Retracing My Steps

Retracing My Steps by Jayne Moore Waldrop

Review and Interview by Arya F. Jenkins

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.

[BUY IT!]

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: Jewel Fire (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.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

The Unexploded Ordnance Bin

The Unexploded Ordnance Bin by Rebecca Foust

Review by Siân Killingsworth

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 ReviewGlass: 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).

Teaching While Black

Teaching While Black, by Matthew E. Henry

Review by Risa Denenberg

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

[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.

Publisher: Sundress Publications
ISBN: 978-1-951979-03-4
Pages: 36
Copyright: 2020


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, SpillwayIbbetson Street, Ninth Letter and elsewhere.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

We Are All Things

We Are All Things, words by Elliott Colla and art by Ganzeer

Review by Burgi Zenhaeusern

“I am not a thing” rings the woman’s angry voice in the man’s memory when, for once, she made him feel like one with the heedless sex she’d had with him minutes before dropping him like a rag on the bed, naked, stripped of all pretense.

But, while this is the story’s premise, it’s not where the quiet drama of We Are All Things (Colla and Ganzeer, 2020) begins to unfold. Rather, the break-up of two lovers, who remain anonymous throughout, is the foil against which a room’s objects come alive in this genre-bending graphic prose poem. The objects are the inanimate protagonists made animate by both Elliott Colla’s sharp observations and no-frill, lyric diction and by Ganzeer’s striking illustrations that underscore the animate/inanimate theme through a clever use of the black, white, and pink color scheme. Ganzeer uses black and white for naturalistic depiction and pink for what the narrative implies or as a color accent to create contrast and focus. His detailed graphics deliver their own story next to Colla’s text-blocks, which bring to mind fragments of magazine columns lifted off and set down randomly on the page, halting the left to right reading inclination of a Western reader and allowing for distinctive ways of constructing a narrative.

We Are All Things is the first collaboration between Colla, who teaches Arabic Literature at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and the Egyptian artist/designer/storyteller Ganzeer. Colla and Ganzeer discussed their collaboration in a conversation found on Radix Media‘s, pub sheet:

Colla: Over the years, I made one or two attempts to publish We Are All Things as a prose piece, but there was something missing. This is where Ganzeer comes in: he’s the one who realized its potential.

Ganzeer: Elliott wrote the text a long, long time ago, I think not long after the actual break-up the story references. […] It’s my understanding that upon coming upon a copy of The Apartment in Bab El-Louk [a collaboration among Donia Maher, Ganzeer, and Ahmad Nady, Darf Publishers; Translation edition, 2018], Elliott thought it would be really cool for We Are All Things to get the same treatment. [ … ] So, Elliott got in touch, we talked deets, and then I took it from there. So yeah: text first, images and design next.”

We Are All Things is set at a time when people still listened to tapes and is located in an unnamed city which can be inferred to be Cairo. This lack of specificity, where even the room itself has no definite location other than it is facing East and on the 12th floor, shifts the focus inward, signaling intimacy—the intimacy of long-used, everyday objects and the intimacy of setting—a naked man in his room surrounded by a chorus of inanimate witnesses, each with a personality of their own.

The seemingly random selection of stylized objects—aptly rendered glyphs on pink ground—on the book’s cover in conjunction with its title impart a sense of mystery while at once raising interesting questions: who/what is “we,” who/what is “all,” but foremost, what could be the meaning of “things” here: “objects,” “something,” “anything,” “everything”? Considering the narrative’s gist, the cover design and its graphics are particularly well chosen, although their genius becomes clear only in hindsight, after the reader has been led into the story by an omniscient narrator and the objects start to reveal themselves one by one, an assembly gradually emerging from anonymity.

