Slow Dark Film

Slow Dark Film, by Lynn Strongin

Review by Risa Denenberg

I’ve been a fan of Lynn Strongin’s work since 2014 when she submitted a manuscript to my press, Headmistress Press. I immediately fell in love with her poetry. In fact, Headmistress has published two of her poetry collections: The Burn Poems in 2015 and A Bracelet of Honeybees in 2016. So I was interested in reading her newly released chapbook, Slow Dark Film (right hand pointing, 2021). I’m happy to report that it has the same powerful, idiosyncratic, playful language and fascinating narrative that is found in the poetry and prose she has been publishing for decades.

Strongin’s work is often autobiographical, ranging from childhood when she was hospitalized with polio, to in-between years when she traveled extensively, and on to present day, where she suffers the debilitating late effects polio. Similar to other collections, Slow Dark Film follows a narrative line comprised of the poet’s lived experience. Also similar to other works, her lesbian lover is right by her side.

In the first poem, “LUMINOUS,” Strongin provides a map of the territory the reader is entering, when she reports, “Asylum, forever mine.” This is an artifact persistently embedded in the poems.

The slow dark film of the title is both a recollection from childhood and a gauzy scrim that forms a backdrop through which the poet’s story is shaded. The memory is of the “slow dark painterly-grained film[s]” that were shown to “Children twelve & under” who were “Wheeled in/ to our asylum.” Years exist in this metaphor of so few words—the excruciatingly slow movement of time and the bleak darkness of her surroundings.

The charm in the writing is how Strongin can travel from asylum to Elysium using her vivid imagination and agility with language. In the poem, “IT INTERRUPTS,” Elysium is paradise, but also a harbinger of death:

Stamen & pistil, flowering,
The earth is procreation:
Creation. In a cradle, the bee cups honey
            The longed for, the filmed over, a deep caress
            The last word is always loneliness.

Images—such as the dark film—repeat throughout these poems, conferring a dream-like effect. In “YOUR WORDS,” there is an image of a ladder which repeats in later poems:

I am going through a life-change
            that has ladders                   of grieving

I think of the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder when I read this, one of so many associations Strongin’s words invite me to imagine.  In “I KNEW I WAS,” the ladder reappears:

I comfort myself
With castles
Teeth-eaten by wind
Like raggy lace. These ladders, they do not lead
Out of the flesh.

Another repeated narrative is found in poems addressed to “YOU”—the delicately unnamed lover, as seen in “WHAT IS THIS”:

Many tiny upheavals in our lives
Have made them remote: yet what is this, you
            coming toward me with an embrace lowered eyes,
            sorrowing El                 Greco face?

Or this, in “GHOST OF DAWN”: “By the time you bathe me/ Morning’s gone.”

In Slow Dark Film there are many weighty metaphors of illness and death, such as in “DEFEAT”:

I make my dark nest,
I lay my bright dress
To rest.

And in the last poem in the book, Strongin returns to the original image of the film:

IF LIFE is a sadness that unspools, a slow dark grain
My rising up is my bending
Down in a dancer’s position.

Slow Dark Film unspools a quiet narrative, leaving me with much to wrestle with, and reminding me of the Dickinson poem, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.”


Lynn Strongin’s homeland is America. Her adopted country Canada. She has twelve books, work in over forty anthologies, and has been nominated for a Lambda Award and the Pulitzer Prize in literature.


Title: Slow Dark Film
Author: Lynn Strongin
Publisher: right hand pointing
, 2021


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

The Moment of Greatest Alienation

The Moment of Greatest Alienation, by Issam Zineh

Review by Risa Denenberg

On first glance, I couldn’t decide if the poems in Issam Zineh’s The Moment of Greatest Alienation were about sex, clothed in its many garments, or if the work uses sexual interstices as a metaphor for any number of other life-and-death matters. Of course both are true, a truth that I find delicious. Although tangling with bodily union, no important matters seem to be absent in this collection—the work is the poet’s universe revealed.

The book itself is an art object. I’ve long been impressed with these limited-edition, hand-made/hand-bound micro chapbooks designed by Sara Lefsyk for Ethel Micro Press. The Moment of Greatest Alienation is a petite six by seven inches with a hand-sewn spine and a cover embossed with art and stitches, resembling a spider web, to the words of the title. The cover invites reading.

