Guilty Prayer

Guilty Prayer, by Steve Henn (Main Street Rag, 2021)

Review by Charles Farmer

Two years ago, I checked into a rehabilitation clinic to kick an alcohol addiction. I brought along a few changes of clothes and some books: the who’s-who anthology, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry; and some volumes about the writer-as-drinker—Charles Jackson’s harrowing The Lost Weekend; Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Springs; and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. I hoped I’d have enough down time between counseling sessions to read with a clear head and conscience, something I’d been unable to do for the previous five years. I’d come to romanticize a lonely and calamitous routine of reading at my favorite bar until closing time, my head down in a book with an unspoken agreement with the bartender to refill my vodka sodas. It’d been years since I’d been sober enough to remember what I’d read the previous evening. For years, I’d told my students about literature’s power to restore, affirm, and heal, and settling into my residency, I hoped to validate my beliefs and fall in love again with living. Over time I did, and poetry remains essential to my sobriety. Reading poets—such as Raymond Carver, Nick Flynn, Hala Alyan, and Kaveh Akbar—who have made sense of and survived addiction and ruin provides me a sense of communion that I can’t find elsewhere.

Steven Henn’s latest chapbook, Guilty Prayer, offers me another instance for fellowship. Confronting his ex-wife Lydia’s addictions and eventual suicide, as well as his own drinking and depression, Henn finds life in the aftermath. Honesty is fundamental—Henn eschews the best-seller redemptive narrative arc and the platitudes typical of the language of recovery. Instead, Henn’s poems are unblinking, intimate accounts of a near-recovery. Confessional writing is a loaded term, conjuring accusations of oversharing and exploitation, but Guilty Prayer doesn’t read like an exercise in emotional manipulation. Instead, Henn delivers clear-eyed honesty, tenderness, and vulnerability.

Alcohol’s and drug’s seduction can be painless, effortless: “You can waste your whole cussed life/ Romanticizing the Dark Side,” Henn tells us in “What Darth Vadar Taught Me.” He recognizes a beloved trope: The creator fueled by substances, the artist who can access their creativity only after a few drinks or pills— their wit, sensitivity, and language sharpened by hard living. It sounds almost mystical, like Bukowski giving himself to his muse. Yet the poem ends with the reality: “Then I passed out/ of consciousness, not knowing if or when I would wake.” How do you romanticize that?

Henn doesn’t. Guilty Prayer revisits his traumas under a poetic microscope, one raw crisis, lyric after lyric. Confrontation defeats denial and deflection. In the haunting “Lydia,” Henn recounts the details of Lydia’s suicide and visiting her body with their children before cremation. There is a feeling of ownership as Henn talks to her:

Everybody knows
the trouble you put me through but nobody
says anything, not to me anyway, about how I
could be trouble for you. Nobody sees how I see
me seeing you.

Embracing the particulars in poems like “The Imperial Magisterium of Unrelenting Fortitude,” “Poem for the Mother of My Children,” and “Thank You, Lydia for Our Boy,” respectively, Henn addresses his late ex-wife. These poems aren’t chances for cheap voyeurism; they’re a means of assessing blame and responsibility, reckoning with hindsight, confronting parenthood, post-tragedy.

There’s an unrelenting, impossible wound:

Now I sleep on the lump in the middle,
As if wearing a hairshirt, or slack cloth,
Familiar like an injury that doesn’t heal

The need for explanation, the search for breaking points, reminiscent of Charles Bukowski’s  “The Shoelace”:

I wonder if it was an inability
to cope with 1000 minor disappointments
that drove you to put the belt
around your neck.

And a plea for mercy:

God forgive me for all the things
I blamed [my son’s] mother for.

Elsewhere, there are disenchantment and disappointment with a world that might offer happiness. Poems like “Dank Memes” find futility in friendships; “A Species of Creature” indicts the internet’s lack of humanity; “What I’m All About” and “The Woman Who Got Weirded Out I Wasn’t Eating” find the speaker back in the dating pool, but in a world of online mismatches and scams. Never far from children’s well-being, Henn acknowledges a world that has resigned itself to the normality of school shootings in “Role Playing Games.”

Yet there are reasons for hope. Zeb, an old acquaintance, returns in “Love Letter to an Old Friend,” whose reaching out inspires an urgency: “I want to tell you while I still can/ no gesture from a friend ever meant more to me.” Most endearing is the love letter to Henn’s students, “In the Classroom,” a poem that finds discussions of poetry fostering a community marked by empathy and an affection for the written word.   

