Breaking

Breaking by Brittney Corrigan

Review by Risa Denenberg

Brittney Corrigan is a woman trying to make sense of the world using every power that blending breaking news events with imagination and metaphor will afford. In Breaking (Word Tech Editions, 2021), Corrigan displays a sensitive balance of empathy and craft while superimposing global trauma with details from her own life. These twenty-one poems are paired responses to events that occurred during the years 2013-2019; yet they seem timeless.

When I first opened Breaking, perusing at random, I ignored the postscripts included with each of the twenty-one poems, indicating which global event the poem was written “after,” such as “After the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park at the hands of trophy hunter Walter Palmer on July 1, 2015.” None of these poems actually need these postscripts, they are strong stuff on their own.

When I picked up Breaking again, with the goal of reviewing it, the dedication struck me:

For Angie Rinaldo Crowder,

my 8th grade social studies teacher,
who taught me the importance
of paying attention to the events of the world.

To be needlessly repetitive, this is a dedication to a social studies teacher, not a poetry mentor. This early lesson was not only internalized but considered, examined, and transformed by a poetic consciousness. And what better way to comprehend the bombings, mass murders, separation of children and families at the US-Mexican border, endangered animals, and catastrophic floods and fires? And, I should add, some wondrous events: “the female pilot who safely landed Southwest Airlines flight 1380;” the escape of “Ollie a female bobcat” from the Smithsonian National Park Zoo; or “the first all-female spacewalk.”

Floating above “After the suicide bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England that killed 22 people on May 20,1917,” is the poem “Put Your Hearts Up,” in which a “cousin’s 12-year old daughter / is dying.” This close-to-home tragedy is lined up with the mass murder. “This world in which freak accident / and planned evil turn out the same.” It goes on,

But patching up one hole leaves another gaping.
Hearts are fracturing all around us, all across
this organ of our earth. Our fear, our grief, is audible
and persists. And yet our bodies cleave us together,
quicken and pulse.

Other poems also carry the weight of tragedy mixed with credible hopefulness. “Unflap” is written in the voice of a person surviving a harrowing emergency plane landing who feels,

The gravity of our hearts plunging
for what we’ve lost. Gripping onto
each other, remembering what’s worth
saving as the mess of us lands.  

In “Steller’s Jay the Week of the Boston Marathon Bombings,” Corrigan considers her own culpability when,

The young cat whose life I saved carries
a Steller’s jay in his mouth, the blue
form limp on either side of his jaws.

            . . .

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Somewhere behind
him in the trees the little jays call from their nest:
their blue mouths open.

And then she juxtaposes her “responsibility for this rending” with that of the mother of a murderer,   

She would still run to him now, still gather
him into her arms, rock him like a child—
no matter what is lashed to his chest.

Corrigan finds a special place in these poems for wildlife: the bobcat escaping from the zoo; Cecil the lion in Nairobi’s National Park; the mother orca, Tahlequah, “who carried her dead calf for more than two weeks” while “immigrant families were being separated at the United States border with Mexico.” Here she muses, “The orcas are better than we at buoying up our own.”

In “Truck Carrying Live Eels Overturns on Highway 101,” she pictures the eels ultimate fate “not to be shipped off to Korea,” but instead becoming roadkill—

xxxxxxxxxx[a] viscous mass of lives
across the pavement, racing the bulldozer,
the push of its knobby, rolling track
folding them on top of each other
as if they were no more than snow,
clearing a path through the wreckage
in which no one was injured.

The irony of that quiet last line is heartrending.

We each bear awful news in our own way, pay attention to the things we feel moved to respond to, try to protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed, suicidally depressed, or callously disconnected. I am particularly sensitive to images of trauma and for this reason, after the events of 9/11/01 in New York City, I gave away my television, and have not owned one since. In Breaking, Corrigan paints dreadful images with words and puts forth a response (something I’m not always able to do) while making a valiant effort to not overwhelm, depress, or paralyze her readers. There is a feminist consciousness here as well, sharing fears and yearnings for a young daughter in “On Telling My Nine-Year-Old Daughter that Hillary Won’t be President,” and in praise poems such as “Astrosisters,” where, “two women navigate the Space Station in weightless / calm.”

I suspect that this practice of responding swiftly to events by writing poems (three of these were published in Rattle: Poets Respond) is a source of emotional self-care as well as a challenge to connect one woman’s life with larger events going on simultaneously. This engenders a sort of humanity on all things, large and small, human or fauna.

Corrigan can say, “The tide is against us. The children slip and slip and slip away,” but also,

From this ruin, we knead kindness
into loaves, then break them. The fishes
slip and slip from our outstretched palms.


Photo credit: Nina Johnson Photography

Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collections Navigation, 40 Weeks, and most recently, Breaking, a chapbook responding to events in the news over the past several years. Daughters, a series of persona poems in the voices of daughters of various characters from folklore, mythology, and popular culture, is forthcoming from Airlie Press in September, 2021. Corrigan was raised in Colorado and has lived in Portland, Oregon for the past three decades, where she is an alumna and employee of Reed College. She is currently at work on her first short story collection and on a collection of poems about climate change and the Anthropocene age. For more information, visit http://brittneycorrigan.com/


Title: Breaking
Author: Brittney
Publisher: Word Tech Editions
ISBN: 978-1625493736
Price: $16


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. Her chapbook, POSTHUMAN, was the finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook contest.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Postcards from the Lilac City

Postcards from the Lilac City, by Mary Ellen Talley

Review by Sylvia Byrne Pollack

Mary Ellen Talley and I have attended many of the same workshops over the past decade, and I was already familiar with her work when I learned of the publication of her chapbook, Postcards from the Lilac City (Finishing Line Press, 2021).  I’ve heard her describe this chapbook as “nostalgia-based,” but if nostalgia/memory is the seed from which this collection of poems sprouted and thrived, then I say keep on tending this tree. The fruit is delicious.

I also was drawn to this book because my mother loved lilacs. When I was growing up in Western New York, we drove to Rochester, NY each spring to the Lilac Festival in Highland Park. That park was the source of the lilacs that now flourish in Talley’s birthplace of Spokane!

Postcards from the Lilac City is an homage to place and era. However, it is not limited to Spokane, WA, known officially as The Lilac City, or to Talley’s school years. There’s a wide range of topics, from eating yak butter while traveling to baking shamrock cookies for the family.

The book is prefaced with a poem describing Pan’s infatuation with the wood nymph, Syringa, whose name is the genus name for lilacs. Three sections follow: “Bike Riding Before Helmets,” “Spokane Postcards,” and “After Vietnam.”

“Bike Riding Before Helmets” focuses on the poet’s early life. In “End of the Trolley Park,” we encounter the carousel where her parents first met. Strong sounds and dense details such as “two Chinese dragon benches / breathe fire” enhance the visual effects. They pick up the reader, carry us to another time, but by the end of the first section of the poem “The stallions are sleeping” and “The cemeteries are full / of riders.” The rebirth of the carousel in 1975, is told in declarative voice, rich with physical and emotional details, “as memories glisten spinning counterclockwise.”

