Mary Warren Foulk

Mary Warren Foulk has been published in Fjords Review, The Hollins Critic, Pine Hills Review, Palette Poetry, Silkworm, and Steam Ticket, among other publications. Her work also has appeared in Who’s Your Mama? The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers (Soft Skull Press), (M)othering Anthology (Inanna Publications), and My Loves: A Digital Anthology of Queer Love Poems (Ghost City Press). Her chapbook, If I Could Write You a Happier Ending, was selected by dancing girl press (2021) for their annual series featuring women poets. Her manuscript Erasures of My Coming Out (Letter) won first place in The Poetry Box’s 2021 chapbook contest. Her manuscript Self-Portrait with Erosion was a finalist for the 2021 Gival Press Poetry Award, and the Inlandia Institute’s 2022 Hillary Gravendyk Prize. 

Trail of Roots

Trail of Roots by Gail Thomas
Published by Seven Kitchens Press
Review by Mary Warren Foulk

I have long been an ardent admirer of Gail Thomas. She has been my teacher and mentor. I return to her poems often for inspiration and guidance— for their stunning craft and for their model of humanity, radical honesty, and brave instructions on how to live, how to be a poet in the world, and how to navigate and face the roots of our ever becoming, no matter how challenging or wondrous.

The reverent poems in Trail of Roots are no exception. They are a deepening of her study and evolution as a poet and as a person. These poems traverse history; they also traverse many landscapes: Scranton; Hawk Mountain; Kittatinny Ridge; landscapes of the human heart; and landscapes of a self in transition and transcendence. A mind actively excavating its past to forge its present and future, no matter where the trail may take her, no matter how uncertain the terrain. These are multifold/multifolding journeys— through spirit, through raw emotion, through the undeniability of aging and mortality. The narrator mines the myriad selves—wife, mother, daughter, lover, witness—against the complex backdrop and realities of such American legacies as patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, and the fragile states and contexts in which women, in which lesbians, too often find themselves.

In her title poem, “Trail of Roots,” Thomas begins,

After I forget what I know about walking,
I hike this trail with my dog who is thrilled

to be free. This is not a time for Shinrin Yoku,
forest bathing, where one walks untethered.

The poem continues,

my eyes

focus only on feet, what lies beneath
and ahead. Tangled web of roots course

like bruised veins at every angle.

And later, she writes “remember years when I used my body and skin //
to feed my children, denied by their father, as if we lived / in a blind alley built of unpaid bills.” Another memory, after a pride march, she:

pushed a stroller and held my other child’s hand while
red faced men screamed at us. Later in our garden

a neighbor spit on the ground, the thick clot daring
me to protect them.

As she makes her way through the canopy, she “hoists myself over [a white pine’s] rough bulk, balance then straddle // before landing on solid ground.”

And yet despite these obstacles, there is forgiveness, wonder, redemption; there is hope, natural beauty, and love. Earned through the many trials experienced and lived authentically and expressed divinely and masterfully. In “Marriage at 63,” Thomas observes,

With children grown, loves
buried, mother and father gone,
our bodies maps of countries
whose names have been changed

And now, this yes

steady as late night coals
glowing and banked.

Having taken Thomas’s classes at Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop, I was privileged to read several of the poems in draft form. Thomas is very generous in sharing with her participants her own pages and process. I was astounded by every draft—for their forms, for their lines, for their metaphorical reach, for their rhythms and sonic power, for their breathtaking beginnings and endings. For their never ending surprise. Thomas is triumphant in her ability to hone a narrative, to weave these multitudinous, interconnected histories and stories, these resonant voices. How she evokes such a range of responses from her readers, and evokes such a desire to return, to read again and anew. I am awed by such layering and depth across the page, and how she uses the white spaces and its possibilities (notable in her “Golden Dust Repairs the Cracked Vessel”), their visual design and intrigue. Such richness across the collection, such a riveting whole.