Perhaps most hopeful are moments like those in “Still Life with Ceiling Fan and User’s Guilt,” where the speaker longs for lucidity, a release from a past dependent on “hallucinations and buzz.” This cry for clarity is profound, for it’s the recognition that the old life and its habits are unsustainable: “now all I want is to think/ quickly and clearly as possible.”

But what is there to do with newfound sobriety? Henn doesn’t fall back on wholesale redemption and “Lifetime” movie endings promising a return to innocence. The struggle is difficult and tedious, an endeavor full of monotony, down time, and unrest. “Recognition” captures the  initial apprehension of sobriety. Here, Henn is facing a Thanksgiving sober and haunted by Lydia’s presence—no small feat. Without the crutch of substance, what does one do? In this case:

They tell me the only way through it
is to feel it. When I talk to God I say
I’ll accept anything, maybe even death,
dear Lord, but please, not this immense sadness.

Guilty Prayer’s strength is in its ambivalence, its failure to promise miracles.  Yes, it’s a witness to catharsis through confession, sharing, and communion, but there’s always more work to be done. Henn writes that the stars “might be looking out for you./ Might even be editing the final cut,/ your happy ending.”

That’s a big might.


Steve Henn wrote Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year (Wolfson 2017), And God Said: Let there be Evolution! (NYQ Books 2012), and Unacknowledged Legislations (NYQ Books 2011). For a brief 8 issues he co-edited the defunct Fight These Bastards. He is currently working on a book of overlapping essays he calls a “memoir collage.” He lives and teaches in Indiana. Find out more at therealstevehenn.com.


Title: Guilty Prayer
Author: Steve Henn
Publisher: Main Street Rag, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-59948-854-7, 44 pages, $12



Charlie Farmer is a Georgia poet and professor who loves his wife, Erin, his daughters, his friends, his cats, his students, his books, his LPs, and everything else a poet should love in life.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

The Cows

The Cows, by Lydia Davis

Review by S.M. Tsai

One may be jealous of another being licked: she thrusts her head under the outstretched neck of the one licking, and butts upward till the licking stops.

Lydia Davis’s The Cows (Sarabande Books, 2011) brought me back to every instance in which I stared at my childhood pets wondering “what are they thinking about?” Anyone who has spent prolonged time with animals will get a familiar feeling when they read this chapbook: the desire to decipher an animal’s intentions in the absence of a common language (while sometimes projecting personalities onto them). How many of us have monologued in tandem with an animal’s mysterious actions, or held mock conversations with said creature as they went about their business?

This chapbook is not a collection of individual poems, nor does it feel exactly like a standard short story. I can only describe it as a 38-page poetic observation of bovine life—one that is interspersed with photos, taken by the author during her year-long observations.

Davis has written other stories about animals, including cats, mice, and fish. Upon comparing these stories, we see that each type of animal can provide a different viewing experience to the human voyeur, due to their varied habits and needs.

In The Cows the theme of stillness is pervasive. The various incarnations of this stillness are portrayed throughout, for example:

How often they stand still and slowly look around as though they have never been here before,

And,

[. . .] they are so still, and their legs so thin, in comparison to their bodies, that when they stand sideways to us, sometimes their legs seem like prongs, and they seem stuck to the earth.

In a lifestyle marked by stillness, what are the things that bring action to a cow’s daily routine?

As Davis demonstrates, their stillness is set against a changing landscape of seasons (white snow to green grass), disturbance of other animals (flocks of birds, snowball-throwing boys, gaping writers), and the birth of calves. Ever-analytical, Davis also itemizes their forms of play:

[. . .] head butting; mounting, either at the back or at the front; trotting away by yourself; trotting away together; going off bucking and prancing by yourself [. . .]

The Cows thus depicts an ambling, relatively tranquil (but quietly humorous) existence for these creatures, at least through Davis’s eyes. But when we read some of her other stories, we are reminded that other animals may experience a different momentum in their daily lives. In her story “Cockroaches in Autumn,” (from: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador, 2009)  the featured critter’s activities are marked by speed rather than stillness:

[. . .] when I empty the bag, a crowd of them scatter from the heel of rye bread, like rye seeds across the counter, like raisins. [. . .] he stops short in his headlong rush and tries a few other moves almost simultaneously, a bumper car jolting in place on the white drainboard.”