The memories are mixed. For example, there is the contrast of a bomb shelter vs. the protection provided by the presence of the Poor Clare Monastery in “faith in the lilac city” –with the all lowercase title adding an ironic twist. A sometimes-troubled relationship with her father resolves into understanding in “As I Pursue You”:

what I most recall is your steady hand
grasping the back of my bicycle

and running beside me until I could not fall.

Talley uses various poetic forms—even a duplex. In a Jericho Brown-inspired poem, “Duplex: We Had a Real Fred and Ethel in the Lilac City,” we meet Talley’s parents, the real Fred and Ethel, to whom the book is dedicated.

The final two poems recounting the speaker’s childhood relive teenage years. A Stone Man on a festival float brims with not-so-latent adolescent sexuality. My favorite of this group is “Butterfly” which captures teenage brio in the speaker’s casual description of herself:

I, in my herringbone pleated skirt,
blue anklets and white Peter Pan collar,
history and French books tossed in the back seat.

The poem includes the maneuvers required to start her hand-me-down car: opening the hood, flipping up the butterfly hinge, getting into the car to turn on the ignition, getting back out to flip down the butterfly, then idling in PARK while listening to the radio and watching her classmates head off to the bus. She then has an hour to spend with her boyfriend under a lilac (where else?) before picking up her mother. So much of a teenage life is captured in 34 lines.

The poems in “Spokane Postcards” contain the eponymous postcard poems. The first stanza of each is a description of place, the postcard image, followed by a message, generally from Mary Ellen but sometimes from her grandma. They have the feel of a flipped over haibun.  The descriptions include place, season and senses. The messages use the casual voice of postcards to family and friends.

“Shadle Park” extends the teenage romancing of “Butterfly” with brief declarative and imperative lines: “Kiss the space between his teeth.” And, later, skin evokes the omnipresent lilacs:

pull petal soft sheer layers
from burnt skin.
Drop it all on an ant hill.

Probably the funniest line in the book is in the poem “Wandemere” in a message to a friend about experiences while traveling in Asia: “I am still so Spokane.”

The final section, “After Vietnam,” includes poems of marriage and maturity.  In “The Things We Carry,” memorable lines, such as “you and I carried desire / like youth’s cranking jump rope” are juxtaposed with dense descriptive passages. Later in “Fabric of Worry,” we find Talley’s judicious use of white space.

An homage to Gertrude Stein, “Occupation of Lilacs,” overwhelms the senses with the sight and smell of lilacs, in true Stein fashion. The lilting “Prism” delights with its nursery rhyme rhythms and nonsense, e.g., “Old onions cry out once pumpkin seeds twinkle.”

The poem, “Since you ask how do we love a sibling (enough)” uses a clever device. Lines are divided into two columns and lines in the right hand column in each stanza begin successively with H,E,L,I,X. The poem further explores and pulls together family stories we heard about earlier in the book. It is a moving tribute to family and the DNA ties that bind.

In the final poem, Talley considers “the movie of my life” in a taut, beautiful series of images of a tapestry,

ripped
in those years of hanging
beside a stone staircase.

There is much to savor in this eclectic collection of poems. Talley takes us on a carousel ride through time and space and in her quiet voice returns us a little more grounded, more appreciative of family, more aware of the beauty that leavens life.


Mary Ellen Talley was born and raised in Spokane, Washington, the Lilac City, and then migrated to Seattle where she and her husband raised their two children. She earned degrees at the University of Washington and worked for many years as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) in Seattle area public schools. Her poems have been published in numerous journals including Raven Chronicles, Banshee, What Rough Beast, Flatbush Review, and Ekphrastic Review, as well as in six anthologies, among which are All We Can Hold and Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace. Her poetry has received two Pushcart Nominations. She reviews for several journals including Compulsive Reader and Asheville Poetry Review.



Title: Postcards from the Lilac City
Author: Mary Ellen Talley
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Price: $14.99
ISBN: 978-1-64662-317-4



Sylvia Byrne Pollack, a scientist turned poet, has published in Floating Bridge ReviewCrab Creek Review and Clover, among other print and online journals. A two-time Pushcart nominee, she won the 2013 Mason’s Road Literary Award, was a 2019 Jack Straw Writer and will be a 2021 Mineral School Resident. Her debut full-length collection Risking It is published by Red Mountain Press (2021.)



Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

The Oriole & The Ovenbird

The Oriole & The Ovenbird by Angela Patten

Review by Jeri Theriault

Like an experienced birder, the speaker of the poems in Angela Patten’s The Oriole & The Ovenbird (Kelsay Books, 2021), practices patience and careful observation while amassing an impressive list of species—nearly 30 in these twenty-one poems. The poet moves far beyond a lyrical description of birds, however, as she examines a human’s place in nature’s rich tapestry.

Patten delights in painterly descriptions, presenting such images as a “cardinal fully incarnadined,” in “Spring Comes to A Dying Decade”; and a swallowtail settling on a “feathery dill stalk,” in “Slow Time.” She captures the mystery of birds’ “inscrutable errands” and their music—“teacher teacher, peter peter, pretty girl” in “Evening Light at Oakledge”.

In “After Cataract Surgery” the speaker’s observations grow more metaphoric. Though she sees more clearly the “deeper yellow” goldenrod and the “tiny basket” of Queen Anne’s lace, the removal of a “gauzy cataract” also triggers a deeper understanding of her Irish father who lost an eye “to clerical brutality.” She hopes her clearer vision might restore “some crucial balance / in the universe.”

Another poem featuring the speaker’s father includes one of several references to corvids. In “Crowtime” a mass of crows gathers “into a solid-color jigsaw puzzle.” The crows’ impressive reliance on community reminds the poem’s speaker of the ritual of pub musicians, especially her father, who,

showed up night after night
to take his place in an ancient ritual
to play his fiddle, not by standing out
but by fitting in

“Crowtime” also suggests that death is part of nature’s great “jigsaw puzzle.” By the poem’s end, the narrator’s father has settled into the “collective darkness,” echoing my own quiet settling in among the birds throughout these poems.

In “Tracks,” surgery scars on the speaker’s arm are raven tracks that lead backward to the “battlefields of childhood” and forward to “my mother’s crowsfeet / inching toward my eyes.” This poem calls to mind the twin corvids in another poem, “Ravens, with one raven “forward-thinking” and the other, “memory” looking back. The speaker places herself squarely into this continuum.

“A Cacophony of Crows” contrasts the community of crows– “the sky full of their feathered shapes”– with solitary humans who “choose condominiums” to indicate their “place in the pecking order.” “Species-ism” also shows humans keeping their distance from one another and from the natural world behind “invisible fences.” “The Thing with Feathers” offers a non-corvid image of avian community. A greedy starling at the bird feeder “ascends to almost holiness” when he joins “a murmuration of thousands.”