In two poignant poems, she pays tribute to those who have greatly influenced her, from Lucille Clifton to Adrienne Rich, from Ellen Bass to Jane Kenyon, from Ross Gay to Marie Howe, echoes of her poetic forebears and lineage. She honors these influences in “Cento for Women Who Are Not Believed”:

Now you are a voice in any wind
a succession of brief, amazing movements,
the fragile cases we are poured into,
this woman’s garment, trying to save the skein.

And “Pandemic Cento”: “There are days we live / as if death were nowhere in the background. / The life only wants, the fugitive life.”

I linger in the potent “Leaving Paradise, ” where Thomas shares:

Inside my thick-
walled house, beams stained with ox blood, tradition
echoed in red ware pottery, pierced tin cupboards,
blue and white crocks with stiff-necked plump Dutch
birds, but there were no women like me.

Lured down the highways splattered with billboards,
past the sprawl of malls and smoke stacks, I searched
for them in bookstores and meetings, women

who lived in disguise, a man’s wife kissing another
man’s wife. Let me be clear about this yearning,
its embers stoked by more than a juicy bite,

more than feminist books devoured like bread,
more than the company of mothers alone
at night, their men working late. Body
and mind yoked to this cultivated garden
of my own sowing, I chose wilderness.

It’s a gift and an honor to review Trail of Roots, Thomas’s wild sowing and self-assertions, to extol its praises and ensure its broad reception. The gorgeous cover alone, a three-color woodcut by Nancy Haver, invites the reader into discovery and exploration of the reverberant, transformative meanings inside.

Gail Thomas’s previous books are Leaving Paradise (Human Error Publishing, 2022), Odd Mercy (Headmistress Press, 2016), Waving Back (Turning Point, 2015), No Simple Wilderness: An Elegy for Swift River Valley (Haley’s, 2001), and Finding the Bear (Perugia Press, 1997). Her poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies including CALYXValparaiso Poetry ReviewBeloit Poetry JournalNorth American ReviewCumberland River Review, and Mom Egg Review. Among her awards are the Charlotte Mew Prize from Headmistress Press for Odd Mercy, the Narrative Poetry Prize from Naugatuck River Review, the Massachusetts Center for the Book’s “Must Read” for Waving Back, and the Quartet Journal’s Editor’s Choice Prize. She has been a fellow at Ucross and the MacDowell Colony. She teaches poetry, visits schools and libraries with her therapy dog Sunny, and volunteers with immigrant and refugee communities in Western Massachusetts. Read more about Gail and her work at

Trail of Roots by Gail Thomas
Winner of the A.V. Christie Chapbook Series
Seven Kitchens Press
ISBN 978-1-949333-91-6
33 pages, $9.00
Purchase here:

Mary Warren Foulk has been published in Fjords Review, The Hollins Critic, Pine Hills Review, Palette Poetry, Silkworm, and Steam Ticket, among other publications. Her work also has appeared in Who’s Your Mama? The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers (Soft Skull Press),(M)othering Anthology (Inanna Publications), and My Loves: A Digital Anthology of Queer Love Poems (Ghost City Press). Her chapbook, If I Could Write You a Happier Ending, was selected by dancing girl press (2021) for their annual series featuring women poets. Her manuscript Erasures of My Coming Out (Letter) won first place in The Poetry Box’s 2021 chapbook contest. Her manuscript Self-Portrait with Erosion was a finalist for the 2021 Gival Press Poetry Award, and the Inlandia Institute’s 2022 Hillary Gravendyk Prize. 

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online

The Optimist Shelters in Place

The Optimist Shelters in Place, by Kimberly Ann Priest

Published by Small Harbor Publishing, Harbor Editions, 2022
Review by Maria McLeod

The significance of bearing witness

The Optimist Shelters in Place, a poetry chapbook by Kimberly Ann Priest, is an account of survival during a plague. The mundanity of daily routine provides a setting for existential angst which appears to the reader as universally familiar. Published during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, Priest’s chapbook chronicles the early days of isolation as if intent on creating a public and personal record of our adaption to a previously unfathomable circumstance.

