Coronary Truth

Coronary Truth, by Diane Elayne Dees

Review by Randal A. Burd, Jr.

I was recently honored to be asked to write a review for Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books, 2020), Diane Elayne Dees’s latest poetry collection. She reviewed my latest collection, Memoirs of a Witness Tree (Kelsay Books, 2020), in kind, a situation we each found a tad awkward. But as we were acquainted with each other’s work beforehand, it was not as awkward as it could have been. This is an honest review, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to write it.

I first encountered Diane through her submissions to the online literary magazine, Sparks of Calliope, where I am editor. Her poem, “Playing Tennis with My Ex,” which is not included in Coronary Review, stood out. It not only demanded to be published, but was one of six poems in our inaugural selection of Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poems have since graced the pages of our lit magazine on multiple occasions.

Diane Elayne Dees is a person with diverse interests and experiences; her writing draws attention to her impressive treasury of knowledge and insights extending from, but not limited to, personal experience and astute observations about the human condition.

Coronary Truth feels like a new journey of self-discovery, and the first poem, “Preparing to See the Shaman,” perfectly describes the beginning of an earnest quest:

Should I fast and pray and drink a lot of water,
or ask for dreams? By nature, I’m a planner,
though I’ve never sought assistance in this manner.
Yet, late in life, I’m still the wounded daughter
who’s missing parts that others take for granted;
specifically, the parts that make me feel
alive and whole, a woman who is real
and not a she-ghost, fragmented and haunted.

In this poem, the speaker presents as a woman who is strong yet vulnerable, wise with years of experiences, yet still seeking answers. I love that the speaker is relatable and approachable while not wallowing in self-pity or despair; this is a positive quest to achieve enlightenment. The speaker demonstrates that one can assertively reflect on unpleasantness in the past while moving forward in a meaningful way. The choice of a shaman for a guide foreshadows the multiple motifs found in this collection, from the archetype of a wounded healer (in this case, someone who has spent much energy “fixing” others but has failed to fully fix their self), to the important roles of nature (i.e., to impart understanding) and the spirit world (i.e., to confront aging, difficult relationships with deceased loved ones, and mortality). 

I find the isolation (if not ostracism) of formalists, and even sometimes-formalists, in current literary circles to be profound at times, so encountering rhyme and meter, and even the sonnet form, as an introduction to this collection struck a positive chord with me. Dees has no trouble at all communicating her message through traditional form, which enhances and elevates the language rather than forcefully constricts and simplifies it.

The poem, “My Mother’s Remains,” speaks of the death of a parent with whom the speaker shared a complicated relationship.  This poem reminded me of other poems that are similarly themed but tend to portray a pervasive loneliness. Dee’s offers an intricate web of emotions and experiences that bind us in the human condition. These lines feel like a remedy for loneliness:

My mother seemed heavier dead than alive.
Her burned remains, barely fitting
into the sturdy funeral home cardboard box,
occupied a corner space next to the piano,
in the formal dining room near the tiny cabinet
that protects what is left of her crystal.

The ashes, heavy and immobile in death, sit surrounded by man-made objects until the speaker says, “I took most of her to a garden,” where she releases some of them to nurture “an old found rose” and then, “a bit of her I took to London, her home / and tossed it into the Thames” to be carried away by running water. The speaker returns these inanimate remains of the dead to the cyclical motion of the living (the life cycle and the water cycle), which can be viewed as disrupted by the removal from nature of human life. The speaker had the option of storing the ashes to be forever kept with the remaining possessions but chose instead to return them to the motion of nature, and appears to move herself forward through the grieving process and out the other side.

Dees uses the imagery of nature frequently throughout these poems, to effectively illustrate feelings of grief, depression, and anxiety in the face of aging and death. The eponymous poem, “Coronary Truth,” deals with facing mortality when a friend calls the speaker to report having had a heart attack.  The speaker’s emotions are described with metaphors, for example, “while a chickadee / checks out an abandoned bluebird / nest.” The poem expresses universal fears:

My friend makes heart attack jokes,
but I know he’s afraid. I am afraid: for him,
and for our hearts, no longer protected
by pure being, but rendered fragile
as hummingbird eggs by a lifetime
of confinement in human cages.

