Reviews July 2012

The Pattern Maker’s Daughter 

by Sandee Gertz Umbach
Bottom Dog Press
Perfect Bound, 83 pages
ISBN: 978-1-933964-52-2

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli

The discussion and attention drawn to class issues, thanks in part to the Occupy Wall Street movement and debate over austerity measures in Europe, is not solely for newspaper headlines. The current U.S. Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, is the quintessential blue-collar American poet, who made his name known decades ago by writing about Detroit’s struggles and its impact on the average Joe. Other poets are also giving praise to working men and women. Sandee Gertz Umbach’s debut collection of poems, The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, is loaded with poems appropriate for the times. The hard workers and survivors that populate her poems would get along well with characters in a Bruce Springsteen song or Levine’s poetry. The farmers, mechanics, and other laborers that live in her poems struggle to overcome hard times and tough luck, including a historic flood that may conjure up images for the reader of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath. By the last page, the reader hopes these characters pull through.

For the most part, the book is told from the point of view of a young woman who suffers from epilepsy, and the collection is broken into three sections. The first is the most haunting, as several of the poems focus on the 1977 flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania that ravaged houses and swept away the young and old. In the poem “What Was Left at the Creekside House,” Umbach offers chilling imagery of a gutted house:

A single kitchen wall standing
A single ceramic pot
A knife that spread the peanut butter
her boys had eaten before bed.

On the counter, a roll of paper towels,

Umbach also employs local history in the poem with a note that states a sole family survivor of the flood tried to save her 7-year old son by grabbing the cloth of his sleeper. However, he was torn from her and perished, as well as her 8-year old son and husband . The note adds much context to the short, image-stacked lines of the poem.

In another poem, “Becky’s Ride,” dedicated to Becky Lichtenfel of the 1977 Johnstown Flood, Umbach captures the brute force and sheer power nature sometimes displays. In the poem, the sky “pulses, shooting itself full of light,” and cars “lift up erect and form a tower.” Anchored to the apocalyptic imagery is Becky’s story. She was swept away in the flood, and the young speaker confesses to searching Becky’s face for years at the bus stop, for traces of “thrashing against rock, the rushing waves that flowed through her hair.” By the end of the expansive narrative poem, Umbach does a fine job making the reader really care about Becky and her plight, her will to surface from the cold, muddy waters and somehow survive.

The second section of the book shifts to poems about the speaker’s struggle with epilepsy. Some of the poems are just as mesmerizing as the flood poems, especially “Climbing the Tower,” which describes the speaker’s countless trips to a Pittsburgh hospital when she was a teen.  The speaker recounts seeing “Stick figures from Children’s Hospital” that were wheeled in and “bald and shushed by nurses.” The poem also captures the frustration of the speaker’s parents, who just want to understand what is wrong with their daughter. The father hopes the doctor will offer a diagnosis on paper, “something he could explain at the lunch table/of mill men drinking thermoses of coffee and milk.” The mother wanted “reasons, clipped out exotic mail-order/cures from backs of magazines.” What the speaker wants, however, is just to be normal, to be like the college girls she sees from out of a window, “perfect in their careless bodies.” Anyone who had a difficult adolescence and didn’t fit in could certainly relate to the last few lines of the poems.

The book is punctuated with a final section that offers more character-driven poems that find the speaker returning home after years away. What the final section makes clear is the empathy the speaker has for blue-collar workers, and how they remind her of her father, a pattern maker. In the poem “Service Center Repair,” the speaker takes her car in to get fixed and listens to the story of a mechanic working on “getting’ outta here” and saving extra money to make that happen. Here, the speaker draws a connection to her father and the mechanic.

I let out a sigh; he doesn’t know how drawn I am
to the neck of his blue collar, just like my Dad’s
-everything I wanted to trade—stretching
out on the passenger side of the car.
I want to tell him not to work so hard,
that money could make things complicated—
that his wife could find the postman
becoming more attractive with his regular hours
and the careful way he raps on the door
when the baby’s sleeping.