The reader can imagine a future historian turning to Priest’s writing to learn the scope of the pandemic’s impact, as it reads as a reliable narrative, an unembellished account. Priest records this new and unwelcome homebound existencebeginning in March of 2020 as a quarantine of unknown durationin order to signal her intent to the reader through the construction of 24 themed poems, all written from third person point of view, each title beginning with “The optimist” followed by an action taken by the optimist (or someone in her life). For example:

“The Optimist Scrambles Four Eggs for Breakfast”
“The Optimist Cuts a New Plant”
“The Optimist Takes a Personality Test”

Opening with a scene of a woman (the “optimist”) talking to her plants, Priest places us in that moment—pre-vaccine —when it seemed the only way to survive an isolated present was to hope for an “inhabited future”:

The plants feel it too.

She tells them to think about new sills to adorn
in some inhabited future,
not to imagine this will be their final resting place. She tells them

what her daughter told her before leaving was deemed essential:
this is all temporal.

Although confronting and combating loneliness rides the surface of these poems, the more salient theme expressed is the significance of bearing witness. Evidence is presented to the reader in the form of the book’s dedication, “for the spider,” a reference to the tenth poem in the collection, “The Optimist Leaves a Dead Spider Dead on the Carpet.” Here, the spider serves as a metaphor for our existence as measured by our significance, or insignificance, to others:

From underneath her coffee table a lone spider
plans a route of escape.

Quarantine is difficult for all sorts of creatures.

At dusk, when shadows brush the carpet a semi-cloudy grey,
he leaps out from under swimming over its follicles,
but not fast enough.
His smushed dot remains on the carpet for over three days.

The choice of third person point-of-view provides readers with both a comfortable perch and an active part. If one is to transcend loneliness and the resulting feelings of insignificance, one’s existence requires recognition. The reader takes the witness chair.

Amidst the details of daily life—the grocery shopping, the scrolling through Facebook, the phone calls, the tending to (or ignoring) domestic chores—the pandemic facts and stats are placed throughout the book. These are actual news items. Their inclusion provides both a reality check and a foil to the “optimist” whose survival tactics include moments of personal indulgence that allow a form of escape: a glass of expensive wine, a walk on the beach, a hand in the sand.

In North Carolina the Death Toll is 507.
But no one is talking much about North Carolina,
and she wonders what it’s like not to be talked about so much.

Again, it’s being talked about, being recognized, that Priest asks her readers to consider; this comes not as a directive, but an emphasized remark. It’s as if she’s raising her eyebrows at the end of sentence, inserting a pregnant pause. Descriptions of being seen represent moments that serve to buoy the speaker: the interested glance of a grocery store worker; her daughter’s brief but pleasant visit. But there is also a concern expressed over the opposite, to be unseen, unrecognized:

Not essential, no one has called her in weeks;
she’d rather die somewhere else than right here, alone.

Perhaps the most pointed lines in the collection come from the poem, “The Optimist Remembers What is Needed to Feel Essential.” Here the reader learns that a contributing factor to the optimist’s isolation is divorce, the dynamics of which are indicted by the following two lines, “The last thing her husband said to her is no one will want you / after this. Maybe he was right.” It is the words the poet sets in italics, representing the now ex-husband’s stark remark, that lift off the page like a slap, followed not by a refutation but a deflated concession by an omniscient narrator, “Maybe he was right.” These lines double the impact of the loneliness and isolation presented by this collection, an existential crisis expressed in the need to be seen, heard, loved and recognized in order to feel human and present in this world—needs that were challenged during the pandemic. 