Full of vivid description and quiet introspection, The Oriole & The Ovenbird offers a strong message about the power of stillness and observation, awareness of the creatures around us, and above all, the importance of realizing we are already a part of nature’s “jigsaw puzzle.”


Angela Patten’s publications include four poetry collections, The Oriole & the Ovenbird (Kelsay Books), In Praise of Usefulness (Wind Ridge Books), Reliquaries (Salmon Poetry, Ireland) and Still Listening (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), and a prose memoir, High Tea at a Low Table: Stories From An Irish Childhood (Wind Ridge Books). Her work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, she now lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Vermont English Department.


Title: The Oriole & The Ovenbird
Author: Angela Patten
Publisher: Kelsay Press, 2021; 40 pages
Price: $16


Jeri Theriault is a Maine poet. Her publications include the award-winning In the Museum of Surrender (2013) and Radost, my red (2016). Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Texas Review, The American Journal of Poetry, The Asheville Poetry Review and Poets Reading the News. She has published reviews in The Collagist, The Adirondack Review and The Rumpus, among others. She is an associate poetry editor for the Rise Up Review and a reader for Vida Review. A Fulbright recipient and three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Jeri holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.Her thirty-four- year teaching career included six years as English department chair at the International School of Prague. She won the 2019 Maine Literary Award for Poetry (Short Works). www.jeritheriault.com


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe online.

The Donkey Elegies: An Essay in Poems

The Donkey Elegies by Nickole Brown

Review by Suzanne Simmons

Nickole Brown’s The Donkey Elegies (Sibling Rivalry Press 2020), is a beautifully written and instructive sequence of numbered poems about donkeys, and by extension other overlooked and under-appreciated beasts of burden.

The book begins intimately, as the poet describes a particular donkey, its ears “like single petals of Dahlias at full bloom, curled, firmly upright, but always soft, always open.” It’s an apt image for a book that asks us to listen deeply as Brown lays out the history of these creatures who have served humans for thousands of years.

In the second poem, the poet is on her knees, carefully cleaning the underside of the donkey’s hoof in her role as a volunteer at an animal shelter, and in this position of humility and service, she invites us to join her. She gives us the vocabulary for a donkey’s body: “fetlock, withers, eel stripes, heel, hoof wall, sole, toe, frog,” as opposed to the language used in later poems—stereotypes and jokes about asses, because,

behind their jokes
is not the animal
itself but the animal
they see, not the animal they know
but the animal they think.

She endures the scorn of a fellow worker at the shelter:

the community service punk clocked for speeding with a rattle of beer cans on his floorboards can’t get over the fact I clean the barn for free because I want to.

She notices the “subtle flinch of visitors, their pity seeing a grown woman shovel shit.'” But, she writes, “this grunt work is the repair of my soul.”

The middle section of the book catalogues the dismal assortment of grunt work that has been assigned to donkeys over centuries. This is a fascinating and appalling history, and a reminder that seeing any living being as inherently less than and disposable dehumanizes the perpetrator. Many of the of poems in this sequence begin with the phrase: “On your back,” and so begins a long list of people and things donkeys have carried, including the laboring Mary, later her son Jesus, untold numbers of soldiers, and burdens ranging from dead deer to pallets of bricks until, finally:

your back, it sways, it bends in the middle as does a shelf
that’s been asked to hold more than it possibly can, before it eventually splits

exposing spine. Overloaded, the cart
tips back, suspends in the air
the limp donkey.

The use of donkeys in our World Wars, something I was completely ignorant about, is particularly heartbreaking. As many as 80,000 donkeys were in the trenches during World War I, with their vocal cords cut to silence them, and in World War II donkeys outfitted with parachutes were dropped from planes only to shatter their limbs upon landing and be shot. Brown weaves scenes of her own upbringing throughout the unfolding of the the donkey’s tale so as to describe how she could,

sense the life I was born into, the one I was meant to have. . .
I’d be trapped with too many babies and a shit husband to boot. . .
But what they couldn’t imagine is though I escaped all that, all those years behind the desk have unstitched me from my body in another way . . .

She shows us the girl she once was, who smiled and apologized to men behaving badly, concluding that:

Fawning is one way to dodge what’s coming when you’ve no other way to fight.
Tractable is one way a domestic avoids extinction.
It took me decades
to step into the barn and ask these questions
of a donkey who learned to survive
as I did, who placidly moved forward,
regardless, in spite of everything,
just like me.

The language throughout the book links the poet and the donkeys to hardscrabble working worlds: “The truth of my family was buried in their talk.” In one poem Brown describes Mary as “tupped by the Almighty,” in another she refers to Pooh’s donkey friend Eeyore as a “stitched-back-together low note of Prozac.” In tone, these rich phrases are the offspring of the country sayings she grew up with, such as one she quotes in poem #14: “about as good as putting a steering wheel on a mule.” My own father, a Western Pennsylvania farm kid whose education ended when he dropped out of high school to work in a steel mill, peppered his own speech with similar talk. As cliched as it may sound, rural language is indeed wise, often poetic and has an earthy humor you can practically smell. Brown’s book is infused with this language, and coupled with her intellect and keen observations she spins plenty of her own wisdom: “Do we dismiss sturdy, useful beings / because we despise what we’re afraid we’ll become?”

The last poem is a blessing that calls to these lines from Galway Kinnell’s “Saint Francis and the Sow”:

sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
/ /
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow

Brown ends her well-researched and deeply moving book with a similar blessing:

Blessed be. You know how it goes.
Inherit the.
/ /
a plain song of persistence, of hunger
met with plenty of time to chew.

Listen.
Can you hear it, too?

In his dutiful mouth, the pulp and resignation,
the grit and patience of every
thing grown by the sun surrendered
but saved, brought back
by the common, low-life, baseborn, absolute

holiness that is
this donkey.

I highly recommend this book. The language is often bracing and always delightful, the donkeys are as real as rain—purely themselves, intensely seen, and yet also metaphors for the suffering that happens all around us that we manage not to see.


Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College, studied literature at Oxford University, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was first published in 2007 by Red Hen Press and a new edition was reissued by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015, and the audio book of that collection became available in 2017. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years until she gave up her beloved time in the classroom in hope of writing full time. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and teaches periodically at a number of places, including the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, and the Hindman Settlement School. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville, NC, where she volunteers at a three different animal sanctuaries. Currently, she’s at work on a bestiary of sorts about these animals, but it won’t consist of the kind of pastorals that always made her (and most of the working-class folks she knows) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it—these poems speak in a queer, Southern-trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, but damaged and dangerous. The first of these new poems, To Those Who Were Our First Gods won Rattle‘s Chapbook Contest in 2018. The second chapbook from this project, an essay-in-poems called The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in January 2020.

