All Else Falls to Shadow, by Amy Lee Heinlen

Review by Christine Orchanian Adler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

xxxxxxxxAt the hospital,
xxxxxxxxjaundice is common.

My dumb breasts sit and stare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Atlas of Lost Places

Atlas of Lost Places, by Yamini Pathak

Review by John W. Bing

Yamini Pathak’s first chapbook, Atlas of Lost Places (Milk and Cake Books, 2020) explores memories of a childhood in India and adulthood in the US, raising American children. She reminisces, weaves in myth and narrative, and blends theses elements into a lovely, lyrical whole. Beginning with the title, this is a series of poems that has echoes of many different kinds of lost places, lost but remembered maps.

From the opening poem, “Ahimsa,” representing the kinship of all things (from Sanskrit, meaning the absence of injury), come brilliant images:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxCanyons are hewn
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxby a licking stream                                   
a tongue worrying stone after stone
like loosened teeth

Pathak’s “Ghazal for the Children Born Far from Home” describes one of the directions of her Atlas:  “I’ve severed you from old ways, this is my sorrow,” as the atlas points to a lost home.

In “Elegy for the Way Home,” Pathak continues her exploration of lost places:

Where shall you go my sons?  How will you ask for
answers. . .

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxyour meridians
lined on your palms and your
genomes, meaning you
were birthed from a language where parsaun, the day
after tomorrow wheels around to point at
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe day before yesterday

There is humor in this chapbook as well.  “In My Own Skin,” for example, fantasizes the strength of one’s own culture as a weapon to overcome office enemies:

I wear my Goddess skin to work
at the Monday morning meeting, I ride in
on a muscled tiger. . . .

When Petunia from Credit Policy goes into Striking Cobra
pose and venoms her questions at me with a hiss, flames
from my forehead laser forth and raze
her to the ground.  She makes a soft pile of ash.

In the last poem in this chapbook, “The Long Goodbye,” Pathak’s strength of incorporating the quotidian, daily events and objects, strews the poem with little jewels:

uncurl the leathered cheek
xxxxof an over-ripe pomegranate, spill rubies into our laps

Pathak is adept in various poetic forms:  Triolet, Ghazal, prose poems, and free verse for examples.  But the reader tends not to notice her technical competence because it is almost always at the service of bringing the reader to her side, to see her perspective, to share her vision and her losses.

While much of the poetry in this enchanted chapbook memorializes a lost homeland, it will speak to all of us who have managed the art of losing, whether it be a lover, a parent, a child, our youth, our mother country, or an ideal.  Being human means both to gain and to lose.  To us all, Pathak speaks words of deep understanding.  In sharing with us her lost places, she may help us with ours.

Yamini Pathak is a former software engineer turned poet and freelance writer. She was born and raised in India and now lives in New Jersey. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in Waxwing, Anomaly, The Kenyon Review blog, Jaggery, and elsewhere. A Dodge Foundation Poet in the Schools, she is poetry editor for Inch (Bull City Press) and an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Yamini is an alumnus of VONA/Voices (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation), and Community of Writers.

Title: Atlas of Lost Places
Author: Yamini Pathak
Publisher: Milk and Cake Books, 2020

John Bing has spent some of his lifetime building metaphorical bridges, but most of his time amazed at and appreciating different cultures and peoples, from a number of countries in Africa and Europe and Latin America to his years—years ago—in Afghanistan as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  From these wanderings, and now from his perch in the American southwest, he has come to love both the peoples he has met and the lands that they inhabit.  Just as each person and each group have their own characteristics and belief systems, so every place has its particular geography and set of living things. John Bing’s Time Signatures is forthcoming from Kelsay Press.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship

Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship, by Erica Abbott

Review by Elijah B Pringle, III

Erica Abbott’s debut chapbook, Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship (Toho Publishing, 2020), is replete with fresh observations and imagery. From her brilliantly conceived “Darkness and Hope” to her manifesto “How to Stargaze Through the Light Pollution, ” Abbott demonstrates she possesses a pen with a different kind of ink.   

