01 January 2011

You Know Who You Are by Ian Williams

You Know Who You Are
New Issues Poetry & Prose
Wolsak & Wynn
Paperback, 77 pages
ISBN: 978-1-894987-41-7
 
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Reviewed by Naomi Benaron
The poems in You Know Who You Are, Ian William’s debut collection, crackle in the digital space between two cell phones where callers in different time zones talk past rather than to each other. These poems—electric, frenetic, vibrant with love, loss, and longing—confront the way we approach each other in this age of WiFi and satellite transmission. They are poems of communication, miscommunication, and missed communication written in a language that communicates loudly and boldly to the reader. They are also poems of transit: people in transit, feelings in transit, our hurried modern lives and loves in transit. This is made clear in the very first poem, ““Anybody Could Love You? Look at You. Look at Your Face,”” written about a message received in an airport which is, “all droopy, soaked through/with chromatics – blame the drizzle, the night,/the red-eye flight, the slow WiFi.”

From the first glance at the cover, a photograph of cubes that appear to float in black space (all an electric, translucent blue except for a single red one), we know these are poems for the electronic age. Ian Williams' face graces the back cover: bold, smiling, mischievous, and hopeful, rising from a sea of cubes and bubbles. Even the table of contents reads like a poem about life in the digital age: “Not Saying/ Notwithstanding/Not answering/Misunderstandings/Mistakes/West of Boston/Give up/Open/Except you/ Triolet for you/Special/You say it/V/You know who you are.”

It is clear from the epigraphs that these poems explore identity on a scale as minute as the choice of pronoun. From Samuel Becket: “When suddenly she realized. . . words were - ...what?...who? ...no! ... she!” And from Judith Butler: “It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there . . . Who “am” I, without you?” Indeed, in Williams’ poems, the pronouns, he, you and I morph into each other, transmuting, as if our own attachment to them is ephemeral and indeterminate.

A prominent theme in Williams’ poetry is the absence of communication, particularly with those we love. In the poem “Not Saying,” he laments the words not said between two lovers:
Fists in our sleeves, we reach our limit. No way
past Lake Ontario, nothing else to do
until you say the thing you need to say.
Through the metaphors of stasis and limits, we see it is silence that keeps the lovers from exploring, from leaving their side of the lake. Conversely, it is talk—true expression—that would set them free and let them fly:
It’s only talk, and we’ve talked our heads to
foam before, testing the limit in a way.

Like the last time our four feet inched partway
over the city’s ledge. Lightheaded you
started to say something you needed to say

then started again, we could – we can fly one way.
Right over the lake
. How you said it, as if we were two
wild geese, no credit limit in the way. Ain’t no way
I love the image of the four feet inching forward, as if they are part of a single animal toying with the idea of flight, of soaring away. I love the wordplay – the repetition and changing meanings of “way.” And yet, beneath the lightheartedness is a tender nostalgia, a lament for what is lost when we are afraid to speak—truly speak—to those we love. The regret carries through to the end; alas, this poem does not conclude on a note of hope. Instead, we remain prisoner to our fears:
. . .                             Say what you’re dying to say.
Of course, don’t. We’re getting carried away.
We’ll stay this side of Lake Ontario, clenched.
Nous
sommes à la limite de l’amitié
– find a way
to translate. If you won’t say, I won’t say.
Here Williams returns to the images of clenched fists and being at the limit, nowhere to go from here. And so, despite the repetitive rhyming of “way” and “say” throughout the poem, in the end, there is no way; in the end, we don’t say.

In the poem “Except You,” the staccato rhythm and the bold and risky form—right justified lines, dashes, a peppering of quoted phrases—give the impression of communication in bursts:
                                    don’t say– we don’t
say things like _______________ round here.
In the second stanza, people talk around each other and over each other, spitting out bits of small talk. They do not talk to each other:
. . .                                       We tip
the phone from our ear, fill our mouths
with sponge: Have a good night or
That’s it
for me
and hang up quickly, just in case
one of us doesn’t say it or does.
Of course what is not said are the words that end the first stanza, I love you:
                                           Once my grandmother
came close. I saw her throat, her hands, warble.
My grandfather had just come home from the hills
But just as in “Not Saying,” the opportunity is lost: “She never called him anything/except you.” In this poem, however, I see an inkling of hope. By giving “except you” its own line, an echo of the title, Williams gives “you” an identity. Without saying it, he makes his grandfather important.

Williams’ collection is a journey into the land of poor reception, dropped calls, and voicemail left on message machines. His language is sparse, filled with interrupted communication, bits of conversation, like random packets, dropped into the middle of a line. In the poem “Not Answering,” the lines resemble the verbiage of cell phone conversation when half of it is lost:
                               Poor reception, so you say
you have to lean out a window to
Hello? Hello?call, mouth jammed with static, with scorched grass
Hello? That you? and just before you cut out, I call you back,
Quaker-like, my friend.
Williams is in our faces, destroying the boundary between reader and speaker. He pulls us right into the conversation with its constant interruptions and disconnections, its push and pull between the speaker and the person on the other end of the line who keeps fading—literally and figuratively—into the background noise of verse. The tension he creates with his interrupted language and his back-and-forth between dialogue and inner thought left me straining to listen, to hear, to put this parsed conversation into its proper form. Like an eavesdropper on a crowded train, I found myself inventing the story between overheard fragments.

The poem ends with a parody of a recorded message as if the speaker has been disconnected and a machine has come on with that annoying, if you’d like to make a call, please hang up now:
Hello? Hello? Main menu. Press 1 if you want
me to go somewhere. Hell- Press 2 if you want me
to listen hello? to thee, my friend, to thee. Press 3
for more options. 0 if you want me to speak.
While Williams devastates us with his frank examination of our lives, he manages to lift us up with his play on hell and hello and his quirkiness of language. The phrase “listen to thee” echoes a Joni Mitchell song, the next line of which (interestingly) is, “just to see who in the world you might be.”

With the repetition of “hello,” Williams is asking not only the person on the other end of the call but also the reader, Is anybody there? And in the last two lines, he answers:
                             When you call you
will get what you want. Not me. The machine.
The theme of depersonalization is also evident in the poem “Notwithstanding.” Here, the machine is a bicycle:
NOTWITHSTANDING
                                            the sky’s disapproval
you rode 20 km along the Don Valley Parkway to tell me
in person I’ve decided to make myself into a machine.
Again, Williams conflates line and dialogue, creating an interrupted, choppy rhythm:
A machine I say, about to straddle my bike. Hurrah.
Let me know how Then I notice how that works for you our two bikes
nestle antlers. Their turned-in wheels, two lowered heads,
nuzzle.
The woman wants to become a bicycle, but the two bicycles become deer. The humans cannot show affection, but their bicycles do. They nestle and nuzzle – such beautiful and tender words.