The first object is “[t]the chrome lamp on the nightstand, the first thing fingers touch at night.” The opening sentence begins a clause that appears to prepare the reader for an innocuous description, then shifts unexpectedly, making the lamp the real protagonist. Thus, the lamp is moved front and center. Its shade becomes a distorting mirror for the other objects in the room and the weeping man on the bed. In those reflections everything and everybody is briefly introduced, and the stage is set. We hear about the objects from an omniscient narrator:

The bed, the sheets and
blankets, the glass of water
next to the alarm clock,
the stereo, the wardrobe,
the rug, the walls, the portrait,
the rusty mirror, the
black night scratching at
the window, and the naked
man, now crying on the
bed. All shine, all reflect.

In addition to the story’s narrator, objects speak in first person, expressed in italics. There is the old and nearly blind mirror filled with visitors only it remembers; the tape knowing that “with each turn fidelity slips away” and that “[e]ach time it is called to perform, [it] cannot but feel the frictions;” the glass full of itself; the water in it musing about its origins and connective potential; the singing mattress, a kind of ur-mother to multitudes deriding the man’s measly sperm with these words:

How can I compare
the thousands of creatures
whose eggs I have held
in my bosom, whose tiny
bodies I have shielded, to
those few seeds of yours
which have scattered and
died in my shallows? I can
hold so many! And I have
sheltered so many tender
lives before you came to
swim!

But the man scratching his leg “senses none of the depth on which he floats.”

There are the walls reverberating with the call to prayer; the broken air-conditioning unit; the clock that forgets itself for a minute; and the forever dripping window that becomes a mirror to the window washers, shielding what is inside from their view; the old portrait wondering “why [its eyes] ever wanted to be human.” Finally there is the weeping rug, the object most sympathetic to the man, and the only one with which he seems to commune:

He twitches as the carpet
hooks catch and tug gen-
tly on his optic nerves.
Lovingly, softly, she asks,
You think you’re so differ-
rent, my love? Really? And
once again, he feels the
yarns inside pulling loose.
In a voiceless weave, she
tries to soothe his nerves.
We are all things here, she
whispers. All things.

The rug makes him weep again, but less now from despair, as he has started to connect with his surroundings, if only at the periphery. The metaphorical use of yarns pulled loose underlines this connectedness. Previously, the man has been self-absorbed in his pain, oblivious, except for the change of light– night turning to dawn. And the objects in the room have mostly been detached observers and caught up in their own musings. It is interesting that along with their anthropomorphism they have also been assigned genders. Instead of the neutral ‘it’ typical of the English language, they become he, she, even they—a play on how many languages gender their nouns.

It is left to the reader’s imagination how far these objects reflect the man as a person. The glass, for example, easily lends itself to such a metaphorical interpretation, not without implying a dose of wry humor:

He feels her lip-
stick still smeared along
his own lip. He remembers
the tremble of her fingers
around his brittle body.
Only minutes ago, gripped
in her shaking hand, he felt
the precariousness of his
situation, poised to break.
But the hand set him down
and the moment of clarity
was gone. He immediately
went back to his old ways,
forgetting his fragility.

The texture of We Are All Things comes from the nuanced characterization of the objects and the intriguing parallelisms and contrasts they create, as noted above, in the voices of the rug and the woman, or in the reflections of the different mirroring surfaces. Its movement is forward and inward at the same time. Object and man are on par in how they inhabit the room together, each continuing their own story in it for a while, until other persons and things enter and the dynamics reshuffle. This paradigm says that a room is always inherited and owning it is temporary and relative.

We Are All Things seems to postulate that a world of sentient objects moves alongside a human’s world without intersecting. This is especially true when a human fails to be fully aware of their surroundings. The consoling rug pulls the man back into the room by “telling” him that it is alright to feel, to feel like a thing, or all things—the interpretations are various. And it leads the reader back to the book’s title which has assumed a shimmering multitude of facets. I encourage readers to read We Are All Things for the rich interplay of text and illustration, which comes to life in a space where at first, there are no words.

Title: We Are All Things
Author: Elliott Colla|
Illustrator: Ganzeer
ISBN: 978-1-7340487-1-1
List price: $12
Publication Date: February 25, 2020
Publisher: Radix Media

PURCHASE HERE!!