Title: The Donkey Elegies: An Essay in Poems
Author: Nickole Brown
Publisher: Sibling Rivalry Press, January 16, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-943977-71-0
Price: $12.00


Suzanne Simmons’ poems, essays and photographs have been published in the NYTimes, Fifth Wednesday, Rattle, Smartish Pace, The Baltimore Review and numerous other journals. Her chapbook In September They Draw Down the Lake was released by Alexandria Quarterly Press in 2020. She volunteers for Monarch Watch, The Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, and lives in Eliot, ME. Visit her at http://www.suzannesimmons.net



Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Call My Name

Call My Name, by Heather Wyatt

Review by Diane Elayne Dees

It’s hard to ignore a chapbook that includes a poem whose first line is: “I saw my ass on the news last night.” Heather Wyatt’s Call My Name (The Poetry Box, 2019) is filled with such detailed observations, often delivered with skillfully detached humor, and always presented with rich and precise imagery.

In “File Footage,” the above-referenced poem, Wyatt writes:

Almost like a heart, it bobbled,
a teeter totter unaware of the camera.
This isn’t good. I said to myself.
I put down the cookie dough.
I predicted this would happen one day.

Call My Name is part memoir, in that the author sometimes takes us back to her childhood and some of the important characters who shaped it. It is also a collection of her keen observations of everyday events and objects—things that make up a major part of our lives, but which we may tend to ignore. Wyatt pays close attention to them, and reminds us that they have meaning, even if we have sometimes been unable to find the words to convey that meaning. In “Nostalgic Scroll,” she runs through a list of sensory memories:

miniature teapot I begged my mother for after Aunt
          Frances died
yellow crocheted purse from Great-Grandmother Maude
fallen hair from Barbie on Salon day
sand dunes perched on the coast of North Carolina
          littered with kites donning images of
          superheroes
sixteenth century forts, lighthouses bigger than life
          and miles of white beaches in St. Augustine

And in “Full of Grace,” she laments the unfortunate existence of a neglected statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

Made of stone,
she stands prim,
high, cream
stone against
the brick wall,
nailed
to a black
L bracket
looking over
the leather
teal sofas,
and the television that never stops running
the news ticker.

I lived in New Orleans for much of my life, so I was immediately drawn to “After My Second Hurricane,” in which Wyatt perfectly captures the city’s sometimes shocking ambience:

The streets of New Orleans smell
like old trash filled
with aged, Creole spices. . .
. . . Purple and gold beads
were flying at my head.

The author’s childhood memories include finding her grandfather’s golf bag in the attic, digging “to China” in the red mud of her yard, eating canned ravioli and watching The Price is Right at her grandparents’ house, and losing control of her crutches and falling down twice at her great-grandmother’s funeral. In every case, these memories are enhanced by Wyatt’s keen use of imagery and her attention to detail, as they are in the poem, “The Price is Right”:

Grandpa would
pluck the strings
on his guitar
until he heard
creaking floor boards
that meant Grandma
was coming to tell
him to stop.

I spent every
summer this way,
reclining, looking
at the wood paneling
on the walls.

One of the most poignant poems in the collection is “A Caged Bird,” in which the author describes a sick bird:

Your curled beak and nails
grasp at the wires—
you squawk when you can
catch your breath,
The latch that keeps you caged
comes unhinged and the door opens.

You don’t leave.

Even more affecting is the haunting title poem, “Call My Name,” which is the first poem in the chapbook. In “Call My Name,” Wyatt describes the failing mental and physical health of her aunt, who is in a nursing home. But the poem is really about the author’s reaction to witnessing the demise of her family member:

This is not the first
or last poem I will write
about you.
This time I am trying
to decide what I want
from your house
that you can’t fit
in your tiny room.
How can I choose
what I want
to take with me?

We haven’t even had
a funeral for you.

The poet describes the patient’s condition in painful and startling detail, such as in this passage:

The closet is your refrigerator
and you are on the kitchen floor
and you are in the fabrics department
and you are working.
You fold the same stiff, sterile sheet
for hours and look desperately
at the oxygen machine to give
you a price for the discounted fabric.

Wyatt’s poetry is spare and focused, transporting the reader directly to the scene, and all of the emotions and sensations surrounding it. Call My Name is evocative, emotive and and often humorous. Heather Wyatt closely observes everything, including herself, in this beautifully written collection. The result is poetry that nudges our memories, validates our feelings about events large and small, and calls us to be observers of our own experiences.



Heather Wyatt is a teacher and writer by day and food TV junkie by night. Her first book, My Life Without Ranch, from 50/50 Press features that love of food, but also explores the dangerous relationship we can all have with it. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and has a slight obsession with her two dogs. She both graduated from and instructs English at the University of Alabama.

She received her MFA from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky in poetry. Several of her poems have been featured in a number of journals including Number One, Puff Puff Prose Poetry , The Binnacle, ETA, Writers Tribe Review and many others. Her short story “A Penny Saved” was published in Perspectives Magazine in 2018. Her essay “Self-Defense” is in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, September 2018 and her essay, “Hot AF” is in the magazine Robot Butt.

Follow her on Twitter @heathermwyatt or visit her website at heathermwyatt.com for more information.


Title: Call My Name
Author: Heather Wyatt
Publisher : The Poetry Box ( 2019)
Paperback : 40 pages
13 : 978-1948461283


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 chapbooks, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died, and The Last Time I Saw You. 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 Online.

Fossils on a Red Flag

Fossils on a Red Flag by Amelia Diaz Ettinger

Review by Nancy Knowles

The US military has made a habit of using beautiful islands for target practice while also destroying animal life, fragile ecosystems, livelihoods, cultures, and even people. Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, is one example, about which Marshallese poet Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner has evocatively written. Culebra, in Puerto Rico, is another.

Inspired by Jetn̄il-Kijiner, Amelia Diaz Ettinger wrote her chapbook Fossils on a Red Flag (Finishing Line Press, 2021) about the Culebra Island Naval Defensive Sea Area and Naval Airspace Reservation. The Navy reserve was created in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for training purposes. Culebra is an archipelago of 11.6 square miles with a population, according to the government website, of 1,868 people. The chapbook begins with the Executive Order 8684, establishing the naval reserve, and presents nineteen poems that move through time from 1941 to 2017, when deadly Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Diaz Ettinger writes from her own experiences visiting Culebra for scientific study as a teenager in the 1970’s and from her vantage point today as a retired educator and an expatriate Puerto Rican now living in Oregon.

Echoing the protests of the culebrenses that took place in the early 1970s and resulted in the discontinuation of the Navy’s use of Culebra, Diaz Ettinger’s collection decries the extensive damage to the environment. She uses the motif of half-life, the scientific term that identifies the time it takes for a substance to decay to half its potency, to probe how long it will take for the archipelago to recover from being used as a bombing range. Among the damages done to the archipelago were destruction of bird and turtle nesting sites, destruction of coral reefs, radiation contamination of land and seafood due to leaching from munitions, and the threat of unexploded munitions. In the poem, “1968*half life,” Diaz Ettinger brings the reader right into the destruction of bird life:

They were parents here, and aunts
and siblings.
They knew and fed each other’s chicks.
//
The inferno that followed
charred the anxious waiting families
sitting peacefully at their nests.