The woman rode in the rain to extract a promise: “I’ll be back.” But once more, Williams denies the reader a last shot at hope by returning to the image of the machine:
 . . .                  I will leave now and months from now
I will become undetectable, suspicious, an alarming blip
in your eye’s sweeping circular radar.
Towards the end of the collection is my favorite poem, “Étude in E, OP. 10, NO. 3,” which has bits of sheet music splashed across the page.  Bar 46 of Chopin’s étude, “the hell-with-it bar where Tristesse jangles,” as Williams describes it, serves as the epigraph. This is a break-your-heart regret poem, trembling with tristesse:
The phone interrupts a dark scale, a late
  night glissando down the black keys
    because I happened to be passing
On the other end of the line is someone who has called to tell him of the death of “this woman/no one really knew after 5:00.” The surprise and originality of Williams’ language is wounding:
No one knew how long she was dead
    walking around the terminal
         of some disease waiting for her plane.
He would like to think that had he been paying attention, he would have known, “from her mismatched purse and shoes,/that death was strapped to her chest.” Regret spills from his lines in this intensely personal poem:
    Had I been around, were my hands not full
of tristesse, not practicing the same wrecked bar
   of Chopin, the bar where the whole étude crashes
      into accidentals, the reckless intervals
But the contemplation of the lost opportunity for human contact, the chance to heal or at least help is futile. Williams concludes:
I would have what? known what?
   enough to what? to what? to watch?
The question what? is left to echo like some unanswered plea while on the right margin of the page, bars of sheet music crash into each other and fade into the lines of the poem.

After reading the poem, I listened to the étude, and from Williams description, I knew exactly where bar 46, that reckless, dark glissando, began. I can feel every note of the piece in Williams words. The sadness that plays in the lines reached out and grabbed me. It has not yet let me go.

What I love about You Know Who You Are is everything. I love the bold, slippery slide between the pronouns, the in-your-face I know, and I am not telling who I he you we are. I love the off-kilter beat, the chop of word, stanza, and space that keeps the reader both uneasy and surprised. I love that in the middle of the collection is a section called “Emergency Codes” that tells the story in persona poems of Dre, who grows up poor, black, and without hope in an unnamed ghetto and who somehow in the end gives us hope. I love the inventive style, the sparse, electric language, the risky aesthetic complete with the “buffering” symbol, floated cubes, and phrases in Korean. Williams’ hand reaches out from these pages and pulls, pulls, pulls the heart by its truest beat. He drags us to the mirror and makes us look unflinchingly at who we are. And in the end, he allows us to love ourselves.

Woman on a Shaky Bridge by Millicent Borges Accardi

Woman on a Shaky Bridge 
Chapbook, 23 pages
Finishing Line Press
ISBN:  978-1-59924-552-2

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Reviewed by Joan Hanna
Millicent Borges Accardi begins her collection, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, published by Finishing Line Press with a notation about a 1974 social experiment by Arthur Aron and Donald Dutton. In this experiment, an attractive woman interviewed men after they crossed a shaky bridge; she interviewed another group of men after they crossed a low solid bridge. More men phoned the woman after crossing the shaky bridge than those who crossed the solid bridge concluding, among other things:
-       men misattributed the arousal produced by their trip across the bridge to an attraction for the woman.
-       Crossing the shaky bridge is proof of how closely anxiety and sexual attraction are linked.
Millicent Borges Accardi’s collection tackles the concept that anxiety or violence can be misattributed into attraction. But then goes one step further and shows us the interaction and the possible devastating outcome from this misplaced attribute. The collection does not disappoint in its attempt to explore a confusing and sometimes violent response to women under this concept. Accardi packs so much into Woman on a Shaky Bridge, a sixteen-poem collection, which will easily pull you into the many layers within each poem. Whether it is the nervousness of “Only more so” the hidden meanings of actions in “Coupling” or the interplay between brother and sister in “Buying Sleep (for mom)” her use of intriguing line breaks and enjambment create a voice that is halting, defiant and self-contained. This is the voice of a woman who sees things below the surface of seemingly harmless actions. Accardi manages this with beautifully defined language, even when the subject is disturbing, as in “Ciscenje Prostora (Ethnic Cleansing)”:
This woman does not know he
carries the devil’s four poster bed
in his palm, clutching it like promised
money: Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, home.
and then further on:
She knows not to stare back
when he finds her, hiding behind a clay
pot. When his soldier’s eyes become her
life, more understandable that her or me or any
pronoun she whispers out between no and help,
she shuts her eyes, imagining cold weather.
The reader is drawn into these scenes with hauntingly beautiful phrases that hold you in an unsettling juxtaposition of beauty and fear, anxiety and attraction.
“For John, For Coltrane”
This is romance
of the reed,
brutal, and all
the while background
ballads play.
They say he looked ten
years older than the music;
they say the music used
his body more
than love.
This is a melodious portrait of a man who is consumed by what he does as much as who he is; as if he writhes through the music even as it writhes through him.

I was equally riveted by the ekphrastic: “Portrait of a Girl, 1942 (Based on the Jan Lukas photograph of Vendulka Vogelova, taken a few hours before the young girl was transported to a concentration camp)”

I am the mirror for all the world’s silence,
and the ones who slipped through without drawing
blood ...
I am the mirror for the one who is trembling
like a child who has noticed too much, eyes
hard olive pits ...

I am the mirror for all who choose
not to speak. I crack
in the dark. I shine in the snow.
I had such a strong vision of this girl from this poem that I needed to see if I could find a copy of this picture on the Internet. I found an image in a collection of Jan Lukas photos. Unfortunately, this photo was not labeled. Even so, it appears that Accardi has captured the tension, awe, fear, and combined stillness of this girl within the lines of her poem.

This collection holds such a variety of styles, voices, and images that I found myself moving from poem to poem completely absorbed in the depth, beauty, and elegance of her use of language. By the time you reach the end, it’s as if this collection explored more within its pages than sixteen poems could hold. The closing of “In Prague” sums the feeling I came away with after finishing this collection:
Take me where memory makes my legs move.
Take me where moss holds language.
Take me where we have a name for the things we do. 

This Pagan Heaven by Robin Kemp

This Pagan Heaven
Pecan Grove Press
Paperback, 38 pp
ISBN: 978-1-931247-63-4

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Reviewed by Ann E. Michael
What does it mean to “write like a girl”? While this may not be the underlying theme of Robin Kemp’s poetry collection, she does raise the question (in “The Lady Poets’ Auxiliary”) near the end of the book; and the placement of the piece suggests the reader may want to re-examine the preceding poems after having considered the implications of this sly ars poetica. But it is already clear that Kemp does not offer “ladylike” poems or sensibilities. Her work is often barbed; romance is neither easy nor always desirable, she doesn’t shy away from toughness, slang, or scientific reason. Maybe she isn’t writing “like a girl”—if we could define what that means—but she is clearly writing to be heard.

Kemp employs formal strategies frequently and appropriately, possessing a deft hand with the contemporary sound of the sonnet which she uses to good effect in lyric love poems such as “Courting the Lion,” “What I Wanted to Tell You,” “Moving the Rose” and “Valentine.” But she also uses form in current-events or politically-charged poems, where the structure and limitations of the sonnet, pantoum, etc. help to point out irony, even sarcasm, in poems such as “Pantoum for Ari Fleischer” and “Editing Katrina.” These message pieces worked better for this particular reader than the looser, largely iambic free verse approach of “A Fitting Memorial,” perhaps because the formality heightens the off-kilter sense of newsfeed immediacy.

