Coronary Truth

Coronary Truth, by Diane Elayne Dees

Review by Randal A. Burd, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

The Strangers Burial Ground

The Strangers Burial Ground, by Jennifer Stewart Miller

Review by Risa Denenberg

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

Lichens can be killed
but do they die?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but some letters & numbers
are shrouded in lichens.

the crustose types:

with my fingernails, I scrape
& scrape, taking

& leaving DNA—

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

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

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

The Strangers Burial Ground
3 conveyed to Truro 1

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

The town had plenty of cemeteries

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

But who knows what strangers believe—

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

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

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

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

Miller performs mothers’ invisibility with these words:

being the history

of her

And continues with this startling metaphor:

Surely nothing
is meant by it?

The sun blinds
with no dark intent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memoirs of a Witness Tree

Memoirs of a Witness Tree, by Randal Burd

Review by Diane Elayne Dees

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Lesbian Fashion Struggles

Lesbian Fashion Struggles by Caroline Earleywine

Review by Sam Preminger

In her first chapbook publication, Lesbian Fashion Struggles (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020), Caroline Earleywine brings a bright candle of queer artistry to the final quarter of 2020 as a guiding light, a warning, and a respite. Across 44 pages of narrative free verse, Earleywine explores the intricacies and intersections of lesbian identity while faithfully uplifting queer youth and sharing hard-won lessons from self-discovery. The result is insightful and bursting with sparks of joy, though never ignorant of the shadows which encroach on queer spaces and bodies.

The collection opens with “Where I Come from,” a scene of Americana wherein the poet makes a pledge to her queer Southern predecessors:

I have relatives long gone, women
from the Old South who never married –
who lived in their aprons and their closets
and I think of that Mississippi

swelter, that suffocating silence
and so I say I have a girlfriend

This is a commitment to closeted lesbians of the past which, on first read, I imagined the book had neglected to fulfill. After all, the poems that follow don’t detail a lineage of queer fore-bearers nor dwell on the oppression of generations long gone. Instead, the narrative shifts to focus on the author’s own journey and those of the queer youth around her. While I briefly considered this a failure to fulfill the book’s initial promise, on further reflection, I came to realize that these poems are precisely what our queer ancestors are needing: not to have their names gilded in floral language, but for us to celebrate those here today and forge a path for those to follow. We honor our queer ancestors by honoring ourselves and those to come, a truth Earleywine understands intimately and rises to time and time again, centering queer artists and youth.

In the poem, “GSA,” as a teacher helping to organize her school’s GSA, of its students she asks:

. . . Who better

to prepare me, to teach me how to live life outside
of a closet than the same kids who clap every time I say

my wife? Who gather around her picture on my desk
like it’s a holy grail, who are so desperate for heroes,

they wear pride flags tied around their necks as capes,
become the heroes themselves.

Stanzas such as these have the potential to grip gay, straight, and any other manner of reader alike as they push us to recognize the courage of queer youth, to question how much more we might learn from their example. And yet, while I found myself gripped by such moments, they couldn’t explain the impact of the collection as a whole. For some time I remained uncertain what it was that not only piqued my interest in Earleywine’s work, but what resonated in such a manner as to be more than relevant and well-crafted, to be essential to the present moment. This poet has presented us with a collection about identity — familial, cultural, and queer — a collection that offers comfort and confrontation and complexity as it grapples with these facets of self and yet none of this alone is what truly makes her writing shine.

What makes this book critical in our current times is how, underneath layers of nuance, Earleywine is offering us a collection of love poems. These works are far from the saccharine some may anticipate upon hearing the term, but they’re love poems nonetheless; writing love to family, to queer ancestors and youth, to the poet’s spouse, to clothing and language and to the self. They’re love poems which do not coddle nor for a moment forget the sinister realities which creep around queer relationships. They are love poems. And they’re lovely.

From “Femme Invisibility”:

Sometimes I disappear, but
on the car ride home
you reach for my hand,
your thumb grazing across
my palm and the car fills
with light. I am so seen
I glow.