Then there are the poems. From the first lines in this chapbook, in the poem, “Metaphor is the Momentum Between Gestures,” we find a lyrical high bar that Zineh jumps over again and again throughout this work.

Answering the poem’s title, he says,

& I am Coptic

you are Christ, my heart a slit lamb, punctured,
slick at the throat. The alchemist’s optic

obsession: stuff to gold & never back.

Later in the poem, we find the story to be about an illicit affair.

. . . proud we pulled it off, proud of our disgrace.
We will smile. There will be nothing left
to do except go home
& make love in separate beds

Because I work in the medical arena, I have a particular fondness for poet-scientists and the way poetry can be looped into a scientific description of anything. In “Coefficients of Friction,” we find measurements of friction, body against body:

The physicist in me
with polymers mated against steel thrust

washer geometry, in all my traction, grip, and desire,
is trapped in the wrong version of eternity.

You are valuable and dimensionless.
Load and velocity.

There is a rewarding effort involved in following the syntax here. And, as I did, you may need to look up a few scientific concepts in this poem, such as washer geometry. But then you have the benefit of learning something new about how volume is measured, for example, if you want to calculate the volume of your lover.

The poems in The Moment of Greatest Alienation are the work of a poet who is erudite, deeply knowledgeable in numerous fields of the arts and academy, but who also pays astute attention to the political nature of everything he comes into contact with. Much is discovered in the “Notes.” For example, here is where we learn that the poem “Adagio includes titles from compositions by Bach, Barber, Copland, and Schnittke.” And I would add, all are folded seamlessly into the poem.

There are several poems that reckon with human tragedies caused by political inequity. In the notes, we learn that, in the poem “Plastic Bag,” Zineh “hopes to memorialize Òscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned in June 2019 trying to cross the Rio Grande.” In stark contrast with Zineh’s relative safety, the poem begins with the line, “I will tonight, god willing, sleep like a/ baby,” but goes on to describe how such horrific events affect him:

I will dream, the recurring one in
which you wrap me in your arms
and drag me to the bottom of the
lake, hold me underwater until I
either drown or wake.

In “Eight Parables to Keep You Safe, Defy Aging, & Banish Evil,” there is an amalgam of so many disparate substances, so much active and passive energy, that reading it gives me the dizzying sensation that all energy is matter and all matter is simple one version of reality pressing against another —and yet, there is an incoherent sense of order in the coupling. In the final parable, titled “8. The New Originals,” a narrative line wanders and then coheres with the line “all relationships are the same in the beginning,” –with its nod to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina– and continuing in the next stanza:

We still miss each other sometimes. We look for things that are irretrievable in these minor folds of solitude. We fire, we flood, we famine. We don’t know much of petal or stamen, the easiest of metaphors, the easiest sounds the tongue can make. And still, God has set up its system. Proteins are synthesized and sent to correct destinations. The awfully beautiful things of the body go on happening. 

The poem “Ars Poetica” is an epithalamium—a poem in honor of a wedded couple. It starts with “I am married on a cliff,” but leads to a premonition of cracks in a marriage:

The guests have arrived. We walk down one
path at once, hating for now, everything that blooms,

knowing this is a small part of the introduction,
an even smaller part of the conclusion.

I suppose it is this sort of brutal honesty that I find so delicious in this book.


Issam Zineh is a Palestinian-American poet and scientist. He is author of Unceded Land (forthcoming, Trio House Press) which is an Editors’ Selection and finalist for the Trio Award for first or second book, and the chapbook The Moment of Greatest Alienation (Ethel Press, 2021). His poems appear or are forthcoming in AGNI, Guernica, Pleiades, Tahoma Literary Review, Tinderbox, Guesthouse, Glass (Poets Resist), Lunch Ticket, Poet Lore, and elsewhere.


Title: The Moment of Greatest Alienation
Author: Issam Zineh
Publisher: Ethel Zine & Micro Press, 2021
Book Design: Sara Lefsyk
39 pages $9.00


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Terrain

Terrain, by Gina Hietpas (Blue Cactus Press, 2020)
Cover art by Heather Romano

Review by Risa Denenberg

Before reading the poems in a new book, I always like to spend some time absorbing its essence in its entirety: cover art, back notes, poem titles, author’s bio, acknowledgements, blurbs. The cover art on Gina Hietpas’s “Terrain” is the remarkable work of the artist Heather Romano, who created it specifically based on “images from the text” and “the underlying themes of the poems.” In it, a naked woman is shown, mid-face to hips, tattooed with living symbols, hands at heart and solar plexus in a gesture of protecting a living landscape of vines, fruit, and birds.