That off-kilter sense works well in This Pagan Heaven, and Kemp knows how to use classical allusions and classic forms to intensify rather than balance the tensions in the topics she explores. In her world, Irony and Rhetoric are “bad girls in black T-shirts/who slouch and smoke under the spiral fire escape” while their foil, “Mr. Loner,” represents reason and logic as the quintessential nerd “positing formulaic dead-ends, prostrate only before Zero.” She riffs on Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 while bemoaning doublespeak in the well-realized long poem “Bodies” by illustrating the nuances of pitch in spoken words and adding “let us not to the marriage of double meanings.” Her approach to the usual iambic pentameter of the classic sonnet in English is sometimes to sever the reader’s expectations of language without actually dropping the metrical regularity; in lines 11-13 of a poem about rock climbing:
My boots bite death-slip’s lip. The ground’s grotesque.
I fall-catch-swing, a living plumb-bob’s curves.
You’d never take this risk, afraid to die.
Here, two rather playful yet frightening lines mess around with internal rhyme, alliteration, and one-syllable words in a Hopkins-esque fashion; but there is no complicated sprung rhythm here, and lines 11 and 12 are as regularly iambic pentameter as the more recognizable 13th line.

In the collection’s other ars poetica poem, “Articulation,” Kemp’s speaker observes “not everything can be explained or wrought/by reason’s cold instrument…” and suggests that composing a poem is an act of faith. The nay-saying dictatorial voice of “The Lady Poets’ Auxiliary” would not agree; but by the time the reader reaches this poem, the anti-authoritarian, skeptical intelligence evident in Kemp’s work urges a reconsideration of the roles of girl and poet and citizen.

I have one disappointment in This Pagan Heaven: the absence of a poem mentioned on the Acknowledgments page, “Cento Farming.” If it was cut from the manuscript, why tantalize me with the possibility of a poem comprised of borrowed lines from Marilyn Hacker, Elizabeth Bishop, Molly Peacock, Marilyn Taylor and others? Given Robin Kemp’s facility with other forms, I would very much have enjoyed reading what she can do with the cento!

The Tyranny of Milk by Sara London

The Tyranny of Milk
Paperback, 100 pages
Four Way Books
ISBN:  978-1-935536-02-4

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Reviewed by Tasha Cotter
I first came in contact with Sara London’s poetry as an editor for Jelly Bucket, the literary journal published annually by the MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University. I remember reading Sara’s poetry and being happily surprised by the strange narrative of her fine poem “Terra Incognita: As Butcher Hawk Tells It.” As an editor, I wanted to publish her work immediately. Happily, this poem is featured in Sara’s first collection of poetry, The Tyranny of Milk, which was released spring 2010 with Four Way Books.

This collection of poetry is full of surprises that are bound to delight the reader. Memory seems to play a crucial role in London’s poetry.  However, London’s work is highly imaginative and enjoyable. In fact, one of my favorite poems in this collection is her poem “Love of Line: Notes for An Apprentice Shingler.”  One stanza in particular caught my eye—the fifth stanza seemed so sonically satisfying I repeated lines over and over to experience their full weight:
Order is easy to
Plan for, hard to achieve. This
Is what houses are about—
Planes that meet along degrees
we trust. Lines that say,
The weather is up to you.
I love the quiet ambiguity that haunts so many of these poems. I found myself thinking about certain passages long after moving onto the next poem. London masterfully transforms the mundane to the magical—and the end result shines. But then there are poems that seem to announce their intent such as her poem “Fugitive Sonnet.” The dramatic situation is clear enough: a teacher wants to show her students what a sonnet is and what it isn’t—
How
To tell them Not yet, Not always,

When all we ever want is Now,
Again, Forever, Yes, Take it

From a fugitive. There are,
My dears, breaths to waken

A thousand deaths.
Here again, memory moves to the forefront and the quiet ambiguity seems to fill the room. We are left to contemplate the role of art, how it is crafted, and how we can apply London’s advice to our own lives. London calls for distance and contemplation. It’s clear that London follows her own advice as so many of these poems are so carefully wrought in their detail and emotional honesty.

As I read this collection I experienced a variety of emotions: there were moments of comedy, sadness, wonder, and even heartbreak. The collection is fully alive and is bound to intrigue many readers. Above all, this is a poetry collection that makes you feel deeply. In her poem “A Man Decides” London writes,  “my heart/ could not be readier/ to break again.” It’s lines like these that magnify something deep in each one of us. Somehow we all know that London has hit upon something highly resonant, some hidden truth. 

The Kingdom of Possibilities by Tim Mayo

The Kingdom of Possibilities
Mayapple Press
Paperback, 70 pages
ISBN: 978-0932412-76-8

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Reviewed by Martin Abramson
Such plain short poems (most only one page) and such simple titles (“The Beautiful Woman,” “The Last Gift”) … and so complex! Each poem is a Zen puzzle: dense, elliptical: often presenting the ambiguity of a crossword clue: verb? noun? adjective? We know there’s something happening here, and we want desperately to grasp it; but it keeps moving just out of sight like shelves in the sheep’s shop in Looking Glass world. Eventually, we begin to suspect that imparting complete understanding is not the author’s purpose; that he has deliberately left out the trail blazes because, in offering a only a partial image, he compels us to supply the missing portions ourselves, from the only place they can be found … our own experience.

We cannot say of any of these poems, “Been there, done that”, and dismiss it. Because the poem has changed the experience … if only by virtue of a unique clutch of words. Talking to himself in Mot Juste, Mr. Mayo wishes he could snip the narrative at the place where the “spirit of what you have struggled to articulate/ hardens/ like consonants around the illusive vowels/ of your life---”. “The Fisherman on the Screen” subtly explains:  
The trick is in the line. How you cast back, letting
it unfurl behind you---then forward, rolling its
bight and loop so it alights on target, invisible,
kissing the surface right above your fish.
Mayo wants the “line’s back and forth… to always/ balance all that’s ever been behind you---with all that will ever be…” In “A Reflective Voice” Mayo adds:
Now I write in a visual way
showing the clear words
all at once, not as words
but forms upon a surface…
The first poem “How It Comes to You” displays Mr. Mayo’s style immediately. Like “The Road Not Taken”, it presents baffling choices that scholars could debate for years. Only instead of roads in a wood, we have trains in a subway station.

“The Beautiful Woman” tells us “beauty is an emotion from which desire splurges/ like a prodigal” and shows how the effects of that emotion can leave a woman scarred for life.

“The Story You Never Read” is the one about:
… the poet
who died from pushing a pencil, piercing
the drum of his ear to touch, indelibly
that small, delicate place in the brain
              
where perception and living converged…
Mayo’s incredibly tactile filmstrip of a snake slowly swallowing a frog in “The Frog and the Snake” brings death to his mind and particularly the death of the narrator’s mother by her own hand (perhaps with the pearl-handled pistol of “Waltzing Through”). And like Camus’ Stranger, he feels nothing. This is our first clue to circumstances of the narrator’s life as repeated in several poems: raised by adoptive parents; never knowing the real ones. The first realization of this, described in “Name” tells of a “ripping apart” when told the truth about his origins, causing a dislocation that defamiliarized the face in the mirror “to whom each day/ I offered my razored hand”.

Lacking a past, the narrator lives in the ‘eternal present’ of “The Last Gift”. He inhabits a ‘kingdom of possibilities’ imagining all the scenarios of what his life could have been. He speculates on the imagined duality of motherhood in “Two Mothers”. In “Honey” he stands before his mother’s grave where she rests “as if waiting for some sweet yes I never/ said” while “A few plots over, a mower buzzes in the heat/ like a bee working the flowers for its queen”. In “Father Poem” he meditates on the futility of searching for a father whom, even if found, could only turn out to be a shallow bumpkin. In “Nineteen Forty-Five” the narrator imagines his parents, “the strangers I have wanted to know my whole life”, conceiving him in an automatic physical act--- and he tosses them “once again, from my mind/ never asking that which is too late to answer”. 