The poem is similar to a lot of the other poems in the collection because it again offers a story of a man working hard to survive and to carve out a better life for himself and his family.

The Pattern Maker’s Daughter is a fine celebration of the working-class that have populated Johnstown, Pennsylvania .  Umbach’s expansive, character-driven poems are laced with images that show the beauty and value in hard work and survival.

Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, The Portland Review, San Pedro River Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and other journals. He is the author of the chapbook Front Man, and his first full-length collection will be published in 2013 by Unbound Content. Find him online at


Onion Man

By Kathryn Mockler
Tightrope Books
Perfect Binding, 128 pages
ISBN: 978-1-926639-39-0

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Dawn Leas

There are topics that authors explore which have the ability to transcend boundaries – cultural, socio-economic, and geographic – because they are experiences that know no boundaries, ones that most readers will identify and connect with, whether based on personal experience or second-hand knowledge. Alcoholism. Teen drinking and drug use and sex. Infidelity. Families split by fissures. Alzheimer’s Disease. Kathryn Mockler guides her readers through the waters of several of these universal topics with equal measures of grit and grace in her debut collection of untitled, linked poems titled Onion Man.  

Onion Man tells the story of an 18-year-old girl who is working a summer job in the warehouse of a corn-canning factory in London, Ontario, which also happens to be Mockler’s hometown. Mockler’s concise economy of words does not short-change the reader, but rather adds a simple lushness and steady boldness that pulls the characters and the readers into and through the varied layers of the story. This pared-down-to-the-core verbiage packs power – emotionally and intellectually. It is also evident early on that this is not a collection quickly thrown together, but rather one that has been carefully plotted, cultivated and executed.

 From the first page to the last, we watch the narrator acting like a typical teenager – smoking, drinking, hanging out with her boyfriend Clinton and her friend Stacey, working a summer job, questioning the present and her future. We witness her dealing with her mom’s drinking problem and the behaviors that accompany addiction such as the maintenance of a “picture perfect” persona paired with the often hidden dysfunction of the disease – lacing Diet Coke with vodka and a bedroom filled with filth and clutter. We observe her figuring out the “hierarchy” of factory life. We see her deal with the declining health of her grandfather and her grandmother’s response to it. 

 Mockler frames these life experiences within scenarios that are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes scary, sometimes revelatory, but always real and tangible for the readers. There are lives of hard living within these pages, and we walk with the narrator as she vacillates between hope and hopelessness; fear and strength as she tries to make sense of significant events that are happening to and around her.

 Woven throughout its pages are lines with literal and figurative meanings. In one poem, the narrator is speaking about the noise in the warehouse, but she also mentions that she and Clinton don’t wear ear plugs. She continues with:

 “But I’ve/noticed/lately that/I’m not/hearing/him as/well as I/used to.”

 While this could mean because of damage done to her hearing by the noise level, it could also portend the decline of and eventual end to their relationship. A few pages later, she describes how her mother made them hunker down in the basement because of tornado warnings. The poem ends with:
“In the end, there wasn’t/any storm, just the worry and the threat.”

In addition to the actual storm that never came, it can also point to the unpredictability of living in an alcoholic home and the constant worry and threat that comes along with it.

Caught in between the teen angst and dysfunctional lives of the narrator and Clinton is the sad story of the character for which the book is named – Onion Man. He is a quiet immigrant who is in “a country where/ he doesn’t speak/the language” and “every night he/peels an onion and eats/it as if it were an apple.” The narrator is the only one who tries to get to know him, who shows concern when he misses work and learns that he loses his son in an accident. Onion Man commits suicide in the warehouse, and when the the narrator finds him, it is a sad, pivotal point:
“I/don’t blame him. He/was mourning the loss/of his son. And people/here treated him badly./Cruelness reminiscent/of a schoolyard is the/only way to describe it./I don’t know why people/like to kick someone/who is down, but they/do.”

