01 October 2009

Used White Wife by Sandra Simonds

Review by Valerie Wetlaufer
 
Used White Wife 
By Sandra Simonds
Grey Book Press
Staple-Bound Chapbook, 23 pages

Link to purchase

Sandra Simonds is a wry and inventive poet, telling us in the first line of this chapbook, “It is absolutely unnecessary to write serious poetry.” The book is full of similar declarations, with poems titled “My Lyric Sensibility is Gone,” and “Any Title Will Do.” These poems don’t take themselves too seriously, but you should. Employing a vocabulary scientific, lyric and political, Simonds delights us with the juxtaposition of Lacan, Mao Zedong, Alaska, Moscow and the Eiffel Tower, taking the foreign and making it familiar.

In the poem “I Hate My Life,” the speaker watches her mirror crack, dividing her reflection into “a self game of / polyhedral tremors.” The different selves contain “a Zanzibar of brain shivers / cut with Xan-/ax” and jokes about “a life lacking cliffhangers,” but each line is a cliffhanger, fragmented, often broken off in the middle of a line, to add to the jarring effect of her unexpected subject matter. 

Each poem contains elements of the sardonic and self-effacing. “All the stories // I’ve ever told are drafts/ to bigger lies so I’m giving up,” the speaker declares in “Any Title Will Do.” 

In the poem “Skyhook,” we encounter gender-bending, bodily functions, celebrities as secret identities, famous poets and philosophers in one audacious, funny, and irreverent poem:
Today I lost my mucus plug
which is funny since I’m
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and didn’t expect
to get pregnant in the first
place. Here are some
facts about me you should probably
know before you start sending
my soon-to-be-born child X-mas
presents. My real name is
Geraldine Ferraro and Geraldine
is the woman who got me
pregnant at the Cleveland Clinic.
Only in a Simonds poem could all these elements co-mingle. We do not inhabit a fixed place in this book, but travel continents, centuries, at times chillingly personal, then, suddenly, surreal, as in “Your Own Winnebago:”
There’s a volcano in my Alaska, a Paris
       in my mesa and the bulldog
at the wheel who looks at me with her awful
eyes says “Sandra, there’s no time for
     a vinyasa, so skedaddle,” and in
dog paddling to the Eiffel Tower I see
the shenanigans of topography…
“there’s a crater in my Moscow, a hickey
     on my Himalaya, a quicksand pit
on my 9th Tokyo, a Yucatan on this meteor impact
more idiotic than the Patriot Act, more
     ants in your pants than Shay’s Rebellion.
I am most struck by the sense of possibility offered in these poems. So frequently we hear what poetry is and is not, but Simonds offers us a new option: Who cares? Anything can be poetry; hers is an expansive approach that elevates the mundane and obscene. The velocity of each line allows for so much inclusiveness; “so drop a few / bouillon cubes in this verb // brimming stew and call it antsy petroleum, / the new gold!” (“Your Own Winnebago”).

What is it like to find yourself reading a poem from Used White Wife? It is like whitewater rafting without a paddle, holding on and trusting that each stanza brings you closer to a place you never knew you were heading, but where you are delighted to arrive.

***

Valerie Wetlaufer is a PhD student and Vice-Presidential Fellow at the University of Utah. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in La Fovea, Melusine, Word Riot, Poemmemoirstory and Bloom. You can find her online here.  

Back of the Envelope by Greg McBride

Reviewed by Anne Harding Woodworth

Back of the Envelope
By Greg McBride
Southeast Missouri State University Press
A Copperdome Chapbook
ISBN: 978-0-9798714-98

Link to purchase


Back of the Envelope is a chapbook of 24 poems that fold a man’s life into itself. From childhood to the Vietnam War to life in the family kitchen, Greg McBride writes out his life on the back of an envelope. And there is an abundance of experience to write down. McBride examines the migrations of his military family: Yokohama during the Occupation, on the road in the backseat of a ’48 Plymouth, Texas, Okinawa, Oregon. The child is always growing up, growing up. He plays sports, gets hints of sex, and makes love.

And then, there’s Vietnam.

In Saigon, the poet sees the stars over “the street and the girls too young in the night.” He is an Army photographer, “safe/behind his camera,” entering the intimacy of the operating room. And there’s an eerie practicality, which of course is what helps a guy survive in those circumstances. In “The Army Thought of Everything” he writes:

I focused my lens, asked that the surgeon

lower a shoulder, checked on the color
temperature, all to preserve the distance
between them and me. How their bodies heaved

under machines! Intubated, chest-tubed,
they lay tethered to possibilities
of unbridled breath.

The memory of war does not go away with time. At LaGuardia Airport, the poet’s iPod idle, he sees new
Marine recruits.
Their strident left right left so like

the Huey rotor’s chop and chop hammering
at our bones, unlike our trudging gait
into the Delta, taking fire, hauling gear

high on our backs.

These evocative poems go between the “I” and the “He.” But there is never any doubt who is speaking. In “Kitchen Duty” a man has to inject a woman, using a syringe that turns into a bayonet. This is what war does to the mind. And Greg McBride has touchingly exposed the marriage of reality and memory in this fine chapbook.

***

Anne Harding Woodworth’s most recent book is Spare Parts, A Novella in Verse (Turning Point, 2008), and her most recent chapbook is Up From the Root Cellar (Cervena Barva Press, 2008). Her essays and poetry have appeared widely in US and Canadian journals. She is a member of the Poetry Board at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, where she lives part-time. The rest of the time she is hiking in Cedar Mountain, NC. Visit www.annehardingwoodworth.com.

Tulips, Water, Ash by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet

Reviewed by Emma Bolden
 
Tulips, Water, Ash
By Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet
Northeastern
Perfect Bound, 88 pages
ISBN: 978-1555537081

Link to purchase

Tulips, Water, Ash, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s first collection and the winner of the 2009 Morse Poetry Prize, achieves the rare and difficult feat of arcing through the dull rituals of everyday life to the most profound questions about being, finding meaning in both realms. In these carefully wrought, clean poems, Stonestreet examines and illuminates both the objects of daily existence – “the mailbox, the toaster, the dentist office” – and the deepest questions a human being can posit about their existence – why am I here, and what is my place in the universe? The poem which starts the collection, “De Profundis,” beautifully sets Stonestreet’s agenda by questioning the worth and meaning of daily life – “the middle, the soft / chewy center of here” -- and calling for some experience of elsewhere, of more, of God in the midst of minutiae: “Oh, lord. Remember // us, here: the soft warm milky middle, / its erasing breath, its easy arms.”

The poems in part one present a difficult problem: how we, as human beings, long for transcendence, but are nonetheless mired in the minutiae of our lives. In “View from the Headlands,” Stonestreet provides a view of life as cluttered by necessarily rote. Human beings are, essentially, trapped; the possibility of transcendence has been ruined by the stale steps one must take every day for survival: “The longer I know it, my husband says, this place, / the worse I know it is—the ruined, // the once.” The poem ends, however, on a note of hope: Stonestreet sees that “[t]he moon hung, or was tethered, low in its cradle,” thereby questioning whether this is an actual trap or merely a trick of perception. 