The opening poem, “In Darkness and Hope,” dazzles with its playful construction. It can be read one column at a time or horizontally or, as I would suggest, both ways. No matter how you read it, it reveals reassurance and survival and sets the stage for a collection of poems that offers a buoyancy that belie the chapbook’s title. In this poem, the first four lines are about waiting for wishes. Or is it how the world was created?

future me tells ……………..the me of today
how an entire world………is created from stardust
once belonging to…………..this heavenly body
the sky………………………….holding infinite
waited in wishes……………possibilities

Abbott divides her offerings into two sections: “Darkness” and “Hope.”  In “Darkness” the imagery of water and cloaked-ness is most prevalent.  I’m not sure about her decision to include “10 Things You Should Know About Mental Illness” in this section.  I found this poem to be an artist enlightening her readers without hitting them over the head.  Instead of darkness it offers “ah ha’s” and actually removes the darkness of ignorance. One of her insights appears immediate in Section 1 of “10 Things You Should Know About Mental Illness”:

A façade is what makes me acceptable. It keeps
hidden everything that would otherwise scare
if it were to lie in plain sight

This is one of the most obvious and overlooked issues about mental illness—the hiddenness of it. Each section reveals a secret. The last section states the biggest obstacle I have found with mental illness.

You see what you want to see and none
of it is me.
It is not me.
Not from where I stand.   

The remaining poems in this section do not always further the theme of darkness but this does not rob them of their beauty.  The hidden gem for me is “Sandcastles and The Sea.”  The movement of the poem is like the crashing of waves:

I try to blink the saltwater away –
 …….      make my eyes flutter like that of a seabird
in flight – make no mistake

This image is so layered and simple.  “Not The Fire That Kills Me” is a great read. I especially loved seeing anxiety as smoke and fear as the fire which created it:

It is not the fire that kills
me – it’s the smoke
settling in my lungs

This section ends with the title poem “Self Portrait as a Sinking Ship” which is more reassuring then ominous:

No distress signals were ever responded to.
But somehow, against all odds,
I am still staying afloat.

The final section, “Hope,” starts with a beautiful poem that appears to be misplaced in this section.  “Days Like Today” continues the theme of the previous section.  The last lines declare,

You and me –
Because it’s all that’s keeping me alive.

………………..                That has to be enough for now.

These lines relay more of a sense of “oh well” and not the intentional resolve you would expect from hope.  The next poem “Sixty Percent Water” cymbals and boldly rings out survival and offers the hope this section is titled to be:

You are a life – sustaining force,
and you will rebuild yourself. You
hold more than enough power
to make it happen.

The momentum continues with “Saving Grace” and “Light in The Fog.”  How could anyone not love the imagery of “moonlight on a cobweb”? There is also great introspection found in “Stories on Our Skin.”  The last stanza is particularly moving.  It’s tattoo-worthy (albeit a painful one – LOL). The last three lines read:

When people look at me
What kind of story
Do I tell?

This wonderful debut collection crescendos with the manifesto “How to Stargaze Through the Light Pollution.”  Without being clichéd or trite, Abbott reveals to the reader that in darkness we can see the light through the obstructions:

Gaze into the eyes
of your lover. Lose yourself
in every shooting star and supernova
lighting up their face. This is how
you rediscover the universe.     

Erica Abbott (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based poet and writer whose work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-Heroin Chic, perhappened, Bandit Fiction, and other journals. She is the author of Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship (Toho 2020), her debut poetry chapbook. She volunteers for Button Poetry and Mad Poets Society. Follow her on Instagram @poetry_erica and on Twitter @erica_abbott.

Title: Self-Portrait as a Sinking Ship
Author: Erica Abbott
Publisher Toho Press, 2020
Price $12

Elijah B Pringle, III, Artivist, is a former Training Specialist and Director of Training, currently on sabbatical, now focusing his time on writing and editing. He is an advisor for Moonstone Art Center and a poetry editor for ToHo Journal.  Elijah has appeared on Stage, Radio and TV and was one of the hosts for Who Do You Love? a talk show on PhillyCam created by Warren Longmire to discuss writers.  He has been published both nationally and internationally.  Elijah comes from a strong tradition of educators and has facilitated numerous workshops.  He is finishing pre-production work on his play “Should Be …”  

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

The Missing Ones

The Missing Ones, Poems by Lauren Davis

Review by Risa Denenberg

I’ll start with a disclosure: Lauren Davis and I are friends and often share our poetry with one another. The first review at the Café was my review of Davis’s chapbook, Each Wild Thing’s Consent, and Lauren has been a guest reviewer on this site. In The Poetry Café Guidelines For Reviewers, I say,

I am not at all reluctant to publish reviews of books from poets known to the reviewer, as long as the review is credible.

Reader, I promise, credibly, that I am besotted with The Missing Ones, and would urge you to order one of the limited press run of 40 copies, if any were still available. But it appears they are all gone. Befitting the poems, they have disappeared.  