In several hunting poems, Mayo eschews the sentimentality one might attach to the death of animals and concentrates on the precise mechanics of killing and the banality of death.

In Flamants Roses, he describes flamingoes frozen in ice like ‘Rose Flames’ that could not “melt nor dance themselves free, their gawky beaks/ clacking, scratching the ice like useless castanets”. In “The Counterfeit Seal”, the speaker reads the dissolution of his own marriage in the carved medallion of a warrior saying farewell to his wife: leaving “for something he deemed more important than love”. And this loss is epitomized in “The Confessional Poet’s Confession” where, in the agony of remorseful desire, the distraught husband  stipulates exactly how he drove his wife away.

In “I, Lazarus”, the eponymous hero tells people all the fictional malarkey about the afterlife they yearn to hear while whispering the truth they don’t want to hear: that “the blessing of life/ was the body”.

“The Word in the Story” is a compelling contrast of the narrator’s eventual understanding of the past---after having squeezed its throat “until you felt/ a gasp coughing up through its craw” --- with the incomprehensibility of the present “that escapes like the air/ in the palm of your hand as your fist/ tightens…”

In “At a Walmart in Southern New Hampshire”, Mayo both pays his respects to Whitman and updates Ginsberg. It’s a worthy addition. And, continuing the Americana theme, “Bright Yellow Stab” paints a vivid image of a summer day’s cookout:
…all the backyard sprinklers spritz us with rainbows…
                                                    Soon the foosh
and belch of the barbecue will swell into the air,
Then comes hot-dog time, the mustard of it all,
while the burgers sweat it out on the grill,
and you and I lie hunky-dory in the long chairs

just fine…until we hear that twitch of cubes rattling
like a cold music we will never know how to sing
Hey folks, this is really good stuff! There are intriguing poems about women: girlfriends, lovers, wives… and a good deal of moving confessional biography…all up to the very high standards Mr. Mayo has set himself and maintained, poem after poem, with memorable success.

The Darkened Temple by Mari L’Esperance

The Darkened Temple
University of Nebraska Press
Paperback, 84 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8032-1847-5

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Reviewed by Anne Harding Woodworth
Metaphor is the mortar in Mari L’Esperance’s beautifully laid-out book, The Darkened Temple. The temple is many places, and they are always dark.

These places embody countless integrated dichotomies: the visible and the invisible, insecurity and safety, the end and the beginning, arrival and departure, the possible and impossible, belonging and not belonging, the distance and intimacy between a mother and daughter. These are the themes the poet visits in this compelling collection, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.

If metaphor is the mortar, search makes up the temple’s building blocks. And the search as content closes around us. Dark metaphorical places drift in and out of L’Esperance’s poems, as she searches for her mother, “who refused to be found, disappearing/the way she did, without a trace—.” The first darkened temple we encounter is among the caves in Japan, where the poet’s mother in her youth had hid with many others during air raids. Now the caves continue to exhale “the unspeakable”:
The damp press of strange bodies in darkness
rank with the stench of war’s leavings,
only imagine a young girl’s cries drowned in the tumult,
urgent groping of unseen hands—
We find another darkened temple in “Prayer,” in which the poet beseeches an unnamed force in the imperative to dredge the metaphorical deep for memory. And later in “Map of the World” she says, “. . . humans have lost their way / in the deepening darkness. . . .”

“Prayer” leads us inexorably into the memory poems of Part Two, in which the poet remembers moments of her life and the dreams she has had of her mother. The darkened temple appears in various iterations, and in “The Last Time I Saw Her,” the mother returns to
the house
with its silence,
the ineffectual man,
the bruises spreading
their dark stains.
And the darkened temple is also the mind: “In the mind there are rooms / we dare not inhabit.” In “The Dark House” the mother cries out: “I am the dark house and the dark house is me.”

In “Finding My Mother,” which is one of several dream poems, the mother is seen lying face down in a field.
. . . carry her back, I hear myself say,
as if the words spoken aloud, even in a dream,
will somehow make it possible.
And it is indeed the very words of these poems that have carried this mother back and brought peace to the poet, “as if quiet were the last safe place.” In spite of the enormous distance between mother and daughter, at times the two women are indistinguishable:
The missing are restless. They wander
between two worlds and belong to neither.

In the season of roubai, she does not answer.
How does it begin and where does it end?

What I mean to say is: There is
no fathomable point of entry—

What I mean to say is: she was of this world
and then she was not.
L’Esperance uses language with a basic grace. There is no anger. It is a simple, practical language that perfectly conveys complicated, psychological longings and observations. Her part-Japanese heritage is beautifully integrated into many of these poems with a consummate subtlety.

“The self is a house,” L’Esperance writes. The self is the darkened temple. Searching for her mother, the poet is looking for herself.

The Apocalypse Tapestries by John Taylor

The Apocalypse Tapestries 
Xenos Books, 126 pages
ISBN 1-879378-51-5

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Reviewed by Martin Abramson
The dramatic poetry and prose offered in John Taylor’s recent collection is composed of recurring themes that weave through the poems like threads in the same tapestry that provides this dramatic series with both stage sets and overarching proscenium. The Apocalypse Tapestry itself, situated in the Château d’Angers, is 103 meters long and comprises 67 surviving scenes of the Apocalypse that supposedly precedes the Day of Judgment. Obviously, one major theme of the book is religion; by turns, desired, cherished and repudiated by the author. It is evident that John Taylor, the poet, identifies with John the Apostle who is shown, as commanded by the angels, standing in many panels taking copious notes and recording events. The poet even asks for a blue coat like John’s.
Tapestry weaver, shuttle the knotted and tangled threads
of my life into a harmonious pattern.
Weave me a coat like the one John wore--blue, blue--as he
peered into the dark stand of oak.
Many of the pieces allude to the author’s despair as foreshadowed in the prefatory quote from Bonnefoy: “See, all the paths you went along are closed now…”. In “Chosen” he wonders if his humility caused him to be singled out or if his feeling of being chosen suggest the sin of pride. This sort of tension is not just theological speculation but a source of real anguish for Mr. Taylor. Part of the evidence of his special status stems from surviving dangerous feats as a boy and also from deliberately placing himself in peril in the worst slums of several cities. The maturing author searches for secular answers, and finds no transcendence in science and only despair in mathematics. But in “Secretum” he sees splendor in the present moment, a feeling reinforced by the last line of “Matter”: “You were alive./ C’est tout.”

In “John’s Nightmare”, the author questions a bronze, godlike statue who shows him a heptagon of stars spinning in mid air and directs him to a table laden with the “… dizzying crisscrossing of a palimpsest--obscure oracles running through accounting legers, calendars, battle reports…” In order to interpret them, John would have to give up his own writings. He wonders: “Would I sacrifice my own words in a search for His?” In the end, of course, the author has chosen his own work, and in “Notes on Composition”, he relates how he writes, figuratively with two hands, one always selecting the true line “the just and genuine one…”. In choosing the best hand, he must frequently change, delete, pare back and sometimes start all over again to remain on the right path.

In “Seeking Song”, the poet envies heroes who change the world through direct action, like the blackbird, the knight or “the angel with blood-stained wings”. He can only lead Pegasus through “the calm water of words”, his given métier, “ever tempted to grip the dangling reins”.