Stonestreet picks up this theme again in “Jars,” in which she presents the possibility that even in — or by — our daily lives, we can be transformed, but that we are resistant to this: “What did I think / would happen? We were transformed, / and obstinate.” In “Potential,” Stonestreet relates this to the difficulty of escaping routine, or, rather, perceiving the routine in another way: “No getting away from the world, at least for now: even on the good days / it’s wash and backwash [...] Each discarded bottle an egg dream, a push to the next / and next.” Even the smallest and most seemingly useless object, then, contains within it the potential for transformation, like an egg contains its yolk; however, we merely discard and push things away. 

Stonestreet suggests, in “Painting the Existent,” that this is due to the brute human tendency to believe that the other is better, the “there so compelling” — that only through escape will we seek release, salvation from ourselves, or what we have made of ourselves. Perception, then, is the essence of the problem, as Stonestreet’s “Thought Experiment” suggests:
See:
Yesterday you met me at the train. Next year
is a leap year.
All our present
spent elsewhere, a mirror held over the shoulder
and a smaller one, fogged, close to the eye.
The following poems tackle the parts of life which should allow for some kind of transcendence: sexuality, the power to join two being into one, and reproduction, the power to create another human being. Here, Stonestreet again posits the possibility that perception is the problem, that, through being caught up in the dailiness of life, we see even these aspects of human existence as routine. In “Married Sex,” Stonestreet meditates on what sex could be:
that lostness
you’d once do anything for:
to be made
nothing again, perfect
not-being —
Sexuality has the potential to take us outside of ourselves and create a moment of “perfection;” however, by making sexuality routine, we drastically change our perception: “Now you are something else: / not not [...] / Flush all the time / with the seeing.” What we see, however, removes the possibility of release. Even the power to create new life is reduced, not glorified as it once was in the body of Persephone, who, in “Persephone at 13,”
          can swim in and through,
          tail flicking, down into the earth
          of her own flesh, becoming in her descent
          a cell, an electron, small thing spinning
          in a great void.
In the classroom, Stonestreet learns of her body and its great capacities through watching fish which the teacher presents as expendable, as nothings, “Dime a dozen, those depths, those five / red jewels. All the girls are doing it. Dark matter / richer than loam, its loping song— pull of away, of in.” As these lines suggest, there is still the promise of transcendence, if only through the desire for extremity, a moment to jog one from routine, as “Catapult” illustrates:
[...] Nights
we tried for momentum, some catapult
of desire that could lift us out of one life
and into the next [...]
[...] Plotted escape from something
not so bad, that is, intolerable.
The poems which follow offer a kind of wistful hope by working through the problems of perception. In “From Then,” Stonestreet suggests that alternate ways of perceiving the world —  through, for instance, poetry —  can offer a path to release, however limited it may be. Poetry, here, acts as divine inspiration, a ladder up which —  or down which —  one can escape from the routine of “dirty linoleum. One shoe squeaking / against the other.” Poetry becomes the intersection of the divine and the ordinary, through which Stonestreet “held the pearl. I slipped back down / through a hole in the net.” This is because the person —  the self —  is not entirely present in the moment of creation; rather, poetry comes through the person,
who must in some sense become other than their self. “We’re used / by sweetness—” suggests a solution in blankness, a moment when the self is not so concerned with the self and transcends the limits of daily, earthly life:
      
          Use me then, take me
          humming and buzzing
          down into
          hallelujah blankness—
          [...] that one
          moment of sweet forgiving
          nothing-elseness. That thing
          we’re made for.
In part II, Stonestreet moves from seeking a solution in the self and the body to examining the very laws of space itself: its elements and its particles, its universes, all tending to the left, the right, the irregular, and the strange, as do human beings. In “Dark Matter,” Stonestreet explores the great mystery of what cannot be seen, seeking a definition and therefore, perhaps, a solution, as though, by naming, she can lay claim to the mystery and therefore gain a sense of agency and control over it: “It is only the space between stars.” Stonestreet links the laws of the universe at large with the laws of men:
          —everything now is farther but gets there
          faster: light in the wires, your hand
          as it lifts toward your face, more distant
          by an atom than the day before.
“The Anthropic Principle” turns again to the idea of perception, borrowing a cosmological principle circling around the fact that human are rational, and therefore any other universe that humans, or rational beings, could occupy must be a universe like this one:       
The cosmologist says, We hope that we don’t have to resort to this solution.
The cheat, the lie, the truth: Orion, for example, is there
because you are there to see it.
But it is one way out.
The way out, in other words, is through granting perception the ultimate power by believing that the very universe exists because we name it into existence. The human being, therefore, is of essential importance, and this transcends not only beyond the dailiness of our everyday life, but the boundaries of earth and earthly life in general:
          You are there, and how long
          you have not been there, how long it has been leading
          up to this (mismatched and
          unreal though it is, though it
          will be still)— Open your view.
         
          Open. Flooding in like stars,
          everything, with its hands and its eyes.
In “Double Helix,” Stonestreet turns again to the human realm and suggests that this kind of naming, this kind of communion, is as natural to human beings as our very bodies themselves, as our very bodies function in such a manner:   
          Vitreous humor, spleen, all thumbs and your hand
          spirals down toward completion, stripped-down
          telegraph times two carrying the news of the day
          and all is catch and fall, rise and carry —
Our organs work in this rhythm to catch sensory experience, and the human mind works along to carry it. We are made, then, of perception, which is itself transcendence. In “Super Baby Jumbo Prawn,” Stonestreet makes clear that the beauty of life is in the moments when we don’t seek extremity, in those quiet moment in which we can sit back and simply see: “Some days it’s enough, / sitting in the car eating lunch, / watching surfers tempt the waves.”

We are our perceptions, and we are our memories, and thus we are also our inconstant existences, our routines and our routine miseries; we are “all the buckets, dug out / by their contents, made / of their burdens.” Therefore, it is through our tragedies and our inconsistencies – both small and large, common and grand – that we find possibility, that we gain the ability to reflect back, be illuminated, shine, as in “Alluvial:” “Here, now: the compound, the rough. Something mars / the surface, lets itself in.” The important thing, recognized both by the poets and scientists, is that one changes by letting this illumination into one’s life, as in “Light as the Only Constant in the Universe:”
          What is illuminated is what
          is reflective, even
          a little bit—roughed-up
          enough to grab onto, send
          something back.
In “Etymology of Lost,” the book’s final poem, Stonestreet turns to tragedy: “And now here I’m supposed / to detail something even worse [...] /Body in the water, pins on a map.” After great tragedy, perception alters, and it is exactly the small, routine things which matter, and which give us most the ability to be illuminated, and therefore luminous: “And then we went out for kung pao tofu, and home to bed, / and I kissed my son on his head and sang to him, // first the song about the angels and then the one about the sky.”