While I found The Cows to be a thoroughly satisfying read on its own, it was particularly enriching to meet Davis’s cockroaches, mice, cat, and dog along with her neighbors’ cattle. I recommend The Collected Stories as companion pieces to this chapbook.


Lydia Davis is a short story writer, novelist, and translator. She is the author of six collections of short stories, including Can’t and Won’t (2014) and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009); one novel, The End of the Story (1995); and a collection of nonfiction, Essays One (2019), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Davis is best known for her very short, micro- or “flash” fiction; many of her stories are a single sentence or paragraph long. She has translated novels and works of philosophy from French, including Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (2010) and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (2003). Her honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as the Man Booker International Prize. She is a professor emerita at SUNY Albany.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lydia-davis


Title: The Cows
Author: Lydia Davis
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Sarabande Books (March 29, 2011)
32 pages
ISBN‎ 978-1932511932
Price: $9.95

          

 


S.M. Tsai spent many years doing archival research and writing, then turned to 9-5 jobs for a new learning environment. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Ricepaper Magazine, Blue Unicorn, and the chapbook Bubbles and Droplets: 10 Poems of 2020. She lives in Toronto with her plants.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

S.M. Tsai

S.M. Tsai spent many years doing archival research and writing, then turned to 9-5 jobs for a new learning environment. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Ricepaper Magazine, Blue Unicorn, and the chapbook Bubbles and Droplets: 10 Poems of 2020. She lives in Toronto with her plants.

Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods

Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods by Emily Paige Wilson,
Glass Poetry Press, 2020.

Review by Emily Mohn-Slate

What if hypochondria is not about fear but rather love? In her chapbook, Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods (Glass Poetry Press, 2020), Emily Paige Wilson observes in harrowing yet loving detail the secret truths a body can hold. Wilson’s chapbook investigates illness anxiety disorder, also known as hypochondria, which is worrying excessively that you are or may become seriously ill. This chapbook also explores language, power, and empathy in poems that exhibit a range of formal and sonic play. As someone who has suffered from chronic migraines for most of my life, I found myself nodding and underlining while I read as Wilson articulates the weight of invisible pain—mental, emotional, and physical—and its ability to fray not only one’s sense of self, but also one’s relationships with others.

Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods is framed by a series of concise poems titled “A Treatise of Hypochondria.” These poems use archaic spelling and capitalization (i.e. “Vapours”), which roots the reader in a time when doctors relied on the outdated theory of the “four humours.” The first of these poems, “A Treatise of Hypochondria (i),” serves as a prologue poem, and ends, “our Ancestors / rising / to make Complaints.” These lines ground us in the stereotypical image of the hypochondriac as merely a world-class complainer, while they also nod to how we are all bound by our ancestors’ genes. This framing begs the question: how far have we really come over the last few centuries in our understanding of women’s illnesses in particular?  The next poem, “I Am Constantly Seeking Reassurance,” is a first-person lyric that introduces the anxiety of the speaker and considers the limits of others’ support in the face of her illness:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxMy boyfriend
can only xxxxxxxxxxreassure me

so many times before trees grow
in his ears,
xxxxxxxxxxxtheir roots forming his red
beard.

One of Wilson’s poetic gifts is an uncanny ability to render emotional complexities via imagery. Here, the leap from narrative into image evokes a visceral, physical limit to the boyfriend’s empathy; the trees, trunk, and roots seal his ears against the speaker’s legitimate complaints. We begin to understand the isolation and loneliness felt by the speaker—a double insult to contend with—the way even those who love her most are closed off to her reality.

            “Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods” is the first poem of a series that serves as a second layer of nesting dolls, which situate the human speaker’s concerns in a larger mythological framework. Wilson’s tacking back and forth between humans and the gods draws out tensions around ideas of power and agency in the world. One would think that the god-figures would be able to exercise more authority than the human speakers, but that is not always the case. In “Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods (i),” we see Hypochondria from a distance as the poem is narrated from a third person point of view. In these poems, Wilson gives us the god adapted for our modern time with sharply funny lines like, “Hypochondria once had lunch duty with Hades and he told her, ‘That’s some thorough grief you have.’” She is a complex, human-esque version of a god whose favorite color is beige: “She lets the other gods think it’s because she’s boring, but she loves it—this, the first color clouds turn when they finally let the light in.” Wilson’s speakers are always fighting to turn toward the light, toward connection, even in the midst of impossible odds.