The poem “*1970 half life” starts with the epigraph “I have my orders. / We will blow up some / more on Monday.” The poem depicts the detonation of missiles lodged in coral, a bombing that resulted in native fishermen’s loss of livelihood:

Two hundred feet from the explosion
the coral was sliced as by a divine indifferent knife,
white spots already spread, where life had been blasted.
The shore filled with the glassy eyes of fish.

Diaz Ettinger’s collection also depicts the culebrenses in protest against the US military. The poem, “Claro Feliciano, a citizen of Culebra” describes how this 74-year-old man experiences the “ghost” of the Navy’s radiation poisoning in the cells of his body. It is like “skeletal fingers,” or like “fishbones / that turned to steel.” In “*1970 half life,” the culebrenses, in response, stand outside the naval base within range of “sharpshooters / poised on the occupied hill” and sound “Seventy conchs strong / singing / with the willingness of a hurricane.”

The collection reflects the history of Puerto Rico as a colonial landscape—site of displaced native populations and imported African slaves, colonized by the Spanish, won as a US territory as a spoil of war, disenfranchised in US politics, routinely mistreated and ignored by the US government, and now essentially bankrupt. On behalf of this population, Diaz Ettinger’s work demands that Americans notice the pattern of destruction, both ecological and sociological, to American lands and to fellow American citizens.

A third strand in the collection is Diaz Ettinger’s own life experience in this landscape. She recalls herself as a teen oblivious to the politics of life on Culebra. In “Queen Conch I,” she arrives as a scientist studying “birds and turtles,” “wrapped in loud youth.” A highlight of the collection is “Cebu Poem: Loggerheads and Leatherbacks,” which depicts a youthful love affair among the science crew:

Once in the Caribbean brine,
away from the prying eyes of my father,
lost in the blue with the smell of fish-bones on our skin
I gave myself to you, soft as the inside of a mollusk.

The young people are oblivious to the destruction around them, this time other young people stealing protected eggs. The contrast between the lovers and the destroyers speaks to the irony of attempting to protect rare species in this devastating context. Here, even young love fails:

Plundered nests before the sun entered those waters,
under the fading eye of Yucayu,
just as you left without saying adios
leaving me alone on sand, ocean, and new discovered fire.

Fossils on a Red Flag ends with a poem, “Dedication: After Hurricane Maria,” that depicts the poet looking at Puerto Rico and Culebran politics from the vantage point of years and of the Continental US. Her mourning for the people and places of her childhood is palpable in “baskets of loss.” In this poem, she calls readers to “Witness!” With this command, we are instructed to notice destruction and cruelty. We should take action in helping those who are suffering, and to have sympathy–also for the poet, safe in Oregon, watching with grief the desolation of her home.

In the poems of Diaz Ettinger, as well as those by Jetn̄il-Kijiner, the personal is political and so is the poetry. Diaz Ettinger’s chapbook is art that both delights us and motivates us to live better.


Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Amelia Diaz Ettinger has written poems that reflect the struggle with identity often found in immigrants. She began writing poetry at age three by dictating her poems out loud to her uncles who wrote them down for her. She has continued writing poems and short stories throughout her life. Her writing took a back seat while she raised two wonderful human beings and worked as a high school teacher. Now retired, she has renewed her writing with fervor. She has published three books of poetry: SPEAKING AT A TIME (redbat books, 2015), LEARNING TO LOVE A WESTERN SKY (Airlie Press, 2020), and FOSSILS ON A RED FLAG (Finishing Line Press, 2021). She currently resides in Summerville, Oregon with her husband Chip, her dog Oso and seven unnamed chickens.


Title: Fossils on a Red Flag
Author: Amelia Diaz ettinger
Publisher : Finishing Line Press (February 19, 2021)
ISBN-10 : 1646624424 ISBN-13 : 978-1646624423
Price: $14.99


The daughter of two architects, Nancy Knowles began her career in education as a school model, posing as an eager student in publicity photos for her parents’ business, which focused on designing K-8 schools. In addition to earning degrees from UCLA, Humboldt State University, and the University of Connecticut, she worked in business management in the entertainment industry and taught English at a summer camp in Japan. She has taught literature and writing at the college level for almost 30 years.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

MUCH

Much by Joel Peckham

Review by Charles Farmer

Embracing memory can be a tricky task for the artist. For some, remembrance realizes itself in the comforting gaze of nostalgia and sentimentality. For others, reminiscence belts us as a reminder of something lost, the unrecoverable better days. In his poetry chapbook, Much (UnCollected Press, 2021), Joel Peckham offers a different way to negotiate with our histories: the past as proof of our resilience. Grounded in the lucid and the circumstantial, Peckham’s autobiographical work turns past and present anxieties into narratives of focus and survival. Much confronts eventualities and catastrophes with a hard-earned durability characterized by love and empathy.

Much opens with “On Hearing a Scream Outside My Window,” a poem driven by a theme typical of Peckham’s best work –an unwavering trust in human connection fueled by recollection,

the way the mind desperately pieces things together,
xxxxxtrying to
follow its tracks as it bends into the woods, imposing
xxxxxxpatterns, asking all the
leading questions.

Peckham, a Whitman devotee, finds common ground and kinship in the everyday and the extraordinary, in this instance, a cry that functions as both bridge and catharsis. On one hand, the scream conjures the memory of a great grandmother he never met, the relative:


xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… my sisters feared, who, in
her last years would spend thanksgiving screaming that
xxxxxxher husband
was trying
to kill her, tearing at her hair and weeping in terror as
xxxxxxeveryone shook their
heads, staring at their drinks–

Giving purpose to the noise of agony, Peckham “imagined and reimagined the voice” and, if only briefly, finds some insight into the mind of the great grandmother who has become the stuff of family lore.

The scream also recalls Peckham’s childhood spent listening to John Lennon records, whose wails are more than rock and roll theatrics.  For Peckham, they are confirmation of the human condition, at times celebrating, pleading, suffering, or “harmonizing.” Lennon’s “voice split” is vitality manifested, universal, and prophetic:

it was all
for me and through me–those cries and those I hadn’t yet
xxxxxxheard
or would make myself
in time. Years later.

In Peckham’s hands, cries are a sonic purge, “terror turned to beauty. This force / freed from the sun.”