***

Emma Bolden’s chapbooks include How to Recognize a Lady (part of Edge by Edge, Toadlily Press), The Mariner’s Wife (Finishing Line Press), and The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press). She was a semi-finalist for the Perugia Press Book Prize and a finalist for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize and for a Ruth Lily Fellowship. She teaches at Georgetown College and is poetry editor of Georgetown Review.

Then, Something by Patricia Fargnoli

Review by Lori A. May
 
Then, Something
By Patricia Fargnoli
Tupelo Press
Perfect Bound, 84 pages
ISBN: 978-1-932195-79-8

Link to purchase

As the cover suggests, Then, Something by Patricia Fargnoli offers a contradiction, or juxtaposition, of things that are and things that are not. Blurring lines between reality and imagination, between what is and what is not, Fargnoli’s poems challenge the reader to ponder, question, and settle into the quiet unrest of unknowns.  

From the opening poem, “Wherever you are going,” Fargnoli’s narrator heeds warnings and provides advice for the poetic journey ahead:
[…]
You will try to take a prayer you might have otherwise left behind in case you need it—
    and a memory of the love you have been calling back—but you will soon forget.
[…]
take less than nothing and even less than that. Remove your shoes, place your pulse along the table,
    release breath. Leave behind the scars on your finger, your thigh, the long one over your heart.
Just when the reader begins to brace for uncertainties, Fargnoli’s narrator asserts concrete wisdom, in the poem “On the Question of the Soul:”
[…]
It doesn’t care whether or not you believe in it.
It is unassailable and contradictory: the dog
that comes barking and wagging its tail.
As these excerpts demonstrate, Fargnoli has a passion for the long line. Most poems extend to the far edges of the page, prose style, within tight verse. The white space between two line stanzas is deceiving; these are not light, quick lines. Fargnoli’s verse is fluid, but it is complicated and full of weighty questions. 

Too, the reader is subtly introduced to the poet, herself, in poems such as “Easter Morning,” where the narrator becomes poet and the poet becomes narrator:
[…]
Yesterday, after my reading,
a man handed me two paragraphs
about his shaky spirituality, saying
mine had helped with his own,
and a widow my age claimed I’d changed her life.
Such praise, hard to let in, harder to let go.
What do they know
of me except what I’ve written?
And what has that to do with this
awkward woman fiddling with her fingers,
biting skin off her lips,
becoming reluctantly old?
Indeed, what do we know but that which we are presented? What can we surmise of Fargnoli’s narrator or, perhaps, the poet herself? Everything. And nothing. As it flows in Then, Something, we, the reader, are given ample opportunity to dig deep, reveal layers, and find treasures of personal knowledge; yet, we’re left behind, most often on the sidelines, the margins, in briefly encountering an in only to be made aware that our experience was a mere hint at Fargnoli’s experience. 

Like the man who handed off paragraphs after a reading, we are in the audience. We do not play an active role. We observe. We question. We ponder. The only answers we are given in Fargnoli’s tightly weaved verse and prose like enchantments are ones we presume for ourselves, ones we think we understand. 

In “Approaching Seventy,” the poet reveals her own disconnection to those around her:
Sometimes, it feels as if I’ve said goodbye to everyone.
Through the north window, I watch clouds move off
beyond my vision and somewhere dissolve into rain.
Fargnoli’s world is complicated, beautiful, moving, and impenetrable. Her poems are the rain. We are the clouds. 

***

Lori A. May is the Founding Editor of Poets’ Quarterly. Visit her website at www.loriamay.com.

The Touch by Cynthia Kraman

Review by Mary Meriam
 
The Touch
By Cynthia Kraman
YBK Publishers, Inc
Perfect Bound, 140 pages
ISBN: 978-0980050882

Link to purchase

In the late 1970’s, Cynthia Kraman was an “avant-punk pioneer,” a “fiercely feminist frontwoman,” and a “commanding, cerebral performer in the poetry-driven tradition of Patti Smith, delivering her vivid, subversive screeds...” (“Notes from the Underground,” Hannah Levin). Then the former punk rocker became a medieval scholar. The poems in The Touch possess both a Chaucerian sweetness
  I woke up dreaming that I went to you
  And you were owner of a little bird
and punk-rock alienation
  It cut my young brain
  into a brilliant bowl where I poured pain
Kraman’s poems seem to wander through and between medieval mysticism (“I wanted God, God wanted me; we played”) and punk pain (“When I was young my heart was like a sword”). The method in the madness of any poet’s leaps in life is counting (“All night I rearranged the ancient tongues”). The Touch is divided into two main sections, each with its own form created by Kraman, forms that revolve around numbers. 

The poems in the first section have “three stanzas of non-rhyming decasyllables of seven lines each.” The number seven, Kraman explains, is “endowed with mystical meaning but also firmly embedded in the natural world.” In the second section, “each poem has five stanzas of five lines, with alternating stanzas closing with couplets and triadic rhymes.” While each poem stands alone, the repetition of poems with three-stanzas (first section) and five-stanzas (second section) makes for a tremendously satisfying read. 

The book’s eponymous poem seems to be the touchstone of the book. “The Touch” begins in an iambic pentameter with a mechanical thump, but the meter disappears abruptly in the last five lines. Likewise, meter fades in and out of every poem in the book. Or, as Kraman puts it in her helpful afterword, “On the Forms in This Collection,” the poems “sometimes [scan] into metric feet.” 

Why does Kraman’s iambic pentameter fluctuate and fade? “Poetry resists imposition,” Kraman writes, “Form has to operate as a gift...These rhythms and vocalizations come out of our hands and mouths because they are in our bodies; they are in our bodies because we learn a mother tongue.” Perhaps the punk rocker in Kraman resists strict meter, just as the poems frequently resist punctuation. The poems in the first section use the old-fashioned style of initial caps for each line, as if to compensate for the rebellious punctuation. Another possible reason for Kraman’s fluctuating iambic pentameter is that the prevailing contemporary poetic aesthetic is anti-meter, anti-feeling, anti-passion, and pro-intellect. “Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, and Jonson...saw what a flexible and adaptable meter [iambic pentameter] was, how much could be said with it, how much feeling, passion, and power could be expressed through it.” (Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, George Thaddeus Wright) Fortunately, Kraman’s poems are not too heavily intellectual and have plenty of feeling and passion. Her frequent use of exclamation points and question marks certainly bucks the prevailing aesthetic. 