One of the specters haunting this collection is the legacy of women’s pain being seen as insidious or dismissed as mere hysteria. In the second poem of the series, we see the risks of being a woman, even as a god: “Hypochondria was once called a slut by a satyr because she wears barely-there dresses drawn from river water and weeds, but she needs to see her body clearly.” She wears thin dresses in order to see her body clearly for a purpose that is her own, not to entice men; but again, her intentions and her body are misinterpreted. Hypochondria “wishes she could treat pain like a coin purse—something spare, sparse, to be exchanged for something else,” but instead she has to bear it again and again. Gender also shapes our understanding of pain and our acknowledgement of it as real. We see this in the poem, “Hypochondria and Her Estranged Half-Brother Sisyphus,” in which “Hypochondria knows he’s never taken her / symptoms seriously, the panic she’s attracted, / aches born less in the bones than the brain.” Sisyphus responds, “I hold my pain in a way others can believe. / See how it fits neatly in my hands. So visible and clean.” Boyfriends, family members, and doctors minimize and ignore her pain, as in “My Doctor Told Me There was Nothing There.” The speaker says, “They didn’t know how practiced I’d become / in distraction—deeming every discomfort / unworthy of concern.” Here, her secret pains are articulated against the forces that would silence her. And, we experience the way pain is subjective, shifting, and unknowable for others.  It takes a new doctor who had to “hold me / down while she checked the wreckage of the cysts / on my Bartholin glands,” apologized while she “milked blood / and pus from the thin skin of my labia, /gentle yet firm as if she had mouths to feed.” In the world of this book, and we are to understand, in the larger world, it is rare for the hypochondriac to be believed. What if the girl who cried wolf is telling the truth? Who will help her then?

In this collection, Wilson often lifts up the curative powers of language itself. Language is crucial to our ability to connect with others, to rise out of the murk of loneliness. But especially for the hypochondriac, language is also the locus of deep misunderstanding and damage. One of the most compelling aspects of this chapbook is the tension between the limitations of language that the speaker faces within each poem, while the language of the poem on the page is lush, precise, and exhibits transformative properties of observation and sonic beauty. In “On the Wall,” Wilson pursues a fuller understanding of language and reality: “In ancient Egypt, /only scribes were allowed to write—the belief that putting a word on paper was to summon the thing itself.” This is an argument for language’s power to create something real in the world beyond expressing an idea; this tangible power names why many fear sharing certain truths, and would prefer silence. The poem ends: “I’m not interested / in the etymology of a word, but the entire / music behind it. Not the origins, / but the tambourine.” It matters that the speaker is not interested in parsing the word; she wants to experience it—to hold it up to her ear and play each word, through the tidal waves of loss and silence.

The collection’s first epigraph, by Fleetwood Mac, is “I have no fear; I have only love.” These poems stare fear directly in the face with the gaze of love. The second epigraph, “I did not fear them until I wanted to be afraid,” by Sabrina Orah Mark, frames hypochondria in terms of wanting; the speaker has agency and has decided to feel fear. This agency is no small thing; combined with love, it amounts to the exact opposite force needed to dispel the silencing and pain caused by the dismissal of the speakers’ own pains throughout the collection. The final poem, “A Treatise of Hypochondria (iii),” lays out a bridge to another place from where we have come: “persist in all that / Pain and / Patience.” We trust that the speaker will continue carving a path forward, with god-like strength in her vulnerability, through mythology, music, and the force of her own will and love.


Emily Paige Wilson is the author of the forthcoming full-length collection Jalubí (Unsolicited Press, 2022) and two chapbooks: Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods (Glass Poetry Press, 2020) and I’ll Build Us a Home (Finishing Line Press, 2018). Her work has been nominated for Best New Poets, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart Prize. Connect with her at www.emilypaigewilson.com and @Emmy_Golightly.