As demonstrated here and throughout the surrounding pages, Earleywine’s verse is as welcoming as a warm ocean and conceals an equal depth beneath. In poems neither simple nor obscure, she wields a multitude of techniques masterfully, with particular emphasis on cunning line breaks and subtle, charming musicality.

This is the book I wish I’d had as a child and I suspect it’s a book countless readers need right now. It’s a brief collection reaching far beyond the boundaries of its covers, marking the first perfect-bound publication of what promises to be an equally far reaching poetic career. A lesson in how to uplift love within the darkness, the cold, and the grey. A lesson many of us have needed our entire lives and from which we may all learn today.

Caroline Earleywine teaches high school English in Central Arkansas where she tries to convince teenagers that poetry is actually cool. She was a semifinalist for Nimrod’s 2018 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and for the 2019 Vinyl 45s Chapbook Contest. She was also a finalist for the 2019 Write Bloody Publishing Contest. Her work can be found in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Barrelhouse, NAILED Magazine, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte and lives in Little Rock with her wife and two dogs. Her chapbook, Lesbian Fashion Struggles, is out now with Sibling Rivalry Press.

Title: Lesbian Fashion Struggles
Author: Caroline Earleywine
Publisher: Sibling Rivalry Press
ISBN: 978-1-943977-79-6
Publication Date: 10/15/20
Retail Price: $12.00

Sam Preminger is a queer, nonbinary, Jewish writer and publisher. Having completed an MFA at Pacific University, they’ve since moved on to serve as the Editor-in-Chief of NAILED Magazine while continuing to perform at local venues and work one-on-one with poets as an editor and advisor. They live in Portland, OR, along with their partner and stepcat.   

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Inclined to Riot

Inclined To Riot by KMA Sullivan

Review by Michele Bombardier

Artists and poets have grappled with the relationship between life and art for millennia.  KMA Sullivan, in her collection Inclined to Riot (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), brings timely and current considerations to this conversation. These poems smolder with passion, longing and fury as the poet considers art and compares it to her experience as a woman,

in a land where peace equals a naked woman
on her knees
milking a goat
where a river of pink babies
is called the source of life
I am not a woman at tea
the same as still life with pear

We don’t need to be told that the art the poet is viewing is by a male artist. We feel it. These poems center defiance to the male gaze and idealization of women across time and in different art forms.

The poems in Inclined to Riot are written without punctuation, no capitalization except “I”, and are mostly in short lines and in first person. The capitalized “I” rightly draws attention to itself, a statement of assertion.  Sullivan uses the steady rhythm of short lines to effectively amplify emotional intensity, as in the poem “here”:

a glass box of broken limbs
face worn away
I can still ride this horse
glow at night
like red light on egyptian blue
I was born to be luminescent
a stampede
forced down on one knee
held by my hair
that languid boy
cast a shadow even in relief
even in fragments
mouth open, nostrils flared
I am nomad, moon goddess, carbon smear
if wings sprouted from my face
I would not fly back

Sullivan writes in her post notes that her visits to nearly sixty galleries and art spaces in Europe and the US influenced the poetry in this collection in which they offered a “conversation” with her inner life. Sullivan grew up with an art historian mother and this deep exposure to classical art is reflected in her poems. These are more than ekphrastic poems; Sullivan draws on our collective knowledge of famous art pieces and expands on it as she challenges long-held feminine ideals of virtue, beauty, domesticity. She writes:

the cubists got it right
we are all this fractured form
but we make it down the stairs
with our pieces tumbling
choose among milkmaid and saint
and slotted spoon

I find myself teaching these poems in workshops, especially to show how Sullivan masterfully combines lyrical and narrative poetry with aspects of language poetry, how she layers image upon image to build intensity. As in the poem “armature”, Sullivan writes:

rodin offers joan of arc
her head of sorrow
in ecstasy
among twigs on fire
I refuse to sit for my portrait
become a placeholder
a fragment of a door

Each line packs a powerful punch. Teachers of poetry would benefit from using Inclined to Riot in their armamentarium as a book that uses many craft devises to amplify emotion and power. This book is both timely and timeless with its contemporary and feminist examination of art that has endured.  I am glad for this collection that not only questions our relationship to self and art but are poems of feminist empowerment using a kaleidoscope of images that linger in the mind’s eye.