Hietpas’s narrator lives up to that image— vulnerable, protective, patient. She brings the reader into her story with an invitation. In “Coyote Speaks to Me,” a coyote dares a human to accept the joys and hardships to be encountered throughout the poems in this work. It ends with coyote’s encouragement:

Stick with me!
I’ll show you persistence and the art of pounce.
Watch me shrug off disappointment.

In solitude you learn your story.
Only than can you riff on the moon.

In “What We Dreamed,” a couple buys a piece of land trusting their ability to make a life, “a reprised “go west” dream. Living the dream, they find themselves here:

Christmas Eve, drenched in the Milky Way,
we warmed ourselves with possibilities.
We assumed blessing in the winks of stars.

In “Dessert” an “After supper” . . . “walk through the orchard,” displays the abundance of life, in this case, fruits—apples, plums, blackberries.

The poems unfold the story of a marriage, early settling into “cold water living” while building a home and having children. The couple’s greatest hardship is yet to come in these early days of “Trim the wicks, light the lamps. / Feed the fire.” In the poem titled, “Coyote Chatter,” we learn that the coyote—a perfect spirit animal for this story—is “a trickster, hipster, predator, editor.”

Indeed, the “trickster” brings the unexpected; the “editor” revises the story. There is nothing sentimental in these poems, no paradise, just trust, love, and hard work. But there is also an unexpected trouble. In “Aria: We Are Introduced to Our Future,” a pain-filled night becomes:

Tomorrow, your morphine-laced body,
            splayed on steel-edged tables,
            pictured and probed,
will reveal in grainy images the seismic shift
            in our dreams.

Time passes, children grow, a home is built of “[c]edar, quarter sawn, straight grained/ layers of ancient cambium,” while a husband’s illness ties him to dialysis. Years pass, a family accepting this complication in their wake. In “The Ache of October,” the woman reflects,

I, now my mother’s age, wrap myself
in russet and gold, sit in the seen of sun.
Weep. Weep. Murmurs the nuthatch
caching bugs beneath the cherry’s bark.

These poems narrate a life, of which I’ve sketched some larger movements. Between signposts and events, the poems reflect a poet who is alive to the land, it’s foliage and wildlife. Each poem is vibrant with imagery and pays close attention to what is at hand, giving the sense of someone who lives faithful to the present moment.

In the final poem, “Credo,” Hietpas speaks of the harvest of endurance and acceptance:

Love is a stone.

It can fracture under pressure.
But yielding to wind or wave,
the sharp edges smooth.

Grain by grain, it gives of itself
to become the grit beneath your feet.


Gina Hietpas is a self-taught poet, born and raised in Tacoma, Washington state. Nowadays, she lives outside Sequim, WA, on a small farm with her husband, a few cows and a passel of chickens. Her land is a habitat for elk, deer, coyotes and an occasional bear. It is, for the most part, a peaceful coexistence. The opportunity to be a back-country ranger for several seasons shaped her connection to wilderness. Professionally she was a middle school teacher for twenty five years.  Now that she has retired, she focuses her efforts on writing. She has studied with Kelli Russell Agodon, Alice Derry, Holly Hughes, Susan Rich and Kim Stafford. Hietpas’ work has appeared in Minerva Rising, Tidepools, Spindrift and New Plains Review.


Terrain, Poems by Gina Hietpas
Blue Cactus Press, 2020
49 pages; $17
ISBN: 9781733037556



Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Mother Want

Mother Want, by Maria McLeod
Winner of the 2020 WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook Contest

Review by Risa Denenberg

Thank God for poetry and horses.

In her prize-winning chapbook, Mother Want, Maria McLeod narrates harrowing tales of childhood, both hers and her parents’— rendering a panorama of inter-generational wounds. Breaking the cycle involves finding a way out of the story, without disowning it. For McLeod, the poetry muse offers a pathway through the act of writing; horses heal simply by being, as she describes in “And the Sky Bloomed Pink”:

I learned about love
when working with horses.