Elliott Colla is a Washington D.C.-based writer, educator, and translator who teaches in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Duke University Press, 2008), the novel Baghdad Central (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014), as well as many articles on modern Arab literature and culture. His current academic projects focus on protest cultures in contemporary Egypt. http://www.elliottcolla.com

Ganzeer operates seamlessly between art, design, and storytelling, creating what he has coined Concept Pop. With over forty exhibitions to his name, Ganzeer’s work has been seen in a wide variety of art galleries, impromptu spaces, alleyways, and major museums around the world. His current projects include the short story collection Times New Human and the sci-fi graphic novel The Solar Grid which received a Global Thinker Award from Foreign Policy in 2016. http://www.ganzeer.com

Burgi Zenhaeusern is the author of Behind Normalcy (CityLit Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Harriss Poetry Prize. Her work appears in various online and print journals. She volunteers for a local reading series and lives in Chevy Chase, MD. Find more at burgizenhaeusern.com

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Split Map

Split Map, by Rebecca Connors

Review by Arya F. Jenkins

In Split Map (Minerva Rising, 2019), her first collection with 22 poems, poet Rebecca Connors revisits the past, exploring the landscapes of the American South and of her girlhood, and along with these, the fear and anxiety which follow her into adulthood as she searches for a sense of place and identity.

From the beginning, the reader is steeped in a sense of the American South. In “A Lifting Force,” the poet describes “caramel stillness. Roses, cut grass.” In the South, the very air seems at times stagnant, at other times, suffused with heat, sorrow, fear, and expectation. Revisiting memory, the poet observes how even silence, arising from that heat, can be wielded as a weapon: “Your silence makes him sharp like an insult.”

“Anthem of the Elementary School Girls,” one of the strongest and most evocative poems in this collection, pays homage to the rich lives of young girls whose creativity, sense of power, and whimsy threaten to burst at the seams:

Imagine our sarcophagus–
stickered notebooks, mixtapes, ChapSticks crammed
into back pockets—testaments to our empire.

In “The Intruder’s Home,” the narrator explores a girl’s pervasive fear of her alcoholic father, “What is the word for when the beast / turns away? It doesn’t matter—you are // never not prey.”

In “Climbing Magnolia,” the reader is again surrounded by the feeling of what it is like to grow up in the South. There is mention of “summer heat,” “fragrant bloom,” the ever present “magnolia,” “honeysuckle,” and “rose bloom,” from which the poet herself seems to literally emerge, remembering experiences as a girl. Here, the experiences of girlhood are intense, speaking equally to a girl’s vulnerability and power:

I scramble
my way down trunk-smeared
bruises on my thighs. Emerging
from the forbidden boundary,
I am almost lost.

A sense of lost-ness pursues the narrator, although the world’s surprises, inherent in language and nature, feed and empower her. Sometimes that sense of lost-ness is shared, as in “Origin of Coordinates” in which the narrator reminisces about her brother. In “Ordinary Girl,” another extraordinary poem, the tools of the poet are shown early on:

She cradles a jar in her chest filled
with pebbles, alphabet magnets, a broken
harmonica, pencil nub. She glows
when the world appears cherry-lipped
beside her with all the stories
she could ever want.

Another theme evolves as the stories of these poems unfold—the surprise, shock and fear of the body—one’s own and that of others, what happens to it growing up and when encountering varieties of experience in the world. In “Corpus,” the poet announces,

I am
weight-bearing not up to code
here’s the library: finger the worm-eaten plans my wings admired but never constructed

In “To the Inspector” the poet connects language, the past, geography and nature, affirming her most empowering source: “atlas and magnolia / forsythia and sepulcher”

In the final poem of the collection, “These Ghosts are Home,” the poet elucidates how memory, the experiences that pass through us that we must let go, also remain like notches marking pain and wonder, offering proof of our existence with all its inglorious struggles. Traversing memory is risky, the poet seems to say, even as she journeys through it determinedly.

These poems reach deep and fearlessly into the past, into trauma and joy, fear and rapture which entwine like vines on the way to adulthood and awakening.