KMA Sullivan is the author of two poetry collections: Inclined to Riot (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019) and Necessary Fire, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her poems and essays have appeared in Boston ReviewThe RumpusSouthern Humanities ReviewForklift, OhioThe Nervous Breakdown, The Offingdiode, and elsewhere. She has been awarded residencies in creative nonfiction and poetry at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Summer Literary Seminars and she is the coeditor-in-chief of Vinyl and the publisher at YesYes Books. KMA received an MFA in poetry from Virginia Tech; in earlier years she earned degrees in philosophy from Trinity College and Boston College and raised five children with her partner of 35 years. She is the cofounder of YesYes Healing Garden, an acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine in Portland, OR. KMA believes in the power of art and literature to improve the lives they engage.

Title: Inclined to Riot
Author: KMA Sullivan

Publisher: Sibling Rivalry Press
ISBN: 978-1-943977-58-1
Library of Congress Number: 2018960662
Publication Date: 05/29/2019
Retail Price: $15.95
5.83 x 8.27” Paperback; 66 Pages
Distributed by Ingram and Sibling Rivalry Press

Michele Bombardier’s debut collection, What We Do was a Washington Book Award finalist. Michele is a Hedgebrook and Mineral School fellow and the founder of Fishplate Poetry, which offers poetry workshops while raising money for medical care for refugees in the Middle East and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in poetry and works as a neurological and developmental specialist SLP. Her work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review and many others.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Birkenstock Blues

Birkenstock Blues by Jefferson Carter

Review by Frank Jude Boccio

In 2019 Presa Press (Rockford, MI) published Jefferson Carter’s eleventh book of poetry entitled Birkenstock Blues. I don’t know the background and why he did it, but Carter was moved to buy back his rights and self-publish the volume this year with a much better cover and with three additional poems. It just goes to show you that sometimes, indeed, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!

Up front, I must disclose I know Carter. He was a regular in my Sunday Mindfulness Yoga class and I – and some of my teachings – have been alluded to in several poems found in his previous volumes, Get Serious: New & Selected Poems (Chax Press, 2013) and in Diphtheria Festival (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2016), which has a cover blurb from me: “The poet Carter reminds me of is Billy Collins, but a mordant, twisted, even punk Collins.” And the poems found in Birkenstock Blues certainly bear that out. Tucson, Arizona’s previous mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, says “[Carter] has long captured life’s subtleties with humor, irony, and a touch of charming cynicism that brings home truths we recognize with a knowing wink.” Anyone who has known a cynic – or harbors an inner cynic – knows that within the heart of any cynic abides a romantic nursing their wounds – or a cocktail. Or both.

Case in point: the opening three poems all paint a picture of his marriage, the deep love and respect hiding in plain sight behind the dry and — there’s that word again — mordant wit. In “Life Partner,” Carter tells us how, “for convenience” he and “the woman formerly known as” his wife have numbered their arguments. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship understands how couples recycle the same arguments again and again. And as all good art does, the universal is made explicit through the personal: “Number 5, you left / hair in the sink again.” “Number 13, you don’t listen to me.” Carter’s honest riposte to that one is “But I do. I just don’t agree.” How can you read this and not find the affectionate warmth of the familiar? The conclusion to this poem – as in many of his others – ends with a jolt that evokes the mic drop of a punch line or a slap across the face. It’s in this way that Carter reveals the subtleties and truths of the mundanity of daily life.

Carter also writes honestly and revealingly about aging, which is refreshing in our youth-obsessed culture. In “Fugly,” the poem that refers to the Birkenstocks of the book’s title, he shares the time-honored ritual of a man used to being dressed by his wife, only here it’s the costume of an “old hipster doll” with:

Straw fedora, brand-name t-shirts
from the thrift store, Bermuda shorts,
black dress socks & scuffed wingtips.

I read that description and almost spilled my bourbon, laughing at the image provoked in my mind’s eye. Then he drops the lines:

I don’t mind, playing child to your mother,
finally getting why old men sometimes
call their wives Mother.

