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.
Jayne Moore Waldrop came late to writing, in mid-life, and has much to say about her life and past in her strong first chapbook of poetry, Retracing My Steps, which was a finalist in the 2018 New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series Contest. The narrative poems hark to the hardworking legacy of her Appalachian forebears who farmed, and of women, especially the women in her family. One has the sense when finishing this collection of having completed several journeys, that of the poet and of other members of her family: mother, father, great grandmothers.
Intimate themes—what we feel and what has formed us as human beings—have always informed the writing of women. In much recent poetry by women, one sees the pull to reach back and plumb the past to get a sense of the self in the present. The work of Waldrop and other poets such as Cynthia Atkins seems to say that we are at a juncture in which learning from the past and recognizing mistakes become a key to help us heal and move forward. The great danger lies in separating ourselves from history, both familial and collective, and from one another and the earth, to which we are all rooted and belong.
In “The Other Side,” the narrator speaks to the loss of a sense of identity and origin that comes with displacement: “I am from the other side, / hybrid native and alien, / neither us nor them.” A loss of roots can threaten the sense of self, but so can divides imposed by those who need to create boundaries between people. In “The Wall: Haiku from a Gated Community,” the poet rues the idea of a fence having become a brick wall of defense: “Is the ten-foot fence / not enough to protect you / from those outsiders?”
Separation, displacement, and the longing for home are themes that run throughout this poignant collection. Waldrop ponders them and offers them up to the reader, often in the form of questions. In “What Am I to Do Now?” the narrator wonders, “How hard it must be / when one’s work is over / and there’s nothing left to do.” It is something Waldrop, who is also a mother of grown children and a lawyer, has surely also asked herself.
In the following email interview exchange Waldrop discusses her journey as a writer and the themes that drive her poetry.
Arya F. Jenkins: You came to writing late. What launched your journey into poetry? What have been the pitfalls and high points of that journey?
Jayne Moore Waldrop: I guess I’ve always been a writer, but I’ve taken a long path to get to poetry. In college I studied English literature and journalism. At the time journalism seemed to be the way to make a living as a writer. I worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for four years then went to law school. Language is important in law practice, too. Lawyers need to be effective communicators to advocate for their clients.
I practiced law for several years. After taking time off when our younger son was born, I knew I didn’t want to go back to practicing law. I wanted to write, but I never seemed to make time for it. I didn’t know where to start or how to build a writing life. I had a few creative nonfiction magazine pieces published, and at age 55 decided to apply for a low-residency MFA in fiction. I wanted to learn but needed the discipline that comes with deadlines and assignments. And even though it was daunting to go back to school and join an incoming MFA class of writers mostly the age of my own kids, I loved it. I like change. I like to think of life in seasons that provide different opportunities throughout a lifetime. And periods of change are particularly creative times, I’ve found.
I finished my MFA in 2014. My journey into poetry came later, inspired by time spent at the 2016 Appalachian Writers Workshop, where I listened to several acclaimed prose writers read their poetry. It was eye opening. I wanted to try poetry. I was especially interested in poetry by writers like Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, bell hooks, Ron Rash, and Silas House, all of whom I knew primarily as prose writers. Their poems have great narrative power.
During a residency at Rivendell Writers Colony, I read a lot of poetry, studied several craft books, and started writing. At the time I felt like a switch had been flipped in my brain. Writing poetry felt like writing distilled short scenes, like trying to capture a closely observed moment. A common theme appeared in some of the poems, one of reflection on the different seasons in life and paths chosen over generations of time. A line from All About Love by bell hooks really spoke to me: “Mindful remembering lets us put the broken bits and pieces of our hearts together again.” I used it as my book’s epigraph.
After I had a stack of poems written, I learned of a writing competition called New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest sponsored by Finishing Line Press. I assembled the poems and submitted the manuscript called Retracing My Steps. To my great surprise it was a finalist in the 2018 contest and was selected for publication. To me the book is the high point so far in my writing journey and tangible proof of the old saying, “It’s never too late.”
AFJ: From the outset of Retracing My Steps, you stress the importance of an observed life, knowing from where you came—I would imagine in order to know where you are headed in life. When did you first decide you wanted to write about Kentucky and your family? Did you have to do research, or did you grow up knowing the stories of your ancestors?
JMW: Writing what I know always includes Kentucky. My family came through Cumberland Gap more than 200 years ago, but I hope the poems reflect a more expansive view than the story of one family’s journey. Many families share the story of coming to a new, unknown place and trying to find a better life, whether that was 200 years ago or last week. The search for home is a human condition that connects us all.