Although the factory produces and moves endless numbers of cans, the people who work “on the lines”  are in a holding pattern, repeating the same movement and tasks hour after hour, day after day, week after week – an entire career’s worth of years. But the narrator wants something different, seems to know that there is more “out there.” And she seems to believe that university can be the gateway to it, but Clinton shoots that theory down:

 “You /think people who go to university/like their jobs any better? he says./Life is depressing. That’s why/ it’s a good idea to be drunk/for most of it or at least stoned.”

Both the narrator and Clinton struggle with the fear of the unknown and the desperate want for something else outside the limits of their hometown. Clinton constantly talk about plans of heading west, moving to BC, but when they have a pregnancy scare she questions him about what they would do. He replies:

“he’d work at the factory, and/I’d stay home with the kid.”

 At the close of the collection, there are ends left untied. Although this can sometimes cause irritation, it doesn’t in Onion Man. It is more of a reminder that this is how life is for those struggling to make rent, or teetering on the rope bridge that spans adolescence and adulthood. In the last poem, the narrator freely admits her fear of the unknown: 

“I’m scared to go into the future/because I don’t know what will happen./ The future is like walking into  a river and/ not knowing if you will step on leeches/or sand. 

But, as the reader you will feel the need to cheer her on to taking that next bold step knowing she can find her way through the leeches to the smooth sand. 

I was equally impressed by the attention to visual detail because it supports the content so well. The cover color and the striations in the paper feel like and resemble the texture of an onion. The shaded sketches of the Onion Man on the cover, title and last pages of the book support its mood. The one-stanza structure of the poems can represent the corn cans and the assembly belts they travel.

After placing the book on my end table, I felt a lingering tinge of sadness that made me reminisce about pivotal points in my own adolescence and reflect on the current uncertainty in the world. However, even as Mockler paints a bleak portrait of the workers clocking in and clocking out day after day doing their jobs amidst personal problems, loss, and the mundaneness of everyday life, a glimmer of hope was evident. I was left with a feeling of a Howard Jones moment to the tune of “Things Can Only Get Better,” not only for the main character, but also for the state of our country.

In Michael Turner’s blurb on the back of Onion Man, he states “this is a book I will read more than once.” I completely agree with him. It is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking first book. I will also add Mockler’s next collection, The Saddest Place on Earth, to my reading list. It is scheduled for release by DC Books this fall.

Dawn Leas’s chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in, Literary Mama, Willows Wept Review, Southern Women’s Review, Interstice, Poetry in Transit, and others. She currently teaches eighth-grade English at an independent school in northeastern Pennsylvania.


The Art of the Sonnet 

Edited by Stephen Burt and David Mikics
Belknap Press (Harvard),Cambridge, 2010
Paperback, 464 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Arthur McMaster
As the sonnet approaches its nominal seven hundredth birthday, counting from Dante and Petrarch, that is, not from Will Shakespeare, who courageously turned the form in an accommodating way, we speculate on why such vigor, such appeal, such legs.

The basic elements of the sonnet include fourteen lines set in one of two essential rhyme schemes. Originally the metric scheme was iambic, but that convention was one of the first to go as the sonnet found common purpose with poets who preferred to tinker, rather than obey the letter of  Roman law. The earlier, Italian form offered an octet, usually abba, abba. This was followed by an answering sestet. Most common would be cde, cde. The Shakespearean sonnet, in the late Sixteenth Century, waves away the octet/sestet structure and prescribes; 



The final couplet is the poem’s defining feature. Once the original mold was broken the only proviso to stand up was the convention of fourteen lines. 