Those lines evoke earlier eras fraught with the mashup of the tenderness and creepiness of that dynamic.

Another thing I appreciate about Carter’s poetry is how quick and penetrating he is to see and hear possibilities in places of mis-cue, mis-hearing and misunderstanding. The title of his chapbook, Diphtheria Festival, was the result of his googling Dipthera festiva, a black and white moth. Google responded, “Did you mean Diphtheria Festival?” Just now, writing that, I laughed yet again! But Carter uses something like that to create a truly wonderful poem, making art from happenstance. And he does it again in Birkenstock Blues in the poem “Advocate” which begins:

I’ve misread her job title:
conservation advocate, not
conversation advocate. How we talk!

And so opens a meditation on the environment, a major concern for Carter as he has long advocated and volunteered for Sky Island Alliance, a locally based environmental organization here in Tucson, Arizona.

This concern is also front and center in Carter’s poem, “The Book Of Extinctions,” (inspired by Extinct Species of the World, Jean Christophe Balouet, New Holland Publishers Ltd., 1990) which includes this quote from that book,

more than 100 species
a day will have disappeared by the end
of the century.

I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll say that for a short poem of only 15 lines, the ending once again draws a breath and creates a deep pang in the heart with an image that has deep resonance. I love it!

I could go on but I won’t, other than to say that Jefferson Carter mines a special kind of art in his poetry. There’s nothing pretentious about his work. And neither is there anything trite. He writes a kind of poetry that captures real moments of life, snapshots of small particularities that shed light on the human condition. He’s a yogi and a bad seed curmudgeon, and in that mix is a small, not grandiose, creative treasure I value very much.

Title: Birkenstock Blues
Author: Jefferson Carter
First Edition: Presa Press, Rockford, MI, 2019

Second Revised Edition:, 2020

Jefferson Carter has poems in such journals as Barrow Street, Cream City Review, and Rattle.  Chax Press published Get Serious: New and Selected Poems, chosen as a Southwest Best Book of 2013 by the Tucson/Pima County Public Library.  In 2019, Presa Press released his eleventh collection, Birkenstock Blues. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Connie.  He’s a passionate supporter of Sky Island Alliance, a regionally-based environmental organization. 

Frank Jude Boccio, author of Mindfulness Yoga, is an ordained zen Buddhist dharma teacher and creator of an approach to yoga postural practice based upon the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness. His writing has appeared in many yoga and Buddhist journals and anthologies. This is his first poetry review to be published outside of Goodreads!

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.


Jackpot, Jeanne Morel

Review and Interview by Mary Ellen Talley

Jeanne Morel’s second chapbook, Jackpot (Bottlecap Press, 2020), travels within a map of language and place. With mentions of North America, Parisian fountains, and the Mekong River in the rainy season in the first poem, “Birthday Parties are Pluperfect,” I knew I was in for an exploration of semantics and quotidian nostalgia.

For instance, which meaning of “pluperfect” is Morel addressing? If birthday parties are pluperfect, are such annual celebrations a grammatical reference to the past perfect tense, or should we choose the other meaning—that such celebrations are more than perfect? Morel presents an ambiguous choice. In several poems, Morel lists options for possible word meanings for readers to ponder. Many poems, adjacent or elsewhere, resonate with one another and it was fun to find and return to recurring details.

Morel does not plunge head-on into serious topics; she jumps in and out to surprise and delight, then moves onward. With sardonic vernacular, the first poem informs: “Upstream is where the shit begins.” The poem ends tongue-in-cheek:

Lordy, what an outfit
                        If you wear that, no one will take you seriously
                                    Not this Christmas

Not the day after that either
                        & out of the sky dropped a billion butterflies!
            Shimmering like olive trees, only orange and purple –

Take this to the boss
                        and best of luck

This chapbook’s thirty pages of inventive grammar in experimental free verse include the incidental as well as the substantive. We come across maps, rats, insects, Winnie-the-Pooh, planets, storage containers, and ice cubes, as well as politics, planets, nuclear bomb testing, astronomy, geometry, logic, and bits of colloquialisms. A bartender shows up as insects crawl over the fence in “Longer than the Wrong Road,”

The saloon doors slap behind me.
Butterflies flood the 
underworld. Where do you come


In a recent conversation, Jeanne shared that “Many of my poems involve movement – and/or lack of movement. Many, like the first poem, collage multiple locations and times. I’m intrigued by what Kwame Dawes calls ‘the tension between the here and the there’ […] and the collage of memories.”