I grew up hearing family stories – both of my parents were wonderful storytellers – and I’ve done my own research, including hiking the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap to retrace my ancestors’ steps.
AFJ: Another theme in Retracing My Steps is that of impending invisibility, the struggles of women as they let go—in birth and middle age, for example. “Mantle of Invisibility” is a powerful poem about the progress toward anonymity women face as they age: “She transformed into Invisible Woman and reset / her filters to block earworms like “Anti-aging,”/ “granny arms,” and “looking good for her age.” How does that struggle impact your life now, if at all?
JMW: Thank you for your kind words about “Mantle of Invisibility.” For years my best friend and I have laughingly talked about becoming invisible. It stings when you realize how our society diminishes people as they age, especially women. We don’t respect the wisdom that comes with experience as many cultures do. In fact we’re expected to fight getting older with everything we can throw at it from artificial hair color to wrinkle injections to plastic surgery to remake ourselves into something that lives up to societal expectations. It seems like such a superficial way of judging people and their worth, and it’s such a waste of precious time. The flip side of that looming redundancy is that there is power that comes with letting go of societal expectations. In the poem I decided to turn it into a superpower.
AFJ: In “Coming Through Cumberland Gap” you relay the fragile self-consciousness of modernity with all its privileges, and in “Pie Plate,” refer to your mother as made-from-scratch / woman, a farm-to-table / cook before that was a thing,” and to yourself growing up as wanting “to live the processed American dream.” As a woman and writer, in what ways have junctures between your mother’s life and your childhood dreams severed further, or healed?
JMW: I think many of us see our parents differently when we reach adulthood. As a child I just wanted to be like everyone else living that “processed American dream.” I wanted to fit in. I wanted to live in cookie-cutter tract housing like most of my friends and eat frozen TV dinners like the ones advertised in commercials. I wanted to fit in. But my parents didn’t automatically fit in. They had moved from Appalachia. They were different than most people in the small western Kentucky town where I grew up, a boomtown that grew exponentially in the 1950s when a uranium enrichment plant was built. They had made their own journey to make a new home in a new land. As displaced Appalachians, they were like refugees looking for a better life than the cyclical poverty in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. They had to have land to have a garden and livestock. They couldn’t have survived in a subdivision or separated from the land. As an adult I’m very proud that they maintained their mountain identity. They kept the culture alive for us with stories, music, and tables laden with fresh food from the garden instead of those lousy TV dinners. What was I thinking?
My mother didn’t have the opportunity to get a college education, but she worked hard to make sure her children did, especially her daughters. I’m also grateful to her for passing along her love of nature and being outdoors. She noticed the beauty of the natural world until the day she died.
AFJ: You also mourn the loss of dignity in the American dream, the building of walls, the sense of displacement and simultaneously the need for a sense of home. Can you expand on this concern?
JMW: Home is an important theme in my writing, both poetry and prose, and I think that relates to my family’s experience as displaced Appalachians. I’m intrigued by how people are connected to a place, even if that place no longer exists. Edward Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire that “Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” I’m fascinated by that idea. I’ve seen the force of this “one true home” in my family and others. After they left the mountains, my parents lived in their adopted city for fifty-plus years and built a good life, yet when they spoke of “home” they always meant the mountains. And when they visited the mountains, it seemed like they were forever disappointed that the place they remembered no longer existed. I’m working on a linked story collection based on a similar theme but in a different setting.
Jayne Moore Waldrop is a writer, attorney and author of Retracing My Steps (Finishing Line Press 2019), a finalist in the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest.Her prose and poetry has appeared in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Still: The Journal, New Madrid Journal, Appalachian Heritage, Minerva Rising, New Limestone Review, The Paddock Review, Sequestrum, Heartland Review, Luna Station Quarterly, Kudzu, and Deep South Magazine. Her stories have been selected as Judge’s Choice in the 2016 Still Journal Fiction Contest; finalists for the 2015 International Literary Awards Reynolds Price Short Fiction Prize, the 2016 Tillie Olsen Fiction Award, and 2017 Still Journal Fiction Contest; and honorable mention in the 2014 AWP Intro Journals Project. A 2014 graduate of the Murray State University MFA in Creative Writing Program, she served as literary arts liaison for the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning in Lexington, Kentucky, and book columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Title: Retracing My Steps Author: Jayne Moore Waldrop Series: New Women’s Voices Series (Book 144) Paperback: 40 pages Publisher: Finishing Line Press (April 5, 2019) ISBN-10: 1635348463 ISBN-13: 978-1635348460
Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American poet and writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and zines, most recently, IO Literary Journal, Rag-Queen Periodical, and The Ekphrastic Review. Her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Poetry is forthcoming in Poetica Review. Her poetry chapbooks are: JewelFire (AllBook Books, 2011), Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Love & Poison (Prolific Press, 2019). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite Press, 2018) is available here: www.aryafjenkins.com.