Kraman writes, “Forms provide all of us, like the little bee in Wordsworth’s sonnet, ‘Nuns Fret Not,’ a bell in which to furiously buzz.” Compare Kraman’s furious buzz with Wordsworth’s soaring and murmuring “bees that soar for bloom... murmur by the hour.” Again, a formal constraint is refashioned by Kraman, both literally and emotionally. For example, Kraman’s buzz is furious in “The Lockjob,” for good reason. The book is dedicated to Kraman’s mother, who “survived the European war as a [Jewish] Belgian ‘in hiding’”:
How hijacked I’d been by me mum’s gruesome group
Of Motls and Shmuels and Gittels and Leahs,
The dead rising angry and hungry and dead
The dead are so dead oh my darling, so dead
And locked in my heart, oh so locked in my heart.
The poems are populated by this mother, lovers, God, New Yorkers (tourists, the homeless), “People I’ve Met,” and “Mythical and Historical People I’ve Known,” such as Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle, Chaucer, and Keats. We travel through several beautiful, but painful, summer nights
Because that’s they way my mind works, how it
conjures up genies of remorse and pain
out of a June night in a London lane.
(“Half Moon Street”)
The bones of iambic pentameter are clearly felt in the poignant, lyrical poem, “To You If Then Comes.” Here we see the form Kraman created for the first section of the book: “three stanzas of non-rhyming decasyllables of seven lines each.” In this form, Kraman’s decision to use initial caps seems to have heightened her attention to the individual line. However, her attention falters in the last line, which, unlike the other thrilling repetition in the poem, is disappointingly flat for a reader with Chaucerian taste. A metricist might think that the poet had exhausted her “techniques of expressive variation” (Wright) in iambic pentameter and faltered. On the other hand, a punk-rock reader might enjoy the bass-thump of the line.
“To You If Then Comes”
O sweet my mine, if I get sick again
O guide me then, when winter storms in me
O navigable hours, when you made fast in me
O harboring time, and these we married up
And made two twin, to tumble in the waves.
Unfurled, the land! The arable, the dry
The old and torn, the beautiful and formed.
Come resurrect our sights, our sighing charts
Come sit beside, come show it all to me
Come touch the dimpled satin kissless lip
Come touch the touchless, light the sad unlit
Come climb my masted heart unwandering
And rearrange an ended calendar
And re-begin departures on wide seas
When pain has reached its unknown outer rim
When I cry out, come over up my mouth
Cover up my eyes, my mouth my moving tongue
My heated little limbs, my lamby parts
My cold hard ribs, my salty toes and tips
With you with you, with you my other best
And hold and hold and hold and hold and hold.
The Touch has rightfully earned praised from Marie Ponsot, Richard Howard, and Thomas Beller. I rarely read a contemporary poet whose craft and aesthetics inspire me this much. There are so many poetic paths to follow that it’s heartwarming to see a fellow traveler in the distance. 

***

Mary Meriam’s poems and essays have appeared in Literary Imagination, The Gay & Lesbian Review, Windy City Times, Rattle, A Prairie Home Companion, Light Quarterly, and others. Her chapbook, The Countess of Flatbroke (afterword by Lillian Faderman), was published by Modern Metrics. She has an MFA from Columbia University.

the dream and the dream you spoke by Maureen Alsop

Review by Christina Cook
 
the dream and the dream you spoke
By Maureen Alsop
inSPIREd Poetry Series, Spire Press, Inc.
29 pages
ISBN:978-1-934828-03-8

Link to purchase

Maureen Alsop's latest collection of poems, the dream and the dream you spoke, rides the razor's edge between the surreal and the real. It opens by questioning our assumptions about the physical components of the world around us and continues to do so throughout the subsequent twenty-nine pages. The narrator of "Accidental Sea" unsettles us as early as page one:
The sea was not an accident
but a silk red dahlia hidden
in the curio-cabinet, a dusty
boutonniere which lurked under a shrunken
ship inside a bottle.
When T. said he loved me
every teacup in the house grew
stained and suffered a chip, the asphalt
rippled like some kind of water. It lashed
at the hedges.
The sophisticated use of enjambment serves many technical functions in these poems, not the least of which is illustrated in the second stanza quoted above. The line ending, "every teacup in the house grew," leaves us feeling like Alice in Wonderland, only to reassure us in the next line that the teacups grew, not larger like our bewildered childhood heroine, but merely and mundanely "stained." The fact that we are told that the "sea was not an accident" in a poem titled "Accidental Sea" makes us feel off-kilter from the beginning, and forces us to question what we think we know about our world.

This balance between the ordinary and the magical is, in fact, a central tension in the collection. Alsop takes us through unremarkable settings from Watervliet, New York, to her childhood home near Lake Superior. It is her stunning use of language that transforms the mundane into the magical. Note, for example, the setting of "Fever at Watervliet:"
The strawberry sun vacillated between the noon
smoke of paper mill towers and the blanched
horizon of a midnight farm. Joshua,
grey, variant grey, your eyes-one
plumbago & peacock plume the other
saguaro.
Unusual and richly alliterative word pairings, such as "strawberry sun" and "peacock plume," in addition to such exotic word choices as "plumbago" and "saguaro," essentially serve as the looking glass through which a farmer with mismatched eyes living in a mill town becomes a mystical figure surrounded by a luscious, succulent landscape.

Similarly, in "Lake Superior," the narrator conveys a visionary experience of her own death, brought on by a visitation of "some small slipping / bird" in a, once again, unremarkable place:
. . . I recognized
a deep gorge and a swirl of green
among familiar rocks. Later
that night, my death
filled me. It was unbearably large
like a silk blouse torn
sheer into space. In sleep
I ripened as a bruise
among the lifting rushes of water
or drowned between blades of grass
on the upper hills, not
alive, but animated, like the last
whisper of sand over granite
clasts.
The setting once so familiar to the narrator morphs into a site of transforming vision. The final metaphor here strong-arms the reader into Alsop's Wonderland, where sand blowing over rock is naturally assumed to be "not / alive, but animated." In the same way that we are told "the sea was not an accident" in the poem titled "The Accidental Sea," we are here told that the sand has life, but it is not alive: the imagery and language are so hypnotic, and the lines so lullingly musical, that we believe it.

Such slights-of-hand on the part of the poet give her readers the sense that a conjuring is taking place, that they are in a world where things may or may not be as they seem. The tool traditionally used to navigate such a world, in life or language, is the interpretation of signs. However, Alsop challenges us in this arena, as well. Where the bird in "Lake Superior" opens the narrator's mind to a vision, "Augury Miscellany" opens with the image of a bird unable to deliver its message: "The long winter sun chokes / the throat of a pigeon / that stoops in the monastery courtyard." Augury is the art of reading signs that birds bring from the gods, but despite the poem's title, no meaning will be augured from this bird: the reader, like the narrator, is on her own. Later in the poem, we see that even language has lost its ability to convey meaning and can no longer be relied upon: "She said the house // was dead, but she may have meant / her daughter."