It makes sense, then, that the last poem, “The Optimist Sleeps Through the Night,” is about survival, focusing on the act of breathing as recognition of one’s existence. The poem’s subject is someone apparently unknown to the “optimist,” someone ailing and hospitalized. The speaker imagines the patient’s revival after what we can only assume has been a harrowing hospital stay, a near-death experience. In doing so, she uses her omniscience as a means of harnessing the power of positive thinking, as if her ability to see him helps bring him to life. Here Priest ends, as an optimist would, on a positive note:

… Somewhere/a fever has broken

Somewhere a young man wakes
to discover the sounds of his own breathing—how much like love it is.

An exhale of carbon monoxide
and hope.

Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird, the American Best Book Awards finalist. She is also the author of four chapbooks: The Optimist Shelters in Place, Parrot Flower, Still Life and White Goat, Black Sheep. She is winner of the Heartland Poetry Prize 2019 from New American Press. She teaches writing as an assistant professor for Michigan State University. She also serves as associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry.

The Optimist Shelters in Place
Author: Kimberly Ann Priest
Publisher: Small Harbor Publishing, Harbor Editions, 2022
ISBN: 9781957248011  |   43 pages  |  $12.00

Maria McLeod is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Mother Want and Skin. Hair. Bones. She’s won the WaterSedge Chapbook Contest, Indiana Review Poetry Prize and the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize. She works as a professor of journalism for Western Washington University.

Risa Denenberg is the curator of The Poetry Cafe Online.

Maria McLeod

Maria McLeod, is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Mother Want and Skin. Hair. Bones. She’s won the WaterSedge Chapbook Contest, Indiana Review Poetry Prize and the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize. She works as a professor of journalism for Western Washington University.

Dangerous Women

Dangerous Women, by Jesi Bender
Published by Dancing Girl Press

Review by Jennifer Saunders

Patriarchy can transform nearly anything about a woman into a threat. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is frequently criticized for paying too much attention to her wardrobe, but when Janet Yellen—secretary of the Department of the Treasury—appeared before Congress wearing a suit she had worn in public five weeks previously, she was criticized for that. Meanwhile, in 2014, Australian TV host Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit on air every day for a year as an experiment, and nobody noticed. Hillary Clinton was regularly criticized for being “shrill” but when she softened one debate appearance with a laugh and a shoulder shake, she was deemed unserious. It’s the classic double-bind: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Which is why, in Jesi Bender’s poetry chapbook Dangerous Women, the “Married Woman” and the “Unmarried Woman” can both be declared dangerous. The “Young Woman” is a threat, but so is the “Old Woman.” There is either the “Beautiful Woman” or the “Unseen Woman.” The “Woman Apart” is suspect, but so are the “Women Together.” Why, it’s almost as if it’s the fact of womanhood rather than any particular behavior that’s considered threatening under patriarchy.

Too smart dumb blond too pretty what a dog too loud too pushy too bitchy too much. Who does she think she is?

The poems in Dangerous Women pair these archetypal threats with poems inspired by literary and historical figures ranging from Jezebel to Georgia O’Keeffe (who, it should be noted, once said, “The men like to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”). Bender lays the foundation in her opening poem “Womb Wounds” (archetype, The First Woman) which traces misogyny back to the story of Eve. “All daughters of the same black Eve / she in us birthed sin,” Bender writes. What could have been a source of power—the birthing womb—is reduced to pain, leaving those giving birth to “[b]ear this burden with a grin” and to become “broken bones.”

The line “Now—where is her heart, the core of her flesh” from “JesiBelle Waits For the Hounds” (archetype, The Faithful Woman) strikes me as the guiding thread of this collection. What has happened to these women’s stories? What has become of the core of them? The women in Dangerous Women have either been forgotten, like Maria Sibylla Merian, the German naturalist and scientific illustrator, or flattened into stereotype like Jezebel who is remembered as a harlot rather than as a woman remaining true to her native religion. The core of her gone, all that remains are:

her arms, her legs and her head.
They wanted it this way,
As far as I can tell,
So no one would ever be able to say;
“This, this was Jesi Belle.”