Title: Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods
Author: Emily Paige Wilson
Publisher: Glass Press
ISBN: 978-1-949099-09-6
23 pages




Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of THE FALLS, winner of the 2019 New American Poetry Prize (New American Press), and FEED, winner of the 2018 Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in AGNI, New Ohio Review, Muzzle Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches high school English by day and poetry workshops by night for the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online

Emily Mohn-Slate

Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of THE FALLS, winner of the 2019 New American Poetry Prize (New American Press), and FEED, winner of the 2018 Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in AGNI, New Ohio Review, Muzzle Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches high school English by day and poetry workshops by night for the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University.

Pre-Posthumous Poems

Pre-Posthumous Poems, by Lawrence E. Hussman

Review by Carmine Di Biase

Luminare Press, 2021

When I first met Lawrence Hussman, in 1981, he was teaching American Literature at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. I was a graduate student in his seminar on the naturalists: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris and, among others, Theodore Dreiser, the writer who inspired one of Hussman’s most important books. The austere outlook of these writers, for whom the human experience is governed almost entirely by heredity and environment, suggested great courage and a fierce devotion to the truth, and for that reason they drew me into their worlds. Now, nearly forty years later, I have discovered that what drew Hussman to the naturalists was his own kindred sensibility. That sensibility informs every line of his first chapbook of poems, Last Things (Inkwater Press, 2019). And such is the case with this second chapbook, Pre-Posthumous Poems, only here the poetic voice seems more assured and, in some ways, more bracing.

The title itself is revealing of Hussman’s wry character and his enduring belief that this life, the here and now, is the only certainty we have. These thirty-four new poems—most of them in free verse, some concluding with a rhyming couplet—fall into two main groups: poems about birds, fish, earth and water; and poems about people, their longings and their losses. In his retirement on the Oregon coast, as his poetry suggests, Hussman spends his days meditating on the lives, human and otherwise, he has observed, and pondering what drives them.

As if to introduce himself to the reader, he opens this collection with a poem entitled “Encounter.” The encounter in question is with a sea lion, but the poem does introduce us to Hussman’s poetic world. The speaker walks along a beach “veiled in fog, / so solid that only memory could see / the gulls.” Then all of a sudden “an outsized shape” appears, a “guttural bark” is heard, and “the truth” is revealed: a sea lion comes into focus, at rest, and readying itself to return to its “endless / quest for fish and groups to gather with.” The walker thanks the creature for proving “that death still / waited a ways away, and life again / was willing with its wonder.”

The unabashed alliteration here is characteristic of Hussman’s verse. This trait, however, never cloys, and indeed is an expression of the poet’s reveling in language, in its ability to recover human experience and protect it from the savage claws of time. This he does with economy and precision. In “A Gift Withdrawn,” the speaker recalls a dear friend, who was also a poet, and their time together in Poland. They visit a World War II cemetery “one dark autumn afternoon” and she weeps upon seeing the writing on one tombstone: “Soldier, Fourteen.” Not long thereafter, a deep vein thrombosis takes this poet’s life. “I chose not to join the familiar funeral folly,” says the speaker, who rails instead against “the clichés of preachers and priests.”

In this way, Hussman resuscitates his dead; they are to him what they were to the Shakespeare who wrote once, in a sonnet, of his “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.” What is it, however, that keeps the people and the other animals in Hussman’s world moving onward during their natural lives? Is it, as the naturalist writer would say, the mere instinct to survive? One answer may lie in “Homeless.” Here Hussman directs his eye at what the unhoused, and perhaps the housed as well, all have in common:

They labor up the busy highway,

burdened with their shoddy gear,

pushing purloined grocery carts,

or crude rigs of wheel and box,

moving their all from place to place.

It is the journey itself, the need to journey, that drives us on. And given the images of domesticity and society—not only the grocery cart but also “an old man in tattered top hat and tails”—the implication is that the journey promises, as the sea lion does, the occasional “wonder” and perhaps a group “to gather with.”

“A Salmon’s Journey,” which bears a resemblance to Eugenio Montale’s “The Eel,” is one of Hussman’s rawest and most beautiful poems. The etymological link between “travel” and “travail,” words which he does not use here, nevertheless comes vividly to life. The journey literally makes its mark on these fish, which are left

starved and scarred, their once sleek bodies

discolored, deformed, backs humped,

jaws hooked and fanged.

The speaker laments “pitiless Nature,” which might have chosen some “kinder game plan,” but unlike Montale’s singular eel, Hussman’s salmon are plural: theirs is not a solitary journey. Here and elsewhere, moreover, the exactness and spareness of the diction, the sheer transparency of the images, and a masterful rhythmic control, all lead to a poetic experience that is at once arresting and redemptive.