The Missing Ones (Winter texts, Limited edition, 2021) by Lauren Davis,is a tour de force narrative of persons lost at sea. More specifically persons lost in the glacial-fed, crystal-clear body of Lake Crescent, a lake which reaches a maximum depth of over 1000 feet, is algae-free due to the water’s nitrogen content, and has an average temperature of 44 degrees.  Davis’s interest in the stories of these lost lives is also compelling to me as we both live on the Olympic Peninsula, near this iconic lake. Davis’s poetry is equally enthralling, and a remarkable lyrical match for the story she tells in these poems.  

In the book’s preface the reader learns,

On July 3, 1929, Russell Warren picked up his wife, Blanch … They drove U.S. Route 101 along Lake Crescent towards their home in Port Angeles, Washington. They’d promised to celebrate the Fourth of July with their sons. But the couple did not arrive home. The two boys never saw their parents again.

In the poem, “Seven Thousand Years Ago,” the story’s history opens,

            The earthquake cut a drowned country
            xxxxx for us to rest.
            In these depths, God laid out a marriage bed.

The first poem in the book, “Blanch Says,” starts with the line, “There are dangers / in deep waters no one / speaks of.” The enormity and terror of nature as it unfolded and continues to evolve on the Olympic Peninsula is rendered skillfully in these lines. As humans struggle to stay relevant on mother earth, nature plods on, on her own course. In “The Missing Ones,” Blanch is an iconic symbol of that struggle when her voice says,

There is a stain on the rock
unfolding. I drink the lake,

All of it. I make it mine.   

And in “What Makes the Lake So Thirsty,” the plot thickens,

We are not the only mislaid ones.
They rest at separate depths.
We are the republic of secrets
and missing person cases.
I wore my least favorite dress to our death.
The lake floor is a reversed sky,

And yet, there is a life in the depths, and in “Things That are Pleasing,” Blanch’s voice lists some of them,

Beardslee trout dancing.
A rainstorm I hear but cannot feel.
The small of winter in hidden splits.
My husband’s eyes in the depths.

Now I must tell you something about Beardslee trout: they are a species of rainbow trout that are endemic to and live only in Lake Crescent. If this piques your interest, read more at The Native Fish Society. It is this detail, among others gleaned from the long history of the lake, that deepen the emotional resonance of these poems.

Blanch also has her complaints. In “Things that Irritate,” she lists some of them:

Candy wrappers that float into my bedroom.
Friends who do not say goodbye after they are found.
Long weeks without rain.
Divers that swim past my outstretched hand.

And there are also “Rare Things,”

Minutes that I do not miss my sons.
Green herons.
Decades without new bodies.

Blanch’s voice tells her story in “I’ll Tell you What Happened,” a narrative of drowning that is precise and terrifying, and yet redemptive at the same time.

This is how it feels to drown:
You’ll try not to inhale, but you will.

Water will fill the lungs. When your beloved drifts by
you will be unable to reach your hands to him.
Just try to move a single muscle. Your eyes will

stay open. Your husband has something to tell you—
you can sense it in the cold. Wait until you are both done
drowning. Then build a new home.

The details here are stunning, make me want to believe in this afterlife of the drowned dead. I grieve for Blanch and the others when she says, in “When the Lady of the Lake Comes to Stay,”

Russell, we have a visitor
and nothing to offer—
 no cake, no coffee.

Let us share our home
with its many rooms of water.

These poems are not at all sentimental. I am not a sentimental person. And yet, even at the fifth reading of them, I have cried.

Why would I review a book that is currently out of print? In part because I want you to remember the name of the poet. Lauren Davis. The poet has other books for you to buy and you will find her poems on the internet in many places. You will be hearing more from her, I promise. And, as the first printing sold out, hopefully, a second printing won’t be far behind, so that you can have your own copy!

Lauren Davis is the author of Home Beneath the Church (Fernwood Press, forthcoming), and the chapbooks Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press, 2018), and The Missing Ones (Winter texts, 2021). She holds an MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, and she teaches at The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books. She is a former Editor in Residence at The Puritan’s Town Crier and has been awarded a residency at Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Davis lives on the Olympic Peninsula in a Victorian seaport community. Her work has appeared in over fifty literary publications and anthologies including Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Poet Lore, Ibbetson Street, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. 