Bender writes this of Merian in the prose poem “Soft Egg” (archetype, The Independent Woman):

That was what she wanted to show the world—that deep down where things crawled and clambered, there were insides so beautiful, so delicate and bright, that they mirrored the infinite ecology of the human heart.

Here we see the heart again, the core.

I do feel compelled to mention my discomfort with one of Bender’s poem, “The Portrait My Mother Made,” (archetype, The Strongest Woman) dedicated to Mamie Till-Mobley and written in Emmett Till’s ghost-voice. This image troubled me:

Cradled by silt I came out
clean as cotton from the gin

Is that image one the murdered Till would have used? Coming from Chicago as he did and having been raised by a woman who herself left the South as a very young child, it would not likely have been a natural linguistic reference point of his. More importantly, the cotton gin was the invention that solidified chattel slavery in the South by making large-scale cotton production profitable. In a way, it was contributory to Till’s murder. Placing the image of ginned cotton in Emmett Till’s mouth struck me as a questionable choice.

Bender is on more solid ground when she is shining light on historical figures who should be better known such as the naturalist Merian or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the Mexican writer, philosopher and Hieronymite nun who is considered the first published feminist in the Americas. I was unfamiliar with both these women, and Bender’s poems inspired me to learn more about them. Dangerous Women is at its best when recovering such stories in Bender’s lyrical language. In the “Tenth Muse” (archetype, The Unmarried Woman) she writes in the voice of de la Cruz:

promised you      Salvation
The sky quells and
light     vibrates against skin

Women fly and fall in this collection, become or give birth to birds. “Last night, I dreamt / I birthed three dead birds,” Bender writes in “Shalosh” (archetype, The Childless Woman) while in “A Poem For Emily” (archetype, The Quiet Woman) Emily Dickinson is described as a “little red wren.” Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, imagines herself flying in “The Bird Machine,” one of the collection’s prose pieces (archetype, The Intelligent Woman): “In her mind, when she closed her eyes, she pictured that as she spread her arms and pushed the wings against the air, there would be a trail of exultant leaves in her wake. {gold} “ In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Hélène Cixous writes, “What is interesting is that birds, writing, and many women are considered abominable, threatening, and are rejected.” The repeated appearance of birds and bird imagery in a collection about how women are constructed as dangerous and threatening taps into this deep root, but Bender’s poems reject rejection. They reclaim and retell. They restore the core.

Jesi Bender is an artist from upstate New York. She is the author of the play Kinderkrankenhaus (Sagging Meniscus) and the novel The Book of the Last Word (Whiskey Tit). Her shorter work has appeared in Fence, Split Lip, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among other places.

photo credit: Sarah Tinsley

Dangerous Women by Jesi Bender
dancing girl press, 2022
32 pages, $8.00
available here:

Jennifer Saunders is the author of Self-Portrait with Housewife (Tebot Bach, 2019), winner of the Clockwise Chapbook Competition. Her poem “Crosswalk” won the 2020 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and appeared in Southword. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Grist, Ninth Letter, San Pedro River Review, and other publications. Jennifer holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in German-speaking Switzerland.
photo credit: Denise O’Gorman

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Jennifer Saunders

Jennifer Saunders is the author of Self-Portrait with Housewife (Tebot Bach, 2019), winner of the Clockwise Chapbook Competition. Her poem “Crosswalk” won the 2020 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and appeared in Southword. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Grist, Ninth Letter, San Pedro River Review, and other publications. Jennifer holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in German-speaking Switzerland.

photo credit: Denise O’Gorman

Real Rhyming Poems

Real Rhyming Poems, by J.M. Allen

Published by Kelsay Books, 2022
Reviewed by Nikki Gonzalez

If you’ve ever held a poetry chapbook in your hands, you know their comparative lightness. They don’t have the physical heft of a novel or even most magazines. Yet their brevity–the majority no more than 50 poems–is what gives them their very weighty punch. The strength of a chapbook is in the concentrated emotion they deliver. And it can be quite a wallop.

