FEED

Feed,  by Emily Mohn-Slate

It’s nothing short of amazing that most women survive their infant’s first year. A mom loses about 1000 hours of sleep during that year, leading to all kinds of worries, including, for example, driving while exhausted, and perhaps having a car crash while rushing a sick infant to the pediatrician’s office. And sleep deprivation is only a slice of the predicament. More toxic is the way motherhood has the habit of swallowing personhood.

Emily Mohn-Slate’s chapbook, Feed (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019), unpacks the strains and tensions that overwhelm mothers of infants: anxiety, forgetfulness, desperation, loss of identity, guilt, hypervigilance.  In “So Easy” the narrator reminds us that it is possible to kill a baby inadvertently in a sleep deprived state:

A woman left her baby in the car,
rushed to work—her baby overheated & died.

Of course, the poems in Feed do more than recount this theme, familiar as toast to so many of us. The universal dilemma of motherhood is retaining a semblance—even a memory—of oneself. The muscle in Feed is Mohn-Slate’s ability to transcend the inevitable difficulties by describing those early days with intense attention and focus. When she says, “I want so many things”  we tune in to the dissonance. But when she says, “What did my mother regret?  / Guilt, a tight ring I can’t take off,”  the weight of being a woman within generations of women rushes at us.

When she tells us,

The way I hold my son
no hands         my arms as railings
I can read a little,

we know she has succeeded not only in holding on to bits of her non-mom self, but in insisting on it, and in that process, asserting that to do so is our birthright as well as our daughters’. But that insistence does not erase constant anxiety, as she asks herself, 

Did I fasten the buckle around 
the baby’s soft waist?

Most of the 15 poems in Feed are detailed sketches performed as the scattered thoughts of a new mother who finds the job to be more than she bargained for, and then finds a way through it. A baby “grunts, spits” while mom longs “to be alone.” Along the way, there are detailed observations—of the baby of course—but also of the “saguaro cactus” that “only blooms at night,” and “the guy who collects the grocery carts” who “hops up and rides each one a little way / before they click into each other.”  Mohn-Slate vividly portrays the mood, the pace, and the angst of mothering in precise images such as, 

My shoulders are wedged in a box hammered shut by others, their needs heavy on my chest. 

The cover of Feed is a remarkable mosaic by Daviea Davis titled,Meeting the Aunts,” which gives us an infant’s eye view of being ogled by four terribly frightening faces. It is to Mohn-Slate’s credit that the poems in Feed maintain a clear-eyed view of the baby’s position, even while the poems focus on the situation of the mother. It’s not easy to look up at the world with infant eyes, while at the same time, experiencing the nonstop demands of mothering.

Two confesional letters addressed to “Dear Charlotte” were of particular interest to me. They frame the poems from “May” to “November” –a critical six-month period during which a new mother may or may not adjust to the tedium of caring for her infant. We are told in the end notes that “Charlotte” is Charlotte Mew, and Mohn-Slate is using “a few lines from Mew’s poems.”  It is as a poet that Mohn-Slate takes solace from Mew. I see the connection to the mother’s plight in these lines from Mew’s poem titled, “Fame,”

I see myself among the crowd,
where no one fits the singer to his song

Two babies appear in the book: a boy whose “appetite is unfeeling, total” and a girl, who “screamed & coughed on her own drool.”  The mother may complain “I never meant to be so needed” as she leans “over the counter eating / numb eyed”  but she doesn’t lose her footing. The final poem in Feed is titled, “I’m Trying to Write a Joyful Poem,” where she starts out saying, “after reading Ross Gay’s new book /which makes me feel light and giddy.”  But she can’t sustain it and the poem turns to,

but my poem becomes
about the collapse of long
love, how even the brightest
glint in the eye
becomes shadow eventually.

The poem, “Aubade with Teether” reminds us how often the teether hits the floor. We pick it up, wash it off (or not) and put it right back in baby’s mouth. Joy is found in those moments when kids can just be kids. Joy is also found in stealing time to read and write poems, in being a poet who is also a mother. Thus,

Joy must be at least
as complicated as sorrow.
 

Maybe joy is the real mystery.

Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of FEED, winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019). Her poems and essays can be found in New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, The Adroit Journal, Indiana Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her full-length manuscript has been named a finalist for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize offered by University of Pittsburgh Press, and the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes offered by University of Wisconsin Press. She is a member of the Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops and lives in Pittsburgh, PA. 