In “Thereness”, the poet seeks to test the idea of ‘presence’, which has been pursued by generations of French poets and phenomenologists, by leaning out over the sill of a high window. But he’s stymied by an inner voice that warns, “Not too far”. He admires the white egret, the “sudden strawberries” and “the fragile poppy waving from the ditch”, and asks, “Who needs further signs, confirmations?” But the same fear as before prevents him from wading across a glacial pool in “Depths and Surfaces” as he ponders the deep drop-off in the middle. In “Betweenness”, he sees himself between earth and epiphany, always half way. If he manages to achieve momentary wholeness, he is immediately halved, and halved again, eventually being left a splinter. He cries: “Oh Lord, let me divide myself no further. I am now but a splinter of the beam.” He dares not assume “Victory” in the poem so titled as the hope of it has “…nearly destroyed me”.

Many of the pieces are written a propos of places Mr. Taylor visits: Étretat, Champtocé, Varades, Ancenis, Oudon. In each of these sites, the pilgrim finds signs that signal the direction and meaning of his life.

The book includes many prose pieces set in italics but also enclosed in quotes. These seem to be verbatim reports from all sorts of people: waiters, artists, prostitutes, deserted mothers, fishermen, soldiers, innkeepers and so on. They are often dramatic, capturing the phrasing and idiom of the speaker with uncanny accuracy. But the entrees are also politically relevant often identifying societal problems. While all the italicized passages represent other people, some without quotes may contain, according to the author, an infusion of “autobiographical fervor” or an attempt “to create doubt about the number of “Johns” possibly narrating”. Of the former, there is “The Son of the Scholar of Keats”, a young runaway whose professor father is characterized by his favorite phrase, “As it were”. In “Fleeing” a wife deserted with two female children struggles for years to support them, living hand-to-mouth and finally deserts them in turn, eventually opening a restaurant (which fails) with a bloke named Nigel. After hitchhiking around Europe, she ends up in Samos where she ends the story: “As to my girls… I have entrusted them to God.”

“The Waiter” describes the footsore, fatiguing day of a server in a café who spends his days catering to tourists “desperate for alcohol and sex” and goes home to read Greek poetry. Similarly, “Spooky’s Life” is the story of another deserted woman who winds up as a prostitute in a gentlemen’s bar. Besides doing it in English and Dutch, she …”can wank a man off in Spanish, Italian, German”. She remarks, “On a given week, I would end up doing about everything two human bodies can do to each other sexually”. In retirement, she also finds a home in Samos.

On a more exalted level, “You Have To Approach” is a moving evocation of an artist’s spiritual preparation before applying his paintbrush.

Of the latter type of prose piece, where the poet speaks candidly in his own voice, there’s “C’s Discouragement” which describes the author’s deceased friend identified only by the letter ‘C’. In memory, the friend’s black mood, mirrored in espressos, is incited by the hopelessness that has dried up his creative powers. “Between us fell a silence that I can still feel (this morning…)”. “The Mirror” describes an eventful stroll through the Eros-Markt in Hamburg. “Into John’s World” shows a young boy (John himself or an avatar) raptly working on a drawing to create, Daedalus-like,“a maze from which he, the artist, might not be able to escape.”

The concept of ascension, pointing to the synonymy of mountain climbing and faith, forms another leitmotif of this collection. “Ascending” poses the climber-pilgrim’s problem when he reaches that point in the trail where he must either attempt extremely dangerous slopes represented by pieces of loose shale, or turn back to safety. He decides go on for the reward of seeing Lac Clair with its promise of “clarity, luminosity”. He attains it but, after the erosion of time, forgets the memory of its clarity and thinks of it, ironically, as Lac Noir. In “The Useless Signpost” he comes across an uprooted signpost and realizes:
You have to determine
the right path
by the slope
                                        up

up for the rest of your life.
In “Iter Inceptum” (the journey begins) the poet again sees himself on an ascending road, this time outpaced by others who chide him for taking the “scenic route”. As a “wanderer” he has a better view, and greater perspective, but still doubts himself: “And what good to others, even to yourself/ is a view?” But he perseveres knowing that “You have to choose/ the once chosen path again/ and again”. “The Citadel” recollects the speaker’s high palace of refuge attained by vanquishing the powers of Babylon. But this memory only appears centuries later when Babylon, the citadel and all their treasures have crumbled to dust. Always the self-negating victory. The eagle, symbolic of sacred power, sometimes fills the sky in “Eagles of Fortune and Misfortune”, but sometimes there is only “an empty, eagle-flown sky”. The author pleads along with men in Hell to be devoured by God, as the marmot by the eagle’s babies, rather than burn forever”. But the pendulum swings back in “This Dust”, set in the Nevada desert; the writer notes how dust, in the biblical sense of primordial material, can bring forth life in the form of “tufts of blue sage… and tumbleweed”.

In “Taming the Beast of the Sea”, Mr. Taylor once again identifies Satan with the Beast of the Apocalypse depicted in the tapestry. At first, the thought that the ‘beast’ is woven of lamb’s wool prompts laughter, but the demonic archetype cannot be laughed away. It still terrifies; yet the pen can slow its approach and (for the moment) walking away dispels fear. But the terror revisits in “Flames and Fingertips”; a meditation on death, cremation and, by extension, the flames of hell.

In “Galah” a sun-worshipping nudist imagines herself impregnated by the sun’s rays. In “The Adoration of the Beast”, hedonists follow their sensual pursuits, but are struck (as Amfortas) with incurable sicknesses. As medicines fail and they pray for a divine cure; still, they continue to sin and cavort as “The stars above us swirled like poor Van Gogh’s cornflowers”.

These poems, in their deeply felt, yet despairingly questioned, sense of faith, take their place with the likes of Vaughan, Herbert, Hopkins and Eliot in the canon of searing and inspiring religious poetry. John Taylor’s mastery of words and power of imagination surmount any qualms over religious orientation, or for that matter, mere atheism. Of course, there’s much more to report about this incredibly rich collection, but space prevents. Suffice it to say that the poems are “there”--not in splinters--but in wholeness, completion and clarity. The pilgrim has achieved apotheosis.

Something Must Happen by Ned Balbo

Something Must Happen
Finishing Line Press
saddle stitch chapbook, 28 pages
ISBN 1-59924-498-5

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Christina Cook
Although the line “Something must happen; that’s the source/of all suspense” refers to a movie set in Balbo’s poem “Actors Talking While They Drive,” the sentiment provides a lens through which the reader is invited to read his chapbook as a whole. The poems in this collection are, by turn, historical and personal, weaving together the suspense of impending things on the smallest to the largest scale. The two pillars of the book together take up twelve of the twenty-eight pages: “Times Square Postcards” details the picture history of New York in the first half of the 20th century and “The Woods” details a two-year span in the personal history of the speaker. Both these poems have subtitles featuring the exact dates in which the events described took place, as do other poems throughout the book, giving the collection a generalized feel of a non-chronological timeline of events which either definitively or possibly happened.