Split Map by Rebecca Connors
Published by Minerva Rising Press, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-9990254-9-9
Cost: $10
Order from Minerva Rising Press: https://minervarising.com/purchase-books/

Rebecca Connors graduated from Boston University with a BA in English. She is currently an MFA candidate at the Solstice MFA program at Pine Manor. Her work has recently appeared in Tinderbox Poetry JournalMenacing HedgeInk & Nebula, and elsewhere.  Her poems have been nominated for the Orison Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook, Split Map, won the Dare to Speak Chapbook Contest and was published by Minerva Rising Press in Spring 2019.

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: Jewel Fire (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.

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).

Wolf Daughter

Wolf Daughter, by Amy Watkins

Review by Lauren Davis

Pink roses reach up and around the unclothed body of a girl, her eyes hidden by a thick, tilted cloud. The hare she holds has closed its eyes. It’s a striking image for Wolf Daughter, the latest chapbook by Amy Watkins, and fittingly, the illustrator is Watkins’ daughter, Alice Copeland. The alluring, muted colors may lead you to believe you are entering a realm where young women lack necessary rage. Think again.

The dedication, “for Alice,” is a whisper, and the book is a battle cry. These eighteen poems, neatly numbered, are nothing less than a mother’s love made palatable and exposed for the reader.

The chapbook opens with, “My daughter says, ‘I don’t remember how / not to be a wolf.’” And here we are immediately thrown into the raw extended metaphor where girls grow fangs. The clash of mother/daughter, of animal/social creature, of child becoming an adolescent—this clash tangles throughout lines grounded again and again in the material world of malls and school dances. As a reader, I am brought back to my own struggle as a young girl, when I felt primal and weak and full of an anger I could not name. When the speaker says, “‘I think it’s hard being alive in this world’” there is no explanation needed. I receive the wisdom when Watkins writes, that if all else fails, “Find a mind for violence.”

Watkins is no stranger to the concentrated energy a chapbook creates. Her two previous chapbooks have found publication at the presses Bottlecap Press and Yellow Flag. She has also lectured at Full Sail University on creating and publishing chapbooks. Wolf Daughter proves the ability of a chapbook to construct an entire world. Watkins has distilled and expanded her subject matter simultaneously. We are never lost in her hands.

Wolf Daughter does not apologize for its animal nature. Instead, it ends with, “She comes and goes with such confidence. / Even her long teeth gleam.” Which is what we need—a society where girls can wear their rage proudly, openly. Watkins has given voice to the young girls’ war song. May it be heeded.

Wolf Daughter by Amy Watkins
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 978-1-939675-96-5  
Published by: Sundress Publications
Cost: Free
Pages: 23
Available: http://www.sundresspublications.com/wolfdaughter.pdf

Amy Watkins is the author of three poetry chapbooks (Milk & WaterLucky, and Wolf Daughter), a graduate of the Spalding University MFA in Writing, and a parent of a human girl. Find her online at RedLionSq.com or @amykwatkins on Twitter. She lives in Orlando, Florida.

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).

November Quilt

November Quilt, by Penelope Scambly Schott (The Poetry Box, 2018)

Review by Lennart Lundh

When I was in Vietnam, I wrote my wife every day. Some letters were long, some short, all filled with the events of the day. The thirty daily poems in Penelope Scambly Schott’s November Quilt (Winner of Second Place in the 2018 Poetry Box Chapbook Prize) are much like those letters, exploring the small things we all share or know of. Following the author’s first-day invitation to think of stitching (“I offer you my fingers / this pieced together quilt.”), these daily offerings are the rich and varied fabrics.

And varied they are. On the 2nd, we consider our parents and how we mis-see them:

Did you mistake your parents for grown-ups?
I did. I believed each untruth they told me.

I also thought married people talked only
about boring stuff like calling the plumber.”

 For November 4th, the poet bids us,

Let’s jump back to fifth grade in New York City
where the Russians would bomb first

how can I save us all?”     

while on the 15th we remember, “The dog Laika in her tiny Russian space capsule. // For years we were told / how she was euthanized — not that she fried.”

