Artists and poets have grappled with the relationship between life and art for millennia. KMA Sullivan, in her collection Inclined to Riot (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), brings timely and current considerations to this conversation. These poems smolder with passion, longing and fury as the poet considers art and compares it to her experience as a woman,
in a land where peace equals a naked woman on her knees milking a goat where a river of pink babies is called the source of life I am not a woman at tea the same as still life with pear
We don’t need to be told that the art the poet is viewing is by a male artist. We feel it. These poems center defiance to the male gaze and idealization of women across time and in different art forms.
The poems in Inclined to Riot are written without punctuation, no capitalization except “I”, and are mostly in short lines and in first person. The capitalized “I” rightly draws attention to itself, a statement of assertion. Sullivan uses the steady rhythm of short lines to effectively amplify emotional intensity, as in the poem “here”:
a glass box of broken limbs face worn away I can still ride this horse glow at night like red light on egyptian blue I was born to be luminescent a stampede here forced down on one knee held by my hair that languid boy cast a shadow even in relief even in fragments mouth open, nostrils flared I am nomad, moon goddess, carbon smear if wings sprouted from my face I would not fly back
Sullivan writes in her post notes that her visits to nearly sixty galleries and art spaces in Europe and the US influenced the poetry in this collection in which they offered a “conversation” with her inner life. Sullivan grew up with an art historian mother and this deep exposure to classical art is reflected in her poems. These are more than ekphrastic poems; Sullivan draws on our collective knowledge of famous art pieces and expands on it as she challenges long-held feminine ideals of virtue, beauty, domesticity. She writes:
the cubists got it right we are all this fractured form but we make it down the stairs with our pieces tumbling choose among milkmaid and saint and slotted spoon
I find myself teaching these poems in workshops, especially to show how Sullivan masterfully combines lyrical and narrative poetry with aspects of language poetry, how she layers image upon image to build intensity. As in the poem “armature”, Sullivan writes:
rodin offers joan of arc her head of sorrow in ecstasy among twigs on fire I refuse to sit for my portrait become a placeholder a fragment of a door
Each line packs a powerful punch. Teachers of poetry would benefit from using Inclined to Riot in their armamentarium as a book that uses many craft devises to amplify emotion and power. This book is both timely and timeless with its contemporary and feminist examination of art that has endured. I am glad for this collection that not only questions our relationship to self and art but are poems of feminist empowerment using a kaleidoscope of images that linger in the mind’s eye.
KMA Sullivan is the author of two poetry collections: Inclined to Riot (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019) and Necessary Fire, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her poems and essays have appeared in Boston Review, The Rumpus, Southern Humanities Review, Forklift, Ohio, The Nervous Breakdown, The Offing, diode, and elsewhere. She has been awarded residencies in creative nonfiction and poetry at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Summer Literary Seminars and she is the coeditor-in-chief of Vinyl and the publisher at YesYes Books. KMA received an MFA in poetry from Virginia Tech; in earlier years she earned degrees in philosophy from Trinity College and Boston College and raised five children with her partner of 35 years. She is the cofounder of YesYes Healing Garden, an acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine in Portland, OR. KMA believes in the power of art and literature to improve the lives they engage.
Michele Bombardier’s debut collection, What We Do was a Washington Book Award finalist. Michele is a Hedgebrook and Mineral School fellow and the founder of Fishplate Poetry, which offers poetry workshops while raising money for medical care for refugees in the Middle East and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in poetry and works as a neurological and developmental specialist SLP. Her work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review and many others.
In 2019 Presa Press (Rockford, MI) published Jefferson Carter’s eleventh book of poetry entitled Birkenstock Blues. I don’t know the background and why he did it, but Carter was moved to buy back his rights and self-publish the volume this year with a much better cover and with three additional poems. It just goes to show you that sometimes, indeed, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!
Up front, I must disclose I know Carter. He was a regular in my Sunday Mindfulness Yoga class and I – and some of my teachings – have been alluded to in several poems found in his previous volumes, Get Serious: New & Selected Poems (Chax Press, 2013) and in Diphtheria Festival (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2016), which has a cover blurb from me: “The poet Carter reminds me of is Billy Collins, but a mordant, twisted, even punk Collins.” And the poems found in Birkenstock Blues certainly bear that out. Tucson, Arizona’s previous mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, says “[Carter] has long captured life’s subtleties with humor, irony, and a touch of charming cynicism that brings home truths we recognize with a knowing wink.” Anyone who has known a cynic – or harbors an inner cynic – knows that within the heart of any cynic abides a romantic nursing their wounds – or a cocktail. Or both.
Case in point: the opening three poems all paint a picture of his marriage, the deep love and respect hiding in plain sight behind the dry and — there’s that word again — mordant wit. In “Life Partner,” Carter tells us how, “for convenience” he and “the woman formerly known as” his wife have numbered their arguments. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship understands how couples recycle the same arguments again and again. And as all good art does, the universal is made explicit through the personal: “Number 5, you left / hair in the sink again.” “Number 13, you don’t listen to me.” Carter’s honest riposte to that one is “But I do. I just don’t agree.” How can you read this and not find the affectionate warmth of the familiar? The conclusion to this poem – as in many of his others – ends with a jolt that evokes the mic drop of a punch line or a slap across the face. It’s in this way that Carter reveals the subtleties and truths of the mundanity of daily life.
Carter also writes honestly and revealingly about aging, which is refreshing in our youth-obsessed culture. In “Fugly,” the poem that refers to the Birkenstocks of the book’s title, he shares the time-honored ritual of a man used to being dressed by his wife, only here it’s the costume of an “old hipster doll” with:
Straw fedora, brand-name t-shirts from the thrift store, Bermuda shorts, black dress socks & scuffed wingtips.
I read that description and almost spilled my bourbon, laughing at the image provoked in my mind’s eye. Then he drops the lines:
I don’t mind, playing child to your mother, finally getting why old men sometimes call their wives Mother.
Those lines evoke earlier eras fraught with the mashup of the tenderness and creepiness of that dynamic.
Another thing I appreciate about Carter’s poetry is how quick and penetrating he is to see and hear possibilities in places of mis-cue, mis-hearing and misunderstanding. The title of his chapbook, Diphtheria Festival, was the result of his googling Dipthera festiva, a black and white moth. Google responded, “Did you mean Diphtheria Festival?” Just now, writing that, I laughed yet again! But Carter uses something like that to create a truly wonderful poem, making art from happenstance. And he does it again in Birkenstock Blues in the poem “Advocate” which begins:
I’ve misread her job title: conservation advocate, not conversation advocate. How we talk!
And so opens a meditation on the environment, a major concern for Carter as he has long advocated and volunteered for Sky Island Alliance, a locally based environmental organization here in Tucson, Arizona.