Inside each of us are hidden bombs waiting to detonate. These secrets, illnesses, fears, obsessions, desires, accidents, and political animus are revealed and exploded in Rebecca Foust’s newest book.
Winner of the 2018 Swan Scythe Press chapbook contest and published in late 2019, The Unexploded Ordnance Bin is a collection of tightly wound poems. Aptly named, each poem is a ticking bomb that bursts open upon reading, searing the reader with ordinary images and situations made precious by their destruction.
Foust organizes her poems into three sections: the first concerns family life and how neural divergence and physical injury tear apart traditional notions of family roles and future expectations. Those expectations are beautifully catalogued in “Everything Golden is Spilled,” in which Foust lovingly details the pleasures and minutia of motherhood, and utter adoration of the baby:
You were born and your hour was silver, new moonlight strewn
on dark ground. Pearls, seeds, wide banks of clouds, your bright hair,
your damp, sleeping lap-weight, scalp’s yolky chuff, tug at the nipple
This garden of motherly delights is slicked with subtle near- and slant-rhyme music: moon/strewn, ground/clouds, chuff/tug, which moves the reader through the poem gracefully, pulling us gently into the same swoon.
In her poem “Compound. Depressed. Fracture.” she asks, “How can a mother tend to her orchard?” A mother’s son is living in a cardboard box, and the box is hit by a bus. The boy was seriously injured, and the mother suffers emotional trauma as she watches the son heal, fall, and re-injure himself. How can a parent, in the necessary act of allowing your child to grow up and separate from you, protect and defend against destruction? It seems inevitable.
Yet in Foust’s world, even destruction can have beauty. The boy’s skin, a remnant apparently left behind after the accident, resembles “a wet petal translucent on pavement.” For me, at least, this image is an echo of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” There is a surprising power in the comparison of an item so seemingly mundane (skin/faces of strangers) with the most delicate part of a flower, and for that body part to be detached literally or figuratively from its whole is a reminder of how fragile we all are.
The second section expands its focus to include an examination of the misery and devastation caused by bigotry and political power in the larger world. It is a meditation of lament and serves as a requiem for various lives (mostly children’s) that are devalued and lost in the capitalist, greed-driven, might-makes-right norm that is contemporary global culture.
Several poems, including “Remembrance of Things Past” and the gut-wrenching “Requiem Mass for the Yuma Fourteen” address immigration into the United States and how many immigrants suffer and die during their journeys, and how those who survive are scarred. Other poems mourn victims of political violence in other countries, such as Syria and Palestine.
Another beautiful baby opens the section in “Miguel,” the child of an immigrant “and no, she doesn’t have papers.” The baby is “perfection,” yet the speaker cannot help but think of the terrible future so many other immigrants to this country face. She compares Miguel to her own son,
who under Hitler might have worn the black badge of the mentally impaired and been euthanized. When Miguel visits again I can’t see him without remembering the photos taken by my father, an army medic at Dachau…
The layers of similarity between Nazi policy and ICE/US policy are illustrated in the speaker’s discomfort with the contrast between herself, securely homed within a “picket-fenced yard” and the baby and his mother in their tenuous safety. It allows Foust to bring us to an explosive comparison: The ICE deportation centers that rudely warehouse immigrants to the US are horrifyingly like the concentration camps like Dachau.
Finally, the third section returns to the family, particularly focusing on the figure of a child who, as they grow up, is revealed to be transgender, shattering the mother’s expectations of and for this child. Although still a steep emotional journey, this section brings some relief from the painful grieving of the previous two. Indeed, the second to last poem “Moon” is return to a meditation on the celestial aspects of a child, one whose journey is not what the speaker/mother would have chosen for them.
Foust begins the poem with a sort of apologia but transitions quickly into an adoring, motherly embrace of this child’s new self:
. . . On the horizon Hangs a moon, tonight’s fat fruit, tomorrow’s pale rind. Shall I mourn one, seeing the other?
[. . .]
. . . Your hands will still be your hands. You come in, sit with me, eyes meeting mine while you teach me the pronouns.