Finding the natural world as a major motif in this collection brings me to my favorite poem in the collection, “Master Class”:

Several decades in, I’ve gathered much advice.
Some of it was good, most of it was useless.
People see us through distorted mirrors,
and send themselves desperate warnings
in the guise of helpful suggestions. Most of what
I learned came from other sources—the cats
who taught me how to work a room, how to pose,
how to die. From the houseplants, I’ve learned
to quietly drop leaves when in distress, cut back
when I’m diseased, and purify surroundings simply
by existing.

The poem continues to describe lessons “learned in the garden,” profound insights gathered from a lifetime of experience. Throughout these poems, nature faces off against the worst of the human psyche: anxiety and fear, depression and despair. There is comfort in the fact that time and time again, nature provides answers even when the question may not be perfectly clear. Like Henry David Thoreau, Dees looks to nature for answers and is richly rewarded for the effort.

I admire the way Dees presents relatable human emotions in Coronary Truth, including universally experienced fears and misgivings, as seen through the eyes of a strong yet vulnerable speaker. The wounded healer who shares this quest with her readers does not only provide the solidarity of shared pain, but also guides kindred souls on a worthwhile journey of hope and restoration. 

Diane Elayne Dees’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies, and she is the author of the forthcoming chapbook, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died. Diane lives in Covington, Louisiana and also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is: Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.


Title: Coronary Truth
Author: Diane Elyane Dees
Publisher: Kelsay Books, 2020
Price: $16.00



Randal A. Burd, Jr. is an educator and the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, Sparks of Calliope. His poetry has received multiple awards and has been featured in numerous literary journals, both online and in print. Randal’s 2nd poetry book, Memoirs of a Witness Tree, is now available from Kelsay Books and on Amazon.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Diane Elayne Dees

Diane Elayne Dees

Diane Elayne Dees’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies. Diane is the author of the chapbook, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming chapbook, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died. Diane, who lives in Covington, Louisiana, also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.

Sam Preminger

Sam Preminger

Sam Preminger is a queer, nonbinary, Jewish writer and publisher. Having completed an MFA at Pacific University, they’ve since moved on to serve as the Editor-in-Chief of NAILED Magazine while continuing to perform at local venues and work one-on-one with poets as an editor and advisor. They live in Portland, OR, along with their partner and stepcat.

The Strangers Burial Ground

The Strangers Burial Ground, by Jennifer Stewart Miller

Review by Risa Denenberg

I love unanswerable questions, particularly those that beg to address everything in the known and unknown world. So I was captivated immediately by the first couplet in Jennifer Stewart Miller’s The Strangers Burial Ground (Seven Kitchens Press Editor’s Series, 2020):

Lichens can be killed
but do they die?

In The Strangers Burial Ground, Miller investigates how death was understood and memorialized in the past, at a specific time and place, marked by burial customs. Her process became a way to disinter the lives and deaths of people from Chatham, Massachusetts in the 17th and 18th centuries. But take note: within these narrative pages, there is always a shadowing of women’s lives.

In “Notes” at the back of the book, we learn that she viewed (more likely, I would guess, pored over) Vital Records: Town of Chatham, Massachusetts 1696-1850, to gather data. Scattered throughout the book are lists of the buried that tell human stories. For example in “Death Records #1,” the first item states:

[No Name] Wife of Collings Nickerson, 24 years; Measles.

In showing without telling, we are forced to understand that dying young was quite common in those times. We begin to understand that women often have no names. We are shown how the causes of death tell much of the medical language (and spelling) of the time:

Consumption, Dropsy, Lung Fever, Typhus Fever, Disentery, Fitts.

Miller has a fascinating academic background including MFA and JD degrees, and a Certificate in Field Archeology. I’m guessing she must pose unanswerable questions all of the time. However, unlike an attorney or an archeologist, who might focus with a specific lens to view enigmatic subjects, she employs a three-lens view, surrounding her poetry with the gifts of her training. Check out these lines from a poem called “Poetry is Stolen Fruit,” published online at Riddled with Arrows (Summer, 2017):

a summer’s day   must ride on
its own melting.
Like little animals
trapped inside this poor body

composed of one hundred bones
and nine openings 
imaginary
toads with real gardens in them.

In this poem about poetry, Miller “steals” words of well-known poets, parses the body, and digs in the garden—all in these two stanzas. In The Strangers Burial Ground, I found myself entranced by the subject itself, but also by her way of parsing language, and by the verdant language itself. 