This concern is also front and center in Carter’s poem, “The Book Of Extinctions,” (inspired by Extinct Species of the World, Jean Christophe Balouet, New Holland Publishers Ltd., 1990) which includes this quote from that book,
more than 100 species a day will have disappeared by the end of the century.
I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll say that for a short poem of only 15 lines, the ending once again draws a breath and creates a deep pang in the heart with an image that has deep resonance. I love it!
I could go on but I won’t, other than to say that Jefferson Carter mines a special kind of art in his poetry. There’s nothing pretentious about his work. And neither is there anything trite. He writes a kind of poetry that captures real moments of life, snapshots of small particularities that shed light on the human condition. He’s a yogi and a bad seed curmudgeon, and in that mix is a small, not grandiose, creative treasure I value very much.
Jefferson Carter has poems in such journals as Barrow Street, Cream City Review, and Rattle. Chax Press published Get Serious: New and Selected Poems, chosen as a Southwest Best Book of 2013 by the Tucson/Pima County Public Library. In 2019, Presa Press released his eleventh collection, Birkenstock Blues. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Connie. He’s a passionate supporter of Sky Island Alliance, a regionally-based environmental organization.
Frank Jude Boccio, author of Mindfulness Yoga, is an ordained zen Buddhist dharma teacher and creator of an approach to yoga postural practice based upon the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness. His writing has appeared in many yoga and Buddhist journals and anthologies. This is his first poetry review to be published outside of Goodreads! http://www.mindfulnessyoga.net
Jeanne Morel’s second chapbook, Jackpot (Bottlecap Press, 2020), travels within a map of language and place. With mentions of North America, Parisian fountains, and the Mekong River in the rainy season in the first poem, “Birthday Parties are Pluperfect,” I knew I was in for an exploration of semantics and quotidian nostalgia.
For instance, which meaning of “pluperfect” is Morel addressing? If birthday parties are pluperfect, are such annual celebrations a grammatical reference to the past perfect tense, or should we choose the other meaning—that such celebrations are more than perfect? Morel presents an ambiguous choice. In several poems, Morel lists options for possible word meanings for readers to ponder. Many poems, adjacent or elsewhere, resonate with one another and it was fun to find and return to recurring details.
Morel does not plunge head-on into serious topics; she jumps in and out to surprise and delight, then moves onward. With sardonic vernacular, the first poem informs: “Upstream is where the shit begins.” The poem ends tongue-in-cheek:
Lordy, what an outfit If you wear that, no one will take you seriously Not this Christmas
Not the day after that either & out of the sky dropped a billion butterflies! Shimmering like olive trees, only orange and purple –
Take this to the boss and best of luck
This chapbook’s thirty pages of inventive grammar in experimental free verse include the incidental as well as the substantive. We come across maps, rats, insects, Winnie-the-Pooh, planets, storage containers, and ice cubes, as well as politics, planets, nuclear bomb testing, astronomy, geometry, logic, and bits of colloquialisms. A bartender shows up as insects crawl over the fence in “Longer than the Wrong Road,”
The saloon doors slap behind me. Butterflies flood the underworld. Where do you come
In a recent conversation, Jeanne shared that “Many of my poems involve movement – and/or lack of movement. Many, like the first poem, collage multiple locations and times. I’m intrigued by what Kwame Dawes calls ‘the tension between the here and the there’ […] and the collage of memories.”
Morel is not a poet of abstract language, metaphor, or message. “I don’t think about images,” she said. “I think of gathering […] I follow sound. I don’t write into ideas or messages.”
Morel’s poems are not linear. Her lines hop, skip, and jump thematically but also remain circular as threads return and reverberate throughout. The box-contained poem “Splintering Tiny Soup Bowls Up Into the Sky,” opens up “Grounded in a place you can’t see,” like nested “Russian dolls comet-ing / across the sky.” As Morel goes about her poetic gatherings, she weaves in tidbits of information, such as “Prussian Blue, the color invented by / accident.”
Regarding poets important to her, Morel said, “I go to Marvin Bell for inspiration. He said art is a way of life, not a career. He advised students to read poets who don’t write the way they do. Some of my favorite poets are Richard Hugo and Philip Levine, even though my poetry isn’t anything like theirs.”
Several poems touch upon serious concerns, such as the U.S. nuclear testing in 1962 in “A-Bombs Over Nevada” or the reactions of an Iraq War veteran in “Given the Conditions.” Morel’s touch is light while offering information, insight, and juxtaposition. For example, she mixes “lullaby sun” with the “slung fences” of the WWII internment camp in the sonically lovely poem, “Purple Over Tule Lake.”
Although these poems are not personal, the reader may infer snippets about the speaker/poet with her references to a student visiting during office hours, yellow roses outside a kitchen window, or the presence of a cat. In “An Unsuitable Home for a Cat,” Morel refers to the serious issue of nuclear waste at Hanford, Washington:
Richland wives in glasses including Marge
Oh, don’t worry
about that – my mother in law cracked
when I fretted about radiation wafting
over after Fukushima
My buddy cat black dances
In “The Next Day I Was Almost Done with Dinner When a Student Came & Pulled Up a Chair,” Morel writes,
Sounds like a circus spectacle – a jester jostling for power in the aisle of the commuter bus. The medium is the message; the freeway the periphery; the bleats a form of saccharine.
In “Map,” Morel parses lists of words for parts of speech and idioms. She also throws in an assignment, as “Write a letter to a relative explaining the verb – to map. Mail it / to the president .” Assignments likely come naturally to her. Although she has been involved in refugee and resettlement work, she presently teaches as an adjunct professor at Seattle Central College and Bellevue College in Washington state. When asked about the impact of her teaching, Morel said, “My writing helps my teaching. It feeds my teaching.”
Few of Morel’s poems stay within the justified left. The margins meander in sentences or phrases, sometimes ending a short line with an article, which tends to create a pause. In more conventional poems, I might find this distracting, but distraction is part of experimental poetry, as it is in life. She also uses numbers, dashes, bullets, brackets, slashes, & ampersands and employs random segues, spare punctuation and semantic word play, often eschewing capitals or periods. An example of this is found in “Nobody Cares What Color My Coat is.” The poem begins with image and map:
I wrap myself in an alphabet for stormy weather
& head across the pass map-less & w/o a hat and yet some days I can’t
leave the house unless I’m dressed in blue jeans, a black t-shirt, You have too many consonants & vowels in your name
[the real estate woman smirked
Morel addresses issues of our current situation in “Crawl City,”
When you are obsessed is no time for pleasantries
the television of all night convenience shops
a monitor monitoring our every move above the cash register
while rats race labyrinths / in the space between
your hairline and your fine plucked brows
This chapbook is a tall refreshing glass of water. Or perhaps a glass of wine? The title poem (also the last poem), “Jackpot,” presents “salmon, sagebrush // & Syrah.” There’s honest humor: “The only major / state of grace ka-ching / ka-ching.”