Other recollections that sprinkle Much’s first half eclipse the typical slice-of-life narratives, exploring labor and reward, success and failure. “Redemption Center” celebrates the “simple return[s]” of youth, when heaven is an uncomplicated exchange of a day’s hard work for an afternoon at the movies. Elsewhere, the struggles of adulthood reveal themselves. A group of boys playing in the woods in “Trembling in the Water” are left to reckon with discovery of an abandoned pinstripe suit. What are the young men to make of a man who has given up? Perhaps he “walked out of / a bank or some / cubicle in one of the office parks,” or emerged, hands in the air, from a “breakdown / lane off 95,” and stripped himself of authority and responsibility. The reality of an adult’s defeat leaves the boys, “Ready / to bolt.” Other poems demonstrate a young person’s realization of class-consciousness. In “You don’t know shit about shit,” the speaker finds camaraderie with the boss’s sister. Together, they are “the dropout and the washout, and the trust fund kid,” both “starving for blood.”

The poem, “Pavement: Jack Coffey Landscaping and Tree Service, July 1989” juxtaposes “the fine, manicured green of the lawn” with a truck bed of “black tar sloughing and / calving like a glacier, the scrape of iron on iron, and curses echoing,” as a three-person crew toil during a suburban summer. The working day ends not only with the satisfaction of a job well done, but also with a “deep breath, breathing the poison in.”

Other poems find Peckham more political, but no less intimate. Peckham’s signature familiarity saves his poems from the relic status resigned to much of protest art. In “Jupiter, Desire, Hope,” he confronts the reckoning of COVID-era America. After years of “walking up the gang plank,” we are left to take shelter, “duck and cover,” and “adjust our masks.”  “The debt [has] come due.” The poem continues:

Did you ever think        this would happen in our
lifetime Rachel asks me as we adjust    our masks and
xxxxxxcross the lot
to the grocery store         Yes I hear myself respond

The poem “#naturalselection” tackles a country that reduces the substance abuse epidemic to bad statistics, and thinks that its casualties suffer a just-deserved fate as the “other”:

But the problem
is the gangs from Detroit and who cares, let those bastards
xxxxxshoot each other.
And let those druggies shoot themselves
up until they’re gone. Load the heroin and Fentanyl and
xxxxxxFuck the Narcan
anyway. It’s called natural selection.

Where War-on-Drug hardliners dictate with an either/or idea of justice, Peckham writes from the front-lines, giving names and a gentle humanity to the victims. Cool Chase, one of Peckham’s former student, “was beautiful in a quiet way that takes you / by surprise. He could reach you with his eyes without speaking,”

             But he had
nerve pain and a limp. And maybe he was
a little too thin and sometimes he shook a bit like witch
xxxxxxgrass in the wind.
But that was just Cool Chase, holding back
And leaning in, and who knew anyone or anything
xxxxxxcould take you suddenly
that way before you knew what hit you.

The poem, “America: Love It or Leave It,” is Much’s most vicious piece, addressing the absurd, “You’re with us, or you’re against us” mentality that has haunted post-9/11 America. Using the metaphor of a one-sided, abusive relationship, Peckham presents the country as a bully,

Just another
cracking-open-a-six-pack-
feet-up-watching-football-with-potato-chip-crumbs-
xxxxxxin-his-navel kind of
love asking what’s for dinner

In a country that traffics in blind patriotism, “There is no out,” no rescue or retreat, just:

you and all you us and thems and either ors. And
xxxxxxthat’right,
I didn’t think so’s. Don’t you know by now it’s been a long,
xxxxxxlong time since
This thing we have, had anything to do with love.

Much’s anxieties culminate in the title piece, dedicated to Peckham’s son, Darius, at age eighteen. The poem undercuts the easy romanticism of idealized youth, presenting a litany of too-much-too-soon experiences that test the resilience of young men and women living under the canopy of near-catastrophe. Reflecting on his own youth, Peckham offers a childhood that wasn’t just baseball cards, rock and roll records, or candy bars; it was also Regan-era angst, abusive parents, coked-up teammates, suicide, AIDS, Russia, sex, and questions about sexuality. His was a world punctuated by overexposure, breaking points, and muted suffering: “How much we hid from each other and ourselves and hid ourselves from / each other.”

“Much” is poem driven by the parental instinct to nurture and protect, and while it can’t do the impossible—guarantee a child’s safety—it articulates the confusing and difficult dynamic between parents and children. Peckham understands that parents:

Didn’t know us at all. And
Back then we all thought that was what they wanted.
xxxxxxxxxMaybe

they were a little scared of us, how much we had to
xxxxxxxxxface, and how much we
needed and how confused we were, how much damage
xxxxxxxxxwas being
done.

In confronting the realities of youth, Peckham gives us poetry-as-survival-kit, a lived-to-tell voice of experience: 

All that was coming, coming at us, all at once. That no
xxxxxxone
could protect us from. And maybe it was all

Too much.

Peckham concludes with the celebratory “Wow! Signal: Dredging Light.” Here, exhilaration fuels an anticipation of “Summer / when everything sings and stings with its need to be uncontained, and penetrate the skin.” A Whitmanesque kinship sends Peckham, tasked with the chore of dredging a creek, beyond the here and now, “insisting I am / not confined in … this body or this creek.” In an instant, his shovel “is not a shovel but a dish, glittering with stars that are future and past at once, sending their messages of birth and burial.” From there, a fabric of continuity reveals itself:

somewhere on the burning
sand of an ever-expanding beach, unmodulated waves
xxxxxxthat might have come
from a light-house beacons somewhere in the
xxxxxxconstellation of
Sagittarius strain…

Somewhere in Ohio the astronomer shot through
with wonder stares at the signal he’s been waiting for
xxxxxxwithout hope and
desperate with need, works out the coordinates, searching
xxxxxxfor the
source of what he sees.

Back at the creek, Peckham implores the Old Gods to “sing the language of the sumac” and “play the notes in any sequence.” Grappling with memory, Much could end on a down note; however, “Wow!” finds Peckham alive, hopeful, transcendent, and untranslatable, “staggering / with light and heat.”

Much, along with Peckham’s other books, channels the sweeping, out-of-breath exuberance of Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. At the same time, he deals in a reassuring tenderness that recalls Carl Sandburg. Understandably, any work published during the chaos and loss and COVID will be read as product of its circumstances. Yet Much transcends the trappings of topical art by re-imaging how we live with memory, not as a crutch, but as a resume.  Here, a relationship with the past isn’t defined by what-ifs or senior yearbook superlatives; instead; it’s delicate dichotomy of thriving in the now and “letting go while holding to the line that links.”


Joel Peckham has published seven books of poetry and nonfiction, most recently God’s Bicycle and Body Memory. His newest collection, Bone bMusic, is forthcoming from SFA press in Spring 2021. His poems appeared recently in or are forthcoming in many journals, including Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, The Sugar House Review, Cave Wall, The Beloit Poetry Journal and many others. Currently, he is editing an anthology of ecstatic poetry for New Rivers Press, titled Wild Gods: The Ecstatic in American Poetry and Prose.




Title: MUCH
Author: Joel Peckham
Publisher : UnCollected Press (January 23, 2021)
Paperback : 45 pages· 
ISBN-10 : 1736009826

Cost: $15.00


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.