In the first poem in The Strangers Burial Grounds,“Lichens, Chatham Old Burial Ground,” Miller reveals the underpinnings of her quest:  

I try to decipher
my 7th great grandmother’s slate,

but some letters & numbers
are shrouded in lichens.

Tenacious,
the crustose types:

with my fingernails, I scrape
& scrape, taking

& leaving DNA—

Miller is literally digging the past, which is also her past. In a poet’s mind, often stands the question of whether or not to use the ampersand. I have never seen this symbol more aptly used than here. The subject itself is drenched in symbolism. Haven’t we all gone to a graveside and felt that our loved one was actually there?

In the eponymous poem, “The Strangers Burial Ground / Death Records, Chatham, MA,” Miller questions why neighbors were viewed as strangers, as the dead were men of the community lost at sea. She finds this inscription, while investigating the odd thinking of the times:

October [1841] 14 Dead bodies picked up
11 of them buried in

The Strangers Burial Ground
3 conveyed to Truro 1

Wearing her investigator’s hat, Miller attempts to circle the question and arrives at a possible answer, steeped in belief systems of this time and place:

The town had plenty of cemeteries

Plots for Congregationalists     Methodists    Baptists
Universalists    Come-Outers   and more.

But who knows what strangers believe—

If, like me, you are curious about the “Come-Outers” I find this description in Wikipedia, which offers a further clarifying portrait of the role of religion in these folks:

Come-outer is a phrase coined in the 1830s which denotes a person who withdraws from an established organization, or one who advocates political reform.

In these pages, Miller resolves to excavate and reconstruct the lives and deaths of women–so often absent in written history. In “The Mother Omission,” we view public death records of children whose mothers appear to be nonexistent. In “Death Records #1,” we find many entries such as this:

The Above 3 children are Mr. Levi Eldridge[‘s]

Miller performs mothers’ invisibility with these words:

omission
being the history

of her

And continues with this startling metaphor:

Surely nothing
is meant by it?

The sun blinds
with no dark intent.

Many lives are marked in these pages. In some poems, Miller speaks in the voice of someone who was not able to leave behind his or her own story. Because the book’s length is short, and the material deep, I’m not going to be a spoiler and give away everything. But I can vouch for her voice’s authenticity when she speaks for the dead.

Miller’s “Notes” are worth studying to see how she viewed the subject from different angles. One of her sources that caught my eye is a book titled, From Slate to Marble: Gravestone Carving Traditions in Eastern Massachusetts 1779-1870, which brings out “the idiosyncrasies of particular stone carvers.”

There is so much overlap of disciplines in this work—stone carving, religion, sociology, feminism, history, law, and art, among others—that is braided skillfully into a book of captivating poetry.



Jennifer Stewart Miller holds an MFA from Bennington College. Her manuscript Thief won the 2020 Grayson Books Poetry Prize, and she is also the author of A Fox Appears: A Biography of a Boy in Haiku (2015).  Recent work has appeared in Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, The Citron Review, RHINO, Sugar House Review, Tar River Poetry, Verse Daily, and elsewhere.



Title: The Strangers Burial Ground
Author: Jennifer Stewart Miller
Publisher: Seven Kitchens Press, selected by Ron Mohring for the Editor’s Series.
Date: May 10, 2020
25 pages [100 copies]
ISBN 978-1-949333-66-4
Cost: $ 9.00




Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and curator at The Poetry Café. She has published six collections of poetry, most recently the full length collection, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, which is a finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.

Memoirs of a Witness Tree

Memoirs of a Witness Tree, by Randal Burd

Review by Diane Elayne Dees

Human neurology thrives on rhythm and its accompanying pleasures—rhyme and repetition. In Memoirs of a Witness Tree (Kelsay Books, 2020), formalist poet Randal Burd utilizes these poetic devices in the service of a series of poetic meditations on topics ranging from parenthood to the Civil War to the foibles of human nature. They are also about longing—for the simplicity of childhood, for lost landscapes, and for ideals that, in some cases, remain humanity’s unmet dreams.

As a sometime formalist, I feel Burd’s pain in the very first poem in the collection, playfully titled, “Humblest Apologies”:

Why should a random stranger deem to care?
Expression via sonnet is a crime—
To use such an archaic paradigm
And then expect one’s talent to compare.

//

And thus, with ample warning, pray begin
To reassess conventionality.