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).

Refugia

Refugia, by Kristin Berger

 

In her full-length book of poems, Echolocation (Cirque Press, 2018), Kristin Berger gives us a full-on love story, filled with sexual imagery (nipples welt at the memory of grazing), nature-tinged environs (hope helixing like swallowtails), lyric metaphors (… little rivers / come for you / like mouths)— and, in the end, the sorrow of loss (we could agree to send love away like that).

In her chapbook, Refugia (Persian Pony Press, 2019) she gives us a drilled down version of these themes, while at the same time conflating human urges with earth’s tempers and human offerings with earth’s counter-offerings—those consequences of human/earth interactions. But that sounds so ecological. In fact, none of the sexual imagery, natural environs, or lyric metaphors are missing here; instead, these condensed poems heighten a complex voice, and are more open to interpretation.

In Merriam Webster, refugium (noun, plural- refugia) is defined as:

an area of relatively unaltered climate inhabited by plants and animals during a period of climatic change that remains a center of relict forms from which a new dispersion and speciation may take place after climatic readjustment.

Whew, to that!

In the preface page of Refugia, Berger offers a more poetic definition, using words from the naturalist, Barry Lopez,

The realm of the unintended, the hidden, the inadvertent pocket of protection where species large and small often find their lives least disturbed.

These poems honor their title by reaching for that home where love or species may thrive in the midst of tempest. Refugia is composed of 24 poems, divided into two parts: “1/ Snow on Earth” and “2/ Earth on Fire.” Each short free-verse poem is set off by a 3-line haiku edging the right bottom of the page. The formatting of these poems feels to me like a variant of haibun. The haiku distill the already condensed poems from syrup to molasses.

In the two parts, the poems first reflect the role of snow in the cycle of activity and dormancy, and then the role of fire in the cycle of birth and destruction. They are not a statement or a warning; they are simply a small truth reflecting a larger truth. As such, and knowing where the author is located, they are about how the darkness and cold of winter heighten the desire for light and warmth; and how the forest fires of the Pacific Northwest stand for the passionate relationship between humans and earth.

Berger’s skill as a poet is in surprising language and a constant turning towards or leaning into an unexpected metaphor.  This craft comprises the poems, not just elements of them. Here are a few lines;

I pull you into me
like the swallow that rescues
blue yarn from the wrackline (9)

Fire begins with Yes, hungry
like a newborn, blazing every
notch, limb and canyon
pivoting towards the source. (15)

We may never be touched again
quite 
like this spring loves the earth.  (23)

The story here spans history and climate, bonds and rifts, past and future tense. It doesn’t have an ending, and conveys that there may be no relic to find of its story in the flooding of time. The notion of permanence without a living record is deeply ingrained in nature. Humans use words, but words may not survive what we have set in motion, or even what is inevitable. This is not to say these poems convey hopelessness or passivity. Rather, they are movements taking place in the process of finding refuge. In “24,” a love story—which is the entire history of the human species—hangs on these surprisingly hopeful words:

Children will skip through willow sundials
and the legends of bears’ large hearts
just to climb this terminal moraine,
feel the sun burning. (24)

Persian Pony Press, the publisher of Refugia, calls itself “a pop-up press based in Portland, Oregon.” You won’t find their website online. How fitting.

Kristin Berger 2019


Kristin Berger
 is the author of the poetry collections Refugia (Persian Pony Press, 2019), Echolocation (Cirque Press, 2018), How Light Reaches Us (Aldrich Press, 2016), and For the Willing (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Her long prose-poem and collaboration with printmaker Diane Sandall, Changing Woman & Changing Man: A High Desert Myth will be published in 2019/2020. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she co-hosts the Lents Farmers Market Poetry Series, which has brought over 40 local emerging and established poets to the neighborhood. More at kristinberger.me

 

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).

Sublime Subliminal

Sublime Subliminal, Poems by Rena Priest

Rena Priest’s first book, “Patriarchy Blues” (MoonPath Press, 2017) won an American Book award. Her new chapbook, “Sublime Subliminal” (Floating Bridge Press, 2018) was a finalist for the Floating Bridge Chapbook Award. In an interview posted at the Mineral School’s blog conducted during her fellowship residency there in October 2017, Priest had this to say about her writing:

 [T]he poems don’t always make sense, but I want to give my reader the feeling that there is some underlying formula involved, and I want to anchor them with images.