“The Woods” explores the weight of potentiality that tips the scales towards the inevitable as underscored by the book’s title. The poem is strongly reminiscent of Wordsworth’s The Prelude—a connection I am rarely able to make when reading contemporary poetry. The long lines, dense stanzas, and choice to use no jarring enjambments, in addition to the formal diction and melancholy tone, make me want to dig out my old copy of Wordsworth. For example:
Broad-leafed, the grape-vines clung and intertwined
along a brace of pine trees, rose to clasp,
an oak’s low-hanging branch, bell-shaped curtain
clustered with fruit not ripe enough to taste,
though, yes, we tasted it. And it was sour,
green grapes, green like the predator I glimpsed,
at waist-height, past the arbor, balancing
in quiet meditation, on a branch.
You might have gone inside, or I was out
traversing yard and wood in solitude
As with Wordsworth’s choice to title his coming-of-age poem The Prelude, so too does “The Woods” depict a sense of something impending, and Balbo conveys this on two intertwined levels. First, the poem opens and closes with images of the woods slowly moving in to swallow his friend’s house and the things that happened there. In the first lines, “The woods closed in—who knew how long they grew,/planted or wild, around your rented house,” the “rented house” emphasizes not only the transitory status of his friend’s family, but the similar impermanence of human nature. This trope surfaces in the last lines, as well:
   . . . The woods encroached
on three sides of your house and must be gone
by now (not that the house was ever yours),
erased as you, your family, all of us
who bear our memories and mysteries
throughout our lives, will make our own departures,
bound or solitary, in due course.
Secondly, events unfold slowly and are left unresolved, in a state of permanent unfolding. Over the course of 92 lines, the speaker gives us these snippets: “your brother Johnny, not yet drafted”; “One day, I met your brother’s hippie girlfriend”; “But the worst/was yet to come” (because Balbo does not often use enjambment to produce an effect, when he does, the result is stunning); “Johnny, I later heard,/was sent to Vietnam like many more,/but made it back—on furlough or for good?—/home to his hippie bride.”  That question mark, coming at the end of the piecemeal unfolding of what possibly came to pass, freezes Johnny, particularly, and his generation, more generally, in a state of permanent suspense, where something is always about to happen.

Going forwards in time, but backwards to the first poem in the book, “Snow in Baghdad” also uses war as a haunting backdrop to moments made remarkable by something else, in this case, snowfall in Iraq for the first time in 100 years:
   . . . Five years of war,
and, now, this peace: unasked for, temporary,
Americans in desert camouflage
stationed conspicuously, brushing snow
from shoulders, guns, while snowball fights ensue
The soldiers’ peacetime presence is a nod to their state of being continually on-guard. Under these conditions, surprise is impossible, and Balbo expertly uses the sonnet’s structure to emphasize this. Although a sonnet’s turn typically adds a new thought to the poem, inviting the reader to see the previous twelve lines in a way which brings resolution of some sort, here the turn provides no surprise, and no resolution. After twelve lines of visual and auditory imagery describing the falling snow, the closing couplet reveals that “one old resident exclaims in wonder,/’In all my life I’ve never seen such rain.’” It is not surprising to hear the Baghdad native call snow “rain” because the first line of the poem has already revealed this: “The snow so rare that people call it ‘rain.’” In any other poet’s world, this would have deflated the punch line, but surprise does not exist in Balbo’s because his world is defined by a constant state of expecting things to happen. In his world, there is no punch line, and the sonnet’s form itself is used to express this.

The collection is rife with references to wartime, but historical events and people unrelated to war also play out their own eventualities in the poems. The last poem in the book, “For the Next-to-Last Survivor,” is addressed to the second-to-last person alive who survived the sinking of the Titanic. This sonnet functions as a historical flashback from the 2008 snowfall in the fatally dangerous city of Baghdad to the tragic memories of Barbara West Dainton, who died the year before:
    . . . Like snow
ice flakes and ash blow past your face and fall,
melting, on silk.
        But one day, in a future
inconceivable, you’ll flee once more,
this time alone, transformed impossibly—
your passing mourned, but not the last to be.
Death came to the soldiers in Vietnam and will come like snow to the soldiers in Baghdad, whether in the heat of the tragedy they witness, or many years after the fact as it came to Barbara Dainton. It will come, and will come to us all differently. Death is one of many things that have happened in the past, and one of many things that will happen in the future. Indeed, it is something that must happen, and Ned Balbo’s chapbook is a throughly engaging exploration of what such a cycle of suspense brings to bear on the course of its instigator, time itself.

Silent Music by Richard Bronson

Silent Music
Padishah Press
Perfect Paperback, 91 pages
ISBN 978-0-9776405-2-2

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Martin Abramson
For many years I watched Richard Bronson’s poetic development from awkward beginnings, through years of tireless work-shopping and saw how diligently he pursued his craft and how honed and polished his work became. So I take considerable pleasure in introducing a worthy successor to his well-received first chapbook, Search for Oz; namely, his latest collection: Silent Music

If one is to compare Mr. Bronson with other physicians who turned to writing later in life, one might cite resemblances to the linguistic experiments of William Carlos Williams or the intense social concerns of the French author, Jean Reverzy. But Mr. Bronson has his own version of “No ideas but in things,” his own style, as meticulous as Williams’; and his own views of history, as driven as Reverzy’s.   

Silent Music contains four sections beginning with a series of poems devoted to images of childhood along with sketches of parents and relatives. The charming “Tootle” is a touching moment of infancy; “The Good Son”, a scene of childhood anguish and humiliation; “Atom Drill” depicts the terrors of nuclear war reflected in the eyes of school children. “The Mouth of the Dragon” shows a time when the author narrowly escaped death (as most of us have at one time or another) and was shocked into awareness of life’s fragility;  “My Uncle Jerry” is about the oaf whom we all remember as the in-law who pinched us, cracked our knuckles or threw us into a lake to help us learn to swim. Other poems in this section depict touching images of the author’s workaholic dad, and perfectionist mom, snapped at different stages of their lives.

Topics that repeatedly command the poet’s attention include religion, politics, war, people, love, medicine, music, time, nature, and travel. Several poems overlap two or more of these topics.

“Jones Beach” conveys the sudden sweetness of a first date when everything goes right.
        
A mist off the sea touched our skin
----bare arms and legs----
and we laughed,
while the surf rushed
along rock jetties.
“Imperfect Knowledge” dramatizes the medical shortcomings of an earlier age when the poet’s doctor-father allows a shoe store to x-ray his son’s feet; subsequently the father is himself felled by overwork, and a second heart attack (precipitated perhaps by those little red estrogen pills). “The Dinner Party” emanates vibrant acoustical chords, and poses a tantalizing puzzle concerning the identity of an unseen guest. “Perfect” describes the punctilious care a woman, presumably the poet’s mother, takes in the execution of domestic duties: shopping, homemaking etc. This is then compared to her later appearance in a nursing home.
…Her gait precarious,
Though her mind is clear.
She still wears heels---
It is her way---
Though death lurks with every fall.
“The Time Eaters” is a wide-spectrum study of time--geological, archaeological, biological and biblical. Other poems treat the concept of time: “At Tewksbury Abbey”; “Summer Solstice”; “Indian Summer”; “2001” and “Anniversary”.   “Mount Zion”, the name of a Jewish cemetery, examines the ritual and reality of modern burial. “Continental Drift” depicts what happens to so many marriages as the years roll by:
We’ve lived in a private United Nations,
our own Security Council,
each with absolute veto power.
It has served us well these forty years---
“Fugue” explores parallel universes in which family members avoid decisions that resulted in tragedy or premature death. I tuned into this piece personally on many levels.

Mr. Bronson’s meditations on the horrors perpetrated by humans upon one another include precise medical sadism and general atrocities. “A Portrait of Otto Dix” depicts the appalling conditions of surgery in an earlier age (Google: “Hans Koch Urologist” to see the painting itself.); “Terminal Velocity” supplies a view of NYC through the eyes of someone falling in slow motion from a window of the Twin Towers; “Cura Te Ipsum”, is an ironic self-justification by Josef Mengele. Others in this group include: “Cry, Oh Cry Dafur”; “Flag Day at Hudson” and “Anthrax”. 