A poem called “Grief,” which serves as the coda to this excellent collection, recounts the discovery of a man found “frozen to the hill that held his little cabin.” The chatter that follows—”worry for the way he died, / the life he must have led, no family, or friends, / not anyone at all to miss him, mourn him”—is pointless. “Save your tears,” says the speaker, “for those that ache, the living.”   

Even for a scholar of naturalism, then, there is more to life’s journey than heredity and environment. There is, in short, community, the reassuring sense that one does not travel entirely alone, or at the very least, the awareness that the strangers among us are themselves on an equally arduous journey, soldiering bravely on because “mere steps ahead,” as Hussman says in “Encounter,” might just reveal, if not a sea lion, then something just as wondrous. 

       


Lawrence E. Hussman is professor emeritus of American literature at Wright State University. Among his seven previous books are Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest and Desire and Disillusionment: A Guide to American Fiction Since 1890. He lives on and writes about the Oregon coast. Pre-Posthumous Poems is his second book of poetry.


Pre-Posthumous Poems, by Lawrence E. Hussman.
Eugene, OR: Luminare Press, 2021.
$9.95 49 pages.
ISBN: 9781643886619


Carmine Di Biase writes about English and Italian literature, and his poems have appeared in various journals. Last year his English translations of thirteen poems by Cesare Pavese appeared in L’anello che non tiene: Journal of Modern Italian Literature. Occasionally he reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement. He has recently retired as Distinguished Professor of English at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. His chapbook of poems, American Rondeau, is due out from Finishing Line Press in August of 2022.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Carmine Di Biase

Carmine Di Biase writes about English and Italian literature, and his poems have appeared in various journals. Last year his English translations of thirteen poems by Cesare Pavese appeared in L’anello che non tiene: Journal of Modern Italian Literature. Occasionally he reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement. He has recently retired as Distinguished Professor of English at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. His chapbook of poems, American Rondeau, is due out from Finishing Line Press in August of 2022.

Grammars of Hope

Grammars of Hope by Chana Kraus-Friedberg

Review by Cheryl Caesar

As a friend, I encouraged Chana Kraus-Friedberg to enter her chapbook Grammars of Hope (Finishing Line Press, 2021) into the Mark Ritzenhein Emerging Poet contest, and I was not surprised when she won first prize!


“Grammar” has a hard sound: grasping, grinding. Few admit to loving this field of study. We, as members of this select club, see it as the skeleton holding up the flesh of words, the skin of imagery. There is no language without grammar. A modal auxiliary like “may,” in the title poem, indicates a whole universe of possible futures for a friend’s young niece. I am reminded of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and the Chinese servant Lee who works for years to find the best translation of the Hebrew word timshel, spoken by God to Cain. Did God say, “Thou shalt triumph over evil.”? That would be merely a statement of a predetermined future. Did He say, “Do thou triumph”? That is only a command. Lee finally concludes that God told Cain, “Thou mayest triumph over evil,” and that in the word “may” lies all the greatness of the human struggle. Likewise, Chana sees a great field of possibilities before her young heroine:

But I like to imagine
your niece’s grammar
as more hope
than mistake,
as though she’d been
shown two limited paths
and refused them both.
That’s not enough, and it can’t be
all there is,
she might (one day)
say.
May there be…?
There may be better ways.

But Chana is also a lover of words themselves, for their colors, smells, or moods, as in the poem “Authorial Intent”: “sickening” has an adamant, exceptional sound, / with that hard solid K in the center.

Or in “Sometimes You Ask Me,” where she reflects of the common phrase “what the day holds”:

I imagine it
like a pair of cupped hands
waiting to be filled.

This chapbook’s title, then, is important for at least two reasons. Words of Hope would have been merely banal. And the plural form lets us know that the author is the product of no one grammar, language or culture; she lives and finds her hope while moving between them.