I noticed the circular juxtaposition with the first and last poems. The first poem, “Birthday Parties are Pluperfect,” begins with ascent,
Why did the balloon float over the fence? / wind – helium & a string let loose – All the fences in North America are at right angles with one another.
Then “Jackpot,” ends with descent:
Perchance your lucky
number–drop a deep blue blossom on the carpet swirl/ watch it fall a stranger
Morel seems to be telling us that life is both a gamble and a roller coaster. She presents numbers and mathematics which give us odds that are less than we might predict. Perhaps we’re just in it for the ride. Sometimes we hit the “Jackpot!”
Jeanne Morel is the author of two chapbooks, Jackpot (Bottlecap Press) and That Crossing Is Not Automatic (Tarpaulin Sky Press). She holds an MFA from Pacific University and has been nominated for a Pushcart in both poetry and fiction. Her poetry has been published in great weather for MEDIA, Phantom Drift, Dunes Review, and other journals. She lives in Seattle where she teaches writing and is a gallery guide at the Frye Art Museum.
Mary Ellen Talley is a former speech-language pathologist. Her poems have appeared widely in publications including Raven Chronicles, Flatbush Review, and Banshee, as well as in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have received two Pushcart nominations. Book reviews by Talley appear online and in print journals, such as Compulsive Reader, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Sugar House Review and Empty Mirror. Her forthcoming chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” will be published by Finishing Line Press.
A whole body of literature exists that focuses on the body. Indeed, one might make the assertion that all literature does so, in one way or another— enraptured body, dying body, panicked body, betrayed body, and, as in the case of Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), body as betrayer.
Because I, too, have gone through, and written about “the cancer experience,” I was particularly drawn to this chapbook. I was curious to see how cancer could be the subject of a collection of poems without it spreading into all aspects of what makes a book cohesive and alive, i.e., a sense of tension between themes, linguistic risks, and tone (to name a few). Cesarco Eglin contrasts her subject matter’s doom and gloom with the urge to live her still-young life despite the ever-present shadows. The dark humor infused in these poems also underscores the seriousness of their themes. For example, in “Articulating the Changes in My Body,” Cesarco Eglin, a fine translator herself, compares her scars to Morse code:
I’m thinking about the Morse code as a possible alphabet to get through, to get by, to translate.
She then gives a graphic representation of Morse-code-as-scar.
It’s easy for poems about illness to veer off into sentimentality or self-absorption, but Cesarco Eglin masterfully negotiates the geography of living an unconditional life, despite her multiple bouts with melanoma, and despite the need “to guard [each] new spot ‘like a hawk.’” In this pandemic year, many of us are directly experiencing the need to be extra-vigilant to avoid contracting the virus, which makes this new chapbook of poems particularly relevant. Cesarco Eglin can never escape “the doctor’s voice in [her] head: it will come back.” She reminds us that “there is no vacation from being alert.” Indeed, in an existential stance to confront the absurdity of the human condition, she instructs us on how to take control of the uncontrollable, and writing is her chosen strategy. She offers us this wisdom:
One scar, then another; that’s two lines already: a couplet written in five months, a couplet that promises to be the beginning of a lifetime of poetry.
Melanoma, her muse, has provided her with the motivation to be “aware of any little change in color, shape, texture, dimension, state, mode or mood of any mole or stain or spot on [my] body.” Cesarco Eglin, who was born in Uruguay and is fluent in Spanish and English as well as other languages, is open to melanoma teaching her the language of the body—learning it well enough to eventually call herself “a native speaker.” She’s trying to learn to embrace her scars, and compares them to bridges, as she brilliantly transforms the threatening juxtaposition of “bridge” and “attempt” to a life-affirming choice:
Many bridges, an attempt to keep me in one piece; an attempt to keep me alive long enough to cross them all.
In these days of COVID-19, we could all use something to help us cross these bridges—something to remind us to keep believing there are still “skies and wonders.”
The Reviewer posed some questions to the author about her book:
Nancy Naomi Carlson: What about Life, One Not Attached To Conditionals is uniquely suited to the chapbook form?
Laura Cesarco Eglin: I felt that a shorter form would suit Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals as a way to, at least in language, be able to finish the cycle, end the struggle psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. Intense, short, and move on to life, one not attached to conditionals.
NMC: I notice that “translation” is one of the themes of Life. How did your work as a translator (and an author who is translated) impact your writing this chapbook?
LCE: Experience translated into language. Poetry as a means to question, challenge, and rearrange thoughts and experiences. Translation as a form of reading deeply, analyzing.
NMC: Writing about illness seems to be a tried-and-true genre, but is also an emerging one, as the landscape of disease is ever-shifting. Were you influenced by other writings on this topic?
LCE: More than influenced on writings on this particular topic for this particular chapbook, I would say that I am always influenced by all the books I read. I think that goes without saying. But there are two books in particular that I’d like to highlight. They deal with overcoming a loved one’s death or suicide: Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen and Instead of Dying by Lauren Haldeman.
NMC: Can you say something about your wonderful title (e.g., how it came about; when, in the process of writing, it came to you…)
LCE: The title comes from a line in “Recovery,” a poem in Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals. I did not set out to write a poetry collection about having melanoma and skin cancer repeatedly and what that meant. I was writing poems and they, understandably, had that focus. The process of editing, rereading, changing, rewriting brings new perspectives, and when I read that line I perceived that it encapsulates the compass, as well as the power I think language has.
Laura Cesarco Eglin is a poet and translator. She is the author of three collections of poetry: Calling Water by Its Name, translated by Scott Spanbauer (Mouthfeel Press, 2016), Sastrería (Yaugurú, 2011), and Reborn in Ink,translated by Catherine Jagoe and Jesse Lee Kercheval (The Word Works, 2019). She has also published three chapbooks: Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), Occasions to Call Miracles Appropriate (The Lune, 2015) and Tailor Shop: Threads, co-translated with Teresa Williams (Finishing Line Press, 2013). Her poems, as well as her translations (from the Spanish, Portuguese, Portuñol, and Galician), have appeared in a variety of journals, including Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Eleven Eleven, Puerto del Sol, Copper Nickel, Spoon River Poetry Review, Arsenic Lobster, International Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Blood Orange Review, Timber, Pretty Owl Poetry, Pilgrimage, Periódico de Poesía, and more. Cesarco Eglin is the translator of Of Death. Minimal Odes by the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst (co•im•press), winner of the 2019 Best Translated Book Award in Poetry. She co-translated from the Portuñol Fabián Severo’s Night in the North (EulaliaBooks, 2020). She is the co-founding editor and publisher of Veliz Books.
Nancy Naomi Carlson, poet, translator, essayist, and editor, has authored 10 titles (six translated). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), her second full-length collection of poetry, was named “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times. A recipient of two NEA literature translation fellowships, she was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and the CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award. An associate editor for Tupelo Press, her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. www.nancynaomicarlson.com
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.
