[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 Connor
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).

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).

A Nation (Imagined)

A Nation (Imagined) by Natasha Kochicheril Moni
winner of the 2018 Floating Bridge Press chapbook contest   

Review by Linera Lucas     

A Nation (Imagined) (Floating Bridge Press, 2018) is a lyric poem about love, grief, nature, and graceful endurance. The format is one long poem bookended by two short poems, and the story is a simple one: a man and a woman love one another, he goes off to war, she stays home, he dies and she continues to think of him. But the way Moni tells this story is anything but simple. Just because a book is short does not mean it is not profound.

The opening poem “And what if everything” makes it clear that this is going to be about death and memory. We are going back in time. First we are in a field of daffodils, and then we are in a minefield. The transition is brief and shocking, as if the reader is the one who is blown up. We start with sex and move to death where,

the pause after love
before love which is
now     You are in a field
of daffodils
– no –                                   
a field of living            mines 

If you bend left, death. If you bend right, memory. This is the prologue, the poem that teaches the reader how to read the rest of the work. Thank you, much appreciated. It’s good to have a guide, even if I’m not quite certain just how much I can trust the poet who is leading me onward. The long poem begins,

Remember the year you forgot to water my jade

and ends with,

Do you remember this?

Next, we are going to have the catalogue of what happened, in poet time, in real time, and in a mix of the two. I feel as if I had been given the chance to open a secret box, to read letters I am not supposed to know about, and I feel a little guilty, but I don’t want to stop reading.

Now the poet writes to her lover, telling him what has happened since he left, how she wishes he would write to her, then I turn the page and she says a letter arrived three years too late, that their tree will be firewood,

 Tomorrow
 our madrona
 becomes a cord
what will keep

                                      (our heat)     

And what will keep their passion alive, now that he is dead? This is a poem about coming to terms with grief, also about not coming to terms with grief. She wants to send him his chickens, tries not to weep, gives him a list of what she saw on her daily walk in the woods. She saved a wildflower from a young girl who wanted to cut and press it.

“They” (the ever present outside world), would like her to do various things, to be more like someone else, to behave in a recognizable manner, but she wants her lover to “enter and with care //   strike the lantern” . . . taste the apricots,

on your favorite plate              your favorite plate

the one                        chipped                       
from too much             loving.              

   

This might be my favorite passage in the whole book.

Then there is the bargain she wants to make at the end of this poem: “unwind your voice / from my inner ear and I will ” not steam open the letter written to him, which started this whole story. What is in that letter? I am not going to find out, and I like that.

And now the final poem, the other bookend, “Letter to a Lover Whose Name Spells Dark Bird.” This is, of course, a letter to Corbin, the dead lover. Corbin is a variation on Corbie, which is another name for crow or raven, birds of intelligence connected with death and messages from the dead. This poem has the kind of bargaining that deep grief brings, past pleading and near madness, but such resigned madness. Here’s how it starts,

Look, when you call – bring the basket

and here’s how it ends,

Meet me and we
will forget our bodies were ever anything but

a little salt, water                                   
waiting to be stirred. 

and in between is,

the year we spent a lifetime
sailing in the boat of our bed.

So that’s the last poem. I have read the story, and have been changed by it. What makes this chapbook so fulfilling is how real the grief and love are, how tender and fierce the poet narrator’s love for her dead Corbin, and then the ending, with the unopened letter. Because at the last, we never really know another person. We can guess at them, follow the clues from how their lives cross ours, but each person contains many mysteries.

Natasha Kochicheril Moni is the author of four poetry collections and a licensed naturopathic doctor in WA State. Her most recent chapbook, A Nation (Imagined), won the 2018 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Natasha’s writing has been featured in over sixty-five publications including Verse, Indiana Review, Entropy, The Rumpus, and the recently released Terrapin Press anthology, A Constellation of Kisses. As a former editor for a literary journal, a panelist for residency and grant award committees, and a chapbook contest judge, Natasha loves supporting fellow writers. She owns and operates Helios Center for Whole Health, PLLC, which offers naturopathic appointments, medical writing, poetry manuscript consultations, and writing and wellness lectures/workshops.

natashamoni.com 
helioswholehealth.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).