The importance of these scraps of fabric we share, things my great-granddaughter surely sees as the detritus of ancient history, is made clear on the 9th:

We need to tell each other
all these small details because after we’re gone,

who’ll care? In this life, I care about you.

This pattern formed by Life is explicit on the 13th and 14th, where

What will anyone remember about me? 
Does my sister know how I eat an apple?

The entire apple, core and all the seeds.”

is joined to

What do you know about apples?

I was pulled over for eating an apple —
the officer thought I was on my cell phone.”

Just past midway, on the 18th, Scambly Schott cautions us, “You might ask if my writing has a plot. No, none . . .” Perhaps, but there are subtly continuous threads holding the pieces of November together. For example, the 7th ends,

I reheat my coffee before I walk the dog. 
When we get back from the walk, the coffee is cold.

All day I reheat my same cup.”,

and the 8th picks up the conversation with, “Day after day, sip after sip, we piece together / our lives.” The 15th’s thoughts about Laika and Sputnik begin the epistle for the 16th (“After Sputnik, we were all supposed to study math.”), while the 16th ends, “For a smart girl, / said my mom, how can you be so dumb?”), as the 17th opens by partially explaining, “They taught us long division in May / and I forgot it over summer vacation.”

Somewhere in the third reading, refining my poem-by-poem notes, I realize the bobbin thread anchoring these stitches and pieces is a different commonality: how unknown by, and unknowing of, each other we are. This epiphanal moment, crowning fine, carefully chosen and blended words, is what makes November Quilt so marvelous, so poetic. A tap on the forehead, a pulling aside of a stage curtain, and what is obviously obvious appears. Once seen, it’s impossible to unsee, leading us to a final charge to readers in the last lines of the last poem:

“Please don’t hang this one on a wall or store it
safe from moths in a zippered plastic bag.

Spread this quilt to keep another reader warm.”




Penelope Scambly Schott, author of a novel and several books of poetry, was awarded four New Jersey arts fellowships before moving to Oregon, where her verse biography, A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth, received an Oregon Book Award for Poetry. Several of Penelope’s books and individual poems have won other prizes. Her individual poems have appeared in APRGeorgia ReviewNimrod, and elsewhere. Her most recent books are HOUSE OF THE CARDAMOM SEED and NOVEMBER QUILT.

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).

The Fire Eater

The Fire Eater by Jose Hernandez Diaz

Review by Lauren Davis

What happens when a poet eats the moon? Who knew this was a question to be asked? I work at an indie bookstore in Washington state. I read California writer Jose Hernandez Diaz’s debut chapbook of prose poems, The Fire Eater, between helping customers. I had to do so mindfully, because I found myself saying aloud, repeatedly, God damn this is amazing. People generally frown upon employees cursing in their workspaces. But Diaz’s language is so good, so surprising, I failed to keep my voice measured.

I tumbled down a rabbit hole. I did not grab for a crude edge to hold onto. Instead I let myself freefall, because this descent into Diaz’s work is a gift.

In recent years Diaz has graced the poetry scene with work in publications such as Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, and The Nation. A 2017 National Endowment of the Arts Poetry Fellow, his work pulses at the borders of genre. Poetry or prose? Allegorical? Narrative? Absurdist? To read the thirty-eight poems in The Fire Eater back-to-back is to experience the heat of a newly created world. Diaz’s recurring images create a crescendo of madness and angst. He invents characters such as the fire eater, the mime, the man in the Pink Floyd shirt, and the skeleton. They go to the moon, to Downtown Los Angeles, to deserted islands. They bring us back answers, or they never return at all.

Herein lies Diaz’s genius. His metaphors are so open, so strange, so blindingly bewildering that readers may insert their own stories, traumas, beliefs, and find personal truths within these pages. Am I overselling? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Take for example the opening of the poem “Moon,”

A man woke up on the surface of the moon. He didn’t float away. He sat on the pale floor. He pulled out a cigarette and took a drag. He saw the earth in the distance. It looked like a blue and green tennis ball, only significantly larger.