Could its apple-cheeked health be explained by its trim, modest fourteen-line foundation, its good-natured adaptability, its willingness to go along with nearly every theme a poet might wish to dress her up in? Sure. But talent underscores talent, and the 100 poems presented in this volume, with a page or three of extrapolation and comment by esteemed experts, work well to show off the form. We find within the volume some of the oldest recorded sonnets, several from the Victorian and Georgian era, a parcel from the early and “post-modern” era, and an assortment (Whitmanesque) from America, Europe, and other “overseas” stations. The package is complete.

The earliest are Elizabethan poems, moving chronologically at an steady pace: three from the Bard and his contemporaries, a generous showing from the Romantics, where we discover the usual suspects: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. Every poem is accompanied by interpretive notes from editors Stephen Burt and David Mikics, professors of English from Harvard and the University of Houston, respectively. Their scholarship is worthy and accessible. The reader is unlikely to feel he or she is sitting in on a lecture one or more grade levels removed from one’s comfort zone. Their focus on readers works just as well for scholars as for the practicing poets among us who want to more successfully work in the form. Ozymandius makes his storied appearance, even as the quintessentially-mortal subject is further lost to the sands of time. 

Dramatic monologue is in full fig, with one (enough!) from Liz Barrett Browning. You will not soon find another poem with four exclamation marks and four ellipses. But maybe such love poems are entitled to more emotional gambits than something held tight and tidy, such as William Meredith’s beautiful (Italianate) and simple testament to love untested and misunderstood. Who among us is not still looking for Petrarch’s Laura? 

Several more poems, brooding, heraldic and heroic, connect the early sonnets in conventional forms (Italian and English: Petrarchan and Shakespearean) to the sprung variations that began to appear in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Few stand as dramatic as Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem “The New Colossus.” Recall the signature final lines:

 . . . Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

No one did bombast better than Emma. But this was an era of immense growth and promise. The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883. Edison’s electric lights were streaming across New York City that year. Golden door indeed! “Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild,” wrote Denis Diderot one hundred years before his countrymen gave us Lady Liberty. The tempest-tossed were welcomed here, maybe to help quell all that vastness. Ever adaptive, poetry is reflective of its weltanschauung. The French will have to accommodate our purloined use of the German term, at least this once.

Back to Miss Emma’s ulterior motive for writing and publishing her sonnet, David Mikics informs us that she wanted to raise money for the Statue of Liberty’s completion and delivery from France. “Pennies poured in from schoolchildren and working people. Three years later the statute was assembled and delivered.” Let’s move ahead in the volume and significantly in time. Sonnets, we agree, are adaptable. The only constant, or near-constant, is the fourteen lines. Robert Frost’s “Mowing,” an unhinged sonnet with no visible rhyme or meter, underscores the vicissitudes of nature. The poet-farmer in New Hampshire speaks of “no easy enchantment,” where “Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak.” This poem is catholic and broad, but in a highly private sense. And what could be more representative than that of the taciturn poet, in 1913? “Mowing” appeared in Frost’s first published volume, A Boy’s Will.   

Hart Crane took a day away from his epochal long poem “The Bridge” to write “To Emily Dickinson.” Of Crane’s homage, Stephen Burt writes that this ” . . . is a poem about spiritual and artistic failure, about obscurity, silence, and the abandonment of impossible projects. . .”  The suggestion that the poem may also be autobiographical cannot be disputed. Some poems included here — Ted Berrigan’s “The Sonnets 44 (1964) — scatter rhymes to achieve something essential in the busyness and peccadilloes of New York. Find here too poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Miss Elizabeth Bishop and her friend Robert Lowell, who insists on blank verse. Les Murray, who once dreamed of wearing shorts forever, checks in from down-under. Rita Dove offers a remarkable poem touching the Greek myth of Persephone. Derek Wolcott’s briny sonnet complements his Caribbean energy and experience. Let’s take a look at the concluding lines to Wolcott’s “The Morning Man:”


It’s early December,
the breeze freshens the skin of this earth,
the goose-skin of water,
and I notice the blue plunge
of shadows down Morne Coco Mountain,
December’s sundail,
happy that the earth is still changing,
that the full moon can blind me with her forehead
this bright foreday morning,
and that fine sprigs of white are springing from my beard.