I found this book gripping and shocking, perhaps because as a mother myself, I could easily put myself in the speaker’s shoes and share her stunned pain and confusion. The experience of so many things typically taken for granted (a beloved baby expected to grow up in the image of its parents could easily be a different baby torn from its parents and put into a cage at the US border) can burst a mother’s—and a reader’s—heart.
The learning process of accepting, parenting, and supportively loving all beings as they are is a daunting challenge for many. The shackles we must throw off are the expectation of traditional norms. Yet by the end of the book, Foust’s speaker rises above her preconceived notions and shows a way for the larger world to do so as well.
The mother is expanded, transformed; she accepts change and her children are still hers. We all experience events that force us to change. In order to survive and be happy, Foust says, we must accept these eruptions as the new normal. Once everything has the chance to explode and evolve, we are blown free.
I am looking very much forward to reading her forthcoming full book of poems, Only, from Four Way Books in 2022.
Title: The Unexploded Ordnance Bin Author: Rebecca Foust Publisher: Swan Scythe Press (November 5, 2019) Language: English ISBN-10: 1930454473 ISBN-13: 978-1930454477
Rebecca Foust is the author of Paradise Drive and The Unexploded Ordnance Bin, released last fall. A new book, ONLY, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2022. Recognitions include the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes and fellowships from Hedgebrook, MacDowell, and Sewanee. Foust was the 2017-19 Marin Poet Laureate whose theme, Sanctuary, attempted to give voice to and about immigrants in our county and beyond. She teaches classes at Mill Valley Library and Left Margin Lit and works as the Poetry Editor for Women’s Voices for Change, an assistant Editor for Narrative Magazine and co-producer of a new series about poetry for Marin TV, Rising Voices.
Siân Killingsworth’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Stonecoast Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist),Columbia Poetry Review, Mom Egg Review, Ekphrastic Review, Oakland Review, and Mudfish. She has an MFA in poetry from the New School, where she served on the staff of Lit. She is a current board member of the Marin Poetry Center.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).
We teachers of color can feel so torn, so defeated, so at a loss to reach some of our children and parents that we sometimes forget why we decided to teach in the first place […]. Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City —Pamela Lewis
After reading Matthew E. Henry’s poetry chapbook, Teaching While Black, I came across a number of articles and essays by Black educators regarding the experiences, longings, and burdens they confront working in public education in America. The problems are vast, exacerbated by poverty, racism and cultural ignorance; by undervaluing and underpaying educators; by underfunding public schools and diverting educational dollars to private schools; by abandoning arts education; and by being forced to “teach to the test” rather than being freed to teach students how to think and problem-solve for themselves. In the quote above by Pamela Lewis, she answers the question of “why we decided to teach” with these words,
[ . . . ] to uplift the people of our communities, to make students who feel invisible feel visible again, and to give them the confidence they need in order to want to achieve.
While Lewis is advocating on behalf of children of color in classrooms in New York City, she also speaks for teachers’ highest aspirations for all students in classrooms everywhere.
Henry is an educator with such aspirations, who also feels deeply the frustrations incumbent upon being a Black teacher working in schools with a majority of white educators and students. God bless him for that, and even more so, for the frank, humorous, and compassionate poems in his memorable chapbook, Teaching While Black.
The preface poem, “my third grade teacher,” places the daily experience of a Black child front and center. This is where invisibility begins, Henry tells us, as a teacher “explained skin” to him by stating that his face “lacked / the ability to bruise or blush.”
Growing from child to teacher in the classroom, Henry wonders how it is possible that he has “only been called “nigger” once by a student—at least / in my presence—and that under his breath.” He wonders facetiously “if I’m doing something wrong” if “I may need to make them more / uncomfortable with my skin.” The poem ends with this musing:
so it was surprising, struck me as odd, that it only happened when I told a while boy to put his phone away— the straw that broke his fragile back. deferred his dreams.
The second section of the book is mainly devoted to a dissection of sexism by a compassionate and knowing witness of the pervasive sexual abuse experienced by girls. Overheard in the classroom, someone says: “I don’t understand why a woman would wait / 36 years to say something.”
In “little red,” Henry portrays how futile are parents’ warnings, and simultaneously, how this works to stifle girls’ curiosity without protecting them. We can only nod and sigh, as “little red,”
rides through her hood her mama’s words in mind: keep to familiar, well-lit roads and don’t talk to strangers, wolves wear any disguise that fits— a badge, a stiff white collar.
While teaching Roethke’s “Waltz” to his class, exploring the tension between two possible views of the drunk papa, Henry notices a student who is silent in the classroom. He reports,
Katherine’s stillness split my heart.