[…] those sweet moments
mucking stalls, alone
with the horses at first light.

Still, the through-line, to the last poem, “Summer’s End, Dogs,” does not relinquish want or hide melancholy. Watching children leave the house, McLeod finds keepsakes in an ordinary life: backpacks, yellow school bus, garden weeds, plum tomatoes, and the “unrelenting loneliness/ of neighborhood dogs, announcing over and over:/ someone is missing, someone is gone.”

Inevitably, the mother looms large in Mother Want. In the title poem, the longing for a do-over is a poignant wish “to love what isn’t lovable” and “to meet my mother/ before the years of sleep.”  

I want to know her before she disappeared, before
she gave up being the mother, before she gave up
being the body of the mother, the breasts
and words, and touch of the mother.

But also “to empty her out, to ransack/ her body, to cause damage.”

In childhood, we don’t recognize our parents as beings apart from us with their own stories, and certainly not as children themselves. Aging and death of parents can be a time for reappraisal, perhaps even forgiveness, or at least acknowledgement that they did the best that they could. “Joyce, 1945,” subtitled, “fur meine Mutter,” reveals disturbing scenes of the mother’s childhood—stories McLeod was told “when I was finally old enough to hear of it.” McLeod speaks perceptively of her mother as a child, “unable to discern joy from terror.” 

In “On Sunday, Our Father,” the father is portrayed as the more functional parent in the home with an absent mother. He was portrayed as frightening: “We could hear the anger in his walk/ across the hardwood floor/ hatred of his wife.” And “Once he punched a hole/ in our bedroom door.” But also this:

He warmed bottles
of milk while my mother sleepwalked through life.
He made us pizza for dinner;
he let us drink pop. We loved
our father.

Later in “Death Defied,” we learn that the father was a “sickly boy” who was supposed to die but instead “rose out of bed, defying his doctors.” Similarly, the narrator in Mother Want defies the somber prospects of her childhood. Indeed, both parents’ backstories are sewn into the fabric of the child’s day-to-day reality.

There are other possible configurations of childhood in these pages. In “Bereft/ for Stephen,” the death of a beloved father brings forth the wisdom that,

Death has no dominion over your child self,
grieving not for the absence
of the frail father, but for the familiar
comfort of the sturdy back you mounted
before you could swim.

There are also present-day stories here, such as in “November Green/ for Mary.” November is a seen as a time of decay and decomposition as two friends walk and talk “of our work/ as professors, of love and marriage, illness, and our parents/ decline.” A cancer diagnosis is disclosed— “the wife of a friend … was dead,” while the speaker is “13 months post diagnosis,” but is “reluctant to refer to [her]self as lucky.” In this rambling friendship, there is also the story of a 10-year-old daughter’s elaborate funeral for her hamster “Creampuff,” with friends dressed in black and “some of the girls/ wearing fascinators, as if attending a British wedding.” There is a tenderness towards children in this poem that was often lacking in the poet’s childhood.

The poems in Mother Want are not only memoir, although the childhood memory pieces recounted here are indeed memorable—in the way an earworm won’t go away after the song ends. There are also poems of portraiture—ekphrastic poems of persons, so to speak—which are both memorable and gentle, a relief from traumatic memories.  In “Hammer and Nails,” a carpenter, “imagines where/ he’ll frame out windows, add a door.” As the day draws to a close,

He measures his next day’s work, makes his way
onto the dilapidated porch, faded color
he’ll need to scrape off, recoat. Make it new:
make it right.


Standing alone, this is a lovely portrait; but it is also an immensely satisfying metaphor for what might be done for a broken childhood.


Maria McLeod writes poetry and prose. Honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize, and three Pushcart Prize nominations. She was named the 2020 WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook Contest winner, judged by then Oregon State Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, for Mother Want, published in 2021. Her second poetry chapbook, Skin. Hair. Bones., is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in 2022. Her poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Puerto Del Sol, The Brooklyn Rail, Painted Bride Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Sonora Review and others. Originally from the Detroit area, she currently resides in Bellingham, Washington where she works as a professor of journalism for Western Washington University.