I have recently fallen in love with poetry chapbooks. I love how you can read them in one sitting (or, like me, in bed before turning in for the night), and I love how the compact, themed format packs a gut-wrenching, mind-expanding, heart-squeezing punch, in just a handful of poems.
Keep This to Yourself (Button Poetry, 2020) is one such chapbook that packs such a punch—well multiple punches, actually—as in it, McCadden documents and explores the loss of her brother to an opioid overdose. The poems are gorgeous and haunting in their depictions of that loss and grief, the family unit, and the drug epidemic at large.
The second poem in the collection, a prose poem called “Portraits of the Family as a Definition” is absolute genius. The numbered entries riff off of the dictionary definition of the word “soon” to convey the pain and grief of a family struggling to understand addiction and overdose.
The church bells ringing meant that another of his friends would be buried soon. Soon we will all sit down to dinner. Soon after the last time they gave him the money, he came clean.
And so on with soon the poem moves, through examples of how this word infiltrated the family’s lives and understanding of her brother’s troubled life.
I love the poem “The Mother Talks to Her Son about Her Heart,” which made me cry. I admit, it doesn’t take a lot to make me cry (a good friend once said I cry if the wind blows), and I am a sucker for poems about motherhood, but this poem begins steady and gets heavier and heavier until you cannot help but burst just as the mother’s heart surely burst when her son died. In this persona poem, we meet an adoptive mother with a heart condition, who gives us metaphor after metaphor of her heart’s holes and flaws, its mendings and stitchings:
In the lumber yard of the heart, the materials are strange—Teflon, like I said, for the hole and a valve from a cow to seal the doorway. Over and over, I shore this place up.
How her heart was closed but also open, “like a summer cottage” where “the light is bright and warm.” How, talking to her son: “You were supposed to come home.” But, of course, he never did. I won’t spoil this poem by giving away the amazing ending here.
Other notable poems include the ones called “reverse overdose” one through six, which are scattered throughout the collection. They are nuggets of insight that really bring into focus her brother’s life and struggles, but from reverse (think The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is ironic because Button is the name of the poetry publisher). If read together as a standalone group of poems, though, they tell the tight, brief story of her brother’s life in reverse of his addiction. I have never seen anything quite like this in a chapbook; it is almost like a chapbook within a chapbook: a micro-chapbook!
In addition to the subject matter and styles covered, McCadden is masterful with her language. Her similes and metaphors are fresh and sharp—sharp as grief comes on a windy day, sharp as my favorite line in the book, from the poem “Losing”:
I keep / a jar of nails like a bouquet of denial.
Oof. This poet’s broken heart and fine, fine writing. I urge you to read this small but mighty book. You will be moved. Probably to tears, like me. But isn’t that the point of poetry? To punch you, to make you feel? We need poets like McCadden to turn trauma into art, to make us grieve for not only her brother, but for the 72,000 lives lost to the opioid crisis.
Kerrin McCadden is the author of Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes (New Issues Poetry & Prose 2014), winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize and the Vermont Book Award. An NEA Fellow and Sustainable Arts Foundation Writing Award winner, her work has also been supported by the Vermont Studio Center, The Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Arts Endowment Fund. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and recently in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Los Angeles Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. She teaches at Montpelier High School and is the Associate Director of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching at The Frost Place. She lives in South Burlington, Vermont.
Samantha Kolber has received a Ruth Stone Poetry Prize and a Vermont Poetry Society prize, and her manuscript “Jewel Tones” was a semifinalist with the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry’s 2019 First Book Prize. She received her MFA from Goddard College and completed post-grad work at Pine Manor College’s Solstice MFA Program. Originally from New Jersey, she lives in Montpelier, Vermont, where she coordinates events and marketing for Bear Pond Books and is the Poetry Series Editor at Rootstock Publishing. You can find her poems in many journals, anthologies, and online. Her chapbook, “Birth of a Daughter” is forthcoming September 1, 2020, with Kelsay Books.
It’s fitting that I needed to sit outdoors amid squirrels and finches and summer humidity, to sweat a little, as I embarked on this review of Nickole Brown’s chapbook, To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a prayer, praise song, and plea that calls on readers to recognize our connection with and responsibility to “the animals with whom [we] share this land.” *
It’s perhaps fitting as well that I would sketch its trajectory while eating potato chips and sipping Sweet Baby Jesus porter. Nickole, who first discovered poetry in a summer workshop midway through high school, describes the surfeit of verse in her childhood this way: “I was raised on the literary equivalent of grease and plastic—if you don’t count the King James, there wasn’t anything to read in the house but Cosmo or maybe a potato chip bag or two.”* That early absence hasn’t stopped her from becoming an accomplished poet, editor, and teacher; her Southern, often hardscrabble childhood providing a wellspring of experiences and insights integral to her success.
I first learned about Nickole’s poetry from poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar Brown who suggested I read Sister, back then in its original edition from Red Hen Press (2007). In this first collection, Nickole navigates the terrain of childhood sexual abuse through a conversation in poems that she’s been unable to have directly with her sister due to the distance between them. It’s a journey she describes as a novel-in-poems but that reads more like a collective memoir-in-poems.
To Those Who Were Our First Gods reflects several stylistic throughlines from Sister and Nickole’s subsequent book, Fanny Says, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother. As was true in those poems, the speaker in First Gods is in constant conversation—with the Lord, with Samson, with Mary Oliver, with the animals she yearns to hear speak to her, and with the readers themselves. This is illustrated in these opening lines of the chapbook’s longest poem, “Against Despair, The Kid Goat,”
Reader, meet the two women who sunk everything they had into taking in broken animals—
This poem combines Brown’s engaging practice of embodiment with what she refers to as “an oral culture of bossy, storytelling women who always had something to tell you or something to tell you to do,” * her speaker leading the reader through the sacrament of imagining their own bodies in the motions of these two women.
Thus the reader is directed “to be / those two,” and “to try, / to always try, despite the odds.” The poem continues, “Reader, I want you tired, every joint / in your body stiff and worn.” And after the kid goat has a seizure, it directs, “Now, use your arms” then “push together the furred slits / of his lids,” and later, “Now, get on your knees”, say his name (Peanut) while you “stroke his scrawny / goat neck.”
The yearning, so much a part of Brown’s poetry and often amplified by repetition, is also here, as it is at the end of the first poem, “A Prayer to Talk to Animals”:
Fork my tongue, Lord. There is a sorrow on the air I taste but cannot name. I want to open my mouth and know the exact flavor of what’s to come. I want to open my mouth and sound a language that calls all language home.