Morel is not a poet of abstract language, metaphor, or message. “I don’t think about images,” she said. “I think of gathering […] I follow sound. I don’t write into ideas or messages.”

Morel’s poems are not linear. Her lines hop, skip, and jump thematically but also remain circular as threads return and reverberate throughout. The box-contained poem “Splintering Tiny Soup Bowls Up Into the Sky,” opens up “Grounded in a place you can’t see,” like nested “Russian dolls comet-ing / across the sky.” As Morel goes about her poetic gatherings, she weaves in tidbits of information, such as “Prussian Blue, the color invented by / accident.”

Regarding poets important to her, Morel said, “I go to Marvin Bell for inspiration. He said art is a way of life, not a career. He advised students to read poets who don’t write the way they do. Some of my favorite poets are Richard Hugo and Philip Levine, even though my poetry isn’t anything like theirs.”

Several poems touch upon serious concerns, such as the U.S. nuclear testing in 1962 in “A-Bombs Over Nevada” or the reactions of an Iraq War veteran in “Given the Conditions.” Morel’s touch is light while offering information, insight, and juxtaposition. For example, she mixes “lullaby sun” with the  “slung fences” of the WWII internment camp in the sonically lovely poem, “Purple Over Tule Lake.”

Although these poems are not personal, the reader may infer snippets about the speaker/poet with her references to a student visiting during office hours, yellow roses outside a kitchen window, or the presence of a cat. In “An Unsuitable Home for a Cat,” Morel refers to the serious issue of nuclear waste at Hanford, Washington:

Richland wives in glasses
including Marge

Oh, don’t worry

about that – my mother in
law cracked

when I fretted
about radiation wafting

over after Fukushima

My buddy cat black

In “The Next Day I Was Almost Done with Dinner When a Student Came & Pulled Up a Chair,” Morel writes,

Sounds like a circus spectacle – a jester jostling for power in the aisle
of the commuter bus. The medium is the message; the freeway the periphery; the bleats a form of saccharine.

In “Map,” Morel parses lists of words for parts of speech and idioms. She also throws in an assignment, as “Write a letter to a relative explaining the verb – to map. Mail it / to the president .” Assignments likely come naturally to her. Although she has been involved in refugee and resettlement work, she presently teaches as an adjunct professor at Seattle Central College and Bellevue College in Washington state. When asked about the impact of her teaching, Morel said, “My writing helps my teaching. It feeds my teaching.”

Few of Morel’s poems stay within the justified left. The margins meander in sentences or phrases, sometimes ending a short line with an article, which tends to create a pause. In more conventional poems, I might find this distracting, but distraction is part of experimental poetry, as it is in life. She also uses numbers, dashes, bullets, brackets, slashes, & ampersands and employs random segues, spare punctuation and semantic word play, often eschewing capitals or periods. An example of this is found in “Nobody Cares What Color My Coat is.” The poem begins with image and map:

I wrap myself in an alphabet for stormy

& head across the pass     map-less & w/o a hat
and yet some days I can’t

leave the house unless I’m dressed     in blue jeans, a black t-shirt,
You have too many consonants & vowels in your name

[the real estate woman smirked

Morel addresses issues of our current situation in “Crawl City,”

When you are obsessed is no
time for pleasantries

the television of all night
convenience shops

a monitor monitoring our every move
above the cash register

while rats race labyrinths
/ in the space between

your hairline and your fine plucked

This chapbook is a tall refreshing glass of water. Or perhaps a glass of wine? The title poem (also the last poem), “Jackpot,” presents “salmon, sagebrush // & Syrah.” There’s honest humor: “The only major / state of grace ka-ching / ka-ching.”

