One may be jealous of another being licked: she thrusts her head under the outstretched neck of the one licking, and butts upward till the licking stops.
Lydia Davis’s The Cows (Sarabande Books, 2011) brought me back to every instance in which I stared at my childhood pets wondering “what are they thinking about?” Anyone who has spent prolonged time with animals will get a familiar feeling when they read this chapbook: the desire to decipher an animal’s intentions in the absence of a common language (while sometimes projecting personalities onto them). How many of us have monologued in tandem with an animal’s mysterious actions, or held mock conversations with said creature as they went about their business?
This chapbook is not a collection of individual poems, nor does it feel exactly like a standard short story. I can only describe it as a 38-page poetic observation of bovine life—one that is interspersed with photos, taken by the author during her year-long observations.
Davis has written other stories about animals, including cats, mice, and fish. Upon comparing these stories, we see that each type of animal can provide a different viewing experience to the human voyeur, due to their varied habits and needs.
In The Cows the theme of stillness is pervasive. The various incarnations of this stillness are portrayed throughout, for example:
How often they stand still and slowly look around as though they have never been here before,
[. . .] they are so still, and their legs so thin, in comparison to their bodies, that when they stand sideways to us, sometimes their legs seem like prongs, and they seem stuck to the earth.
In a lifestyle marked by stillness, what are the things that bring action to a cow’s daily routine?
As Davis demonstrates, their stillness is set against a changing landscape of seasons (white snow to green grass), disturbance of other animals (flocks of birds, snowball-throwing boys, gaping writers), and the birth of calves. Ever-analytical, Davis also itemizes their forms of play:
[. . .] head butting; mounting, either at the back or at the front; trotting away by yourself; trotting away together; going off bucking and prancing by yourself [. . .]
The Cows thus depicts an ambling, relatively tranquil (but quietly humorous) existence for these creatures, at least through Davis’s eyes. But when we read some of her other stories, we are reminded that other animals may experience a different momentum in their daily lives. In her story “Cockroaches in Autumn,” (from: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador, 2009) the featured critter’s activities are marked by speed rather than stillness:
[. . .] when I empty the bag, a crowd of them scatter from the heel of rye bread, like rye seeds across the counter, like raisins. [. . .] he stops short in his headlong rush and tries a few other moves almost simultaneously, a bumper car jolting in place on the white drainboard.”
While I found The Cows to be a thoroughly satisfying read on its own, it was particularly enriching to meet Davis’s cockroaches, mice, cat, and dog along with her neighbors’ cattle. I recommend The Collected Stories as companion pieces to this chapbook.
Lydia Davis is a short story writer, novelist, and translator. She is the author of six collections of short stories, including Can’t and Won’t (2014) and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009); one novel, The End of the Story (1995); and a collection of nonfiction, Essays One (2019), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Davis is best known for her very short, micro- or “flash” fiction; many of her stories are a single sentence or paragraph long. She has translated novels and works of philosophy from French, including Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (2010) and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (2003). Her honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as the Man Booker International Prize. She is a professor emerita at SUNY Albany. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lydia-davis
S.M. Tsai spent many years doing archival research and writing, then turned to 9-5 jobs for a new learning environment. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Ricepaper Magazine,Blue Unicorn, and the chapbook Bubbles and Droplets: 10 Poems of 2020. She lives in Toronto with her plants.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.
When I first met Lawrence Hussman, in 1981, he was teaching American Literature at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. I was a graduate student in his seminar on the naturalists: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris and, among others, Theodore Dreiser, the writer who inspired one of Hussman’s most important books. The austere outlook of these writers, for whom the human experience is governed almost entirely by heredity and environment, suggested great courage and a fierce devotion to the truth, and for that reason they drew me into their worlds. Now, nearly forty years later, I have discovered that what drew Hussman to the naturalists was his own kindred sensibility. That sensibility informs every line of his first chapbook of poems, Last Things (Inkwater Press, 2019). And such is the case with this second chapbook, Pre-Posthumous Poems, only here the poetic voice seems more assured and, in some ways, more bracing.
The title itself is revealing of Hussman’s wry character and his enduring belief that this life, the here and now, is the only certainty we have. These thirty-four new poems—most of them in free verse, some concluding with a rhyming couplet—fall into two main groups: poems about birds, fish, earth and water; and poems about people, their longings and their losses. In his retirement on the Oregon coast, as his poetry suggests, Hussman spends his days meditating on the lives, human and otherwise, he has observed, and pondering what drives them.
As if to introduce himself to the reader, he opens this collection with a poem entitled “Encounter.” The encounter in question is with a sea lion, but the poem does introduce us to Hussman’s poetic world. The speaker walks along a beach “veiled in fog, / so solid that only memory could see / the gulls.” Then all of a sudden “an outsized shape” appears, a “guttural bark” is heard, and “the truth” is revealed: a sea lion comes into focus, at rest, and readying itself to return to its “endless / quest for fish and groups to gather with.” The walker thanks the creature for proving “that death still / waited a ways away, and life again / was willing with its wonder.”
The unabashed alliteration here is characteristic of Hussman’s verse. This trait, however, never cloys, and indeed is an expression of the poet’s reveling in language, in its ability to recover human experience and protect it from the savage claws of time. This he does with economy and precision. In “A Gift Withdrawn,” the speaker recalls a dear friend, who was also a poet, and their time together in Poland. They visit a World War II cemetery “one dark autumn afternoon” and she weeps upon seeing the writing on one tombstone: “Soldier, Fourteen.” Not long thereafter, a deep vein thrombosis takes this poet’s life. “I chose not to join the familiar funeral folly,” says the speaker, who rails instead against “the clichés of preachers and priests.”