The concept of home is another throughline that persists from Brown’s earlier work. “But now [she’s] writing about animals, who, because of us, increasingly either don’t have a home left or find that home spoiled. *
My favorite poem, the one that made me grin and blush, then stop reading so I could call friends to read it to them, is the middle poem of the nine in the chapbook: “Self Portrait as Land Snail.” As the speaker describes the options the land snail has for both solitary and companion procreation (the latter being the better option, the speaker asserts), Brown’s distinctive voice rises from the page:
I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried—this is no metaphor but scientific fact—a telum amoris—literally, aweapon of love—
Cupid’s got nothing on this mollusk congress, and because you know how snails go, the foreplay is slow— slow, slow, slow—my kind of sex—
This poem is deftly placed at the fulcrum of the manuscript.
To Those Who Were Our First Gods also provides plenty to study in terms of structural elements. There’s the effective and moving narrative arc, the first poem expressing a yearning to speak to animals book-ended by the last poem which asks instead to understand animals and speak for them.
There are a range of forms, from poems in a single verse, familiar vessels for the prayer and elegy they convey, to ones organized in sections, and a poem in couplets. This latter form is perhaps symbolic of the contrasting styles of the two lesbian poets in conversation within its stanzas: Mary Oliver with her quiet reverence of nature and Nickole who “speak[s] in a queer, Southern trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, damaged, and in desperate need of saving.” *
But don’t let me mislead you into thinking that To Those Who Were Our First Gods offers only more of the same distinct voice and accessible, engaging poetry you’ll find in her previous books—although that would be reason enough to click “Add to Cart.” There is something new here too: a heightened sense of immediacy, an urgency that pulses from the lines. With this work, Nickole Brown has moved from subjects long known—her sister and grandmother, her Southern upbringing— to a territory she was warned against when she was growing up, that of the animal and wild.
When sharing this chapbook’s origin story with Jen Sammons at Oxford American, * Brown explained that soon after she revealed a long-held wish to have “gone into environmental conservation and worked to save animals,” her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, pointed out that it wasn’t too late for her to fulfill that wish. Nickole started her study by reading books and observing animals at a nearby zoo “from a comfortable remove that’s not too unlike reading”—this from “a girl who left behind her body and became a book, and never had . . . gone outside much until [she] was forty.”
It was not until she immersed herself in the sweaty, smelly, mucky, heart-wrenching, yet rewarding work of volunteering at animal sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation centers that these poems surfaced. I suspect that an earlier Nickole Brown, before coming into her sexual identity and fully into her own body—gifted poet though she already was—would not have written these poems with the same intensity she achieves in To Those Who Were Our First Gods. I’m glad she wrote this chapbook when she did and can’t wait to read her related essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies—and whatever comes next.
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 published in 2007 with a new edition reissued in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015 and won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years. Currently, she 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 where she periodically volunteers at a three different animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals, resisting the kind of pastorals that made her (and many of the working-class folks from the Kentucky that raised her) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first nine poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2020.
Title: To Those Who Were Our First Gods Author: Nickole Brown Winner of the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize 2018 Finalist for the Julie Suk Award ISBN 978-1-931307-39-0
Wendy DeGroat is the author of Beautiful Machinery (Headmistress Press) and is currently revising a documentary poetry manuscript about Grace Arents, a Progressive-era philanthropist and educator, and Grace’s companion, Mary Garland Smith. Wendy’s poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Commonplace, the museum of americana, Rogue Agent,Rust + Moth, The Wild Word, and elsewhere.She is a librarian and mindfulness teacher in Richmond, Virginia, where she also curates poetryriver.org (a resource site for documentary poetry and for diversifying the poetry taught in high school and undergraduate classrooms), encourages writers to find inspiration in quirky historical artifacts found in libraries and archives, and serves as a small-group facilitator for Living the Richmond Pledge, a workshop that empowers participants to take an active role in ending racism in their communities.
Zeina Hashem Beck’s 3arabi Song is a collection of 17 poems of deep intimacy. The individual poems come together as an exploration of grief and joy. There is a tremendous sense of place and our relationship to it: longing, homecoming, comfort, exile, return. There is a specific version of discovery in this work. It is not quite sudden revelation. It is more closely what song often reveals as completely understood truth, if not yet articulated until that exact moment of utterance.
The collection opens with “You Fixed It,” a kind of ode that introduces key themes which appear throughout the remainder of the book. These issues—familial intimacy; private and collective sorrow; a distinct and simultaneously equivocal sense of identity (for example, in terms of relationship to one’s country); a very particular kind of steadfastness; the power of music to sustain (and subvert)—are only some of the vast richness that gets treatment throughout this engaging book.
These ideas are quietly but fully on display as the poem lists the ways in which the unnamed “you” overcomes the most existential of difficulties (often disguised as the domestic and the mundane). It is no accident that the first challenge is fundamentally one of orientation:
And if the compass broke you fixed it, fastened the pencil to it with a rubber band
The struggles of daily living accrue, and it is in the how of this accumulation where Hashem Beck’s genius lies—the musical coexistence of beauty and struggle brought to bear on the page (and through the spoken word). The poem’s ending is the point of departure for everything that comes in later poems:
and if your sorrow hardened you fixed it by dipping it in sea water, and if your country hardened, if your country hardened you fixed it by dipping it in song.
3arabi Song not only rewards through its language and imagery, but in its poetic forms. The collection’s five ghazals skillfully contend with ancestry and remembrance (“Ghazal: The Dead”), displacement (“Ghazal: This Hijra,” “Ghazal: Back Home”), and personal and national identity (“This Country: Ghazal for Abdel Halim Hafez,” “Ghazal: Samira Tawfiq Sings a Love Poem”). Hashem Beck beautifully memorializes the renowned Arabic singer and actress Sabah (“…Not mourning with a ‘u’.” Yes, the thing that shines.”) in “Pantoum for Sabbouha,” one of several poems in which she pays tribute to divas of the Arab world, including Fairuz, Umm Kulthum, and others:
I imitated the walk, the hands back then, the way she dared to say batata. ‘I had no fear of age, of death,’ she could’ve said in an interview, ‘No fear of men.’
3arabi Song is enhanced by, but not beholden to, the traditional forms. Perhaps two of the most interesting poems in the collection in terms of both content and structure are “Listen” and “Naming Things.” In “Listen,” we find ourselves part of a family dealing in real-time with the possibility their son and brother has been killed by an explosion at the local mosque. The imagery is stunning:
It explodes, the mosque, this Friday, the laundry, the domes of boys’ arms, the sumac … The Chiclets in the street.
… The sea, still. The children, the figs almost bursting.
Additionally, the power of the poem generates in no small part from its form. Centered on the page, the poem’s two sections appear as two hourglasses stacked upon one another, each mirroring the other, each section narrowing to a point and expanding again. The composition excellently serves as visual metaphor for the pinpoint focus that can occur during the instant of tragedy, while symbolizing the disintegration of time and the vacillation and alternative realities we create during times of trauma to avoid acceptance.