Title: The Missing Ones
Author: Lauren Davis
Publisher: Winter texts (first edition, limited run)

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Passing Through Blue Earth

Passing Through Blue Earth, by Cynthia Neely

Review by Mary Ellen Talley

Caught up in the mishmash of creation, humans and animals arrive on this earth with natural proclivities of caring and of cruelty. Cynthia Neely begins her third book, Passing Through Blue Earth, with the poem “Hunger” which takes on this theme directly. Sometimes a hunger that leads to cruelty takes precedence. Neely is descriptive rather than accusatory when she acknowledges instinctual hungers that lead to cruelty. Stark images arise as we consider the “vultures // whose shadow-wings / mark the earth.” With Neely, vultures could be real or metaphorical. The last lines of the poem foreshadow grief to come in later poems: an “absence hollowed out / from a fullness in my throat.”

In the same poem, Neely’s frequent use of imagery stands out, such as “quills white as rib-bones”; a cougar’s tail “black and shivering”; “stubborn aspen leaves”; and how “ice gnaws the riverbank.” She gives a literary nod to William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” with the creation of what could be an adage, “So much / depends on hunger.”

What a fitting introductory poem to this pocket-sized gem of a book!

Arranged without section breaks, the poems in this chapbook move as a river of connections from words in one poem to similar wording in adjacent verses or poems. Neely finishes two back-to-back poems, “Tonight a Blue Moon Rises” and “Bone is Bone,” mentioning variants of time ticking.  Later in the chapbook, we feel there is real and metaphorical “Crazy weather” in “Forecast” with the last lines, “The storming / off. We are altogether too much / weather.” In the next poem, “Home and Here,” Neely writes of fog and place, noting that “These are the places / that pull me by each arm / like quarreling parents.” The connections resonate because they are straightforward and there for the taking. In the end, the speaker reports wandering with the Mother, “over moss and waves / and [I] wonder how I will find my way back.”

Water and grief traverse the long poem “Hopewell Bay” in its thirty-one numbered free verse stanzas. Besides being a writer, Neely is also a noted Washington State painter, so she comes naturally to using color to depict emotion. In #5, she asks,  “What if green (blue and yellow) expressed all grief?” Before naming colors, #4 describes how water flows and literally takes on “the color of its surroundings.” Presenting other reflections on the physical properties of water, Neely reminds us that we swim, we float and we are buoyed up in water before birth.

The poem “Hopewell Bay” describes and explores grief. We are given personal narrative verses with Latinate medical vocabulary not typically part of a poem. Whenever Neely does this, she offers enough surrounding information that the reader gets the gist, as in  25: “Dysgerminomas are extremely sensitive to / chemotherapy, as are all fast growing cells.” In #26, Neely adds:

This summer’s in a hurry
moving off on a gust. My only son
wants to swim to Hopewell Bay.
Today. A round trip of a thousand breaths.
Alone. And I don’t want to let him go
though I should know
no rotating prop will dice him up
slice those lovely legs, render him.
He wants this test, his will
against my own. Still
most days I would go
match him stroke for stroke
breathe his breaths if I could,
swallow air for him.

Neely’s use of Latinate words juxtaposes emotion and image with medical complexities that will give rise to grief. Laminaria is a seaweed that has uses both in cancer prevention and terminating a pregnancy. In #2, cysplatinum is “iridescent, lovely and cool as water.” It also triggers “cell death.” It becomes evident why this long series begins with “I fell in love with grief.”

The poem has a universal perspective, but I wondered if it was grounded in the personal, since Neely often writes in first person. A quick search led me to her poem/bio online at “Survivor’s Notebook,” which suggests that this long poem reflects the poet’s experience with ovarian cancer and an associated pregnancy termination.  

A lover of the environment who resides in the Cascade foothills and summers on an off-grid Canadian island, Neely excels at using nature metaphors to suggest the human condition, as in, “Some ecosystems have evolved with fire as necessary for / habitat renewal.”

The speaker in the long poem is a mother who has studied grief. In #13, she writes, “There are five stages to grief. Once through each / stage we are ready to let go. / This is myth.” There is the personal in #29, what a mother might have told an unborn child. There is also the sense of an end to grief, “now that I have almost stopped / mourning for what’s been lost.” We note a nod both back to hunger and to Emily Dickinson that arrives in the same verse:

If hope’s a finch
that lightly touches down
and leaves the earth for sky
then grief must be a hungry thing
that suckles and suckles
and leaves its mother dry.

Neely’s long poem satisfies all our senses. Her aural imagery rings true in #14, “Sorrowing I love best. It sings like a / saw – a poor man’s viola.”

Cleverly, we are given an entry to resolution with a poem that acts as a transition to the final poems.  In “Hope’s a Transitive Verb” Neely welcomes Emily Dickinson again, as hope becomes a “feathered shaft / air filled wing.”