Later she explained her stepfather’s demand of a demon’s dowry: how she nightly endured his endless gropes and gasps, in a silence which left her sister untouched.
The poems in Teaching While Black are brim-full of compassion for students’ palpable tragedies, despite their often ignorant and arrogant ways. One girl recounts how she mops up after her drunk mama in “happy birthday for Ashley,” while another girl’s “cotton sleeves conceal hash marks of silence” in “show, don’t tell.” A boy,
finds his father’s body just where the old man left it note pinned to the coat hung limp around his shoulders, final spasms timed for an after school arrival
In the final section, there are more harrowing narratives including the time “the school resource officer […] almost shot me in my class.” The final poem in the chapbook, resets the clock from teacher back to childhood, in “when asked what I learned in in elementary school being bussed from Mattapan to Wellesley.” Among the lessons learned, Henry recounts:
what they think is appropriate: to treat Black hair like a pregnant woman’s belly,
how to be a chameleon: to code-switch; to bite my tongue instead of theirs; to make excuses for them
to endure the cultural appropriation of slang.
I applaud Henry’s humanity, his decision and dedication to teaching; and his ability to write about these experiences so forcefully and with so much grace.
TEACHING WHILE BLACK Matthew E. Henry Mainstreet Rag Publishing Company, 2020 ISBN: 978-1-59948-785-4 52 pages Price $13 PURCHASE HERE!
Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is a multiple Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated poet and short story writer. His works have appeared in various publications including The Anglican Theological Review, Kweli Journal, Poetry East, The Radical Teacher, Rhino, Spillway, and 3Elements Literary Review. MEH received his MFA from Seattle Pacific University yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. An educator who has taught at the high school, college, and graduate levels, he will most likely die in a classroom. This is his first collection of poetry.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).
[re]construction of the necromancer by Hannah V. Warren –winner of Sundress Publications’ eighth annual chapbook competition–
Review by Lauren Davis
Many of us have internalized the watered-down version of Hansel and Gretel, where the kids seem sweet and the gingerbread house seems sweeter. The Grimm’s original tale is darker. The Warren tale is darker still. But history has the bleakest story of all.
From 1315 through 1317, there was famine in Europe. An estimated twenty-five percent of people in urban areas died. The elderly volunteered to starve. People dug up graves to eat the dead. And according to an Estonian chronicle, in 1315, “mothers were fed their children.”
Warren’s Gretel will not be eaten. Instead, she feasts. She meshes with the forest. She has two mother figures, and she is stronger than both. Alternating between first person and third person, these poems sit at the edge of “leaves & bones” while Gretel travels through trauma and abandonment, reclaiming her body as its own savior.
In an interview with Kyle Teller, a Creative Writing Ph.D. candidate at The University of Kansas, Warren says, “Transformation is an act, a process, a tangible outcome. It’s a way to move forward and discover a newness, a way to leave something else behind.” In [re]construction of the necromancer, we leave behind the old Gretel. She is not defined by her abandonment, unless we consider that it is abandonment that forces her into her own strength.
It’s easy to feel a little tricked by Warren’s language. We’re lulled with writing that feels lush and lovely, while all along the bodies cook. Take these lines from “Forgetting the Price of Liverwurst”:
I reconstruct who I may have been before my unbirth mother taught me
to drain femurs for marrow or to ribbon thyme & rosemary together for roasting
two eyes & calloused ﬁngertips rough from shelling beans & skinning potatoes
my body is growing & I wonder if I’ll have cartilage thin wings or a throat full of gills
a month ago my unbirth mother would have known how to pluck my feathers
she would have sweet thickened my hips with ginger & told me that growing girls
need plumstreusel & sinewy calves to feed the pressure in their wombs
Warren’s style is all stone fruit and spice. We stay with these poems not only for their drama, but also for their beauty. Is it any wonder that the woodland fuses with such a wild child?
Because of Warren, we learn to respect the breadcrumbs. They lead where the girls are forever.
Hannah V Warren is a poet, storyteller, and speculative literature scholar. [re]construction of the necromancer is the winner of the Sundress Publications 2019 chapbook competition. Among other journals, her works have found homes in Redivider, Moon City Review, and Mid-American Review. Warren has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Kansas and is a PhD student in English at the University of Georgia.
Lauren Davis is the author of Home Beneath the Church, forthcoming from Fernwood Press, and the chapbook Each Wild Thing’s Consent, published by Poetry Wolf Press. 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. Her work has appeared in over fifty literary publications and anthologies including Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Ibbetson Street, Ninth Letter and elsewhere.