I noticed the circular juxtaposition with the first and last poems. The first poem, “Birthday Parties are Pluperfect,” begins with ascent,

Why did the balloon float over the fence? /
wind – helium & a string let loose –
All the fences in North America are at right angles with one another.

Then “Jackpot,” ends with descent:

your lucky

number–drop a deep
blue blossom
on the carpet swirl/ watch
it fall
a stranger

Morel seems to be telling us that life is both a gamble and a roller coaster. She presents numbers and mathematics which give us odds that are less than we might predict. Perhaps we’re just in it for the ride. Sometimes we hit the “Jackpot!”

Jeanne Morel is the author of two chapbooks, Jackpot (Bottlecap Press) and That Crossing Is Not Automatic (Tarpaulin Sky Press). She holds an MFA from Pacific University and has been nominated for a Pushcart in both poetry and fiction. Her poetry has been published in great weather for MEDIAPhantom Drift, Dunes Review, and other journals. She lives in Seattle where she teaches writing and is a gallery guide at the Frye Art Museum.

Mary Ellen Talley is a former speech-language pathologist. Her poems have appeared widely in publications including Raven Chronicles, Flatbush Review, and Banshee, as well as in several poetry anthologies. Her poems have received two Pushcart nominations. Book reviews by Talley appear online and in print journals, such as Compulsive Reader, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Sugar House Review and Empty Mirror. Her forthcoming chapbook, “Postcards from the Lilac City,” will be published by Finishing Line Press.

Title: Jackpot
Author: Jeanne Morel
Publisher: Bottlecap Press
Purchase at Bottlecap Press: $10

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals

Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals by Laura Cesarco Eglin

Review by Nancy Naomi Carlson

A whole body of literature exists that focuses on the body. Indeed, one might make the assertion that all literature does so, in one way or another— enraptured body, dying body, panicked body, betrayed body, and, as in the case of Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals by Laura Cesarco Eglin (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), body as betrayer.

Because I, too, have gone through, and written about “the cancer experience,” I was particularly drawn to this chapbook. I was curious to see how cancer could be the subject of a collection of poems without it spreading into all aspects of what makes a book cohesive and alive, i.e., a sense of tension between themes, linguistic risks, and tone (to name a few). Cesarco Eglin contrasts her subject matter’s doom and gloom with the urge to live her still-young life despite the ever-present shadows. The dark humor infused in these poems also underscores the seriousness of their themes. For example, in “Articulating the Changes in My Body,” Cesarco Eglin, a fine translator herself, compares her scars to Morse code:

I’m thinking about the Morse code as a
possible alphabet to get through, to get by,
to translate.

She then gives a graphic representation of Morse-code-as-scar.

It’s easy for poems about illness to veer off into sentimentality or self-absorption, but Cesarco Eglin masterfully negotiates the geography of living an unconditional life, despite her multiple bouts with melanoma, and despite the need “to guard [each] new spot ‘like a hawk.’” In this pandemic year, many of us are directly experiencing the need to be extra-vigilant to avoid contracting the virus, which makes this new chapbook of poems particularly relevant. Cesarco Eglin can never escape “the doctor’s voice in [her] head: it will come back.” She reminds us that “there is no vacation from being alert.” Indeed, in an existential stance to confront the absurdity of the human condition, she instructs us on how to take control of the uncontrollable, and writing is her chosen strategy. She offers us this wisdom:

One scar, then another;
that’s two lines already:
a couplet written in five months,
a couplet that promises
to be the beginning of a lifetime
of poetry.

Melanoma, her muse, has provided her with the motivation to be “aware of any little change in color, shape, texture, dimension, state, mode or mood of any mole or stain or spot on [my] body.” Cesarco Eglin, who was born in Uruguay and is fluent in Spanish and English as well as other languages, is open to melanoma teaching her the language of the body—learning it well enough to eventually call herself “a native speaker.” She’s trying to learn to embrace her scars, and compares them to bridges, as she brilliantly transforms the threatening juxtaposition of “bridge” and “attempt” to a life-affirming choice:

Many bridges, an attempt
to keep me in one piece;
an attempt to keep me
alive long enough
to cross them all.