When we arrive at the next poem, “What This House Knows,” we sense a shift, a door swinging open on a hinge to poems of place and to poems that move toward healing. There is a vacant house to leave, a dwelling that can be an empty house or a metaphor for moving psychologically toward resiliency and/or resolution. Neely has already stated that it is a myth we “let go” of all grief. This poem acts as a hinge poem in the chapbook. The subsequent poems are reflective and move toward hope.

“The Wrecked” continues the poet’s reflection on loss by way of metaphor, “You search for wreckage / then search the wreckage for clues.” In “Since the Return of the Massasauga,” the speaker is more aware of dangers behind her and the possibilities of future pain. But she is determined to move forward, “Give me something / I can face head-on, a black bear in the trail.”

This small book will grow on you. Loss and grief are described briefly and reflected upon. But the book again addresses hope, what Dickinson calls “a the thing with feathers.” After all, hope is another thing we all hunger for.

Who would have suspected that the “Blue Earth” of the title is a town in Minnesota that the poet passed through? The first line of the final poem, “Passing Through,” reminds us that our planet Earth is just another place. Neely has written a linear trajectory reconciling the particular with an existential grief.

This chapbook includes a mother’s worry for the natural and for her personal world. Neely alludes to climate change, aging, and pain while focusing on nature, the personal, and the strong pull of DNA. She admits to worrying about nature and her son. This small book is packed with lyric wisdom and is spoken in the voice of a mother who knows and loves nature. The speaker could be Mother Nature considering her planet as well as a human mother who is programmed to worry about her children.

This poet knows where she has been and where she is going, even as she knows we are mere blips in the currents of time as we respond to our hungers and pains. In her final poem, Cynthia Neely speaks of and to creatures, events, and places that literally and metaphorically become part of a life journey. With reflective precision, the final lines of this final poem hold the key to the book’s title:

this blue planet
this perfect earth
we are all
only passing through

Cynthia Neely is a poet and a painter. She lives with her husband and son up an unmaintained mountain road in the Cascade foothills of North Central Washington and spends her summers on an off-grid island in Georgian Bay, Canada. These places have been indelibly etched into her persona and so into her poetry and paintings. The natural world and her place in it have always been important to her and to her work. When she travels from these areas she invariably heads north. Neely is the 2011 winner of the Hazel Lipa Poetry Chapbook Prize for Broken Water published by Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. Her critical work has appeared in The Writers’ Chronicle, and her poems in numerous print and online journals including Bellevue Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, and, and in several anthologies. Her full-length book of poetry, Flight Path, was published in 2014 as a finalist in the Aldrich Press book contest. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University.

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 chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” was published in 2020 by Finishing Line Press.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.


Self-Portraits by Susanna Lang

Susanna Lang’s Self-Portraits is one of three poetry chapbooks included in a single Delphi Series volume from Blue Lyra Press.  Delphi Series Vol IX also includes the chapbooks Year of Convergence by Jennifer Grant and God of Sparrows by Christina Lovin.

Review by Albert DeGenova

I have been acquainted with and have respected Susanna Lang’s poetry for a long time.  As the publisher and editor of After Hours, a journal of Chicago writing and art, I have included her work in our pages several times and Lang’s poem “Shelter” was the winning entry for After Hours’ inaugural Mary Blinn Poetry Prize.  In her new chapbook, Self-Portraits, Lang presents an all-ekphrastic collection based on the work of 24 women artists across creative disciplines—painters, a sculptor, photographers, a designer, and writers.  Succeeding in the true spirit of the ekphrastic poem by going beyond a description of the subject work of art (where much ekphrastic poetry begins and ends), Lang powerfully offers her reader a physical sense of the artist with her own personal reaction and acute insight.  Indeed, Self-Portraits allows readers to see the inner self of the subject artist as strongly as that of the poet.

Ekphrastic poetry is a type of translation. Translating poetry effectively is an act of absorption by the translator.  To absorb the words, emotions, music and intention of the poet in her original language is only the beginning; the translator must then channel the original into the poetry of a new language with visceral understanding and craft.  Reading Self-Portraits I could not help but think of Susanna Lang as a translator (which she is) taking a work of art, absorbing it completely into herself, and offering us a new experience of that art through a fresh and personal re-seeing: a re-saying.