Sonnets abound in this collection, and I was especially pleased to see inexplicably rare Australian sonnets scattered throughout the chapbook. My favorite among them is the final poem in the collection, “Forgotten,” –a poem rich in assonance and consonance, about the equalizing power of death:

Once fragile flesh and memories decay,
The brush grows thick, and ivy starts to climb.
The lichen steals identities with time.
Precipitation wears the stone away.

Few living souls know whose remains are there;
Not even their descendants really care.

Another hit me, literally, where I live. My next door neighbor’s husband had just died when I read “Grief”:

Those who remain defined by who is gone,
Those gone defined by who is forced to stay.

They greet the ones who come to say goodbye
And smile when all they want to do is cry.
Their well of anguish never can run dry,
Replenished by the next in line to die.

One of Burd’s poems that had significant personal meaning for me was “An Affirmation of Faith?” whose subject is a motor vehicle accident that might have easily ended in death—but it didn’t. I experienced a rather dramatic such incident several years ago, and I continue to think about it from time to time. My thoughts are well reflected by the poet:

Reliving it inside my head—
How close I came to being dead
With each successive barrel roll.

No broken bones, I barely bled,
But life continued on instead.
The answer to another’s prayer?
A blessing extraordinaire
Affirming faith for time ahead?

Many of Burd’s poems are about childhood and children, including his own children (one of whom drew the chapbook’s cover art). A rondeau that I found especially effective, “Made in China,” juxtaposes the innocence of child’s play with a terrible truth:

“Made in China” reads the label—
Shattered on the coffee table:
Some cheap and broken plastic toys
We purchased for our girls and boys—

Imports purchased which enable
Labor camps that leave unstable
Lives in ruin and can disable
Limbs…

Another selection that stood out for me is “Encroaching Weeds,” a cautionary tale about how futile are our efforts to exert control. Anyone who has gardened to any extent has faced this lack of control over and over, yet the lesson doesn’t always take:

She’d not allow encroaching weeds
Among the flowers raised from seeds
In beds meticulously kept
Beyond the stable, neatly swept,
Across from where the light recedes.

//

But in the dark and shadows crept
The vines and crab grass while she slept
Committing one of many deeds
She’d not allow.

I have a particular fondness for poems whose subjects are common objects, and I was not disappointed by “Suitcase,” a Shakespearean sonnet about the meaning that death confers on the remnants of a life:

A suitcase lies among the many things
Abandoned when the owner left for good.

//

What irony! A suitcase left behind
Speaks more about the trip it never made,
Found useless for the task it was designed
When owner passed from substance into shade.

The sensuous pleasure of experiencing sound, rhythm and repetition is not limited to listening to music. Randal Burd, in Memoirs of a Witness Tree, reminds us that our most profound emotions can be richly and memorably expressed—and experienced—when language is presented through the classical poetical devices of rhyme and meter.


I had some questions for the poet, which he answered in the following email exchange:

Diane Elayne Dees: Have you always been a formalist, or did you work your way into it?

Randal Burd: I think my love of writing poetry came from positive exposure to rhyming poetry at a young age and a passion for music. I enjoyed reading Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic in grade school. My first poem was published when I was 11-years-old, and that poem was obviously influenced by Silverstein. The enjoyment of rhyme and meter led me to seek out other rhyming poets: William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, etc. As an undergraduate English Literature major, those influences again expanded significantly. I have written a few free-verse poems, but the lack of structure makes it more difficult for me. 

DED: A teacher once told me that form is a substitute for inspiration. Does that idea resonate with you? Do you thrive on the restriction?

RB: I definitely don’t believe form is a substitute for inspiration. I find the restriction of form stimulates creativity as one searches for the right words and, in doing so, really reflects on the subject matter. I don’t find form itself inspiring; the subject matter comes first. I’ll be inspired to write a poem about a certain subject and, after thinking about it for a bit, decide this one will work best as a rondeau, or a sonnet, or something else entirely.

DED: There are several poems about death in Memoirs of a Witness Tree. Can you comment on how the concept of death informs your writing—and your life?

RB: The human condition provides limited motifs of importance: life, death, love, hate, etc. I find the contemplation of mortality is an activity that is consistently relevant regardless of time and place. Poetry is a language that brings different people together through common experience; death and the contemplation of it is an inexhaustible source of poetic inspiration.   

DED: Because you are primarily a rhyming formalist, I have to ask: Who are your favorite song lyricists?