Lest I give the impression that Silent Music is top heavy with intellectual fare, let me close with some instances of the spell binding lyric imagery found throughout the book. From “Passage”:
He rode on a river of steel
through a cave of night.
Lights of little towns winked welcome,
were gone.
From “Driving Home…”:
Houses catch fire in failing light
as the day dies---
From “Indian Summer 2001”:
The Sun has crossed the sky
Touched dark, still water.

Only the pale moon
gazes harshly
from its empty place
at the closing of an age.
From “Wind Singer”:
The strings and winds are like two peoples
who speak the same language
but rarely congregate

except in formal, prearranged meetings.
From “The Secret of Vilcabamba”:
Rose petals, red drifting over cobblestones…
From “Satori”:
White butterflies, prayers on folded paper
festoon trees…
I leave the reader to explore the many other treasures of this collection. Whether speculating on religion, music, nature or distant lands, Mr. Bronson’s sharp eye and appreciation for detail are always compelling. Even more significant are the empathic depths, and subtle shades of color, which set off these skillfully wrought verbal objects. Mr. Bronson’s Silent Music is sure to reverberate loudly in your mind now and far into the future.

Specimen poems from an earlier collection: Search for Oz by Richard Bronson may be found here.
 

Psyche’s Weathers by Cynthia Atkins

Psyche’s Weathers
Custom Words
Perfect bound, 94 pages
ISBN: 9781933456874

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Christina Cook
Psyche’s Weathers is a savvy testament to the presence of personal significance and communal sacredness in the most mundane aspects of our world. Cynthia Atkins’ debut collection investigates the deeper levels of the psyche as revealed in backyard nature and, simply, what’s around the house. It is precisely the familiarity of the images and settings in these poems that lay the groundwork for Atkins’ powerful insights and well-positioned departures from the familiar into the arena of the often shocking. This dynamic does not, however, come off as a juxtaposition. Rather, it reveals the inherently potent nature of the mundane. See, for example, what Atkins does with worn-out jeans in the poem “Dirt Poor”:
Our lived-out jeans
are rife and pinched
to the seams—threadbare
as a whisper, that wasn’t worth
mentioning.
The delicately placed comma acts as a discreet nod to the idea that worn-out jeans are too inconsequential to mention in a poem or any dialogue about the dire consequences of Hurricane Katrina. However, the sheepishness of the nod is negated by the fact that the speaker does, after all, mention it, establishing that the jeans are indeed signifiers critical to the poem. They are the visual proof and pinching discomfort of poverty, and they signify more than simply a single pair of jeans, but the kind of clothing “rife” in post-Katrina New Orleans. Another barely perceptible part of the poem’s technical scaffolding is the line break after “worth,” which elevates the thought from a mere mundane aside. The pause infuses time for reflection, a move which in itself confirms that it is a detail worthy of such reflection. The speaker, one of the “dirt poor,” shows a high level of self-awareness in saying “that wasn’t worth mentioning,” by showing an ability to think outside the world of what she says and consider how it sounds to an outside observer, in this case, the reader.

This level of self-awareness in the voice of the speaker lends power to poems throughout the collection, giving the reader not only the small details, but also the larger picture that contextualizes them. In so doing, we are shown their meaning in the world beyond the speaker’s: indeed, in our very own. For example, “Birthday Poem” is a sustained reflection on the dying moment of a friend, where the speaker pays close attention to the mundane items and events that may have accompanied that moment:
I wonder what last line
you were uttering
as steam rose to a contrail
of words. Maybe Coltrane
was hitting a high note
on the stereo, as the cat knocked
a pen off your desk. At that instant,
a ripple skimmed the world.
Someone honked at traffic.
A push-broom washed across
a diner floor.
In less than a dozen short lines, Atkins shows exactly why such small details are worth mentioning. Because the exact details aren’t known, she provides them for her friend. The “contrail of words” invokes a jet painting white lines across the sky without her description ever departing from the shower stall, while in the next room, “[m]aybe Coltrane” was playing “as the cat knocked/a pen off [his] desk,” while in the street outside, “[s]omeone honked at traffic,” and even further away, across town or across the country “[a] push-broom washed across/a diner floor.” The speaker’s vision of the moment of her friend’s death, the most significant moment of his life, telescopes out to the mundane details of that very same moment as it passed through different places. The fact that the lines are short and the sentences grow grammatically simpler only adds to the presentation of the events as very small. And right in the middle of this sequence, the speaker slips in “a ripple skimmed the world.” These perfectly chosen words create an abstract image not at all out of place in the middle of mundane events because it describes them: like the ripple, they are barely perceptible movements that hardly touch the world. But this slender line also describes a ripple effect: a series of events touched off by a single action. However small the original action is, the effect is of potentially tremendous consequence. The Coltrane, the cat, the car horn, the death of a man in the shower—that all these can be contained in the same moment gives us pause to think about the larger world every time the furnace clicks on downstairs or the dog barks in the yard next door, and, amazingly, gives us this pause in real time—as we are reading the very poem itself.

Another facet of the apparent mundaneness of every day life that Atkins explores throughout the collection is the trail of painful events underpinning the mundane ones. In a manner almost reminiscent of David Lynch’s 1986 cult film Blue Velvet, Atkins buries frightening past events in visual details that depict a life lived according to the cultural norm. For example, in “Weird Sisters,” the quote from Macbeth that serves as an epigraph tips us off that all may not be as white-picket-fence-like as it seems: “When shall we three meet again?/In thunder, lightening or in rain?” is immediately followed by an image of a typical family in the 1960s, the speaker and her sisters in “ponytails, pedal-pushers, and mid-riffs,” and their mother “in gloves, seamed stockings, and a Jackie-O hat.” As the poem progresses, their typical teenager activities turn witchlike, the details delving into the frighten underpinnings of the seemingly normal:
we smoked cigarettes,
made hand shadows, and practiced voodoo
on our newborn brother;
sprinkled worry salt in his blue crib,
and tried to exorcise the demons
of family fractures—the way our parents
nearly killed each other
the same night our brother was conceived.
(We sat very still under the stairs.)
The speaker, in a matter-of-fact tone, reveals that psychological damage, physical pain, and terror are all part of the biology of her family, the very flesh and blood of her brother.

Many of the poems in the collection pick up on strands of thought from the poems that come before and build their complexity; the poem that directly follows “Weird Sisters” is no exception. “Here’s One for the Band” probes the effect of the secret wounds revealed in “Weird Sisters,” as we see in the line “I burned the kitchen/candles all night long, in my paper-thin nightgown.” The “paper-thin nightgown,” is weighted by being the longest line in the poem and by the pause created by the comma, emphasizing that her nightgown is itself flammable. The speaker is playing with fire here, in more ways than one, blurring the lines of intention with prosody: the line break after “kitchen,” the comma, the line’s length, and the line’s staccato ending collectively lead the reader to question if she is burning the kitchen, the candles, or—herself.