I have a longstanding habit of bending the corners on the pages of books that I read; with poetry, these are the poems in a collection that render a gut punch, poems I am moved by and will return to again.  Considering this chapbook’s size, my copy of Self-Portraits has more than a few bent corners and I felt that punch with each poem. Lang has the skill of nailing endings—knowing when to stop with an image that will not be soon forgotten.  This is where Lang most often lands her punches.

The first poem in Self-Portraits, “Terra Incognita,” opens with an epigraph that is a poem by the late poet Helen Degen Cohen (another Chicago poet with whom I am very familiar).  Cohen writes about the act of creating: “And I’m generating. I’m generating. / oh my babies by the millions where / will you sleep?” Lang reacts, echoing the etymological meaning of “poetry”:

we make things, as if we’d suddenly remembered
their flickering images projected on the walls of a cave.
(But we never entered the cave.)

Some of these things we make
inhabit our bodies,
then learn how to breathe on their own.

Some glow in the dark, poisoning our blood;

Lang closes the poems with:

the urge to put things together like red and blue Legos,
to make something not in the instructions that came with the box.

All of the poems here stand on their own without a reference to the original art. However, understanding the references (which I was able to do with most by using Google), of course, strengthened my experience of the poems even further.  This was the case with “Icarus” which is a reaction to the sculpture of a naked torso (without legs, arms, head) by Jyl Bonagura.  Lang begins with the images of failed refugee crossings (first a man and then a toddler, both washed up on beaches), and imagining the torso on a beach, she asks: “What if it were // my son, nails gritty with sand and hair slicked back by the sea?”  From there she moves to the Icarus legend:

________He’d wanted everything, as every boy does.

The sculptor has felt that desire,


_____________A light wind feathered his arms as he rose
Into the welcoming air, never doubting that it would carry him

home, to the arms that waited to draw him close and then
release him into the rest of his life, that expanding vista.

One of the Self-Portraits‘ poems most memorable for me is “Lost,” inspired by poet/singer/musician Patti Smith.  I am honestly not sure of the ekphrastic reference.  It may be the song by Smith titled “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough.” Or it may be the story of a Smith reading/performance when someone in the audience returned sentimental personal items of Smith’s that had been stolen out of her tour van years before.  The gesture brought Patti Smith to tears.  But here is proof of the power of Lang’s writing, the ekphrastic reference is not necessary.  I found “Lost” to be haunting:

But neither the dead nor my dreams will stay with me,
and there are friends I have not seen in years.


Our lost do not come back like the cats
that walk into the next room in order to cry out

and wait for us to call.  It is tempting to think
that the lost return to the places we found them:

a favorite earring into the hands of the woman
who made it, the book with its marginal notes

to the dusty corner of a second-hand bookstore.

One of the starker poems in this collection, “Self-Portrait at 80,” after painter Alice Neel, may also be one of the richest.  Lang describes the artist’s self-portrait, “Yes, her breasts sag. / Her belly sits in her lap like a child.”  But Lang sees the artist in the image beyond the moment of sitting, sees her leaning forward eyes on her canvas ready to paint.  Viewing the actual painting online, I would not have seen life in this painting, but sadness.  Now, with gratitude to Lang, the painting and poem will stay with me as a testament to the unflagging “living” in art and the artist:

Even though everyone’s gone.
Left her with this body in its chair,


The work heals and heals
until it can’t.

Susanna Lang’s chapbook, Self-Portraits, was released in October 2020 by Blue Lyra Press, and her translation of Baalbek by Nohad Salameh is forthcoming in 2021 from L’Atelier du Grand Tétras. Her third full-length collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was published in 2017 by Terrapin Books. A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as Prairie Schooner, december, Delos, The Literary Review, American Life in Poetry and The Slowdown.  Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, and she is now working with Souad Labbize on new translations. She lives and teaches in Chicago. More information available at

Title: Self Portraits
Author Susanna Lang
Publisher: Blue Lyra Press, Delphi Series Vol IX (2020)
ISBN: 978-17338909-6-0
Price: $13.99

Albert DeGenova is an award-winning poet, editor, teacher, and blues saxophonist.  He is the author of three books of poetry and three chapbooks. His most recent collection, Black Pearl, was published by Purple Flag Press in 2016.  In June of 2000 he launched the literary/arts journal After Hours, for which he continues as publisher and editor.  DeGenova received his MFA in Writing from Spalding University, Louisville. 