Word Hot

Word Hot, by Mary Meriam

Review by Jeri Frederickson

I wish my younger self could read Mary Meriam’s Word Hot. Anyone who needs to nurture their younger or inner selves should read this chapbook and draw in the courageous yearning for a body, for love, and for a muse. I keep coming back to Meriam’s hypnotizing sense of the body, the beauty and depth of nature, and her courage to reach out for a muse who will stay.

Living in an urban setting, I often long for nature. Meriam weaves nature throughout this chapbook like a love letter to those of us pining for the woods and the moon. The poem, “Cave In” brings us nature as a muse and a lover:

The forest sighs for succulent romance.
The moonlight jiggles in a modern dance.
The waiting window holds the weary tree.
The midnight branches tap. Come back to me.

Meriam plays with words like a lover might play with the lines on my hands. When I read Meriam’s poems, I am connected to that feeling of delight, of exploring something special and new.

Several of the poems in Word Hot are sonnets. While some of us first encountered Shakespearean sonnets in boring high school classrooms, Meriam blows the dust off my recollection of this form, and funnels the depth of a human soul into her sonnets. In “Thoughts,” she begins with:

Some thoughts are too unbearable to think,
but still they rock me nightly, tidal waves
of worry, thoughts that knock me off the brink,
drown me, and bury me in shapeless caves.
Some thoughts are faces I once knew, and some
remember voices, visions, trouble, thunder,
and some thoughts dwell on what I have become.

We connect with Meriam’s speaker in these poems because we identify with how hard and private it is to think thoughts that “are too unbearable.” Meriam wields the rhymes in her poems with an ease that allows her reader to relax, even in the midst of “tidal waves,” as she guides us. In another sonnet, “Country Music,” Meriam writes:

choosing which way I walk away from home,
kicking the leaves, as if my incomplete
existence could be saved without you near,
as if a wish could make a muse appear.

Meriam writes with the heartbeat rhythm of a sonnet and fills these rhythms with a sense of questioning and craving for something the speaker is not able to have. That sense of questioning or lacking is a human feeling that we all cope with, and Meriam’s writing makes this part of our common humanity a courageous and worthwhile experience.

***************************************************

I wanted to find out more about how these breathtaking sonnets were born
and how Meriam approaches writing about the body and nature. I had the honor of being able to ask these questions in an interview.

Jeri: Word Hot was published in 2013, and now, in 2019, I’m hoping you can talk a bit about this bridge of six years. How does Word Hot continue to push your writing now? Are similar poetic forms, ideas, people, or places informing your writing today?

Mary: A muse is an inspirational goddess, and Word Hot seems to be invoking a muse, particularly one named Lillian Faderman. I’d been reading her books for the first time. I was, and still am, very grateful and tremendously moved by her work. I’ve always felt that I was too much: too sad, in too much pain, too intense, too needy, too lesbian. But Lillian’s books made me feel accepted, strong, brave, loved. I felt for the first time that there was a lesbian culture I could belong to, and it was alive in her books. I hoped to make poems that were just as alive. The muse is invoked at the beginning of epics, and Word Hot is the beginning of my own little epic, The Lillian Trilogy.  

Jeri: As a reader, I was drawn into the way you explore the beauty of the body and of nature. How did you set about weaving flora, stone, weather, etc. through this chapbook at the same time you were weaving the body, especially the body of a female muse or lover, through your poems?

Mary: I write intuitively, so exploring and weaving for me is about the nuts and bolts of reading, listening, looking, feeling, waiting, hoping, trying, failing, workshopping. Since I live in a wilderness of forest, mountains, lake, I’m very in touch with nature in my body of work.