Selling the Family

Selling the Family by Nancy Kay Peterson

Review by Bill Rector

Selling the Family by Nancy Kay Peterson (Finishing Line Press, 2021) is a book you should buy and read. My review of it will be brief, reflecting Nancy Peterson’s poetry. She writes with Scandinavian sparseness about her family, which is now reduced (and simultaneously enlarged by this book) to her. The cover is a photograph of the auction, set outdoors, in a meadow, of her parents’ estate. The poems are brief and in free verse. Peterson avoids excessive self-pity in the same way she does unnecessary modifiers. She doesn’t indulge (maybe a little) the subjective bleakness of mortality. She likes objects. They are part of her family. It reminds me of the deep relationship between kin and ken.

Here’s one of the poems from the book, titled, “Being Last”:

Imagine being last.
No one to call on Christmas.
No packages under a fragrant pine.

Little but
time to fill
day after day
after day.

Who will buy a coffin,
make final arrangements,
chance upon the writings,
save them for discovery?

My heart knows the work
will be simply discarded.
What stranger would read them,
a lifetime of poems?


Nancy Kay Peterson’s poetry has appeared in print and online in numerous publications, recently in Lost Lake Folk Opera, One Sentence Poems, Spank the Carp, Steam Ticket, and Three Line Poetry. Two of her poems were nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook, Belated Remembrance, (Finishing Line Press, 2010) is a series of poems telling the story of her great-great uncle Arne Kulterstad (1825-1902), who was convicted of murder in Oslo, Norway, and eventually exiled to Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Selling the Family, her second chapbook, relates her experience in auctioning off her family’s estate as the family’s sole living descendant. From 2004-2009, she was co-publisher and co-editor of Main Channel Voices: A Dam Fine Literary Magazine.


Title: Selling the Family
Author: Nancy Kay Peterson
Publisher: Finishing Line Press, 2021
Price: $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-64662-402-7


Bill Rector is a retired physician. He formerly edited the Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine. His publishing credits include a full-length poetry collection entitled, bill, through Proem Press, and five chapbooks: Lost Moth, about the death of his daughter, which won the Epiphany magazine chapbook competition; Biography of a Name (Unsolicited Press), relating the death of Jimmy Hoffa to contemporary American culture; Brief Candle (Prolific Press), a series of sonnets in modern idiom about selected characters from Shakespeare; Two Worlds (White Knuckle Press), relating the transcendent to the ordinary, which the editors called one of the most beautiful collections they have published; and most recently, Hats are the Enemy of Poetry (Finishing Line Press).



Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

The Hatchet and the Hammer

The Hatchet and the Hammer, by Caitlin Scarano

Review by Risa Denenberg

I find myself wanted to respond to every line in Caitlin Scarano’s chapbook, The Hatchet and the Hammer (Ricochet Editions, 2020).  When she says, on page 2, “you can make him well, / if you simply / find the right offering,” I want to admit: “that was so true, for so much of my life.” And when the very last stanza reads,

How beautiful it will be to wake up one morning and know
I am not in love with anyone but the open fields I’m crossing,
the alter I’ve made. How beautiful it will be
to bury this.

I think, “You will bury it as I have. When you grow old.” I think about the decades where all of my hurt stood between me and the ability to fully love or forgive myself or others. I think about how focused my attention was on sex as repair for hurt. As Scarano’s narrator puts it, “fucking is a form of healing.” My own persistent repetition of behaviors that caused harm to self and others are described perfectly in the book as “our hardwood floor kind of love.”

I don’t think this reaction is a unique affair between me and this book, or between me and the poet. I think instead that when words engage me to this deep level of exploration and memory, when the writing is clear and unencumbered with disguise, the words are true.  No less true, whether or not they represent the poet’s own narrative. 

Certainly, The Hatchet and the Hammer tells a woman’s story that is filled with danger, pain, and loss. One grandfather threatening a young black man with a shotgun and another hitting his wife with a hammer; an alcoholic father dying of liver failure; a partner with intrusive thoughts of violent acts.

Questioning becomes the modus operandi here for growth and healing. Movement occurs, however slowly and non-linearly, thorough questioning reality, typically with no easy answers. When on p. 14 the narrator asks, “how were we to know?” and on p. 17, “What did I really know?” the poignancy of how a child’s naivety disguises harm is striking.  Scarano searches for a way out, asking on p.19, “How do I know when I have the truth about myself?” And her answer is hopeful,

I looked out over Lake Michigan
one morning and thought:
there must be someone

who all this won’t matter to,
someone who will forgive me
.

I must believe
we are not the worst we’ve done.

An image of the narrator’s mother, searching “for the [lost] diamond in the garden for hours,” is analogous with the book’s excavation of a life spent digging for answers. Answers are not always forthcoming, but on p. 29, the narrator uncovers a way of acknowledging the depths and layers of her humanity, saying, “Nesting doll, remember / who found you.”

The place where healing can begin, lies with perspective: time and distance. On page 33, as if an aside, there is this parenthetical observation:

(This is to say: I see now, like how clear constellations appear when you finally move out of the city, the points where I was wrong. How they pulse with pain. Let them.) 

The 34 pages of text in The Hatchet and the Hammer are organized in short stanzas, paragraphs, and information bits, separated by embellished dots that resemble colons. As if saying: this, and also this, and so forth. There are no titles, so instead, I’ve added page numbers so the reader can get a sense that there is an uneven sort of growth unfolding.

Incorporated material was referenced in an appendix of “works quoted,” from which Scarano borrowed words of Carl Phillips (In the end, courage has mattered so much less than / not spooking easily, which is all nerve is.), and Sharon Olds (“suddenly I understood his fondness for me was safe–nothing could touch it.”), alongside medical tidbits (OCD is a medical problem, / and not anyone’s fault.) Scarano also quotes from Elaine Scarry’s, The Body in Pain, a book I recall relying on to understand the meaning of illness in the nineties, during the AIDS epidemic.

There is also a line from June Jordan: Poetry means taking control of the language of your life. As The Hatchet and the Hammer suggests, writing may be an act of taking control, but it is not therapy. While I recognized myself in the narrator’s struggles, and take some solace in that act—by which I mean the act of being honest with myself about myself—I do not seek or find comfort in the battle. Healing is a goal for those who have experienced trauma, but it is not a given; at best it is a series of ever higher hills to climb, ever deeper excavations to dig. I am not one to give trigger warnings, I’d prefer to challenge others to read this book, to see what they find here, what they are willing to bear.


Caitlin Scarano is a writer based in Anacortes, Washington. She holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and an MA from Bowling Green State University. Her second full length collection of poems, The Necessity of Wildfire, was selected by Ada Limón as the winner of the Wren Poetry Prize and will be released in spring 2022 by Blair. 


Title: The Hatchet and the Hammer
Author: Caitlin Scarano
Pub Date:3/3/2020
Publisher: Ricochet Editions
ISBN978-1-938900-34-1
Price: $10


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 seven collections of poetry, most recently the full length collection, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition.