In “Naming Things (for refugees, September 2015),” Hashem Beck deals with the issue of our times, the “our” being at minimum the global diaspora, a population that continues to grow predominantly due to ravages of endless war and the climate crisis. Formally, this long poem centered on the refugee crisis connects its stanzas through repetition. Lyrical power and drama are amplified by this approach (below are the first and last lines of the initial stanzas):
Angels— we saw them on the railway,
[. . .] on their wings.
[. . .] about our cat
[ . . .] refuge refuse bins
It also uses English, written Arabic, transliterated Arabic, and “Arabizi”, which reinforces the inextricable relationship between the multiple cultures and sensibilities in these poems:
My hips— are heavy are child-bearing child-killing are lover do not fit those train windows these fences this escape this
Ra7eel— so much in my 3arabi depends on ra7eel on
3awda— a5 ya baba
And while not radically experimental in form, “Naming Things” is innovative in how it brings together formal elements and languages to create an unrelenting litany of harmony and disruption that undergirds the subject matter.
As I read and re-read 3arabi Song, I found it to be so many things simultaneously. I wondered about the collection’s origin story, its idiosyncrasies, its original reception, and its relevance several years after publication. I had a chance to sit down with Zeina Hashem Beck virtually to exchange on some of these questions.
Title: 3Arabi Song Author: Zeina Hashem Beck 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner Cover art by Yazan Hallwani ISBN: 978-1-931307-30-
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her second full-length collection is Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017). She’s also the author of two chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, The New York Times, The Academy of American Poets, Poetry, Southeast Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in Dubai. www.zeinahashembeck.com
Issam Zineh is a Los Angeles-born, Palestinian-American poet and scientist. He is author of the forthcoming chapbook “The Moment of Greatest Alienation” (Ethel Press, Spring 2021). His poems appear or are forthcoming in Clockhouse, Fjords Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist), Nimrod, Poet Lore, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere. He also reviews for The Poetry Café (https://thepoetrycafe.online). Find him on Twitter @izineh.
Survival: Trees, Tides, Song & Survival Part 2: Trees, Birds, Ocean, Bees by Majorie Moorhead
Review and Interview by Risa Denenberg
In the bio on the back of Survival: Trees, Tides, Song (Finishing Line Press, 2019) is this line, “Marjorie [Moorhead] strives to walk her daily path with open eyes and heart.” In this book, Moorhead does indeed show us an open heart and incisive vision. The poems feel earnest and instructive, as if saying to the reader: here, follow me. While the poems flow towards the quotidian in their subject matter, extolling the natural world, Moorhead has a liquid voice and throws end rhymes together with a passion that is both quiet and convincing and a subtlety of metaphor that can surprise. In language, she allows us to see nature as she sees it. In “Choir,” we see how, like humans, withered leaves cling to trees until they can no longer hold on, and how trees eventually must shed them, to become deciduous, empty, barren, relating to the human experience where, “. . . leaving childhood brings doubts and clouds.” This poem appears in both volumes, bringing a unifying force to the project, by showing the wonder and harmony Morehead finds in trees: “Nature and I were one and the same, and that same was Perfection.”
In Survival: Trees, Tides, Song, in the poem, “East Thetford, VT,” we find this meditation:
Walking saved me years ago Walking the same route every day Day after day season after season.
Backdrop-sky for stone house, wood barn tall stalks, big trees, lilacs. At sunset simple silhouettes framing pink and orange-purple swaths.
Relationship with land can be just a road claimed with each footstep. You know it, because you walk it.
I enjoyed the fluid and welcoming voice in the first volume. The narrator finds solace, poem after poem, in the Trees, Tides and [bird] Song, of the book’s title. The notion of survival is inherent throughout the book—surviving cold seasons and rainy weather with hopefulness, and darker things such as toxins and wars with sorrow and protest. Titles display changeable moods, as when “The Wisdom of Geese” praises “watching out for one another” while in “Things I’ve seen in the Anthropocene (Make Me Wanna Holler), the speaker is “feeling sad and mean.”
The sequel, Survival Part 2: Trees, Birds, Ocean, Bees (Duck Lake Books, 2020), displays the same fluid voice and quiet passion, along with the trope of taking refuge from human folly through immersing in nature. In “Colored Birds Bouquet, a Coexistence Triolet,” are these joyous lines:
Birds come to the feeder, colored like a luscious bouquet of flowers. Awareness that we share this planet making me so buoyantly happy.
These sweet little creatures’ presence wielding incredible powers to elicit empathy, wonder, fascination; emotions strong as nectar is sappy.
Or in “Chorus”
Just the tips; small green ears alert in the soil, reaching for a sound,
And in “Ocean Villanelle,” these lines,
It’s the sound that I love; it speaks to me. A song of connection, reminding of eternity.
Despite the loving connection with nature, I found a subtle shift in balance in this volume, with more poems protesting harmful human behavior, as in “The Rain and the Flower” where the narrator finds “more song in a raindrop” than “those accustomed to luxury” find in an orchestra. Or in “Walking With the Wind,” the dichotomy of,
. . . the Haves, who leave behind the Have Nots for warmer climes
when a chill sets in.
There is always this problem of course: the difficulty in writing a protest poem without becoming didactic; the risk of alienating a reader. Perhaps over the course of writing these poems, not to mention over the course of her life, Moorhead has vacillated, as have most of us, between hope and despair, and has tempered despair with protest. And no doubt her sense of urgency (matched by our sense of urgency) to send a message before it is too late has intensified as well. Like a teacher who might slip into scolding when she feels her words unheeded. Of course, scolding is necessary at times.
However, there is exaltation in these words in “Colony Collapse,” “Disappearing Bees desperately needed as balm in an ailing system.” And in “Borders,” Moorhead navigates murky waters with compassion:
We could be under rain drops anywhere. Tragedy visits anywhere. Where do we find ourselves? Borders in our minds. What we could fathom and what we could not. Rising sea levels. Depleting ice caps. Dividing lines.
In the back matter to both books, we deepen our understanding of survival for Moorhead as we learn that she is an “AIDS survivor.” We also learn some details of her journey. I always appreciate learning what I can about a poet’s life. Moorhead exhorts us to:
. . . find our voice and speak our truth; listen to others’ voices and truths and get to know our intimate relationship with our environment. This is required for healthy survival.
I wanted to learn more about Moorhead, to more fully hear her voice and her truth. I conducted the following interview with her by email:
eview and Interview by Risa Denenberg
Risa Denenberg: Your books incorporate the term “survivor.” How has your identity as an AIDS survivor impacted your vision as a poet? Have you written about your journey as an AIDS survivor? How did you incorporate that impact on the person who walks through the woods and oceans and seasons in these poems?