Rarely has a poetry anthology been better conceived, for purpose or pleasure. If I had to quibble it would only be to say that I had expected to find one of the best and most often anthologized of all American sonnets, “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden. It is not included. Surely I can make a decent excuse for the good professors’ decision, as editors, to leave it out. The fact that it is so well known and loved leaves room for one more in the collection that we know less well. At the end of the day I admit that I would not want to be without medical doctor and poet Rafael Campo’s poem, from 2007, “Rest Stop near the Italian Border.” Like so many in this volume, his is a poem I will come back to. 

Arthur McMaster earned an MFA from the University of Florida. He now teaches creative writing and American Literature at Converse College. He is the author of Musical Muse, Wives and Lovers of the Great Composers, as well as two chapbooks of poetry. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was twice a runner up for the James A. Hearst Poetry Prize.



by Jean Bleakney
Lagan Press
ISBN: 978-10908188-02-1

Reviewed by  PQ Contributing Editor Elizabeth Kate Switaj

At its most obvious, the title of Jean Bleakney’s third collection of poetry, Ions, refers to the titles of the poems themselves: each is an abstract noun, ending in “-ion.” Bleakney’s playfulness and love of words comes through even if one only looks at the list of titles, as every letter has at least one ion, and these are arranged alphabetically. There is one exception to this pattern: the poem “x,y” which counts for both letters it contains. Having lost its “-ion,” this title gains a charge the others do not have and becomes, therefore, itself an ion.
 These kinds of small but significant twists characterize the collection. Take the body of  “x,y”: it begins with a playful compression of René Descartes’ mathematical contributions. Then, the reported perplexity of another historical genius become the segue to something broader:
 . . . Even Isaac Newton was baffled,
allegedly. Where does that leave us, who have to take

so much on trust? Sometimes curve and axes never touch.

 These lines could simply be given a mathematical interpretation: those of us who cannot understand calculus must simply accept graphed representations of equations, but the question suggests something broader or more existential. Trust is not a mathematical concept. We are left somewhere, trying to make somethings touch that may or may not ever do so. Where that somewhere and what those somethings does not matter; this is Negative Capability, “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” as Keats once wrote. Uncertainty is foregrounded here by the “allegedly” dropped from its sentence to share a line with the beginning of the question. This kind of overflow is typical of Bleakney’s work. Here, where the comma before the line break emphasizes rather than authorizes it,  the excess adds a charge; if the title of “x,y” becomes a charged particle because of what it has lost, then its concluding two lines become an ion because of what they have gained.
Charging a line, a sentence, or word through addition or subtraction could serve as a workable definition of poetry. How much a poet adds or takes away depends on aesthetic allegiance and personal taste. Bleakney balances the two impulses. The lengths of the poems also reflect this, as some (such as “Circumlocution” and “Cogitation”) appear two-to-a-page, while others (such as “Consolidation” and “Improvisation”) require two pages each.

Addition and subtraction create different kinds of charges. Abstract titles meet concrete images. The piece with the very abstract title “Alphabetisation” opens with three lines listing vegetables in alphabetical order. The result is a kind of ionic bonding that the rest of the poem explores as it becomes a kind of ars poetica for the book:

 Stocking the seed stand, flowers first,
elastic bands in drifts around my feet,
I’m stalled at the vegetables; distracted
by the C to K hiatus, inventing
extinct varieties, their sudden demise.

 Close observation leading to imagined objects and their histories might look like distraction when one is expected to be arranging a display (Bleakney in fact works at a garden center) but that is, in fact, a kind of attention becomes clear here and throughout the collection, even or perhaps especially when she describes things that are not real:

 … a little Dutch boy of sorts
(for isn’t that what I’ve always aspired to
in the savior stakes?). As if I could resurrect
deeproot, exceltuce, frailwort, grippage,
hopeso, indurant, jard: an A to Z restored.