In revealing these worlds, Chana shares a history that few of us will find familiar. She begins with her ultra-Orthodox Jewish childhood in Brooklyn, early becoming aware that her response to other girls is not the “normal” one, is not something that people speak of. “Brooklyn Lust” tells the poignant story of her “tender, insistent ache,” while standing behind a classmate, breasts pressed against her back, braiding her hair. Chana takes us through her life nearly to the present, to the years of COVID and Brett Kavanaugh. We hear of romances following her coming out–some with presumably real people, others with historical figures like Emma Goldman that she meets on library shelves. But we also follow her to Twelve Step meetings:

I didn’t know it would
feel like that,
all that pain with
no drugs to put on it –

//

But I’m grateful
for this chair
I’m sitting on.
I know if I stop being grateful
what happens

 With each new piece, the identity of the poet continues to take shape before us.

Chana’s writing is highly literate but never affected. It is strong and always searching. There is no lazy or pretty phrase. We feel that the poet is exploring the words, feeling the sounds, finding the meaning along with us. I can see her looking back, bemused, at the lines that have come from her. It’s the same expression that I see on poet Stevie Smith, with her cognomen of “peculiar”– the same wry shaking of the head. In the poem “Authorial Intent,” Chana concludes:

But lately I wonder
how a sentence survives
in the wild.
I could take it outdoors in
my pocket, speak it and see all
the words strung together like small shining orbs:
and I’d know what I meant,
why I’d placed them that way.
I’d know I’d said it.

I can’t guess what you’d hear.

Chana shares the puzzle with us and invites us to join the experiment. It’s an invitation worth accepting.


Chana Kraus-Friedberg is the winner of the 2020 Ritzenhein Emerging Poet Award. She grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Since leaving that community at the age of 20, she has earned a Ph.D in archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania and an MS in Library Science from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She currently lives with three feline companions in Lansing, Michigan, where she is a health sciences librarian at Michigan State University. This is her first chapbook.


Title: Grammars of Hope
Author: Chana Kraus-Friedberg
Publisher: Finishing Line Press, 2021
ISBN: ‎ 978-1646624386
Cost: $14.99




Cheryl Caesar lived in Paris, Tuscany and Sligo for 25 years; she earned her doctorate in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. She teaches writing at Michigan State University. Some of her COVID-era poems appear in Rejoice Everyone! Reo Town Reading Anthology, and in The Social Gap Experiment, both available from Amazon. Her writing and artwork will appear soon in Words Across the Water, a joint anthology by the Lansing Poetry Club and the Poets’ Club of Chicago. With co-editor Ruelaine Stokes, she is gathering a volume of reminiscences of the Lansing poetry scene in the 70s and 80s.



Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Cheryl Caesar

Cheryl Caesar lived in Paris, Tuscany and Sligo for 25 years; she earned her doctorate in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. She teaches writing at Michigan State University. Some of her COVID-era poems appear in Rejoice Everyone! Reo Town Reading Anthology, and in The Social Gap Experiment, both available from Amazon. Her writing and artwork will appear soon in Words Across the Water, a joint anthology by the Lansing Poetry Club and the Poets’ Club of Chicago. With co-editor Ruelaine Stokes, she is gathering a volume of reminiscences of the Lansing poetry scene in the 70s and 80s.

Cheryl Caesar

Tears on the Glass Desert

Tears on the Glass Desert: Speculative Poetry of Holocaust Fallout & Decay by Wesley D. Gray

Review by Don Beukes

As a secret childhood reader of horror—books such as The Rats, by James Herbert or It by Stephen King—and glued to the television watching films like The Birds or Carrie, I knew I was hooked on this genre from an early age.

In Tears on the Glass Desert (Marrowroot Press, 2021), Wesley D. Gray both establishes and earns the subtitle Speculative Poetry of Holocaust, Fallout and Decay. In his own description of the book, Gray invites us to “savor the final three seconds before Doomsday” and to “step through the shattered glass door leading beyond The End and walk through the veil of an apocalyptic dreamscape” in his chapbook of twenty-four poems that “speculate on both the inevitabilities and the impossibilities of nuclear holocaust, the fallout it brings, and the aftermath of its Decay.”

We witness an actual “countdown” over three sequences packed with astonishing and realistic poetic acumen in this cinematic literary journey, taking us to what we might fear the most—the end of this world as we know it.