Marjorie Moorhead: Being a survivor of AIDS (from a time when there was no viable treatment) has shaped my vision as a poet because I learned, during many, many hours and years “alone” with myself, traveling through grief to self-discovery, to SEE things, “in the moment”. If you travel around with death in your lap, ready to take over at any moment, each moment seems indeed a gift and full of rich detail. Each breath becomes a full and wonder-full moment; the in, and then the out. I spent at least five years learning to meditate, and practice tai chi ch’uan. My goal in those years (as, of course it should be for everybody all the time…but gets lost so easily once Life is “easy”), was to live in a state of Grace in each moment. I had to figure out what that meant for myself. It’s a very personal interpretation of the word “Grace,” as I was not brought up with religious practice or dogma except for very general overlying morality (which I am grateful for!). So, the person walking through woods, oceans, seasons in these poems is one who is noticing, processing, and feeling a part of where she is.
RD: How did you and your partner at the time, Jorge Soto Sanchez, decide to leave NYC and settle in Vermont? Did you find there what you were hoping to find?
MM: Jorge and I left NYC for VT because we needed a place where he could escape his “demons” and focus on his work. I left first, coming home to the area I’d grown up in, and he followed to be with me. And, yes, I’d say we did have, for a few years before illness from the virus took hold with him, a life of creativity, personal growth, health, and love. I feel happy that he was able to experience that before losing his life at age 40.
RD: I enjoy your clear yet metaphoric-laced language in both parts of the Survival chapbooks. I find a somewhat different tone between the first and second books. Most specifically, there seemed to be more doubt and anger in “Part 2.” Was there a change in your perspective over the months that you wrote these two books?
MM: I don’t see the difference in emphasis you’ve noticed between my first, and second chapbooks. For me, the second was just more of the same river of writing that combined my personal sense of survival with broader elements of survival which include Mothering, nurturing a long time partnership, and stewardship of the planet.
RD: Finally, I hope you are safe and well. Can you talk a bit about how you are faring during the pandemic?
MM: At the start of this pandemic, I was very aware of the link back in time to the AIDS epidemic. I started writing “Coronavirus Diary” poems (to date, I think there are 12 of them!), and also responded, in April, to the call from Indolent Books’ HIV Here & Now “Na(HIV)PoWriMo” project for poems about HIV/AIDS. I have since moved on to writing a series of poems inspired by the Bluejays who built a nest outside within view of our window. Watching their daily journey, while in “lockdown”, has been a way to expand out into the world and I’ve attempted writing a few poems where the “I” is a nesting bird. I also try to get out for a daily walk, just breathing and moving and noticing what’s around me…same as I have been doing for thirty years or more.
Review by Risa Denenberg
Marjorie Moorhead writes from a New England river valley, surrounded by mountains and four season change. She found a voice in poetry after surviving AIDS in its early years, and becoming a mother. Much of Marjorie’s work addresses survival, environment, relationship, and appreciation of the “everyday”. Her poems are found in several anthologies, including those that benefit environmental and women’s organizations. Poems are in journals and sites such as Amethyst Review, Tiny Seed Literary, Sheila-Na-Gig, Porter House Review, Poeming Pigeon, Verse-Virtual, What Rough Beast and HIV Here & Now. Marjorie’s debut chapbook is Survival:Trees, Tides, Song (Finishing Line Press 2019), followed by Survival Part 2: Trees, Birds, Ocean,Bees. She is happy to have been awarded an Indolent Books tuition scholarship for Fine Arts Work Center’s poetry week in summer 2019.
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, publisher of lesbian/bi/trans poetry. She curates The Poetry Café, an online meeting place where poetry chapbooks are celebrated and reviewed. She has published three chapbooks and three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).
Consider this a trigger warning, in case the straight-forward title of Joe Amaral’s The Street Medic and the austere cover image of an open-doored ambulance facing a dark landscape do not, together, provide one.
As a gathering of poems written as unfettered free and prose verse, whose language is consistently clear and free of artifice or conceits, this is a delightfully easy book to read. But, at the same time, this is anything but an easy book to read. Rather, it is terribly difficult, as it must be for any reader with even a small shred of sympathy, empathy, or compassion. The subject is daily personal and professional trauma as seen through the eyes of an Emergency Medical Technician.
Still here? Before selecting parts of several poems to highlight, a rough catalog of subjects touched on from Amaral’s experience: The death of a seventeen-year old girl. A heroin overdose and an accidental opioid addiction. Reminders of a wife lost in a horrific crash, and of scattering her ashes. School shooting drills. The homeless elderly, mentally ill, and domestically abused. Saving lives. Not being able to save every life. In language direct and unflinching. Still here? Then let’s take a closer look.
The Street Medic begins with “Job Descriptions,” in which the narrator tells his daughters (and the reader) about his 48-hour day while never telling everything:
They ask about death, and I say yes, they went someplace else. My four-year-old says, They become owls. My six-year-old asks if anyone got shot with a gun. That does happen and I stop the bleeding.
Some die from weapon, old age, accident. Cries for help. Suicide. Pills. I don’t say all this. Their world is still rose-colored. I will remove the thorns for as long as I can.
“Presence” helps to explain Amaral’s parental caution as it explores the accidental death of a young child:
The dead kid’s eyes remind me of sea glass I collect with my daughters when the tide is low —
They won’t leave me alone.
If it’s continually clear that First Responders are no strangers to tragedy, “Her Nametag Said ‘Red’” serves to remind us that not all victims are strangers:
We met again the next week. See, I’m a paramedic in a small town where the scream of sirens ricochets.
I stood near her pale, lifeless body, doused in cold water by well-meaning friends who tried to avoid dialing 9-1-1.
Along with protecting his own children while saving those of others, the EMT has to watch out for himself, as when awaiting the results of a biopsy in “Kokopelli”:
This mole has been flowering for a year, borderless as the world should be, erecting its own odd shape and direction. I study the scan and decide it looks like a person running with frazzled hair on fire.
Through it all run the risk of being jaded and the redemptive power of success described in “Paramedicine”:
Angels of 9-1-1 dials we swoop in, black-winged, echoing lights and sirens. Overburdened by what we’ve seen.
When we do succeed, it thaws us a moment.
“Sirens” completes the point, and adds that, for all the loneliness imposed by the profession’s pain, every call is a shared act of devotion to others in their time of need:
This is for the emergency worker who either aids a patient or
escorts their soul to an otherwise reality, the ventricular tachycardia, the asystole, the loss and bad memories, for the paramedic, the firefighter, the nurse and police, the doctor, the dispatcher and the EMT, always fighting for a stranger in need, a person who walks out the hospital ten days later under their own power and says:
You saved me.
The Street Medic, with its twenty-eight direct and almost flawlessly simple free-verse poems,clearly earned its 2018 Palooka Press Chapbook Award. It most certainly deserves a spot on your shelf reserved for books to return to over the years.