Is this a man displaced, resigned to his fate? Or someone who has broken past the barriers of his mind—spiritually and mentally? Is this addiction? Longing? I choose not to decide for myself, because tomorrow I may wake and find another answer here.

In a society of predictable symbols and wordplay, here we have a poet melting the walls. If you read any debut poet in 2020, read Diaz. The scald is worth it.

Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow living in Norwalk, California. His debut chapbook The Fire Eater is forthcoming from Texas Review Press on February 14, 2020. His work appears in publications such as Poetry Magazine, The NationNew American WritingNorth American Review, Poetry Northwest, The Progressive, Witness, and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology. He tweets at @JoseHernandezDz.

You can pre-order The Fire Eater at:https://www.tamupress.com/book/9781680032086/the-fire-eater/

Lauren Davis is the author of the chapbook Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press). She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and her poetry and prose can be found in publications such as Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Qu, Hobart, and Lunch Ticket. Davis is a bookseller and writing instructor at The Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books in Washington state.

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).

BOYS

Boys by Daniel Edward Moore

Review by Lauren Davis

“…where a man’s wound is, that is where his genius will be. Wherever the wound appears in our psyches, whether from alcoholic father, shaming mother, shaming father, abusing mother, whether it stems from isolation, disability, or disease, that is precisely the place for which we will give our major gift to the community.”
― Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book about Men

The cover art of Daniel Edward Moore’s debut chapbook Boys will make you instinctively take a deep breath. It warns you that you are about to descend not into flat reality, but further into one man’s psyche with all its spirals and shadows. The cover reminds me of a David Lynch piece—part surrealist daymare, part hypnotic and dark nostalgia. What makes this art even more powerful is that Moore’s wife, Laura Coe Moore—the woman who likely knows Moore best—created it.

It seems fitting, then, that the first poem would be “The Architect’s Son,” a piece where “Leather is the love, you thought was a hand,  /  she said was a dragon’s tail.” An unnerving juxtaposition of rage and fathers and baseball gloves—we have entered the world of boyhood. And this is how we move forward as readers, into the darkness that will show us the light.

It is hard, while reading Boys, to come up for air. This is not a criticism. Instead, these poems create a landscape that so perfectly encapsulates what I can only imagine to be a frightful appointment—to be raised a boy in a society of anger and expectations and “Never Enough.” These are poems where the religions that are meant to give direction create their own trauma and end up leading us further away from our truth.

The universal father, a bloodied Jesus, the boy—together these personas create a peculiar type of trinity. And in doing so, they form a faith more likely to restore the soul, “a cathedral of gnashing teeth.”

The title poem (originally published in Hot Metal Bridge), in its violence and restraint, encapsulates the innate spiritual struggle weaved throughout the entire chapbook. The poem begins:

It sounded like
boys in the woods
kicking a dying wolf.

They called him faggot
and his eyes
rolled to heaven.

They called him hungry
and his face
ate the earth.

Moore’s exploration of queerness against the backdrop of brutality is a long look at “men wearing crowns of bloody tiaras” while “rejecting the soul of a boy.” So when the chapbook closes with the last line, “birds become hymns of smoke,” we are reminded that even in the worst of circumstances there is hope that we can rise above our struggles.

It is apt that one poem in Moore’s chapbook would be dedicated to Paul Monette, author and gay activist who died from AIDS. Monette once said, “Go without hate, but not without rage; heal the world.” Moore’s work exemplifies this quote.

Boys does not deny suffering. It does not deny the gift of anger, “like all religions based on blood.” Instead, it celebrates it. And in celebrating the darkness within us, we have the chance to be transformed.

Publisher: Duck Lake Books (November 29, 2019)

Daniel Edward Moore is an award-winning poet whose works have appeared in literary journals such as American Literary Review, Columbia Journal of Arts and Literature, Spoon River Poetry Review, Rattle, Mid-American Review, December and many others. His chapbook Boys is forthcoming from Duck Lake Books in December 2019. His full-length collection Waxing the Dents was a finalist for the Brick Road Poetry Prize and will be published by Brick Road Poetry Press in February 2020.

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).