I will lose a sandal while running in the slick lot
and have to turn back to retrieve it. We’ll maneuver

the box in some impossible diagonal in the back seat
of the sedan, wipe the rain from our faces, prepare
ourselves to go home and build something.

 

In this particular poem, there is a much greater focus on hope and the beauty in the mundane (that promise of going home to “build something” is just gorgeous to me), but there are subtle moves of concern in the poem, too: the concern for sturdiness early in the poem, which also makes us think of the possibility of something falling through, as well as that lost sandal at the end, which makes us think of someone isolated, or lost. Though they are small moments, and though they are routine, they still remind us of the foreboding that can lurk in the background. In the same way, there is the foreboding of the medicinal that appears in the alternate version of these poems with Mabel and her partner.

To me, these poems are just tremendous explorations of what it means to be alive, the beauty and hope of being alive, and often the isolation and danger that comes along with it. These poems are so fixated on reality, and our various forms of waking and awareness, and invites our questions of consent and invasion of different forms of our bodies. There is foreboding, and warning, intertwined with how we live and breathe, how we love and live, and there is the reminder of beauty, too, no matter how complicated it might be. At its most basic, these poems remind us that there is very little to come to us that can remain simple, that in no way becomes complicated, but these poems both consider how dangerous that that can be, but also how okay those complications can be. Take the time to read this collection. It’ll have you on your toes, wanting more of some things, and cringing at others, while all the while enjoying the ride. You won’t be disappointed.

 

LISA MANGINI holds an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of three chapbooks: Slouching Towards Entropy (Finishing Line Press), Perfect Objects in Motion (Red Bird Chapbooks), and Immanuel Kant vs. God (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches English composition and creative writing part-time at Southern Connecticut State University and Asnuntuck Community College; she is also the Founding Editor of Paper Nautilus. She was raised in Enfield, Connecticut, where she lives still, traveling frequently to Central Pennsylvania. This is her first full-length collection.

 

 

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Clark Kent is a Super Hipster: The Art of Finding Beauty in the Absurd & the Mundane: Reading Shawnte Orion’s The Existentialist Cookbook

 

Shawnte Orion_The Existentialist CookbookHere I am, attempting to think of what to say, but my coffee spilled, and it made such a lovely and dark display across my table. This is the sort of mindset in which Shawnte Orion places me: an area of in-the-moment appreciation, the odd humor of something spilled and its preoccupation with gaining our attention, and the beauty found in the small, the subtle and the sometimes-frustrating. In Orion’s debut collection, The Existentialist Cookbook, I am floored by these poems’ honesty, their humor and their seeming, underlying want for this Cookbook to be a recipe for a new kind of living. In this collection, living is truly in the details. Orion’s frequent use of fragment, as well as surprise and humor, reminds the reader of the potential for discovery in a chicken salad sandwich, a pause, an antiquated phone booth—and while his poems may not suggest our stopping to smell the flowers, they provide more world-specific examples of the absurdities of life, and the appreciating of a teacup over the din of traffic, or the sporadic nature of a midnight cat. “Despite” their pop culture references, these poems are timeless in their sentiment and challenge of ways of living, and their humor keeps them memorable, beyond-relatable and always-surprising.

According to NYQ Books, “Orion shifts through the absurdity of modern living for scraps of philosophy, religion and math to blend into recipes for elegies and celebrations,” which proved to me to be an incredibly accurate summation—these poems are fixated on the everyday and the small absurdities that occur, but, as I found, they also present the opportunities for thankfulness that accompany. While I read a collection, I write down page numbers for the poems I enjoyed the most, but in this case, I wrote so many page numbers down, I had to rank them—for this exact reason, the relationship between thankfulness and the absurd. Below, I have included three of my more-favorite poems that I would like to share before continuing my review:

 

DREAMS pl. n.

Mysterious river
connecting
lake and sea

you lie on the embankment
eyes closed
plunging hand into stream
grasping at powerful currents
water flowing between your fingers
rushing toward the sea

you stand
empty handed
but notice your hand still wet
water dripping from each finger
as the Sun dries your arm

 

THINGS THAT MAKE ME CRY

You
slicing onions
in our new kitchen

In our old kitchen
slicing onions
by myself

 

DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRONICALLY-DEPOSITED UNEMPLOYMENT CHECKS?

Job security
isn’t manufactured
on this assembly line.

It might sound technical
but I basically press
buttons on a machine

while they invent a machine
to press the buttons
on my machine and I can only

hope this new machine
will have its own buttons
that also need to be pressed.

 

These poems are brief, but they are also lovely, imagistic and raw. What is particularly interesting to me is how these poems are so deeply rooted in the mundane and still manage to find value and beauty in that moment and to teach us something about the self. For instance, there is the water dripping from the narrator’s hands in “Dreams,” which represents beauty and simplistic, the cutting of onions in an empty kitchen in “Things that Make Me Cry,” which represents solitude, and what about the ever-shifting role of the factory worker in “Do Androids Dream…,” which can represent stability, hope and regret, and even a certain element of humor. These poems accomplish in tight spaces, through singular instances and images, truths that are often overlooked in our everyday lives but which are otherwise deeply telling of ourselves and our needs.

And if such sentiments were not compelling enough on their own, I also truly admire Orion’s writerly decisions—particularly his use of fragment and transformation from fragment to full sentence for emphasis. These traits are not portrayed in the poems I included, but what becomes so important about these techniques in Orion’s poetry is that they accelerate the poems forward and create an emphasis, in image and concept; the use of fragment isolates these images, and finalizing a poem with a full sentence emphasizes and finalizes the importance of that image. In the poems I included above, Orion focuses on double-meaning through the removal of (most) punctuation and the power of successful enjambment. For instance, in “Dreams,” I particularly enjoy the isolation of images that occurs, based on the enjambment of the lines and lack of punctuation—take “water flowing through your fingers,” for instance, which takes on a feeling of not only importance but a small, eternal continuity. Take, also, the images of the onions being cut in the second poem; not only are two instances of onions being described, but they are separated into a form of ongoing, isolated and deprecating silence. How this works is very lovely and surprising, as well as memorable and sharp-handed.

These poems, from the beginning, entranced me first in their earnest, humorous appeals but then kept me with their surprise and subtle movements at the level of the line. Shawnte Orion provides a unique snapshot of our world and its little absurdities, its humor, and even its beauty, often found through simplicity. The Existentialist Cookbook confronts some of our greatest inconsistences, our sins, and reminds of what we can and should focus on, how we should operate, how we should live. It’s deeply honest, and in that honesty, humorous, and it is greatly memorable. This is one of those collections where you should take it to a quiet place, sit back and drink a cup of coffee like I did. And maybe spill it a little, close enough to the book for you to need to pull it away and watch spill spread; it’s so worth it.

 

SHAWNTE ORION attended Paradise Valley Community College for one day, but his poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Barrelhouse, Gargoyle Magazine, Georgetown Review, New York Quarterly and many other journals. His chapbook The Infernal Gaze was published by Red Booth Review and he has been invited to read at bookstores, bars, universities, hair salons, museums, and laundromats. He hosts monthly poetry readings in Arizona.

 

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The line “Clark Kent is a super hipster” appears at the end of the first stanza of Orion’s poem, “Mallville.”

 

 

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