J.M. Allen, with his collection, Real Rhyming Poems, delivers his strike in smart, witty rhyme. One could easily underestimate the impact of this style, brush it aside as just an observational comedian in couplets or Seinfeld-in-verse.  But I invite you to look beyond the humor and see the compilation that, while not taking itself so seriously, profoundly allows for connections. I don’t, for example, need to live in Minnesota to imagine just how cold my ears would be in winter and who wouldn’t laugh, albeit with a knowing little ache, at the experience of typing out a heated email. In “An Email Never Sent,” Allen rhymes:

I wrote an e-mail; it was how I reacted.
I was about to hit Send, but a text got me distracted.
The content came to me fast, as my anger slowly rose.
I just kept on typing, with the sharp words that I chose.

The email, of course, isn’t sent after an interruption forces him to re-read his words (and it’s probably for the best!), as Allen concludes, “And so after the delay/ my draft e-mail I re-read,/ And then it struck me–I should just call him instead!”

The poem “Acknowledgement” is perhaps the best example of Allen’s ability to share in the human experience as he writes specifically of the impact of connecting with others through smiles. This poem, a mere four lines in length, creates the emotional encounter of a simple nod or wave in passing–“a feeling that is priceless”:

If you smile and say hi, it might just brighten my day.
Or nod to me in passing, nothing you need to say.
When I’m driving my route, a wave to me would be niceness.
And you may make me smile, a feeling that is priceless.

Reading the poems in Real Rhyming Poems feels like taking a walk with J.M. Allen through his neighborhood, through the seasons, through various terrains–from beaches to hiking trails to the prairie, and through his daily routine as he points out all the details you might otherwise miss. As you synchronize your pace with his, page by page, learning his stride, becoming accustomed to his style, you begin to develop a sense of anticipation, knowing a smart twist will come at the end of each of his pieces. You expect it. You ready yourself for it. You’re giddy with the promise of a knowing, connecting laugh or “aha!” moment.

But the walk Allen takes us on, though it begins easy and fun and playful, begins a climb into observations of more adult issues. The poems go from airy Shel Silverstein-esque read-alouds and move gradually to weighty reflections.  I began to feel the gradation change in the poem “The Lawnkeeper” (published in my own literary publication, The Parliament Literary Journal), a reflection on “that” neighbor–the one who sprays chemicals on the lawn or whose landscaping machinery is loud and annoying and used way too early on a Sunday morning.

Chemicals are often sprayed on it,
and I think ants get it the worst.
No insects at all are tolerated,
even though they lived there first.

Many of us will relate; we laugh knowingly; we connect. But this time when we laugh along, there’s a slight sting. It’s not just disrupted weekend sleep that Allen’s rhymes go after; he also swings a pointed jab at the ignorance and ego that prefers an immaculate lawn over the damage it causes to the environment. We climb higher as Allen goes on to reflect on micro-managing bosses (who end up getting the promotions, incompetent as they are!) in “Eruption”; gun ownership in “Why I Bought a Gun”; and health issues in “Living at the Hospital”, a poem that begins:

I’m mostly living at the hospital,
sure wish I could be done.
I keep needing to give my birth date,
my life should be more fun.

Most likely, we’ve been there too, have given our birth dates over and over to nurses, and technicians, and doctors as well. It feels like an absurdity. And we also understand that, to be in that situation, something serious underlies.

Allen concludes with “Dragons,” perhaps the most serious poem in the collection. Masked in fairy-tale metaphor and layered with his trademark wit, this concluding piece closes our walk together with an undeniable parting squeeze. The final couplet unites all his strengths–the smart rhyme, the unique perspective, the ability to connect to us:  “To calm my nerves, a drink from my flagon / And I promise this time to slay my dragon.”

With each of the poems in the chapbook, we can find connections–with Allen and with each other, sharing common experiences of life that unite, and enjoying a little chuckle about them. These poems are seemingly simple, but impactful indeed.