RB: It’s funny you should ask that. When I was an undergrad, one of my professors compared my poetry to country western song lyrics. I think he was being derogatory, but it is interesting to contemplate the interconnected nature of song lyrics and rhyming poetry. Rhyming is still very much in vogue when it is put to music. The problems with song lyrics as poetry, in my opinion, is that first, the quality of the writing often suffers as the lyricists get lazy with rhyme and meter, allowing the music to carry the form instead of perfecting the language. Also, I think many song lyrics lack intellectual depth, although that is not true in all cases. Picking a favorite lyricist is hard, but Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are the first people to come to mind. 


Randal is an educator and the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, Sparks of Calliope. His poetry has received multiple awards and has been featured in numerous literary journals, both online and in print. Randal’s 2nd poetry book, Memoirs of a Witness Tree, is now available from Kelsay Books and on Amazon.


Title: Memoirs of a Witness Tree
Author: Randal A. Burd, Jr.
Publisher: Kelsay Books (August 25, 2020)
ISBN-13 : 978-1952326318 Publisher
Cost: $16.00



Diane Elayne Dees’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies. Diane is the author of the chapbook, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming chapbook, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died. Diane, who lives in Covington, Louisiana, also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Lesbian Fashion Struggles

Lesbian Fashion Struggles by Caroline Earleywine

Review by Sam Preminger

In her first chapbook publication, Lesbian Fashion Struggles (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020), Caroline Earleywine brings a bright candle of queer artistry to the final quarter of 2020 as a guiding light, a warning, and a respite. Across 44 pages of narrative free verse, Earleywine explores the intricacies and intersections of lesbian identity while faithfully uplifting queer youth and sharing hard-won lessons from self-discovery. The result is insightful and bursting with sparks of joy, though never ignorant of the shadows which encroach on queer spaces and bodies.

The collection opens with “Where I Come from,” a scene of Americana wherein the poet makes a pledge to her queer Southern predecessors:

I have relatives long gone, women
from the Old South who never married –
who lived in their aprons and their closets
and I think of that Mississippi

swelter, that suffocating silence
and so I say I have a girlfriend

This is a commitment to closeted lesbians of the past which, on first read, I imagined the book had neglected to fulfill. After all, the poems that follow don’t detail a lineage of queer fore-bearers nor dwell on the oppression of generations long gone. Instead, the narrative shifts to focus on the author’s own journey and those of the queer youth around her. While I briefly considered this a failure to fulfill the book’s initial promise, on further reflection, I came to realize that these poems are precisely what our queer ancestors are needing: not to have their names gilded in floral language, but for us to celebrate those here today and forge a path for those to follow. We honor our queer ancestors by honoring ourselves and those to come, a truth Earleywine understands intimately and rises to time and time again, centering queer artists and youth.

In the poem, “GSA,” as a teacher helping to organize her school’s GSA, of its students she asks:

. . . Who better

to prepare me, to teach me how to live life outside
of a closet than the same kids who clap every time I say

my wife? Who gather around her picture on my desk
like it’s a holy grail, who are so desperate for heroes,

they wear pride flags tied around their necks as capes,
become the heroes themselves.

Stanzas such as these have the potential to grip gay, straight, and any other manner of reader alike as they push us to recognize the courage of queer youth, to question how much more we might learn from their example. And yet, while I found myself gripped by such moments, they couldn’t explain the impact of the collection as a whole. For some time I remained uncertain what it was that not only piqued my interest in Earleywine’s work, but what resonated in such a manner as to be more than relevant and well-crafted, to be essential to the present moment. This poet has presented us with a collection about identity — familial, cultural, and queer — a collection that offers comfort and confrontation and complexity as it grapples with these facets of self and yet none of this alone is what truly makes her writing shine.

What makes this book critical in our current times is how, underneath layers of nuance, Earleywine is offering us a collection of love poems. These works are far from the saccharine some may anticipate upon hearing the term, but they’re love poems nonetheless; writing love to family, to queer ancestors and youth, to the poet’s spouse, to clothing and language and to the self. They’re love poems which do not coddle nor for a moment forget the sinister realities which creep around queer relationships. They are love poems. And they’re lovely.

From “Femme Invisibility”:

Sometimes I disappear, but
on the car ride home
you reach for my hand,
your thumb grazing across
my palm and the car fills
with light. I am so seen
I glow.