Jeri: Some of your poems reach out to a person or idea and wish for a change or a specific response. Where do you wish a reader will choose to read Word Hot? If you could give your reader a place, what would that place look or feel like?

Mary: An island. A grassy cliff over the ocean. A group of girls and women in loose tunics and baggy pants who have just finished dancing, and are now sprawled around, each with Word Hot in hand. When it starts getting dark, they run to a living room and read the poems out loud. (Actually this sounds like where I went to college, Bennington.)

Jeri: “To Lillian” is beautiful. Tension holds this poem together, but it comes off so effortless on the page. In a poem like this, do you allow yourself to explore where the poem is going and discover what you want to say, or do you know when you’re writing what the map is for the poem? 

Mary: Thanks. I love writing in received forms, like this sonnet, partly because they are a map. It’s a pleasure and relief to be given a rhyme scheme, along with a set number of lines and feet. Then I follow my nose to see where it takes me. The first line draws me in. The search for rhymes opens new doors. Iambic pentameter keeps my syntax in line. The metrical heartbeat listens to my heartbeat. I’m dancing in a place I’ve danced in many times before, so I know the moves. I enter a trance and the lines appear from some deep place. I wait till I hear the truest words in my mind, then write them down. After handwriting the first draft, I type it, then scan it and make revisions. Sometimes the poem feels finished quickly. Sometimes it doesn’t work, so I set it aside and wait. It could be years before I understand the poem, so I never throw away first drafts. I wrote some free verse poems around 1979 that I couldn’t accept or understand until 2019. I thank myself for saving the first drafts of those poems for 40 years. I’ve been periodically reading and wondering about the poems all these years, and finally feel so happy with them that they’ll be in my next book. 

Jeri: “So Close” includes quotes from both Mary Sidney and Shakespeare. How did you come to use these lines in this poem? 

Mary: In 2004, I saw a tiny mention in Newsweek about Robin Williams’ work on the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Williams’ book, Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? is full of compelling arguments that Mary Sidney is the true author. The two quotes sound “so close” to my ear, it’s hard to believe they were written by two different poets. That tiny mention had a gigantic effect on me. Something broke open, and I suddenly felt free of the oppressive canon that had dominated my education. I began to write a lot of sonnets, studying Shakespeare’s along the way. In contrast to many others, my scansion of the Sonnets found almost entirely strict iambic pentameter. I workshopped my formal poems at the online forum Eratosphere, where experienced formalists kicked my butt, as it were, when my form was off. The upshot of Shakespeare and Eratosphere is that for many years, most of my poems were strictly metrical with very few substitutions. Now I move in and out of form as the spirit moves me. 

Mary Meriam co-founded Headmistress Press and edits the Lavender Review: Lesbian Poetry and Art. She is the author of My Girl’s Green Jacket (2018) and The Lillian Trilogy (2015), both from Headmistress Press. Poems appear recently in Poetry, Prelude, and Subtropics.

Review by Jeri Frederickson

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).

My Father’s Kites and Corporal Muse

my father’s kites and Corporal Muse, by Allison E. Joseph

Allison Joseph is a personal hero of mine. Many creative writers focus primarily on their own work and their own careers. Joseph is that exemplary poet and educator who seems to be constantly supporting other writers. Beyond her considerable publication resume, and a staunch commitment to her craft, her bio of community building activities is impressive. And despite her gravitas as poet and professor, she frequently publishes her work with small independent presses. Bravo to that, I say!