J. M. Allen is an electrical engineer and parent, who enjoys writing rhyming poems. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan, and has been a longtime resident of Rochester, Minnesota.

Real Rhyming Poems, J.M. Allen
Kelsay Books, 2022
ISBN 978-1-63980-128-2
40 pages, $16.50

Nikki Gonzalez lives in New Jersey where she is a professor of Psychology and publishes The Parliament Literary Journal.

Risa Denenberg is the Curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Ghost Moose

Ghost Moose, by Margo Taft Stever
Published by Kattywompus Press

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Talley

Margo Taft Stever’s poems in “Ghost Moose” are beautifully written even as they illustrate the cruel conditions to which humans often subject animals. These poems offer a window into current ecological concerns about the reduction of biodiversity among and within species as well as how deeply this poet values the lives of all creatures.

Some poems combine warning and lament. This poet writes both lyrically and precisely describing human-inflicted animal cruelty. However, when Stever’s poems refer to people within her circle, the poems suggest rather than recount personal details.

Stever sets the thematic stage in her first poem, “Three Ravens’ Watch,” a poem written from the perspective of ravens watching skaters in the painting, “Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Traps,” by Peter Bruegel. Such a poem reminds readers that there has always been human folly. With an air of superiority, representatives of the animal kingdom castigate humans of an earlier era, admonishing them about ongoing calamities:

This harshest winter attracts you to skate, to forget
your misery, scrawling icy patterns. Ravens,
three of us, stand sentinel, noticing
your slow-witted motions, your ugly sprawls.

You who now skate, do not forget that you will return
to your endless winter, bread riots, witch
hunts, old widowed women targeted, and frozen birds
falling from the sky. We know that you want to eat us.

In an easy transition from the first poem to the title poem, “Ghost Moose,” once again we see children at a river, this time during a mild winter when ticks multiply and afflict moose calves, as “their mothers / witness starvation from blood loss.” Such poignant description calls to this reader’s mind assorted contemporary news photos of mothers hovering near their own children dying of starvation and disease in impoverished or war-torn countries. Stever’s poems call for respect of all sentient beings as she sets animals’ survival and well-being on par with that of humans .

Stever’s poems stand alone as well as share themes and images that glide smoothly from page to page. We know the name of the mental hospital and the names of drugs in Stever’s “Locked Ward” poems. However, we don’t know names of the people confined. It seems intriguing that the first “Locked Ward” poem abuts one about a mother’s death in “Calling Mother After She Died.”

These and other poems abound with images from nature. Stever expands the meanings of her poems by interjecting intimate commentary. For example, in the midst of the above poem, Stever asserts “I have forgotten what bound // us together, mother to daughter.”

Confinement of humans and animals is a through line in this chapbook, as with the three “Locked Ward” poems arranged within the chapbook. In addition, the poem, “Birds at the Zoo,” contemplates how Inca terns appear struggling to exit captivity, whereas the double-wattled cassowary freezes as if in “multi-colored / contemplation of her lot.” This short poem may give a reader pause to reflect how such animal response tendencies inform the human condition, how humans deal with stress and conflict.

In a subsequent poem, it becomes impossible to ignore the stress and searing cruelty imposed by crate confinement of pigs in factory farms. “Litany of the Sow” juxtaposes childhood rhymes with statistics of piglets crushed by the weight of their mothers. The musical poetic devices serve both as contrast and to ease reader tension in a difficult-to-stomach poem. How to ignore the pain of:

Fourteen piglets suckle at her teats;
she shifts her body to keep from losing
limbs. Hear her moans,
                                        bones tear in her skin.