As demonstrated here and throughout the surrounding pages, Earleywine’s verse is as welcoming as a warm ocean and conceals an equal depth beneath. In poems neither simple nor obscure, she wields a multitude of techniques masterfully, with particular emphasis on cunning line breaks and subtle, charming musicality.

This is the book I wish I’d had as a child and I suspect it’s a book countless readers need right now. It’s a brief collection reaching far beyond the boundaries of its covers, marking the first perfect-bound publication of what promises to be an equally far reaching poetic career. A lesson in how to uplift love within the darkness, the cold, and the grey. A lesson many of us have needed our entire lives and from which we may all learn today.


Caroline Earleywine teaches high school English in Central Arkansas where she tries to convince teenagers that poetry is actually cool. She was a semifinalist for Nimrod’s 2018 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and for the 2019 Vinyl 45s Chapbook Contest. She was also a finalist for the 2019 Write Bloody Publishing Contest. Her work can be found in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Barrelhouse, NAILED Magazine, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte and lives in Little Rock with her wife and two dogs. Her chapbook, Lesbian Fashion Struggles, is out now with Sibling Rivalry Press.


Title: Lesbian Fashion Struggles
Author: Caroline Earleywine
Publisher: Sibling Rivalry Press
ISBN: 978-1-943977-79-6
Publication Date: 10/15/20
Retail Price: $12.00


Sam Preminger is a queer, nonbinary, Jewish writer and publisher. Having completed an MFA at Pacific University, they’ve since moved on to serve as the Editor-in-Chief of NAILED Magazine while continuing to perform at local venues and work one-on-one with poets as an editor and advisor. They live in Portland, OR, along with their partner and stepcat.   



Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Inclined to Riot

Inclined To Riot by KMA Sullivan

Review by Michele Bombardier

Artists and poets have grappled with the relationship between life and art for millennia.  KMA Sullivan, in her collection Inclined to Riot (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), brings timely and current considerations to this conversation. These poems smolder with passion, longing and fury as the poet considers art and compares it to her experience as a woman,

in a land where peace equals a naked woman
on her knees
milking a goat
where a river of pink babies
is called the source of life
I am not a woman at tea
the same as still life with pear

We don’t need to be told that the art the poet is viewing is by a male artist. We feel it. These poems center defiance to the male gaze and idealization of women across time and in different art forms.

The poems in Inclined to Riot are written without punctuation, no capitalization except “I”, and are mostly in short lines and in first person. The capitalized “I” rightly draws attention to itself, a statement of assertion.  Sullivan uses the steady rhythm of short lines to effectively amplify emotional intensity, as in the poem “here”:

a glass box of broken limbs
face worn away
I can still ride this horse
glow at night
like red light on egyptian blue
I was born to be luminescent
a stampede
here
forced down on one knee
held by my hair
that languid boy
cast a shadow even in relief
even in fragments
mouth open, nostrils flared
I am nomad, moon goddess, carbon smear
if wings sprouted from my face
I would not fly back

Sullivan writes in her post notes that her visits to nearly sixty galleries and art spaces in Europe and the US influenced the poetry in this collection in which they offered a “conversation” with her inner life. Sullivan grew up with an art historian mother and this deep exposure to classical art is reflected in her poems. These are more than ekphrastic poems; Sullivan draws on our collective knowledge of famous art pieces and expands on it as she challenges long-held feminine ideals of virtue, beauty, domesticity. She writes:

the cubists got it right
we are all this fractured form
but we make it down the stairs
with our pieces tumbling
choose among milkmaid and saint
and slotted spoon

I find myself teaching these poems in workshops, especially to show how Sullivan masterfully combines lyrical and narrative poetry with aspects of language poetry, how she layers image upon image to build intensity. As in the poem “armature”, Sullivan writes:

rodin offers joan of arc
her head of sorrow
in ecstasy
among twigs on fire
I refuse to sit for my portrait
become a placeholder
a fragment of a door

Each line packs a powerful punch. Teachers of poetry would benefit from using Inclined to Riot in their armamentarium as a book that uses many craft devises to amplify emotion and power. This book is both timely and timeless with its contemporary and feminist examination of art that has endured.  I am glad for this collection that not only questions our relationship to self and art but are poems of feminist empowerment using a kaleidoscope of images that linger in the mind’s eye.