When reading Priest, it would be wise to take her guidance to heart. To look for the clues that emerge from the images she offers. To consider how her poems’ underlying structures, like subduction plates, may be moving even as they anchor. Be alert to the subliminal messages that are strewn throughout “Sublime Subliminal.” Some of these messages are found standing on their heads in tiny italics at the bottoms of pages on the outside or inside edges. That you don’t notice them right away is your first subliminal cue of what you are in store for as a reader. Will you figure out that the sideways messages are actually the translations of phrases within the poems themselves? There is much craft to envy in these poems. So dig in! 

Priest notes that poems in the collection “were inspired by Jim Simmerman’s invented form ‘20 Little Poetry Projects,’” (published in The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell, eds.). The poems are eloquent even without knowing about this special sauce, but I found it informative to review the exercise. And be prepared to Google any number of references within the poems. That said, the poems are a pleasure on first read and then sneak up on you with more sinister notes on closer reading.

The first poem in the collection, “Sublime Subliminal Liminal” showcases Priest’s extraordinary talent for sounds:

            The bridge is cerebral and phrenic—
            a mysterious reflex.
            When you put it to your lips,
            it is lexical.        

Now listen to the music in these lines in “The Coined Phrase:

            and a denouement that feels
            like krill on your skin—the silk
            of a half mill, in life
            and a whale’s meal made null. 

Priest also dreams up some of the most interesting metaphors. An example is this surprising—and very funny–comparison in “Sublime Subliminal Liminal,”

           You convulse.
           The bitterness is extra,
           like an impulse
           to discuss politics at length. 

And then this extended metaphor, which takes the poem to a different level of meaning:

           But between you and me,
           a tunnel is also a bridge.
           Each maintains a position
           on both sides of a threshold.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Super-sacred” which is an acerbic tour de force. Priest is introducing the reader to Native cultural appropriation from the first lines, “the super-sacred ceremony / is a portal to pre-contact.”

Parenthetically she advises her nonnative readers,

            (This is my real Indian poem,
           the one the admissions board
           and a certain readership
           have been waiting for.)

And then she forgives us conditionally,

           The super-sacredness of this,
           my real Indian poem
           is going to absolve all white guilt,
           but only if you buy my book

Each of the poems in Sublime Subliminal is at once partly amusing, partly ironic, partly musical, and partly a deep reflection on the current  state of the world. Or the eternal state of love, as in “Canadian Tuxedo” (which we learn is denim-on-denim),

The drunken monkey of truth
says, “It’s too late for you
to never tell me you love me.”
But I’ve already tasted in your kiss,
the pixels of lightning
you keep in your lips.

In the interview referenced earlier, Priest also said:

Just enjoy it for the way it sounds or feels.

I say: stop, look, and listen for Rena Priest. She is likely to surprise us again and again with her poetry.

Buy this chapbook from Floating Bridge Press! 

Rena photo.jpg

Rena Priest is a Lummi tribal member and a writer. Her work draws on history, science, and culture to tell stories and seek truths. Her debut book, Patriarchy Blues, was released on MoonPath Press and garnered an American Book Award. Her most recent collection, Sublime Subliminal, is available from Floating Bridge Press. Her work can be found in literary journals and anthologies including: Diagram, Sweet Tree Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Collateral Journal. She is the recipient of a 2018 National Geographic Explorers Grant, to write about regional efforts to repatriate an endangered Southern Resident orca from an amusement park in Florida. She holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

 

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).

Each Wild Thing’s Consent

“For what is sexuality if not nature?”

Each Wild Thing’s Consent, by Lauren Davis

When Lauren Davis read from her chapbook, Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press, 2018), at Imprint Books in Port Townsend WA, where she works as a bookseller, I understood why she chose to read the less risky poems in this very daring chapbook, but I’ll admit I was disappointed. When the first poem in a Table of Contents is titled “Vulvodynia,” you’d really have to trust your audience. But to her crafty credit, Davis intersperses poems about sexual encumbrance with gorgeous, very Pacific Northwest nature poems. And it renders everything enticing, as it should be. For what is sexuality if not nature?