These poems combine anger, prayer, and plea. By following the poem, “Litany of the Sow,” with a poem given the title of a Christian hymn, “Agnus Dei,” Stever’s words allude to “Lamb of God” and invoke “mercy.” This poem describes encroachment of our housing and malls on animal habitat as well as how humans torment animals “just for fun.” Stever’s Biblical reference reminds us of a moral and spiritual call to be not only our brother’s keeper but to honor the lives of all sentient beings. We are called to keep them safe. Humans have inflicted “the sins of the world,” as the poem lists, such as “swamps bulldozed for sun / seekers, McMansions, / strip malls, five-acre “horse farms.’” The last verse of the poem begins lyrically as “Sunlight slants into the victim / pool, missing species, radiant / particles from the past” and ends by intoning, as in prayer, “Have mercy on us.”

This poet is not one to harangue. Let the reader intuit from powerful depiction. One of the last poems, “Beloved Child,” is composed from a letter by the poet’s great-great grandmother, as she lay dying, to her infant daughter. This poem resonates with earlier poems about the poor sow and the mother moose. Contrast this poignant epistolary poem of love with cruelty depicted in the couplets of “The Ballad of the Dolphin”:

Fishermen did not want to compete
with you, but killing you was not enough.

How they used the screams
of several to slaughter more.

Other soothing and ironic poems serve to lighten the harsh truths of this chapbook. Stever’s poems invoke concerns about loss of biodiversity, sometimes called the sixth (mass) extinction. She has written a brief elegy of the Anthropocene. Several poems speak of birthing, of motherhood, and of children. Species, even the human species, seek continuity, and we cannot live without hope and/or mercy.

The final poem of “Ghost Moose,” “End of Horses,” is written “from the end / of the time zone” when “nothing survived after // the horses were slaughtered.” Does this reference anticipate the end of the Anthropocene? One might read the poem as a cautionary premonition.

Reading this gem of a chapbook illustrates Stever’s own dictum. In an interview at The Chapbook Interview, she says, “The poet must have something to say. The poet must write out of passion and necessity rather than an attempt to showcase the latest craft trend.”

Stever’s chapbook is a moving example of ecopoetic literature that deserves wide reading. However long our civilization lasts, poems like these bear witness, inspire, and give us pause to do what we can to make a more positive impact for all species.

Margo Taft Stever’s poetry collections include Cracked Piano (CavanKerry Press, 2019); Ghost Moose (Kattywompus Press, 2019); The Lunatic Ball (Kattywompus Press, 2015); The Hudson Line (Main Street Rag, 2012); Frozen Spring (Mid-List Press First Series Award, 2002) and Reading the Night Sky (Riverstone Press Poetry Chapbook Competition, 1996). She co-authored Looking East: William Howard Taft and the 1905 U.S. Diplomatic Mission to China (Zhejiang University Press, 2012). Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including Verse Daily; Prairie Schooner; Connecticut Review; “poem-a-day” on, Academy of American Poets; Cincinnati Review; upstreet; Plume; and Salamander. She is founder of the Hudson Valley Writers Center and founding and current co-editor of Slapering Hol Press. She lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York. For more information:

Title: Ghost Moose
Author: Margo Taft Stever
Publisher: Katywompus Press, 2018
Price: $12

Mary Ellen Talley is a former speech-language pathologist. Her poems have appeared widely in publications including Raven Chronicles, Flatbush Review, and Banshee, as well as in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have received two Pushcart nominations. Book reviews by Talley appear online and in print journals, such as Compulsive Reader, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Sugar House Review and Empty Mirror. Her chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” was published in 2020 by Finishing Line Press.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Sharon Waller Knutson

Sharon Waller Knutson is a retired journalist who lives in Arizona. She has published several poetry books, including My Grandmother Smokes Chesterfields (Flutter Press, 2014), What the Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say and Trials & Tribulations of Sports Bob (Kelsay Books, 2021), and Survivors, Saints and Sinners (Cyberwit, 2022). Her work has also appeared in Black Coffee Review, Terror House Review, Trouvaille Review, One Art, Mad Swirl, The Drabble, Gleam, Spillwords, Muddy River Review, Verse-Virtual, Your Daily Poem, Red Eft Review, The Five-Two and The Song Is…