Joseph is also that rare contemporary poet who has the talent for writing accomplished and accessible poetry in both free and formal verse. Her collection, my father’s kites (Steel Toe Press, 2010), an almost-chapbook at 56 pages, contains a section of formal sonnets eulogizing her father that I found both courageous and moving, at least in part because I’ve struggled to write about my own father. In an interview with Billy Jenkins at “The Fourth River” Joseph spoke about the difficulty she confronted in writing about her father:  

I found that it was harder to write about my father, who I had a fractured relationship with, than my mother, who died when I was a teenager.  . . . At first it stumped me . . . But it was because his death was  . . . about his life as a black man, the things he faced. His anger was a lot more emblematic. Even the very reason he died, diabetes, is something that affects far more disproportionately, the African American community.

But in this villanelle, “On Not Wanting to Write a Memoir” Joseph reminds us that memory is “insecure” and she circumnavigates the topic of disclosure in this way:  

Some memories lurk deep, in bone and tooth,
with consequences I can do without.
What’s there to write? I had ‘that’ kind of youth.
Forgive me if I don’t tell you the truth.

In another interview I came across online, she adds this intriguing caveat about the “I” persona, which she believes can be used very effectively not only for confession, but also to connect with others,

So the opportunity in a poem for the “I” to fool its own inventor, it’s huge.  …  I think the distance between the fictionalized “I” of my particular poems and the person sitting next to you usually isn’t that far. 

Corporal Muse (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018), which won the 2019 Independent Press Award for Small Books, is a lighter read emotionally than my father’s kites, or some of her other collections, but it shows off Joseph’s talent for both form and free verse and is packed with her sense of humor. Here, she pays homage to language itself, reminding the reader how words beguile, bewilder, and compel us.  In many of these poems, words and language take on mythic personas; those are the ones that interested me most in this collection. In the initial poem, “Dictionary,” she gives a warning,

You open me, and worlds begin to shift,
zealously, you’ll covet all I can define.

The title poem, “Corporal Muse,” is a psychological thriller. The protagonist here is corporal-like and,

Dressed in drab olive green fatigues,
bayonet in fist, beret on his bald head,
he wants to see your work—pages and pages
of it. He wants you broken and crying.

And in “A Plea to the Grammar Lady,” Joseph submits to syntax,

Split infinitives slap me hard, slice
thin red scratches across my cheeks.


Modifiers dangle from me, slipping
off into nonsense before I can pull


them back. Tense about tenses
I try to pin down the future,

For a taste of another side of Joseph’s humor, here are lines from “The Joining,” which is a wickedly funny riddle,

You’re a wind-up toy I never tire of,
big as my thumb and just as funny.

The last couplet of the final sonnet in Corporal Muse, titled, “Necessities,” is a response to our ubiquitous queries about the value of words and the ability of the “I” to connect with others:

Each syllable another life’s pushed through—
I only need these words I pledge to you.

  

Allison Joseph lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where she is part of the faculty at Southern Illinois University. She serves as editor and poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review, moderator of the Creative Writers Opportunities List, and director of Writers In Common, a summer writers’ conference. Her books and chapbooks include What Keeps Us Here (Ampersand Press), Soul Train (Carnegie Mellon University Press), In Every Seam (University of Pittsburgh), Worldly Pleasures (Word Tech), Imitation of Life (Carnegie Mellon), Voice: Poems (Mayapple Press), My Father’s Kites (Steel Toe Books), Trace Particles (Backbone Press), Little Epiphanies (Night Ballet Press), Mercurial (Mayapple Press), Multitudes (Word Tech), The Purpose of Hands (Glass Lyre Press), Mortal Rewards (White Violet Press), Double Identity (Singing Bone Press), What Once You Loved (Barefoot Muse Press), Corporal Muse (Sibling Rivalry), Smart Pretender (Finishing Line Press), and Confessions of a Barefaced Woman (Red Hen Press). She is the literary partner and wife of Jon Tribble.

      

Buy Corporal Muse here!
Buy My Father’s Kites here!

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. 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).

FEED

Feed,  by Emily Mohn-Slate

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

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

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

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

When she tells us,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy must be at least
as complicated as sorrow.
 

Maybe joy is the real mystery.

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

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at 
Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).