 The order of the book’s poems fulfills this fantasy, restoring an A to Z that never before existed.
 In Ions, Jean Bleakney makes charged particles of words, parts of words, sentences, and images that bond to each other through their oppositions. The result is a kind of serious whimsy in which what is made up may also be well-observed. Plants that are real and plants that could be real turn up in imaginary gardens that never let you forget that they are made of words.


The Outskirts of Karma

by Alfred Encarnacion
Illustrations by Hong Xia
Aquinas & Krone Publishing, LLC, 2012
Paperback, 58 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-9849505-0-8

Review by Ann E. Michael for Poets’ Quarterly

The word “mature,” when used to describe an artist’s work or a writer’s voice, tends toward positive connotations. Critics incline toward praise when a writer’s youthful exuberance and riskiness matures into noteworthy ground-breaking territory, or when a poet’s early promise, if a bit callow, ripens into spirituality, wisdom, or keen and unsparing observation. I mention this aspect of the artist’s growth because I first encountered Alfred Encarnacion’s poetry when both of us were young. Full disclosure: the micro-press I co-published with the late David Dunn issued Mr. Encarnacion’s early chapbook collection, At Winter’s End. We lost touch for about 30 years. I didn’t even know he was still writing poetry. And now, through the digital network and the circuitous mysteries of friend networking, Alfred Encarnacion’s book The Outskirts of Karma has re-introduced me to his work; more accurately, the book has introduced me to the mature poetry of this talented writer. 

In keeping with the collection’s title, Encarnacion employs images of the natural world throughout and keeps the tone of this collection fairly steadily in the “now” of Asian-influenced philosophy. Allusions to Eastern poets, art, and approach appear effortlessly and crop up appropriately. The reader doesn’t get the sense that Encarnacion is pasting Eastern ideas together just because he likes Li Po or thinks karma is a cool idea. What these poems do, instead, is to incorporate aspects of ancient wisdom-teaching and demonstrate their relevance to modern life, to the USA or wherever one happens to be: in a cornfield in August or waiting for “Buddha’s call on my cellular phone.” In the opening poem, Encarnacion’s speaker says, “I read the I Ching to be enlightened/but nothing changes; I read it//for pure entertainment & suddenly/it’s prophetic as the TV Guide.” Things do change; in “Winter Light,” another awaited phone call comes: “a nurse’s voice breaks the news” that the speaker’s mother has died, while outside “footprints, clear and stark,//fill again with snow.” The call in each case is partly spiritual, partly place- and time-specific. We can read the call as metaphor or fact, and Encarnacion leaves those options, and opportunities, to the reader.

Many writers reflect on mortality and the brief span of individual human lives, and Encarnacion does not avoid these much-examined tropes and questions about death. In fact, he explores the subject in ways that are sometimes confrontational (“In the Hall of the King of the Terrible Lizards” and “Winter Light” for example) and sometimes much subtler (“Gravity,” Disappearing,” and “After the Summer”). From “In the Hall of the King of the Terrible Lizards”:

What chills the blood
is not the reconstructed
remnants of a reptile
eons dead but a word
buried in the head,
its connotations
glimmer like swirling
grains of dust. Extinction.

And yet, describing an 18th-c. still-life by Alexandre-Francois Desportes which features a dead hare and bloodied pheasants waiting to be plucked, Encarnacion observes “One feather/falls through centuries…” evoking the lasting and revivifying nature of art. There is also the promise of biology doing its cyclical thing: in “Deserted Village, Endless Mountains,” the narrator tells us:

Whatever’s abandoned the land will reclaim. These silent
dirt streets belong to lichen and ragweed. Stray dogs follow
us shyly, pretending they’re wolves. Under its breath
the wilderness whispers.