Such esoterica as augury and monasteries are, however, punctuated by the ordinary: the woman "drinks coffee from a dinted / thermos" and "gnats / flick at the eyes." In this, as in the other poems in the collection, we are left with the understanding that Wonderland is not somewhere beyond our ordinary reality: it is our ordinary reality, simply seen through a different lens.

In the title poem, Alsop blurs life-as-reality with text-as-reality by sharpening her lens’s focus on Octavio Paz's long prose poem, "The Poet's Work." "The dream, and the dream you spoke" is not a translation of Paz's poem, nor even an interpretation of it. Alsop takes a different, extremely innovative approach to engaging with this Spanish text, enacting a dialogue between the speaker and the speaker's internalization of Paz's words. As the poem opens, she stages the setting as if she and Paz are physically in the same room together:
I french press jasmine tea. Pour
two cups. Seat him
in the drover's chair. I,
at the hearth. It is summer,
no fire, no wind. But the scent
of rain impending. I light
four candles into a terracotta urn.
The concrete imagery underscores the physical presence of Paz while the speaker is reading his work. Several stanzas later, though, the status of his physicality is brought into question:
The desk fades, the roof wearies. Octavio
passes through me like dusk going under. I offer him
a cotton blanket and a corner to lie in.
Candles flutter. Innumerable stars break loose.
Our conversation is a long gazing
at the border as the border
itself dissolves. Language
alters the silk curtains over the windows. The room
flits-dappled & shining. His text
peppers my mind.
Paz's presence is as difficult to discern as the lights of the fluttering candles and the rioting stars: he is palpable, yet his edges cannot be felt. This presence embodies her engagement with the Spanish poem as it morphs through her mind's caché of thoughts and personal experiences, and comes to be expressed in the words of the English poem she is writing. A translation takes place in the process, but this poem is, as I said, no work of translation. Rather, it is a reflection of the metamorphosis that transpires in the very act of reading a poem, brought into focus by the language difference. As the 13-page poem progresses, the speaker asserts her own ability to make meaning of Paz's text, apart from his intended meaning:
Octavio demands now some symbol of soldiers,
but I lean into my britches, close my eyes
and wish for a metallic fire. . . or a stretched
pool of rain-water steaming into sunlight. . .
She arrives at a point in the text where she prefers other imagery, other words, to those in the original poem. The word "but" tips the scales, heavily weighted by the comma and line break before it, and she chooses to translate her experience of reading the poem-as opposed to translating the poem itself. A page later, she says, "Octavio, you can be my headlamp, and / when the headlamp goes out, well, it goes...." marking almost the last time she mentions his name. After that, Paz's voice melts into the experience of the moment, becoming at the same time mythic and ordinary:
Will I whistle you? Sink
my breastbone into you? Are you a lost Aztlan diety? Or
the swooping sound
of ash.
In keeping with the rest of the poems in the collection, "The dream and the dream you spoke" transforms the way we perceive the ordinary world around us through stunningly original imagery and language. Taken singly and together, these poems ultimately reveal places as ordinary as Watervliet, New York, or experiences as common as reading a poem, to be extraordinary and enchanting.

***

Christina Cook is a poet and translator and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals including, most recently, Prairie Schooner, Hayden's Ferry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, and Sojourn: A Journal of the Arts. Her manuscript, Out of the Blue, was shortlisted for the 2006 Dorset Prize, and she was a finalist for the 2007 Willis Barnestone Translation Prize. Christina holds an MFA from Vermont College and an MA in English and American Literature from the University of Cincinnati. She is a poetry editor for Inertia Magazine.

Taste of Cherry by Kara Candito

Review by Valerie Wetlaufer

Taste of Cherry
By Kara Candito
University of Nebraska Press
Perfect Bound, 68 pages
ISBN: 978-0-803225-23-7

Link to purchase

Reading Kara Candito’s book Taste of Cherry is like being slapped in the face and asking for more. From poems of uncanny childhood to adult journeys through Egypt, New York and Rome, the speaker in these poems is a flâneur, watching, participating, taking pleasure in the voyeurism and inviting the reader in, too.

Channeling Walter Benjamin, as if notifying us about what we are to expect with these poems, Candito writes in “Notes for a Novice Flâneur:”
Try to think of all this as a seduction.
A tourist trap or attraction . . . the self’s stuttering
    between the holy pornography of martketplace
and passing glance.
And we are seduced, drawn in despite the flavor of danger on our tongues. We are warned about the hazards we will encounter from the book’s first sentence, in the poem, “Self-Portrait with an Ice Pick:”
Imagine the impact—wrecking ball, welcome
      injury or collision, like some secret screamed
    in a late night taxi.
Those screamed secrets fill this book, winner of the 2008 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. And Candito gives no directions on how we are to proceed, nor forewarns what personas we may encounter along the way. Faulkner’s Caddy, Margaret Atwood’s Gilead and the cast of Carnivale show up in chilling exactness. On the next page, the speaker is a child, discovering her father’s porn collection; then we are in one of the many poems in the voice of a lover, navigating allure and betrayals, though hardly in a manner we could anticipate. There is something incantatory and polymorphous in this book; we are hypnotized, besotted, and we want to follow along with the speaker, past the end of the poem. 

In my favorite poem “Epic Poem Concerning the Poet’s Coming of Age as Attis,” Candito displays her talent for transforming her subject, playing with gender, and calling on elements as diverse as ancient mythology and popular culture to create a poem that is visually stunning, uncomfortable, hilarious and smart. We journey alongside the speaker as he charts his life, ridden along the rim of peril, from a childhood spent “genuflecting before the TV” watching the last scene of Easy Rider, “until the world dissembles like air after / an apology … Burst of body and fire and metal” to his incestuous, furtive observation of his sister undressing:
Why do I watch her? Worship is the word
my mother used once. That was before.
One night, they catch me. It’s funny, really—
my father beating me for wanting to fuck
my sister. He cannot say, Son, I know you
want to fuck your sister. After this, I look
at naked magazines. But every night before
I fall asleep, I see her. My love stuck inside
the body of my sister, curled like smoke
from a bashful chimney. My beautiful girl
waiting, wanting me. She doesn’t know yet
the shape of my face in the dark.
For this speaker, as for the speaker of all Candito’s poems, words are “brave and red, / made of what we hide. Words bleeding out onto the dry, brown lawn.” Words are not for healing or wooing, but for fighting, mystifying. No one holds our hand here; sentiment a foreign thing. We mingle with Rimbaud, Magritte, Benjamin. Each poem turns us on, tosses us aside and dares us to turn the page. We can’t help but comply; what comes next? We are not guests in this world any longer, we belong here too, seated beside the speaker, feeling the poet’s breath on our neck, as we hold our own, bated.