Mother Want, Maria McLeod
Winner of the 2020 Water Sedge Poetry Chapbook Contest
Publisher: ‎ Independently published (May 25, 2021)
Paperback: ‎ 37 pages $10
ISBN-13: ‎ 979-8731318600


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Recoveries

Recoveries by Peter Snow (Finishing Line Press, 2021)

Review by Carmine Dibiase

Peter Snow’s extraordinary poetry happens somewhere between consciousness and dreamland: a region rich in the imagery of desire and of human wreckage and healing. These sixteen poems, which draw from Snow’s experience as a psychiatric nurse, house a quiet, humane vision, but a first reading of this posthumous chapbook might leave one feeling unmoored. Entry into this poet’s house of words requires trust in the rhetorical and imagistic play of his mind.

In “A walk in the mountains,” for example, there is a “he,” an “I” and a “you,” but are they three separate people or are they all one and the same? A “patient” has “blistered” feet “in heavy boots,” but “I climb this rugged path to the white house at the cliff top,” and then, in a statement addressed to “you,” comes an abrupt change of scene: “Don’t be afraid of the mirror at the top of the stairs beyond the doorway.” Are there three people here, or two, or only one? All three readings are possible.

This fluidity, as we soon discover, is not only intentional but necessary. Snow’s aim is to recreate the sensation of empathy, how we move in and out of our own present and past lives, and those of other people. In “Confession,” a patient and his lover have suffered a separation; as they heal their spiritual wounds, they begin to see “the outline” of a love, not for each other but for someone else. And the listening doctor thinks, to himself, “I searched in vain for a woman,” the italics signaling his private voice.

The doctor is a recurring, melancholy, and guarded observer. In “Words of comfort,” he wonders:  

Our life in this world,
what is it like


A boat that has sailed early,
leaving no wake.

He emerges from this desolating thought and “carefully knots his necktie.”

“Allow us to speak of miracles,” a patient says to him in “An impossible thing.” The doctor “dismisses the thought like blowing out a match,” retreats behind “his large and heavy desk,” and again “touches the knot of his tie.”

That knot recalls the tie pin that immobilizes the narrator in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “like a patient etherized upon a table.” And Prufrock’s bilious city is also evoked by Snow’s doctor, in the form of a journal entry:

“Looking back over my life, it’s like a city; I turn and walk through stinking alleys, and dingy side streets, loud with cursing, past the shebeens and brothels, past fights and grudging looks from dirty windows, or turn into broad avenues, full of noisy men.”

Like Prufrock, Snow’s doctor inhabits an ailing human world, in which, unbeknownst to his patients, he tries to feel what they feel in order to discover, and to heal, himself. That, however, requires a “fifth chamber” of the heart, something more than the observable four. One consolation along his journey—and ours?—is civility. Nurses come in, twice, with “biscuits and tea on a rattling trolley, pouring from a steel teapot, catching the sunlight.”

Peter Snow died suddenly on 12/18/19. Among his varied roles in life, Snow worked as a storyteller, teacher, poet, playwright, actor, bartender, goatherd, and psychiatric nurse. Snow taught Drama and English at Edinburgh Steiner School for 28 years (1983 – 2012), using storytelling as an integral part of the pedagogy.  He immigrated to the United States from Scotland in 2017.  Over his long career as a storyteller, he performed in diverse venues across the US and Europe, from tea shops to open fields.  He is the author of A Rosslyn Treasury and The Shifty Lad (Floris Books).


Title: Recoveries
Author: Peter Snow
Publisher: Finishing Line Press, 2021.
17 pages. $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-64662-523-9


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


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Guilty Prayer

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

Review by Charles Farmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s an unrelenting, impossible wound:

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

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

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

And a plea for mercy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a big might.


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


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



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


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

The Cows

The Cows, by Lydia Davis

Review by S.M. Tsai

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

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

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

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

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

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

And,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

          

 


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


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Pre-Posthumous Poems

Pre-Posthumous Poems, by Lawrence E. Hussman

Review by Carmine Di Biase

Luminare Press, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

They labor up the busy highway,

burdened with their shoddy gear,

pushing purloined grocery carts,

or crude rigs of wheel and box,

moving their all from place to place.

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

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

starved and scarred, their once sleek bodies

discolored, deformed, backs humped,

jaws hooked and fanged.

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

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

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

       


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


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


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


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Tears on the Glass Desert

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

Review by Don Beukes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When our bones
were crushed
into the asphalt dream,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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



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


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

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.