KMA Sullivan is the author of two poetry collections: Inclined to Riot (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019) and Necessary Fire, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her poems and essays have appeared in Boston ReviewThe RumpusSouthern Humanities ReviewForklift, OhioThe Nervous Breakdown, The Offingdiode, and elsewhere. She has been awarded residencies in creative nonfiction and poetry at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Summer Literary Seminars and she is the coeditor-in-chief of Vinyl and the publisher at YesYes Books. KMA received an MFA in poetry from Virginia Tech; in earlier years she earned degrees in philosophy from Trinity College and Boston College and raised five children with her partner of 35 years. She is the cofounder of YesYes Healing Garden, an acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine in Portland, OR. KMA believes in the power of art and literature to improve the lives they engage.


Title: Inclined to Riot
Author: KMA Sullivan

Publisher: Sibling Rivalry Press
ISBN: 978-1-943977-58-1
Library of Congress Number: 2018960662
Publication Date: 05/29/2019
Retail Price: $15.95
5.83 x 8.27” Paperback; 66 Pages
Distributed by Ingram and Sibling Rivalry Press



Michele Bombardier’s debut collection, What We Do was a Washington Book Award finalist. Michele is a Hedgebrook and Mineral School fellow and the founder of Fishplate Poetry, which offers poetry workshops while raising money for medical care for refugees in the Middle East and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in poetry and works as a neurological and developmental specialist SLP. Her work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review and many others.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Michele Bombardier

Michele Bombardier

Michele Bombardier’s debut collection, What We Do was a Washington Book Award finalist. Michele is a Hedgebrook and Mineral School fellow and the founder of Fishplate Poetry, which offers poetry workshops while raising money for medical care for refugees in the Middle East and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in poetry and works as a neurological and developmental specialist SLP. Her work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review and many other journals.

Alexis Rhone Fancher & Arya F. Jenkins

America Has No Place for Grief: A Conversation with Alexis Rhone Fancher
by Arya F. Jenkins

Arya F. Jenkins: In State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies (KYSO Press, 2015) and The Dead Kid Poems (KYSO Press, 2019), you write unflinchingly about the loss of your son, an only child, who was only 26 when he died from cancer. Your other collections, Junkie Wife (Moon Tide Press, 2018) and How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and other heart-stab poems (Sybaritic Press, 2014) are brash explorations of female sexuality and power. How, if at all, did writing about sex prepare you for writing about death and loss? And where does the theme of female empowerment, a constant in your work, fit into the process of grief? 

Alexis Rhone Fancher: I’m not sure writing about sex prepared me to write about grief and loss, so much as it emboldened me. I was raised to believe I could do anything, and that my opinion mattered. I have always owned my personhood and my sexuality. Sadly, in today’s increasingly puritanical America, I am still in the minority. I am often called “brazen” when to me, I’m just being honest.

Much like sex, America has no place for grief; we have a “sweep it under the rug” philosophy. Out of sight, out of mind. Thus all the platitudes, the “he’s in a better place” or “he is at peace.” Instead of embracing our loss and experiencing our grief, we ignore it and soldier on, leaving a hollow place inside that can’t be filled, and we don’t know why.  

AFJ: “Death Warrant” in State of Grace is about the callousness of others in the face of your loss. How did you deal with the dismissal of the life of your son by a judge in a court of law? And that of the friend who thought two weeks after the death of your son that you should be “over it,” mentioned in another poem? How does one respond to that? 

ARF: “Death Warrant” and “Over It” are two of my most commented upon poems. Readers are horrified by these two women’s thoughtlessness and cruelty. Both poems quote verbatim what was said to me. The judge’s words brought a gasp from the packed courtroom. I was too shocked to do anything except flee. As I left, a woman caught up with me and put her arms around me, sobbing. Her kindness made the moment bearable. But even now, over 13 years later, I can’t relive that day without tears. It’s the unthinking/unthinkable cruelty, tossed off like it’s nothing..

The judge looked over the warrant.
“He’s in the hospital, you say?”
“Yes, your honor.
Terminal cancer.”
“Good,” she said. She handed the
paperwork back to the bailiff.
“Then he won’t be driving
without a license,
out there endangering others.”

ARF: When P., the woman in “Over It” who, two weeks after my son’s death, asked me if I was “over it yet,” her sheer heartlessness astonished me. I really did want, for just one moment, to trade places, to pretend it was her only child who died, and ask her if she was “over it yet?” Instead, I wrote the poem. 

Two weeks after he died,
a friend asked if I was “over it.”
As if my son’s death was something to get
through, like the flu.