Joe Amaral’s poetry collection “The Street Medic” won the 2018 Palooka Press Chapbook Contest. Joe works 48-hour shifts as a paramedic on the California central coast, spending days off adventuring outdoors with his young family: camping, hiking, world traveling, and hosting foreign exchange students. Joe was born and raised on a chicken farm in the East Bay Area. He has a Forestry and Natural Resources degree from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo with a concentration in watershed, chaparral and fire management. Joe’s writing has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies across the universe such as 3Elements Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Arcadia Magazine, New Verse News, Panoply, Poets Reading the News, Postcard Poems and Prose, Rise Up Review, The Good Men Project, WORDPEACE and Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora. Joe won the 2014 Ingrid Reti Literary Award and the 2018 Golden Quill Award for poetry. His poem, Epochal, was also a Finalist for the River Heron Poetry Prize.
I have always wanted to use the word visceral in a way that truly gets at its meaning in the way the word visceral would want itself to be meant. Audra Puchalski’s Queer Hagiographies is a visceral book. It is a book that is felt in all of one’s internal organs. As deeply as feeling goes. In organs. Think of that queer root within you. And know that all that comes from that root also lives in this book. Rooted. Because if that queer root is in you then you are rooted in the queered lives of this glorious book of hagiographied saints. You are intimately tied. You are aflame. You are desire. And you are ensnared, regurgitated, and remade in the mouths of all that is (un)holy.
Having drifted through the pews of Catholicism as a child, I have carried with me a love for all that is embedded in the mysticism and wildness of sainthood. And it is with much excitement that I began digging into this collection and all its beauties. Puchalski puts us straight into the mouth of a serpent when we meet our first brave saint of learning and culture, and some say, poetry—the very wise and highly sought out Saint Hilda. Hilda is no joke. Hilda will tell you it is easy to turn the pesky snakes plaguing the village to stone. She says,
My throat fills up like a balloon, fills with venom and the curse spills down my chin, dirty water from a flooded gutter.
But, even better, we find that Hilda is vanquishing snakes for another woman, a beloved who takes her to that place beyond, that place of magical everything she remembers from childhood: “an open door opening on openness, a sky with no top / no floor but a sheer scrim of shimmering vapor.” O this love. This love! And this poem is unapologetically Stein-like in the way its language rolls like fingers over a rosary, over a body.
Puchalski is deep. Into. Saints. Some of them bookish, writerly, out of canon, even, but revered and challenged, perhaps, more because they are the wild ones. In this collection, for example, we find Emily Dickinson as untouchable as ever and Puchalski herself slips into the tortured humor of Saint Lawrence—not necessarily the saints we are expecting but certainly so needed here.
Also. Puchalski is deep. Into. Craft. She layers voice into image into form in the way that the cream cheese frosting of sexuality holds together a cathedral made of cake. You just want to get that high on all that sensual suffering and the poetry of it. And it’s impossible not to. It’s impossible to ignore the sectioned hagiography of Saint Isidore. So don’t. Immerse yourself in the way an enjambed line declares belief and in the next section begs the question: “what if this bundle / unravels?” Follow the verb fire through the field of the third section. Hang on. It will unravel you. In the hagiography of Saint Jude, the same attention to voice, image, and form beg the binding connection of Jude to Jesus, Jude admitting to being the “Disciple to his desire / disciplined to his wishes / his breath.” It’s brutally beautiful.
Of course, Puchalski’s saints are also vainglorious vandals, virgins, and rock stars. In our truly exquisite moments, we are most vulnerable, most undone. And those who stand there with us in that embrace, we count on as our followers. As we stand with these saints, we find that things are sodden and blooming and juicy and licked. I, however, am a girl who loves to see what hands can do, and Puchalski’s saints do not disappoint in their reach.
I was compelled, in fact, to reach out by email to Puchalski to talk a bit more with her about her saints, craft, and the art of publishing. She generously obliged.
Jen Rouse: What inspires your work when you think about form, imagery, voice?
Audra Puchalski: When I’m drafting a new poem and it’s working well for me, there’s a spirit of improvisation, experimentation, and play, a.k.a. fun. So I’m not really thinking about form, imagery, or voice at this point. I may be doing form, imagery, and/or voice but it’s probably mostly unintentional. It feels beyond my control—like whatever happens, happens.
Revision is where I think about things like form, imagery, and voice—but do I? Or am I still mostly feeling around form, imagery, and voice? I’m honestly not trying to be enigmatic, I legitimately don’t know what I think about or what I do. I’m sorry that this is such a ridiculous answer!
JR: Also, I see in your twitter info that you consider yourself a nature poet. Tell me a bit about that, if you don’t mind, and how it influenced your look into the worlds of these saints.
AP: I started calling myself a nature poet when I was on a long streak of writing nature poems. It’s a little ironic, because the idea of “nature” is so strange. Like, that thing over there, that thing we can point to, that’s Nature, and that thing over there is Not Nature. But on the other hand, it’s completely sincere, because nature is endlessly fascinating—there’s literally endless weirdness and beauty and horror and decay and fecundity. And facing climate catastrophe as we are now, there’s also a lot of dread, and I get the urge to poke at that.
As for how it relates to the saints, I think queerness is extremely natural, and I think for a human being, throwing every demand and expectation of your society in the trash while welcoming intense pain, suffering, and death is relatively unnatural, but that’s exactly what a lot of these saints did, according to the stories. It’s badass, as well as disgusting and full of magic. They say when Saint Eulalia was beheaded (after a lot of gruesome torture), a dove flew out of her severed neck. What the hell! So yeah, nature is like that.
JR: If you would like to give some real-life context to why these saints, I’m all ears. I feel like I read you went to a school where Hilda was the patron saint of the school, and then last night I was certain I’d dreamt that.
AP: I wish! I was raised Catholic, and I’ll probably always have the impulse to venerate. Catholicism also taught me to love graven images and to be polytheistic. Then when I was in grad school at the University of Michigan, I was a grader for Gina Brandolino’s class about medieval women, and her unit on virgin-martyrs honestly snapped right into my brain-wiring and stayed there, lurking, secretly writing poems, probably.
In terms of why these saints, I actually didn’t usually start out with a particular saint in mind, although once I was deeper in the project, I occasionally did. A few times, I realized that a poem I had already written, before I started consciously working on this project, was a saint poem. For most of them, I wrote a first draft without thinking about saints at all, then researched saints associated with the imagery or concepts I was already working with. That research would then influence the next revision. I had to surrender to the slight chanciness of the process, and that was exciting and fun.
JR: Why Headmistress Press for this book? How has it shaped your thinking about publication and future publication?
AP: I didn’t know anything about publication—I’ve had poems in journals and made zines for my friends, but I had never worked with a press before. It was a wonderful experience, and I’m so happy with the result!
Audra Puchalski is from Michigan. She earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Poetry. Her work has appeared in Bat City Review, Juked, Salt Hill, The Rupture, Cutbank Online, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Oakland, California.