In these days of COVID-19, we could all use something to help us cross these bridges—something to remind us to keep believing there are still “skies and wonders.”

The Reviewer posed some questions to the author about her book:

Nancy Naomi Carlson: What about Life, One Not Attached To Conditionals is uniquely suited to the chapbook form?

Laura Cesarco Eglin: I felt that a shorter form would suit Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals as a way to, at least in language, be able to finish the cycle, end the struggle psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. Intense, short, and move on to life, one not attached to conditionals.

NMC: I notice that “translation” is one of the themes of Life. How did your work as a translator (and an author who is translated) impact your writing this chapbook?

LCE: Experience translated into language. Poetry as a means to question, challenge, and rearrange thoughts and experiences. Translation as a form of reading deeply, analyzing.

NMC: Writing about illness seems to be a tried-and-true genre, but is also an emerging one, as the landscape of disease is ever-shifting. Were you influenced by other writings on this topic?

LCE: More than influenced on writings on this particular topic for this particular chapbook, I would say that I am always influenced by all the books I read. I think that goes without saying. But there are two books in particular that I’d like to highlight. They deal with overcoming a loved one’s death or suicide: Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen and Instead of Dying by Lauren Haldeman.

NMC: Can you say something about your wonderful title (e.g., how it came about; when, in the process of writing, it came to you…)

LCE: The title comes from a line in “Recovery,” a poem in Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals. I did not set out to write a poetry collection about having melanoma and skin cancer repeatedly and what that meant. I was writing poems and they, understandably, had that focus. The process of editing, rereading, changing, rewriting brings new perspectives, and when I read that line I perceived that it encapsulates the compass, as well as the power I think language has.

TITLE: Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals
AUTHOR: Laura Cesarco Eglin
PUBLISHER: Thirty West Publishing House, 2020
PRICE: $11.99


Laura Cesarco Eglin is a poet and translator. She is the author of three collections of poetry: Calling Water by Its Name, translated by Scott Spanbauer (Mouthfeel Press, 2016), Sastrería (Yaugurú, 2011), and Reborn in Ink,translated by Catherine Jagoe and Jesse Lee Kercheval (The Word Works, 2019). She has also published three chapbooks: Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), Occasions to Call Miracles Appropriate  (The Lune, 2015) and Tailor Shop: Threads, co-translated with Teresa Williams (Finishing Line Press, 2013). Her poems, as well as her translations (from the Spanish, Portuguese, Portuñol, and Galician), have appeared in a variety of journals, including Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Eleven Eleven, Puerto del Sol, Copper Nickel, Spoon River Poetry Review, Arsenic Lobster, International Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Blood Orange Review, Timber, Pretty Owl Poetry, Pilgrimage, Periódico de Poesía, and more. Cesarco Eglin is the translator of Of Death. Minimal Odes by the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst (co•im•press), winner of the 2019 Best Translated Book Award in Poetry. She co-translated from the Portuñol Fabián Severo’s Night in the North (EulaliaBooks, 2020). She is the co-founding editor and publisher of Veliz Books.

Nancy Naomi Carlson, poet, translator, essayist, and editor, has authored 10 titles (six translated). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), her second full-length collection of poetry, was named “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times. A recipient of two NEA literature translation fellowships, she was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and the CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award. An associate editor for Tupelo Press, her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

Keep This to Yourself

Keep This to Yourself by Kerrin McCadden

Review by Samantha Kolber

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.

Title: Keep This to Yourself
Author: Kerrin McCadden
Publisher: Button Poetry (March 24, 2020)
ISBN-10: 1943735700 ISBN-13: 978-1943735709


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

To Those Who Were Our First Gods

To Those Who Were Our First Gods, Nickole Brown

Review by Wendy DeGroat

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

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,
a weapon 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 quotes are from the following sources:
A Conversation with Nickole Brown, Oxford American, a Magazine of the South
Interview With Poets Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown, By Robert Drinkwater, UMF Department of English Blog
Private communications: e-mail conversation with Nickole Brown (14 June 2020)

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-

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 (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.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.