ALL ELSE FALLS TO SHADOW

All Else Falls to Shadow, by Amy Lee Heinlen

Review by Christine Orchanian Adler

For many, motherhood conjures thoughts of gurgles and coos, tiny clothes, pastels and talcum. The cover of Amy Lee Heinlen’s chapbook, All Else Falls to Shadow (Dancing Girl Press & Studio, 2018), with its pink and white candy-cane stripes and child’s rocking horse, give it as charming and harmless an appearance as those innocent perceptions. Yet Heinlen’s poems also explore the real and darker side of motherhood many women experience after baby arrives.

Postpartum depression, and its power to overshadow the joy of life with a new baby, is all-encompassing, and too rarely discussed. As a mother who experienced post-partum depression after my second child, I couldn’t see it when it was happening—but I could see myself in the pages of this book.

In every culture dating back to biblical times, motherhood has been depicted in art, poetry, and song as a transformative experience, as natural as the tides. Fittingly, the bible and the ocean are referenced in Heinlen’s poems, like touch points for the speaker to grasp, to keep from drowning in her new reality.

The book begins with a peek of life before, when the speaker’s power lies fully within her mind. In “Self-Portrait As The Apostle Paul”, she glimpses her reflection, her hair wrapped in a towel, creating,

an image of a man in a turban, God shining
through him. In the mirror, I don’t have a beard,
but I could grow one if I wished, like an erection,
strong and sharp as the sword of a man of God

Understanding what’s to come seeps in slowly. In “What to Expect,” the nursery is prepared. Fresh paint, alphabet flashcards, and a mural of Noah’s Ark on the wall create a peaceful setting for the coming baby. Yet we begin to sense something ominous looms, that reality will soon violently overtake the fantasy of motherhood:

I sit in the rocker, gift from the aunts.
Green parrots squawk and flap

their wings but can’t warn Noah’s wife,
who has fallen asleep beside the bull

below deck. Leopards lick
the blood of unicorns from their lips.

In “Birth Plan,” the preparation and expectations are paralleled through repeated lines, half of which are heavily redacted. This visual depiction of fiction versus fact—literally and metaphorically in black and white—reveals how little all the preparation mattered; how little registers in a woman’s mind in the throes of labor; how little power she has when the act of childbirth fully overtakes her body until, at last, a healthy baby emerges. Finally, it would seem, all is well. But then the fall begins.

In the poem “Light, Blue”, it has only been hours since her child arrived, and the speaker has already deemed herself an unfit mother:

The first hours of your life, I fail
To help you wash the yellow pigment
From your body.

xxxxxxxxAt the hospital,
xxxxxxxxjaundice is common.

My dumb breasts sit and stare.

Throughout the poem are all the perceived ways the mother fails her new daughter: the inability to fix her jaundiced condition; the frustration of being unable to feed her, and the helplessness of listening to her cry because she is too hungry to sleep. Reading these lines, I just want to hug her.

Doctors tell her of the jaundice, the trouble breastfeeding: this is common. But what of the mother’s mindset? Is this depressed state common as well? That this question is not explored by the doctor is the real failure.

Heinlen writes with authority and without sentimentality about what a woman is told to expect after giving birth, versus what she experiences. The speaker’s shifting condition is revealed, poem by poem, throughout the book. Through this larger picture, the reader can feel the mother’s mind changing by degrees, making it is clear how the slow descent into a seeming madness can be overlooked from the outside.

“When You Come Home” is not about the baby coming home but, rather, the mother and the changes she sees in herself:

You will mark the time by hours, minutes.
The last time you…

xxxxxxslept (not you, the baby)
xxxxxxate (not you, the baby)
xxxxxxbathed (not you, the baby)
xxxxxxcried (you and the baby).


The speaker’s physical routine is gone, so she maintains some semblance of control by instead marking when she last accomplished these simple acts. Later, she considers how her mental norms have also changed:

You love your partner.
xxxxYou will hate him.
He will sleep right through it.xxxxxxNot at first.xxxNot
Every time.
xxxxxxYou will hate him for it.
xxxxxxYou will hate that you hate.
xxxxxxYou will be amazed by the heat of it. xxxThe spark.

The true understanding of how her foundation has been shaken, though, is most stark in “It’s Not That.” Here, the speaker considers the horrible fates that could have befallen her baby as a result of her postpartum depression, and how close the danger came:

xxxxxxIt’s not as if she sat secured
in the backseat on a hot day, overlooking a lake,
the Volvo left in neutral.
xxxxxxIt’s not even that I left
xxxxxxfor long, never came back, never made it home.
xxxxxxIt’s more that I could have,            
xxxxxxhow some mothers do.

When a baby joins the family, s/he becomes the sun around which the other members orbit. Because the infant’s needs are tantamount, a mother will often question whether her new struggles are real or imagined. Are they due to a larger problem with baby or merely her own inadequacies? More often than not, she will blame herself and press on. But by allowing baby’s day-to-day needs to trump her own, she unknowingly banishes herself into the darkness.

In a fitting parenthetical to the book’s first poem, a hopeful ray of light is eased into its last with the mother’s mind having righted itself, and her power finally returned. In “Considering A Second Child,” Heinlen writes, “I trade these / words for the chance to change my form once more.”

Ultimately, All Else Falls to Shadow is an introspective book about birth, both of a child and a mother. The woman births the child; the child transforms the woman into a mother. Heinlen brilliantly examines the multiple and complex threads among which the status of “mother” is tangled. By illustrating one woman’s experience—both the good and the frightening—she thoughtfully brings to light that which is too often left in the shadows.


Amy Lee Heinlen is a Pittsburgh-based poet and academic librarian. Her poems can be read at poets.orgGlass: A Journal of Poetry, Pittsburgh Poetry Houses, Wicked Alice, Rogue Agent, Pretty Owl Poetry, Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, and elsewhere. In 2016, Amy Lee received an Academy of American Poets University and College prize and Best Thesis in Poetry award from Chatham University where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing for poetry and publishing. She is a mad-proud member of the Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops. You can find more about her current projects and poems at amyleeheinlen.com  


Title: All Else Falls to Shadow
Author: Amy Lee Heinlen
Publisher: Dancing Girl Press & Studio, 2018
Price: $7.00


Christine Orchanian Adler is a writer and editor whose poetry has appeared in Coal: A Poetry Anthology, Inkwell, Penumbra, Tipton Poetry Journal, and online at Bird and Moon, Damselfly Press, The Furnace Review, Literary Mama and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Undressing the Heart (Finishing Line Press, 2021), won an honorable mention in the Palettes & Quills 3rd Biennial Chapbook Contest. She served as a judge in the Greenburgh Arts & Culture Committee’s 35th Poetry Contest; The Harvey School’s annual Michael Lopes Poetry Recitation Contest, and as Editor and Managing Editor of Inkwell. Her articles, essays and book reviews have appeared in various publications throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada. You can read more of her work at http://christineoadler.com/.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.