From the aphoristic “Sorrows” to wry poems concerning Cafavy or the Famous Diving Horse, Alfred Encarnacion demonstrates his mature poetic voice through a range of subject material that seems personal but not over-telling and which is thematically lyrical almost above all else. A mood of skeptical faith acquired through the process of living a full life offers the reader the chance to reconsider each poem upon re-reading and may be why Philip Terman, and Chris Bursk have mentioned the word “wise” when praising Encarnacion’s work. Hong Xia’s delicate sketches contribute to the total book experience. All but one of the artworks are spare and offer the kind of mental space necessary for meditation and reflection. 
Of the departed, “I feel presence/ in their hovering absence;/ a little faith in the imagination,” writes Alfred Encarnacion. These poems aim to keep that faith in imagination vivid and necessary, and they do.

Ann E. Michael’s latest collection of poetry is Water-Rites, from Brick Road Poetry Press. She works at DeSales University, where she is Writing Coordinator. Her website is

The Fugitive Self: New and Selected Poems of John Wheatcroft
John Wheatcroft
Etruscan Press
Paperback, 218 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9797450-9-6
Review by Mary Jane Lupton for Poets’ Quarterly
The Fugitive Self  is not an easy read. The extensive collection, which includes poems dating back to the 1964 volume Death of a Clown and ahead to a section entitled New Poems, represents a lifetime of rigorous contemplation.  To begin to grasp the significance of the volume demands that readers review the best-known poems of Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, John Milton, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Lucille Clifton, William Butler Yeats, and a host of ancient and modern predecessors.
Yet even without a knowledge of those sources, the reader will experience joy in reading poems that stand completely by themselves, poems as diverse as “Hitting a Pheasant on the Pennsylvania Turnpike” or “The Second Best Hotel in Chambery” (the latter was first published in 1990 in the New York Times Book Review). 
John Wheatcroft was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1925. He attended Temple University on a Mayor’s scholarship. After a semester at Temple, he joined the Navy, hoping to fight against the Germans. Instead, he was assigned to a battleship to fight the Japanese, becoming involved in the battles of the South China Sea, Iwo Jima, Okinowa, and the Japanese mainland.
As a young sailor, Wheatcroft miraculously escaped death when an unnamed enemy, falling from the sky in a parachute, was blown to bits instead of him. Many of his poems, including the title poem “The Fugitive Self,” are attempts to resurrect the dead Japanese warrior within his psyche, to stop the bullets that “tore into/his flowering youth, and scattered it all to petals. I then and there became him.”
In “Love and War” Wheatcroft writes of “bloodied hands,”
blood from our buddies,
innocent blood, blood of the beaten.
All of Wheatcroft’s senses are overcome by the bloodshed.  Seeing the flashes from artillery, hearing the blast from guns, the author of “Love and War” wonders if he was perhaps smelling the 
stench of flesh we’d never seen
but knew had roasted in the ovens
we’d turned their cities into?
The visionary connections between Hiroshima and the Holocaust are unmistakable.
Other poems not about war nonetheless shock with the violent intensity of their images. In “Oysters” he compares opening the shells of oysters to “slick-fingered abortionists” who “scrape their flesh from its mother-of-pearl/swallow them raw.” In “The Cutting” he describes having “made love/to you with a scapel.” These frightening sexual images reverberate against Wheatcroft’s more gentle academic tributes to French novelist Marcel Proust or to American composer John Davison or to French autobiographer Jean Jacques Rousseau. His conflicting visions suggest a peace-loving poet torn, even traumatized, by his horrific witnessing of war and death.
After World War II, Wheatcroft returned to Temple under the G. I. Bill, transferring to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in his senior year. He completed his Bachelor’s degree and taught at Bucknell; he later earned his Master’s and his Doctorate from Rutgers and then taught two years at the University of Kansas before going back to the English Department at Bucknell University, where he taught World Literature from 1952 until 1996.