“The Poet’s Coming of Age as Attis” ends raw and body-present, yet displaying a now-familiar loose temporality, with a chilling declaration, that could be the book’s anthem:
I roll down the hill beside the river.
Gravity, it grinds my bones.
Time saws off. Nothing here,
but truth and hot.
***

Valerie Wetlaufer is a PhD student and Vice-Presidential Fellow at the University of Utah. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in La Fovea, Melusine, Word Riot, Poemmemoirstory and Bloom. You can find her online here

Dear Anaïs: My Life in Poems For You by Diana M. Raab

Review by Lori A. May
 
Dear Anaïs: My Life in Poems For You
By Diana M. Raab
Plain View Press
Perfect Bound, 96 pages
ISBN: 978-1-891386-41-1

Link to purchase


Most poets will all too happily speak of influential voices, mentors, and inspirational books. Raab has taken it one step further in Dear Anaïs: My Life in Poems For You, a book that is nothing less than a tribute. The French author’s famous diaries provided an education for Raab, one that created a personal connection between two poets who never actually met. Yet, the words and language of Nin have the power to transcend time, place, and even mortality, so Raab has discovered.

Raab opens this collection with a personal letter to Nin. As readers around the world have played voyeur with Nin’s diaries, we now have the privilege of observing yet another personal discourse, from a modern poet pinpointing parallels in poetics. Just as Nin’s life is revealed through her diaries, Raab tells Nin, “my poetry was born in my journal and tells the story of my life.”

It is a journey through life we experience, through the narration of childhood and curiosities, into years of reflection and appreciation for cyclical rejuvenation. Such is the case with “Composted,” a poem that speaks to the life cycle of fruits, but more so perhaps the cycle of love:
On the speckled Formica counter
of my childhood home, a yellow

strainer sat in the corner
under the window collecting

remnants of organics—coffee grinds,
orange peels, apple cores, grapefruit rings.

Every Monday my mother dumped
them onto the pile in the back right

corner of the yard, forgotten for months
until the soil was born and then tossed
into the spring’s new tomato bed, whose fruit
the following summer made its way

back onto the kitchen counter,
in a new form—round, red, and juicy.
In such simple experiences and recollections, Raab is able to expound the cyclical nature of life and all its beauties. The resurrection of nutrition—and love—through time and patience results in a bounty of pleasure. Composted fruits, yes. But this is representative of life’s experiences and small moments that pass us by, only to be remembered later in life, renewed in their significance and contribution to our life experience as a whole. 

This is perhaps indicative of the poet’s philosophy, as further explored in a later poem, “There’s a Story in Everything:”
Wherever you turn—above your head,
behind your back, under your ass,
you’ll find a story.
Life, in its many tiny moments that culminate into experience, is full of detail. There are stories everywhere. There are stories behind every thing, every moment, every encounter. Raab shares moments from her own life story, dedicating her memories in poetic tribute to one of the world’s most treasured diarists. 

In the preface, Raab credits Nin for teaching her “the intrinsic value of the written word; intrinsic, not as so many pennies a page or as literary acclaim, but as one’s own words delivering comfort in the days ahead.” Sharing a parallel love and dedication to journaling, both Nin and Raab began the art at a young age, enjoying the personal release of expression for no other reason than personal pleasure. As the preface suggests, the act of writing should be viewed as art itself, not judged by publication or other public forms. Yet, Nin’s diaries are public. So is Raab’s tribute. We are grateful for both.

***

Lori A. May is the Founding Editor of Poets’ Quarterly. Visit her website at www.loriamay.com.

Rooms and Their Airs by Jody Gladding

Review by Lauren Rusk

Rooms and Their Airs
By Jody Gladding
Milkweed
Perfect Bound, 80 pages
ISBN: 978-1-57131-432-1

Link to purchase

Entering Jody Gladding’s exquisite small poems, I feel space open up and take a fuller breath than I have for a while. Within the space of her poems, nature and culture are one; I partake of their kinship with gratitude and the wonder of heightened attention.

Gladding writes with astounding freshness about essential daily acts that many millions perform. That freshness derives in part from the wholeness of her vision (and, one imagines, her life), in which mothering and birthing, for example, are indissoluble from writing.
So
her planted
body
pulls loose
shouldering down
root throat
into my other
mouth
head first
and bruised
glistening
she slips free
of all
I
meant
all I name.
Similarly, a made and haunting image is one with the maker’s body, with animals’ bodies, with chemistry, geology, and physics, in the poem “February 14—Dordogne,” about an ancient picture of a reindeer curving around a cave wall, its head not rendered.
Which is not to say she’s left anything unfinished, only that the processes of creation are ongoing. So she takes the pigment into her mouth. She mixes it with her spit. She finds the reindeer’s flank, there, curving out from the wet stone. And through a bird’s bone, she blows.
It’s her breath that fixes the line to the sweating limestone wall. Fixes it, but only in the play of shadow and light.
Often Gladding’s speaker realizes herself through her attention to other parts of nature. Just by growing, the poem “Flower Moon” observes, beings take a chance:
. . .
                                                             the early ones
         this isn’t easy for them
                                                     the trout lily the wild oats
              I was sowing then I didn’t even know
                      the boy hired to watch the building site
              I showed him where the road ended
                      and the overgrown trail
              I brought him to the open abandoned place
              and lay down
trust trust say the limp wings of emerging moths
. . .
                                                      I lay down
                                                      and no harm
                             came to me there
                                           no harm
                             done . . .
. . .
                                                           oh my love remember
                                               this time of molting crabs
                                        when nothing can protect you
                                                            and nothing does.
And culture—in the form of a boyfriend’s cigarette “lit up in the parking lot hot tar still / bubbling engine running”—agrees that the risk is vital, in the poem “Red Moon”:
the red ash
         falling away
                                            heat rising from us
so much shimmering    that moon
                            no one could say it wasn’t living
                                         no one could call it dust.
Those two poems belong to a group of pieces that take off from Native American mythopoetic names for the moon in different times of year (all the poems were written at the corresponding time). Thus, again, as with her poems about cave art, Gladding’s subject matter embraces both the natural and the cultural.

So, indeed, does the subject matter of her poems inspired by prints in the Medieval Health Handbook.
Air out the quilt. Down remembers
the wind.
Remake the bed. Down remembers
its nest[,]
the poem “Rooms and Their Airs (Camere et Aer Ipsius)” begins. Further on it continues, “Prepare a fish. If the skin’s not thick, / it lived in shallows that run among stones.” The poem concludes with the caution that culture’s oneness with nature is dynamic, not neutral: “Conserve the bones. Nothing you do here / will be forgotten.”

There is also a caution in “February 14—Dordogne.” The cave picture remains because “twelve thousand years later, the plant cover on the hillside above the cave determines the climate within, balancing the inward percolation”—as long as visitors leave the place as it is.