In the first sequence, “Three to Ignition,” we are immediately plunged into the last three seconds of humanity in the first poem, “23:59:57.”  We are lulled into an almost hypnotic state by clever use of melodic near-rhymes such as chime/shine. Gray continues to lull us in the poem “Mushroom State,” in phrases such as igniting the nighttime, where assonance may conceal our awareness of the subject matter. This is also seen in this unique tug-of-words,

our bodies
flail within the flames
waving like an ocean of enraged kelp

In the second sequence, I found unique cinematic scenes in the poem, “From Corn to Sea” with each stanza using the first person, I see, I fear, I run, I sail, I feel, I fade, I wake, I pull, I shudder, I rise, I hear. This leaves us with a strange and effective sensory overload, willing us to also see, feel, shudder, run, fear and fade. This line reminds me of the Alien films,  

I pull
and my cheeks peel from the muscle, shreds
from bone

A revelatory moment comes upon the insight that perhaps the haunting figure on the cover might actually be the narrator. This awareness arrives in the poem, “Burning on re-entry,”

I was everything.
I was the gravity of a black hole
in the icy chars of a comet.
//
I hit the blue-domed atmosphere,
ready to split, ready to shatter.
//
I am ash,
a char upon the glass desert.

This collection is not for the fainthearted; it displays gore, guts and grime, while at the same time displaying the beauty of language. This sensory narrative gives an almost tactile impression of a nuclear fallout and the aftermath of decay.  We see this in the poem, “Covet,”

When our bones
were crushed
into the asphalt dream,

as I watched you turn to liquid
and your marrow
soak into earth,

Other equally chilling lines include, ash caskets rain from Eden’s Skyline, in “Prisoner Zero.” And in “Witness to a Schoolyard Burial” we find, Atomic children stir below the grasses, / continuing education in soil spit.  And in “Impressions,”

gullies filled with flakes of flesh,
their fodder-formed whispers
curdled, weaved in dust.

In the last poem, “A Final Visitation to our Monumental Glass Desert,” Gray holds our attention with lines such as, bone canyons with web-nested eyes / spilling regret from cavernous sockets, and continues the spell to these very last lines,

Blood and tears
are encased within
like swirls inside a marble,
mixed with all that liquid skin,
curled in slithers of flesh-resin tongues.

Gray’s thoughts go beyond the poems, as we find in his own description of the book’s lingering questions:  Let us witness the horrors of an apocalyptic dreamscape. Let us witness the horrors that await these lucky ones called survivors . . . What will become of our Children of the Fallout? Will they live beyond Death’s second coming, or are they simply doomed to fade away?

In his first chapbook, Come Fly with Death – Poems Inspired by the Artwork of Zdzislaw Beksinski (Marrowroot Press), and in his horror novel, Feeding Lazarus (Jaded Books Publishing), Gray displays equally gruesome language and his great skill at writing horror. His work reminds me of Stephen King. In all of these books, he poses existential questions for humanity.


As an author of fiction and a poet, Wesley D. Gray is a writer of things that are mostly strange. He is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association, as well as a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. His other books include Come Fly with Death: Poems Inspired by the Artwork of Zdzislaw Beksinski, and the horror novel, Feeding Lazarus (originally published as Rafe Grayson). When he isn’t writing, Wesley enjoys geek status while claiming to be: a tabletop gamer, a reader, a dreamer, a veteran, a Trekkie, a Whovian, an amateur photographer, a radiographer, nature-lover, coffeeholic, boxed wine enthusiast, and an all-around nice guy, among other things. He resides in Florida with his wife and two children. Learn more at the author’s website: WesDGray.com.


Title: Tears on the Glass Desert
Author: Wesley D. Gray
Publisher: Marrowroot Press, 2021

Format/Price: Kindle Edition ($ 0.99), Paperback ($5.99)



Don Beukes is a South African, British and EU writer. He has written Ekphrastic Poetry since 2015 collaborating with artists internationally. He is the author of The Salamander Chronicles, Icarus Rising-Volume 1 (ABP), an ekphrastic collection and Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Concrete Mist Press). He taught English and Geography in both South Africa and the UK. His poetry has been anthologized in numerous collections and translated into Afrikaans, Persian, French, Kreole (Mauritius) and Albanian. He was nominated by Roxana Nastase, editor of Scarlet Leaf Review for the Best of the Net in 2017 as well as the Pushcart Poetry Prize (USA) in 2016. He was published in his first SA Anthology In Pursuit of Poetic Perfection in 2018 (Libbo Publishers) and his second Cape Sounds in 2019 (Gavin Joachims Publishing, Cape Town). He is also an amateur photographer and his debut Photographic publication appeared in Spirit Fire Review in June 2019.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.