On the other hand, you can’t look at the book’s cover (a photo with the understated title “Red Petaled Flower in Selective-color Photography,” credit: Donald Tong) without thinking of vulva. As with a Georgia O’Keefe painting, you can’t look without gazing, or gaze without longing. And here is where the marriage of wild life and the external female genitalia is clinched.

But I’m teasing you intentionally. Of course, you want a review to tell you about the poems. Simply stated, they are about a woman’s life, her partnership with a compassionate man, their wildlife treks, and her physical inability to have sex without pain. In these poems, there is something very natural, very sad, and very beautiful about the woman’s plight, a tango of words and their meanings:

            Vulvodynia, vulvar vestibulitis, vaginismus—
            they sound like the names of flowers, beautiful ones.

Davis’ imagination leans towards the outdoors, where of course, there is often danger, but always grandeur. She names the vagina ‘cave’ and makes a spider web of the body. In “Cave Study,” she begs the question:

            What exhausted spider slogs along inside
            my body, assembling her last home?

If you come for me, love, you will catch
at my cave’s mouth, rip her long assignment.

Overwhelm the web—I am full
of faith. Silk sticky, seek my grotto’s fingertips.

The craft in Davis’ descriptive lyricism is remarkable. Her gift to us in these poems is to not linger in gloom, but to transform it. The poems are mostly in couplets—Davis’ nod (more than a nod, really) to the partner who accepts the problem as spouse cares for spouse, as mother nurses infant—with affection, humor and patience.  In “Vaginismus” Davis offers this lament,

            What is this body if I cannot—
            when full of desire—join with a man.
            I have waited so long to find you.

            I told the sky prayers. And the sky
            listened. When I fell out of the trees
            strangers showed me   

            where you dwelled. Now that I
            have brought myself to you
            I cannot bring myself to you, fully.

Then, in “I am a New Caledonian Owlet-Nightjar,” there is this benediction,

        No one has heard my voice but you—
        a different genus of bird
        who sought and discovered me

        I beat my wings against yours
        unable to mate      but look

        how groomed my semiplumes

Creating lyricism from chronic pain is a remarkable feat. Davis’s exploration is deep and wide; it includes forays into the woods and travels to basilicas. It notices death as an arbiter of what is truly important. “In the Forest by the Bay,” Davis informs us,

        Grey beard, furrows, arthritic feet.
        I know enough to know I must imagine

        you dead, that every day has its own
        grief, understanding we cannot go on this way—

        living

While writing this review, I happened upon a superb poem titled Vulvodynia by Ellie White online at Foundry. What a rare coincidence! In fact, the popular and medical literature of vulvodynia is hardly inspired. There exists a National Vulvodynia Association (the you-are-not-alone source for women with the condition); numerous vulvodynia products and self-help books for sale on Amazon; a heavy metal band with the name; studies in peer-reviewed medical journals; a vulvodynia Pinterest page; and, of course, personal-journey blogs.

What distinguishes poetry from information is what we call lyricism. Davis’ poems have the softness of a featherbed and the sharp edges of quills. You will have to read through this short set of poems at least twice, to really take in what she is doing here. Each Wild Thing’s Consent is a transformative work. If I may be excused for trying to paraphrase a “take-home message” in these lush poems, it’s that a poet with her skill can make you think twice about everything you find on the plate you call your life. Everything. And then some.

            Yes, my love, we belong, but on soil stained knees,
            asking for each wild thing’s consent to stand.

 

Review by Risa Denenberg

Sources

https://www.pexels.com/photo/abstract-art-bloom-blossom-204959/
https://www.nva.org/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27607347
https://www.foundryjournal.com/ellie-white.html

Lauren Davis (2)Lauren Davis is the author of Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press). She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and her poetry, essays, and stories can be found in publications such as Prairie SchoonerAutomata Review, and Empty Mirror. Davis teaches at The Writers’ Workshoppe in Port Townsend, WA, and she works as an editor at The Tishman Review.

Buy this chapbook!!

Purchase the PDF here: https://poetrywolfpress.bigcartel.com/
It’s available for $10.00 at The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books
OR order a signed copy from Lauren. Contact:   LaurenDavis802@yahoo.com
(add $3 for shipping)

 
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).