Mostly, though, the care that Gladding hopes we will take is implicit, in the way she imagines herself and what she creates—as part of the natural world. In “Sweet Apples (Poma Mala Dulcia),” the speaker urges,
Here, have a taste. I used to be less liberal.
I’d cling to them, think flesh of my flesh.
But where does that lead? Collapsed brown
mouths the deer won’t eat, come winter.
Better to harvest while a tree still knows
how blossoming’s a way to enter deep into
the world. Even though it leaves you
scatterbrained, a stubble of missed
connections. Or fruitful and worried
by every inching thing. Just look at them—
my sweet, sweet apples. Please eat
your fill. . . .
Having done so, I am glad that the poet, when not subject to “Dawdling (Cessatio),” acts in accord with the “Beaver Moon”:
Beaver spreads her broad tail over the moon
           all month she does this
                      she says    work   work
her tail’s gray
                      damp
                                from end to end
           she slaps it hard she says
                                             work   work
the trees raise their bare arms
                                              their empty hands
           nothing for them to do now
                      beaver gnaws away
           from every side
                                            what’s left of the day’s
                                pure   heartwood
                                beaver leaves it standing
                                                              little wonder
                                                  little spool of light—
Gladding’s pieces, as these examples show, take various forms, such as minimal lines, couplets, and opened out spaces (all with deftly meaningful line breaks), as well as lyric paragraphs. The form of each poem seems to me natural to the process it enacts—the speaker’s mind, the poem’s body: one. Rooms and Their Airs is a nourishing work.

***

Lauren Rusk teaches writing and literature at Stanford University and has served as Poet in Residence at Stanford’s campus in Berlin. Her books include Pictures in the Firestorm (Plain View, 2007) and a critical study of autobiographical prose, The Life Writing of Otherness: Woolf, Baldwin, Kingston, and Winterson (Routledge, 2002, 2009). Her second collection of poems, in progress, is titled What Remains to Be Seen.

At night, the dead by Lisa Ciccarello

Reviewed by Jill Crammond Wickham

At night, the dead
By Lisa Ciccarello
Blood Pudding Press
Chapbook

Link to purchase


“You lock the door. You lock the window. You dream of the dead.”

Most of us fear the dead. We fear their reach from beyond, their spectral presence in the dark, looming over us while we sleep, the awful things they might do. After reading Lisa Ciccarello’s prize winning chapbook, At night, the dead, published by Blood Pudding Press, it becomes clear that, though the dead are most certainly here, they are not here to do us harm. Rather, they love us, “the dead whose love is just a little series of letters.” They would like to be remembered, and maybe to have a voice.
“We are supposed to house the dead in our mouths, but we let them stay in our throats when we sing.”
The dead, it seems, seek a voice. In the dual role of poet and medium, Ciccarello chooses not only to house the dead in her mouth, but to sing:
“I am the dead I am the dead
I am the dead. The song I know.”
The mouth is the entryway, the tunnel through which the dead find their voice. Ciccarello’s haunting lyrics–surreal, pensive, often mysterious– linger in our psyche, long after they have provided the release the dead are seeking.

Just as mortals, having seen a ghost, will question their own vision, so readers of At night, the dead may question what is real and what is Ciccarello’s fantastic imagination. “The dead put their fingers in your mouth,” the narrator asserts. Despite the next line, “You are dreaming,” you will soon question whether you, the reader, are awake or asleep, whether there are fingers in your mouth or not. Ciccarello’s stream of consciousness prose poems lull you into a sort of waking sleep-walk. In time, we (readers) take on a spectral form, hovering over each poem, studying it as the dead study the living when “you are asleep & inside the dream the dead rise up & their bodies are gone but their love has a form & they come to love you but it isn’t a dream…”

Like the dead, we become ghosts, floating through each piece, accepting it’s improbability for ethereal truth.

“I want to keep telling you about the dead,” the narrator says. “They write the same word over and over again.” Ciccarello does not write the same word over and over again, though there is a ghostly echo to the repeating clues she gives us in each of these sixteen poems.

Indeed, taken as a whole, the collection is a tightly woven tapestry of encounters with the dead, stitched together by recurring threads: salt on widow sills, luminous coins, burned paper, house and home. Comprised mostly of prose poems, each piece links almost imperceptibly to the next, most often through these cleverly repeated images.

Coupled with Ciccarello’s skill at crafting poems that read like small prayers or incantations, such repetition serves not to keep the dead at bay, but to welcome them, honor and invite them into “the house they remember” and give them “Everything they ever wanted: the window view, soap that floats, someone pressing down hard. Lips made out of paper. A smile that shines (just a flame at his mouth & so what).” 

“We want to remember what was so close to our faces,” the narrator tells us. Too, “the dead/ remember;/ yea & it is not enough.” As Ciccarello’s haunting narrative continues in its melodic refrain, such surreal reasoning begins to make sense. “Our home is full of beautiful boy & come on girl.” The dead “have a home in the ground, but they forget.” Is it possible the dead are us? You and I, questing readers?

Without doubt, the dead are a metaphor for something. Just what is elusive, so we must continue to read and look for clues. In providing such mysterious little gems, Ciccarello—poet, medium, mouth-piece for the dead–does not disappoint. The sheer lyricism of her language can make a clue out of a seemingly irrelevant detail. Take for instance, this gorgeous morsel of truth: “Here is how I control my heart: I string each thought sparkling behind the next. In the patient necklace each will be touched.”

Overall, At night, the dead is a haunting collection, though not in the traditional sense of ghosts and fear. Instead, it is a series of surreal linked vignettes, brief but memorable encounters with the elusive dead (who may or may not be you and I), ferrying a message that may or may not come clear as the final poem exhales its last syllable.

Do not be surprised, when, after you have finished that last poem, you find yourself going about your own days and nights trying to discover your own dead and what they are asking for. Do not be afraid “when the salt is gone the dead touch your mouth.”

***

Jill Crammond Wickham is a poet and artist in Upstate New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Creek Review, Weave, Naugatuck River Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, Blue Fifth (broadside), and others. A senior contributor/ columnist for the online poetry community Read Write Poem, she also serves as an editor of the journal Ouroboros. Visit her blog.


Aphrodite’s Daughter by Becky Gould Gibson

Reviewed by Jessie Carty

Aphrodite’s Daughter
By Becky Gould Gibson
Texas Review Press
ISBN: 9781933896106
Perfect Bound, 80 pages
Link to purchase


Aphrodite’s Daughter, winner of the 2006 XJ Kennedy Poetry Prize, is a feminist study expressed in 38 poems. Gibson predominantly uses themes surrounding the relationships of mothers and daughters. The collection also seeks to understand - on a larger scope – the roles women seek for themselves or those which they are given by society. 

The first section of the collection has a strong Greco-Roman-Mythological influence. My favorite is “aphrodite@earthlink.net for the way it skillfully combines the classical with the modern. In this poem, written in the loose style of email, Harmonia writes to her mother: “- i’m leaving - i’m walking out of your myth finally - i need a mother not a love goddess with gold hair poured from a bottle.”