AFJ: In “When I Buried My Son I Became Someone Else” in The Dead Kid Poems, you talk about coming to terms with mortality. Can you speak more to the final line of a couplet in that poem, “I’ve dumbed down my dreams,” and how grief has dumbed down your dreams?

ARF: Like me, two of my closest friends have lost a child. We call ourselves members of a club that no one wants to belong to. We all agree, once you’ve lost a child, nothing really fazes you. You’ve nothing more to lose. No matter how bad the news, you’ve had worse. And dreams? What dreams? The natural order is forever disturbed. There is no putting it right. 

AFJ: One of the things that stands out for me in The Dead Kid Poems is how the death of a loved one, the lesson of mortality, does not appear to be something we can pass on to familiars, try though we may, so grieving has a double edge and the one grieving a double burden—to bear the first unimaginable loss, and along with that, to accept that others close to her cannot deal either with her pain or the awareness of what it means to lose someone you love. Has that realization become easier for you? 

ARF: When my son became ill, I noticed a curious thing. Friends and family divided into two camps, those who came closer, and those who pulled away. Some family members deserted me, while friends I barely knew showed up for every hospital stay, every set back. The aha! moment was when I realized that it was nothing personal. That people were reacting not to me and my son’s tragedy, but to Death itself. Some caress it, others can’t face it. Better to turn away, pretend it doesn’t exist. From those who stuck around, and shared the grief, I learned that I share best as a poet. And the more personal my poems became, the more readers “got” what I was saying, and often shared back. It’s almost like my openness gives people permission to share their own truths. And that makes my sadness easier to bear. 

AFJ: In “Cruel Choices” in The Dead Kid Poems, you talk about the need to create a make-believe world—one where your son is married to a “beautiful Iranian model with kind eyes and they live in London with their twin girls who visit every summer”—to coexist alongside the one of terrible realities that, for all the pain they cause, the one grieving must hold onto, as it makes up the true remnants of memory.

ARF: I wrote “Cruel Choices” during a moment of envy–my husband’s two daughters were both in town and he and they were out together every night. I have no relationship with my step-daughters. It’s a mutual decision. That particular night I created a world where life was fair, and each of us had one child. My husband’s “cruel” choice as to which one to keep. I imagined what life might have been like if my son hadn’t died, if his girlfriend had chosen to keep those babies, if they’d moved to London. . . . If if if. A person could drown in them. Writing my truth means to dive into those memories, and remain there as long as possible. I can’t stay down too long; it’s a bad neighborhood. The trick is to open the portal just enough, then remember to shoot back up.

AFJ: The terrible binds placed on you by grief—can you speak more to that? 

ARF: Terrible, yes, but necessary if I’m to get to what matters. Grief rips some people apart. I watched my maternal grandmother will herself to die when my mother was dying. “It is unnatural for a mother to outlive her children,” I remember her saying. I was 20, and didn’t understand until my own son was dying and her words came back to me. But unlike my grandmother, grief made me stronger. I chose life. I chose to honor my son and his memory by writing State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, and The Dead Kid Poems. I wanted to hold his place on the earth. 

Poet and photographer Alexis Rhone Fancher has work published in over 200 literary magazines, journals, and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, Rattle, Hobart, Verse Daily, The MacGuffin, Plume, Tinderbox, Diode, Nashville Review, Rust + Moth, Nasty Women Poets, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, among others. Her photographs have been published worldwide. Her books include: How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen & other heart stab poems, Enter Here, and the autobiographical, Junkie Wife. Her chapbook, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies was released in 2015, and its companion, The Dead Kid Poems, published in May, 2019. EROTIC, a volume of her new and selected erotica, will be published in 2020 by New York Quarterly. A nominee of multiple Pushcart Prizes, Best Small Fictions, Best Micro-fiction, and Best of the Net awards, Alexis is poetry editor of Cultural Weekly.

The Dead Kid Poems was reviewed at The Poetry Cafe, by Sarah Stockton

Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American poet and writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and zines, most recently, IO Literary Journal, Rag-Queen Periodical, and The Ekphrastic Review. Her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Poetry is forthcoming in Poetica Review. Her poetry chapbooks are: Jewel Fire (AllBook Books, 2011), Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Love & Poison (Prolific Press, 2019). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite Press, 2018) is available here: www.aryafjenkins.com.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.