There is no word or tone in the this line to indicate to the reader that the speaker feels anything out of the ordinary took place in the kitchen that night. The calm, conversational tone which the speaker uses to deliver such heavily weighted lines brings into question what, exactly, falls into the categories of “normal” or “natural.” In “To Say Aloud,” the speaker casually comments that
. . . . [s]trangers still talk
about the weather getting stranger
all the time. Daffodils in February? Snow in July?
Easy come . .  Easy go . . . Let us touch
something sacred. For this:
let our hands be tied.
She is nonplussed by the strange weather, and does not see it as unnatural. Strange weather, strange doings in the kitchen at night. . . all this is in the natural order of things. She accepts things as they are while still exploring our desire to make our mental weather more temperate:
To say aloud the things
that are too . . . ?
Thank you, no, we’d rather not
admit where it hurts.
We’d rather push a button,
control the mental temperature.
Neither mental nor meteorological temperatures have reliable control buttons, and the need to come to terms with that involves a longing to connect to “something sacred.” This longing threads its way throughout other poems in the book, where it is fully realized in the most common of places. “At the Mercy of . . . .” opens with one such place:
Retrieved daily, there is a place I go
     to feel holy—Almanac
     of sunrise/sunset.
The “[a]lmanac/of sunrise/sunset” harkens back to the very first poem in the book, “January’s Calendars,” which details how the speaker’s wall calendar is crammed with her family’s daily activities. The Almanac passage refers as much to this mundane measurement of sunrise/sunset (PTO meetings, school bus schedule, etc.) as it does to the inspirational red glow of the half-lit horizon at these times of day. In fact, the whole collection works toward an intricate dovetailing of the sacred and the quotidian into one cohesive whole truth. The poem, “God’s Watermark,” reveals part of this truth toward the end of the book. In this poem, the speaker relates a conversation she has with her young son about God:
. . . . He understands
that God is larger than the kitchen,
larger than the outstretched hand.
She goes on to say:
 I can’t begin to tell him
anything he doesn’t already know:
God is big. God is round.
The force to be reckoned with—
The face of our latent prayers.
God is small as the mouse
standing in our shadows.
The word we’ll never grok
the meaning of—The problem
we’ll never solve. God is in
the refrigerator magnet holding
his smudged drawing up:
Sun and stars and people, colored-in
like an untenable fence of gravity.
By this point in the book, the speaker makes no pretence at saying “that wasn’t worth/mentioning.” Every detail of her son’s drawing held to the refrigerator by a magnet is worth mentioning. The magnet itself, worth mentioning. And here she tells why: because God is in the small, seemingly mundane aspects of our lives. This point is further emphasized by the clipped lines and abrupt enjambment: “God is in/the refrigerator magnet holding/his smudged drawing up.” The child’s drawing becomes a picture of our own world, filled with simple things and a Crayola innocence that endures, despite what secrets lie buried beneath.

Open Slowly by Dayle Furlong

Open Slowly
Tightrope Books
Paperback,75 pages
ISBN 978-0-9783351-3-7

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Martin Abramson
Dayle Furlong has presented us with a bouquet of glowing love poems; some transparent, most translucent and a few, opaque. And clinging to each of these vivid flowers, like jeweled insects or diamond dewdrops, are striking images to bring delight even when, occasionally, the sense of the poem escapes us.

                             … the plum-coloured sky
rolls through, the sparked vein of lightning rips and tumbles like a
gambler’s die
            …
…we’ll live like lazy flies
swirling in the hot syrup
            …
Leaves lie in piles--
a blazing circus of decay.
            …
I’ll yell at the sun for
bull-fighting with clouds
            …
the water’s ebb a puppy’s tongue
panting in quick spasms.
            …
a heron emerges
from the inky forest
--eggshell gray, blue
folded paper toy in flight--
Open Slowly. The title suggests the many levels of experience embedded in the text, not accessible to hasty scanning: the slow growth of awareness in childhood; the slow blossoming of adolescent sexuality; the slow opening to adult love; and the slow recognition of the past entangled with the deep foliage of memory.

Characteristic of the first and last is “Past Flesh”, where the author remembers her father:
I’d bury my face in the nape of his neck
snuggle into the warm, sweet-smelling flesh.
Her mother, buttoning a sweater:
her hands, steaming and soapy, plump and round,
smelt tart and crisp from the green apple dish detergent.
Her wet fingers climbed clumsily up the row of buttons
slipping like insects on wet stones.
A teenage infatuation could be the theme of “Romance Brief”:
a summertime fling
heartbreak in autumn.
… I turn to you, feel you clutch
my hand--a rhythmic heartbeat--
our torsos cling to one another
on park benches like vines
On a more sinister note, child-molestation is viewed through a child’s eyes in “Say Uncle”:
Under his thumb, she
pleaded, bribed, begged,
desperation choking her face cherry red
when I refused to go in the basement,
fear of spiders and fingers
keeping me above ground.
The word “fingers” informs us that the speaking child had some vague idea of what was happening, but could do no more against adult authority than protect herself.

In an intriguing conceit on calligraphy called “Own Hands, the author is “Tired of gazing down this self-same spot/ the end of a pen” as her writings clamor for fame and attention; “anything to wipe the ink from their faces”. She sits “hunched over, head in palms/ bleeding elsewhere”(not on the paper).

Some of the most sensual of Ms. Furlong’s love poems include:

“Bound”, where we find the lovers in
encircling light
eyes flashing, hair flying
openings new, whole: unique.
… crevices deep, filled with
rubbed colour, blushing at the edges
“Litany of Desire”, where
My lips shed skin
in crisps
if only to love you
abrasively
… you will enjoy me as
blessed and savage
as I tumble head first into you
And “Tangled”, where
I lie like a minnow
let you gulp me in
expel me at high tide
Insects, flowers and birds are among Ms. Furlong’s favorite subjects: viz “For All Their Fluttering”; “Flies”; “In the Butterfly Garden”; “In the Hummingbird Garden”; “A Single Pink Rose”; “Lovers Hunched”; “Smoked Out”; “City Sparrows” and “Scattered”.

Other poems evoke people and situations. “You Were Here” captures the taste and feel of competition between young girls for a Tom Sawyer type playmate.  “Experiments with the Living” projects and introjects an early sweetheart who, is fantasized into the present.
…if you were to extort the present from me…
what future could we imagine?              
…I remember hours spent sitting on
swing sets as the breeze turned colder than
the ice cream…
now inquiries are embargoes
In “Tonic and Brevity”, the poet contrasts childhood dreams of adulthood: “I’d wear pretty dresses/ and meet men from big cities”; with reality: “free from growing pains in knees/ and the shame of cheap sneakers”.

In Canada, winters are harsh, and spring is the long yearned-for season; several poems reflect this desire. A lovely daguerreotype of the city in deepest winter is etched in “Blue Lips”.
feet burn with the itch of cold
as street cars break down, collide
while buses and trucks
amble by awash in
cement tones
“Bare” describes a tree denuded by winter winds and just such a skeletal tree is transformed into a bride in “The Ceremony” as blizzards spin a snowy nuptial veil over its branches. In “The Thaw”, the speaker and a friend, hoping to urge spring on, sit on a freezing porch.
the chai latte is hot
and the cinnamon clumps
together at the bottom in cliques
In “Lazy Eye” thawed puddles on the sidewalk, like “icy eyelids melted”, presage warmth that has not quite arrived.

Among the scattered gems of this collection are gritty, realistic poems that describe people. There’s a poem to a statue; one to a prairie storm and a good many that express the author’s feelings about experiences with friends, lovers and children. All are styled in free verse with strong metric and rhythmic energy. Descriptions are sharply focused and finely detailed. This chapbook is as rewarding as it is challenging, and the challenge greatly enhances the reward.