Themes of war, struggle, literature, devastation, relationships, culture, and religion form the core of The Fugitive Self. As he had identified with the dead Asian airman, as prince Hamlet had identified with his slain father/king, so Wheatcroft had identified with his own father, a Baptist clergyman. Wheatcroft wrote me that although he and his father had “different views of the Christian religion,” the differences never interfered with the “beautiful relationship” between them.
In one moving eulogy, “A Prayer for my Anguished Father,” the young Wheatcroft cries: “Let my Father go Lord, Whose dying son has nailed my father on/the shadow cross of self….” In another hymn, “Nulius Filius,” which roughly translates as bastard son, he compares his father to a dying fish and Death to an angler:
No angler ever played a fish more surely
to exhaustion
than Death has done my father—only to
unhook his lip
each time and fling him back in life before
he flops on land
his Father promised…
The hooked lip recalls the scapel and nails and scrapings of other poems. The stanza describing his father’s prolonged pain is unending, exhausting, its music soured by the “bony fingers” of Death plucking on his father’s nerves.
The most formidable poetry in the collection is religious in nature. In “Nativity Quintet,” a section from New Poems, Wheatcroft dramatizes many of the Biblical figures surrounding the birth of Jesus: the merchant who gives the infant his swaddling clothes; the thief who will one day hang on the cross next to Christ; the Virgin Mary; Saint Joseph; even the merchant’s donkey, who addresses the Lady, promising to carry her and the baby to safety.
As he retells the familiar story, Wheatcroft echoes Lucille Clifton, T. S. Eliot, the 23rd Psalm, Yeats, Milton, and others. The various figures of the sequence intersect, held together by Saint Joseph’s humble confession to the merchant: “I fear I can pay you nothing, sir” and by the musicality of the “Quinet.”
The extraordinary rhythms of “Nativity Quintet” shift and change—from couplets to ballad form to stanzas of irregular length—exemplifying what Tom Gardner, in his introduction to The Fugitive Self, calls the volume’s “heatbreaking music.” The sequence differs radically from John Milton’s great ode, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” with that ode’s fixed stanzaic structure, and more closely resembles the informal lyrics about Christ and the Virgin that one finds in Lucille Clifton’s some jesus.
The most eloquent voice in “Nativity Quintet” is the mother’s. Mary feels the child’s “first kick” within her and exclaims:
Oh! Something inside me breaks open.
A light from a star right above
This shed turns night into noon
I’m torn apart by love.
The repetition of internal sounds—light, right, night—creates a staccato rhythm similar to a shattering, while the words “breaks open” and “torn apart” image forth the act of a woman in labor. In a single line, Wheatcroft has brilliantly reproduced Mary’s agony but also her joy: “I’m torn apart by love.”
This subtly sexual stanza from the new poems reminds me of a much earlier poem, “The Rollercoaster,” which I heard John Wheatcroft read when I was at Bucknell more than fifty years ago:
How dazzling like the rollercoaster’s
Are the climbs we make together,
My lovely—
The tantalizing tugs,
The breathless instant
While lunging and clutching
For the star bubbling silver
Forever unattainable;…
And on and on, in breathless swells, with the ‘bump at bottom” followed by the “ski-ride over the little undulating humps.”
“The Rollercoaster” exudes both energy and climax. Little did I realize, being so terribly naive, that Wheatcroft was describing orgasm. To me, a rollercoaster was a rollercoaster. Nor did I realize, in 1958, that I would one day be privileged enough to review the collected works of a poet whose verse has undulated even more wildly with the passage of time. 
Mary Jane Lupton, author of Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters (Praeger, 2006), has published two earlier reviews in Poets Quarterly. John Wheatcroft’s most recent book is a novel, The Portrait of a Lover (Inverted-A Press, 2011). All biographical information is from their correspondence.