Within the second section, Gould presents individual poems as well as a few sets of poems. There is the Icon series, Postcards from Crete and Triptych. With a strong influence of art and culture, Gould uses biblical references in the Triptych set and ekphrastic references in all three groups within the collection. In “Postcards from Crete,” Gould states in her notes that she has an artistic indebtedness to Carol P. Christi’s 1994 lecture tour of sacred sites in Crete. The juxtaposition and confluence of classical and modern continues to be essential to the overall feel of Gould’s collection.

The final section of Aphrodite’s Daughter contains thirteen poems, including one that is six pages and partitioned into seven sections of its own. The poems in this final section contain the strong feminine personas and voices that are apparent throughout this collection, but these poems hold less of a connection to a sense of mythology, or to the idea of the mythmaking of women, than the earlier sections. Yet, these poems still have extremely important stories to tell, such as that of the hooker in “Tenderloin, San Francisco” and the farmer’s daughter in “Blackberrying.” 

The poems of Aphrodite’s Daughter seek not only to answer what it means to be a modern woman, but also bring into question the history of womanhood, giving birth to a broader sense of what it is to be female. 

***


Jessie Carty's writing has appeared in journals such as The Main Street Rag, Iodine Poetry Journal and The Houston Literary Review. The author of two chapbooks, her first full length collection, Paper House, is now available from Folded Word Press. Jessie is also a photographer for and editor of Referential Magazine. You can find her around the web but most often blogging about anything from housework to the act of blogging itself at http://jessiecarty.com.

A Brief History of Time by Shaindel Beers

Review by Jessie Carty

A Brief History of Time
By Shaindel Beers
Salt Publishing
ISBN 978-1-84471-505-3
Perfect Bound, 65 pages
Link to purchase


Shaindel Beers’ first collection, A Brief History of Time, opens with the title poem, which is an ars poetica. Beers writes, “I’ve decided to change / history, by writing these untruths.” Beers revisits and reshapes the physical and emotional terrain of her youth. This first poem introduces us to many of the overarching images and themes contained in this collection.

The second poem asks, leading with the title, “Would you know me / if you had met me in my natural environs / wearing the uniform / of the hardworking rural poor.” The speaker of this poem feels she wears a mask. She goes on to describe that uniform and then compares it to her “favorite disguise – sophisticated city-dweller.” This speaker is a displaced person, an individual who does not yet feel at home with the past or the present. She is still looking for how she fits into the geography of her own history and future.

Complicating the desire to define self, in this collection, is the issue of love. “First Love” is an unusual love poem given that the speaker is a young teen who is tending to her boyfriend who works in a blue collared job. The speaker says, “I’d fold his hands in mine / like folding sugar into butter” as she would remove “the muted glitter of metal shards /just under the skin.” This is a speaker who doesn’t know easy love. You can go back to the title poem on page one and see this young woman trying to understand the complex relationships around her, especially that of her parents. Of her father she wonders if perhaps it is the definition of insanity that kept him with her mother. She says, “This would explain why my father is / still married to my mother, even after she tried to knife him.”

There is a danger with poems like “First Love,” that are so harsh in their reality because I find myself questioning whether or not they are ‘believable.’ Sometimes what really happened isn’t always the ‘truth’ in that experience. Sometimes what really happened is almost too much for a reader. Beers’ ability in the end, however, to couch these events in visceral visuals and strong word choices keeps me reading.

“Body Shop” is an excellent example of Beers’ skill. In “Body Shop,” Beers takes the debris of a hard life and turns it into poetry. The poem opens with, “I’ve promised parts to men” and it continues with robust images such as “pale blue moons” and “pearls on a tray.” By the end of the poem, the speaker has taken ownership of her body as she removes her own breast and serves “it up / all raspberry silk on a silver platter.” This speaker is fighting for her identity as a woman, a lover, an equal. It is refreshing that Beers takes car imagery, which is usually masculine, in this poem and throughout the collection to assert her identity. 

“Body Shop” is a strong poem from start to finish. There are some poems in this collection, however, where the endings seem too quiet. “Red Heifer”, for example, opens with, “That was the year of the all-black cattle, / except for the small, red heifer / I wanted to be mine.” A red heifer is a very iconic image especially in Jewish literature. This poem progresses through the life of the heifer and the speaker until it closes where the speaker can no longer remember the name of the calf but recalls the first time she saw it and how it, “took away my pain / when Grandpa yanked my Band-aid off, / pointing to her across the field / as a distraction.” I had a hard time comparing the pain of band-aid removal to the apocalyptic/messianic image of the red heifer. But, even with my concern over the ending it is still a fascinating poem. 

One of my favorite poems is “My Love, A Partial Explanation.” It is in this poem that Beers shines. She takes images that have appeared throughout the book, unexpected bits not just of history/time but of other sciences and pop culture, and melds them into fantastic lines such as, “when we talked our odd talk about relationships / and the stars; no really astrology, / more astrodynamics and Eagles’ lyrics with a bit / of quantum theory thrown in for good measure.” The universe of this poem, of this book, lives in that type of sentence where the poet is taking everything around her and processes it into something new.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about this book is how easy it is to read. I don’t mean easy to say this is “simple’ poetry but more that the tone is conversational and accessible without losing poetic style even in the longer poems. I often find that longer poems drain me, but this was not the case in this collection. One of my favorite poems is “Why Gold-Digging Fails.” At fifty-nine lines, two sections and two pages it remains a quick and fun read about living in and/or trying to get out of rural stereotypes, such as hanging out with boys and their cars as goddess-like young blonde women trying to create their “own little utopia / ten miles further than our mothers got.”

It is this accessibility that made me cheer for the girl/young woman in these poems. I wanted to know if she would break free from her roots. I wanted to see her change. I wondered with poems like “Taking Back the Bra Drawer” where she writes, “I want him here to the degree / of absenting myself” if she would find love. But then Beers gives me some hope with “Because you are in it” where she states, “I am in love with the world because you are in it.”

Perhaps the only thing lacking, for me, in this collection is an ultimate declaration of self. I found myself wanting a sense of closure, but Beers knows we are never closed individuals; we are never just one thing, one face. The speaker of these poems is still a work in progress. I can identify with the speaker of these poems even though we do not share the same life story. This, to me, is the sign of a successful book. 

With A Brief History of Time, Beers puts together a collection of what some might call juvenilia, or what I prefer to say are poems that examine the landscape of youth, that do not come across as maudlin or pity-though-me. Beers does not over sentimentalize or play the victim in these poems, which is a huge accomplishment. I look forward to what topics Shaindel Beers turns her keen eye towards in the future. 

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Jessie Carty's writing has appeared in journals such as The Main Street Rag, Iodine Poetry Journal and The Houston Literary Review. The author of two chapbooks, her first full length collection, Paper House, is now available from Folded Word Press. Jessie is also a photographer for and editor of Referential Magazine. You can find her around the web but most often blogging about anything from housework to the act of blogging itself at http://jessiecarty.com.