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Calling the Garden from the Grave

Calling the Garden from the Grave by Lesley Clinton

Review by Herman Sutter

Reading Lesley Clinton’s exquisite first chapbook, I was struck by the breadth of her vision–the feeling of scope and magnitude radiating from her poems, but even more by the simultaneous intimate intensity of her focus. And I was reminded of two of the 20th century’s finest poets: Elizabeth Bishop and Jane Kenyon.  Clinton clearly walks a similar path, a razor’s edge between a kind of ordinary grace and something like sourdough surrealism, evoking a very appealing sense of vertigo. Through her transcendent shifting of focus from the dry rot of an old rubber band to the starlit wonder of a desert night, she gleans the fine dust of the infinite in even the simplest and most earthbound moments. As she writes, despite the fact that so much of our life seems wasted puttering around, there comes a moment when we lean horizonward and catch a glimpse of something more.  This book is wonderfully full of those glimpses of that something more.  Including the “fossil drama” found in a paleontology exhibit case in the poem, “Contingency”:

Here, a fossil drama, cast
in Paleozoic throes.
A horseshoe crab trenched
in mire. Its death march kept


Clinton, an award-winning Texas poet, and celebrated English teacher, writes often of her daily life as a wife and mother; but–as in the brief and quietly intense, “Careful,”–she is always aware of the risks lurking just beneath that apparent stillness:

A rare ice day.  We tend to things
gone still or stuck, add heat—but slowly,
or a crack might burrow in
and root apart what’s whole
_______________________Night frost
 has punched the windshield white. You run
a tepid lip of water
on the glass to clear a vision
of the road ahead. But we don’t speak–

I find that some of her most powerful writing comes in poems where she takes on a persona. Poems like “Cabeza de Vaca Weathers the Gulf,” “Jacal Mother,” and “Rothko Paints the Central Triptych,” where she adopts the persona of the suicidal painter, the lost explorer, or the indigenous mother. Through these voices, she is able to give us glimpses into a world that feels both foreign and familiar. 

Pushing away from the kitchen table, she leans horizonward and fearlessly explores the pain, the loss, and the sacrifice and discovers in it moments of courage and hope, truth and grace that expand our gaze, open our hearts and inspire us to look up and see the glorious and uncertain world around us.  With “Cabeza de Vaca Weathers the Gulf” she comes to see that perhaps survival itself is something worthy of wonder and praise.  The explorer in search of a new horizon, new worlds, loses almost everything only to discover something stranger.  Broken, he rises from the swelling surf, realizing suddenly that:

I’m no part of the swell
after all   maybe churned
in its maw all this time
but now beaded away
like loose mercury
on a mad roll

And rising from the waves, he finds that, though he may be “marrow formed,” he “can’t go back.” There is only one way and it is forward:

I heed the drum    its pulse
writhe self from selfish germ
and rise   go forth   made new

I find myself returning again and again to the poem, “Jacal Mother.”  It is a poem that reminds me of Tolstoy. (Which may be one of the highest compliments I can pay any writer.)  In it, Clinton imagines life as a primitive woman living in a wattle-and-daub hut in the deserts of the Southwest, evoking a life lived in the inescapable shadow of loss. Life and death walking always hand in hand,

______________________________ The baby
roots for milk. Another labor
gathers within.  One day

the stepchildren will whisper
rain and gardens to my babies.
A woman will braid my orphan’s hair.


The fourth wife’s daughter. Now my daughter.

In a year, whose?”

In the character’s quiet acceptance, I hear an echo of Tolstoy’s peasants, especially the quiet and simple Nikita from Master and Man

One of her finest poems, “Undying,” is a brief narrative about the last two people on earth.  In some obvious sense, it is a poem of catastrophic loss, and yet feels not oppressive nor elegiac, but lit by a spark of hope that arises out of what Keats called “negative capability,” which simply means the ability to contain contradictions without feeling the need to justify them.  This poem never addresses why these are the last two survivors, a kind of mythical bookend to Adam and Eve, if you will.  Nor does it assert any new Eden to come; but she acknowledges the human drive to assert itself, to always and everywhere leave a mark:

___________________ Survival on his breath,
he exhales into her hair, a gesture
wholly human—the last of such,
of saying, wanting to say.

The veins teem with a drive to build,
to knead from the sand one last civilization
even as the foundation caves–

for something always lasts,

That phrase, that hopefulness, the belief that “something always lasts,” could be the key to her poetry, to entering into these splendid pages; we must open our eyes and see that despite all we think we know of life and loss, there is always something more to learn, another song to hear, another hand to hold, another sky to ponder, another dance to step into as we leave our longings behind and discover that there is a tenderness in the hand that guides our lives; the hand that holds all history is the same hand that invites us to come and join the dance.

I have known Clinton for a few years now and seen a handful of these poems in their nascent state, watched them develop under her tireless scrutiny and dogged efforts.  She is a writer of such energy and insight that I am humbled every time I approach her work.  When I compare her to Kenyon or the wonders of Bishop, I don’t do so lightly.  In Clinton’s lyrical narratives, I sense an echo of Kenyon’s stories of hardware stores, dog walks and doctor visits. And her verbal juxtapositions create the kind of off-kilter surrealism that one discovers in Bishop’s strange fable-like pieces or her quietly transcendent “The Moose.”  What amazes me, though, is how Clinton’s work stands up to such comparisons. She is already a skilled and polished writer, accurate and honest in her observations and keen in her sense of details.  She has a musical ear for language that is at home as easily in formal works (whether in the sonnet: “Mother’s Reply,” or the lovely blank-verse: “The Sure Roots”) as it is in free verse meditations like “Engulfed” or the gorgeous imagistic “The Cathedral Sees Morning,” from which are the last lines that are the book’s title.

I would venture to say that someday not too far hence, when people talk of Texas writers, they will mention Clinton’s name alongside Vassar Miller, Larry McMurtry, Horton Foote, and Katherine Anne Porter as one of our finest writers, and when someone in that distant conversation begins to recall a line from one of her poems, the others will pause and listen and all will feel the warmth of “holding the horizon close” and the gathering soft-light of solitude rising as the word itself takes flesh and steps from the page.

Read these poems, experience the beauty of their mysterious calm, their contemplative peace and the radiance of their incredible artistry. These are poems to contemplate and to nourish the soul, but they are also poems to delight and inspire.  Open this book anywhere and you will find genuine poetry, and the voice of a great writer discovering her art.

Lesley Clinton, a Board Member of Catholic Literary Arts, has won awards from the Poetry Society of Texas and Press Women of Texas. She has been a Juried Poet at the Houston Poetry Fest three times and in 2019 received the Lucille Johnson Clarke Memorial award. Her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as America Magazine, Mezzo Cammin, The Windhover, Texas Poetry Calendar, Ever Eden, Ekstasis Magazine, Radiant Magazine, Sakura Review, Literary Mama, Euphony Journal, Gulf Stream Magazine, and By the Light of a Neon Moon. Her chapbook of poems, Calling the Garden from the Grave, is available from Finishing Line Press. Lesley has a Master of Arts in Teaching. She teaches at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory and is Assistant Editor of the Crusader Chronicle. Her husband and three children keep her smiling with game nights, backyard s’mores, and general adventuring. The family pet hermit crab has grown shockingly large over the years and is hatching an elaborate scheme to take over the house.

Title: Calling the Garden from the Grave
Author: Lesley Clinton
Publisher : Finishing Line Press (October 30, 2020)
Paperback : 40 pages
ISBN-10 : 1646623312

Herman Sutter (poet, librarian and volunteer hospital chaplain) is the author of the chapbook The World Before Grace (Wings Press) and a long-time reviewer for Library Journal. His work has appeared in: Saint Anthony Messenger, The Ekphrastic Review, tejascovido, The Langdon Review, Iris, Benedict XVI Institute, Touchstone, i.e., The English Review, The Merton Journal, blonde on blonde, as well as the anthologies: Texas Poetry Calendar (2021) & By the Light of a Neon Moon (Madville Press, 2019).   His narrative poem Constance, received the Innisfree prize for Poetry, and The World Before Grace, a poem for voices (about a survivor of the Bataan Death March), was honored by the Texas Playwrights Festival. He is also the author of the blog: The World Before Grace (and after) in which he contemplates the counter-cultural paradox of finding grace through the loss of self.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe

Coronary Truth

Coronary Truth, by Diane Elayne Dees

Review by Randal A. Burd, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

The Strangers Burial Ground

The Strangers Burial Ground, by Jennifer Stewart Miller

Review by Risa Denenberg

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

Lichens can be killed
but do they die?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but some letters & numbers
are shrouded in lichens.

the crustose types:

with my fingernails, I scrape
& scrape, taking

& leaving DNA—

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

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

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

The Strangers Burial Ground
3 conveyed to Truro 1

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

The town had plenty of cemeteries

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

But who knows what strangers believe—

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

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

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

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

Miller performs mothers’ invisibility with these words:

being the history

of her

And continues with this startling metaphor:

Surely nothing
is meant by it?

The sun blinds
with no dark intent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memoirs of a Witness Tree

Memoirs of a Witness Tree, by Randal Burd

Review by Diane Elayne Dees

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.