In this way, Hussman resuscitates his dead; they are to him what they were to the Shakespeare who wrote once, in a sonnet, of his “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.” What is it, however, that keeps the people and the other animals in Hussman’s world moving onward during their natural lives? Is it, as the naturalist writer would say, the mere instinct to survive? One answer may lie in “Homeless.” Here Hussman directs his eye at what the unhoused, and perhaps the housed as well, all have in common:
They labor up the busy highway,
burdened with their shoddy gear,
pushing purloined grocery carts,
or crude rigs of wheel and box,
moving their all from place to place.
It is the journey itself, the need to journey, that drives us on. And given the images of domesticity and society—not only the grocery cart but also “an old man in tattered top hat and tails”—the implication is that the journey promises, as the sea lion does, the occasional “wonder” and perhaps a group “to gather with.”
“A Salmon’s Journey,” which bears a resemblance to Eugenio Montale’s “The Eel,” is one of Hussman’s rawest and most beautiful poems. The etymological link between “travel” and “travail,” words which he does not use here, nevertheless comes vividly to life. The journey literally makes its mark on these fish, which are left
starved and scarred, their once sleek bodies
discolored, deformed, backs humped,
jaws hooked and fanged.
The speaker laments “pitiless Nature,” which might have chosen some “kinder game plan,” but unlike Montale’s singular eel, Hussman’s salmon are plural: theirs is not a solitary journey. Here and elsewhere, moreover, the exactness and spareness of the diction, the sheer transparency of the images, and a masterful rhythmic control, all lead to a poetic experience that is at once arresting and redemptive.
A poem called “Grief,” which serves as the coda to this excellent collection, recounts the discovery of a man found “frozen to the hill that held his little cabin.” The chatter that follows—”worry for the way he died, / the life he must have led, no family, or friends, / not anyone at all to miss him, mourn him”—is pointless. “Save your tears,” says the speaker, “for those that ache, the living.”
Even for a scholar of naturalism, then, there is more to life’s journey than heredity and environment. There is, in short, community, the reassuring sense that one does not travel entirely alone, or at the very least, the awareness that the strangers among us are themselves on an equally arduous journey, soldiering bravely on because “mere steps ahead,” as Hussman says in “Encounter,” might just reveal, if not a sea lion, then something just as wondrous.
Lawrence E. Hussman is professor emeritus of American literature at Wright State University. Among his seven previous books are Dreiser and His Fiction: A Twentieth-Century Quest and Desire and Disillusionment: A Guide to American Fiction Since 1890. He lives on and writes about the Oregon coast. Pre-Posthumous Poems is his second book of poetry.
Carmine Di Biase writes about English and Italian literature, and his poems have appeared in various journals. Last year his English translations of thirteen poems by Cesare Pavese appeared in L’anello che non tiene: Journal of Modern Italian Literature. Occasionally he reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement. He has recently retired as Distinguished Professor of English at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. His chapbook of poems, American Rondeau, is due out from Finishing Line Press in August of 2022.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.
Tears on the Glass Desert: Speculative Poetry of Holocaust Fallout & Decay by Wesley D. Gray
Review by Don Beukes
As a secret childhood reader of horror—books such as The Rats, by James Herbert or It by Stephen King—and glued to the television watching films like The Birds or Carrie, I knew I was hooked on this genre from an early age.
In Tears on the Glass Desert (Marrowroot Press, 2021), Wesley D. Gray both establishes and earns the subtitle Speculative Poetry of Holocaust, Fallout and Decay. In his own description of the book, Gray invites us to “savor the final three seconds before Doomsday” and to “step through the shattered glass door leading beyond The End and walk through the veil of an apocalyptic dreamscape” in his chapbook of twenty-four poems that “speculate on both the inevitabilities and the impossibilities of nuclear holocaust, the fallout it brings, and the aftermath of its Decay.”
We witness an actual “countdown” over three sequences packed with astonishing and realistic poetic acumen in this cinematic literary journey, taking us to what we might fear the most—the end of this world as we know it.
In the first sequence, “Three to Ignition,”we are immediately plunged into the last three seconds of humanity in the first poem, “23:59:57.” We are lulled into an almost hypnotic state by clever use of melodic near-rhymes such as chime/shine. Gray continues to lull us in the poem “Mushroom State,” in phrases such as igniting the nighttime, where assonance may conceal our awareness of the subject matter. This is also seen in this unique tug-of-words,
our bodies flail within the flames waving like an ocean of enraged kelp
In the second sequence, I found unique cinematic scenes in the poem, “From Corn to Sea” with each stanza using the first person, I see, I fear, I run, I sail, I feel, I fade, I wake, I pull, I shudder, I rise, I hear. This leaves us with a strange and effective sensory overload, willing us to also see, feel, shudder, run, fear and fade. This line reminds me of the Alien films,
I pull and my cheeks peel from the muscle, shreds from bone
A revelatory moment comes upon the insight that perhaps the haunting figure on the cover might actually be the narrator. This awareness arrives in the poem, “Burning on re-entry,”
I was everything. I was the gravity of a black hole in the icy chars of a comet. // I hit the blue-domed atmosphere, ready to split, ready to shatter. // I am ash, a char upon the glass desert.
This collection is not for the fainthearted; it displays gore, guts and grime, while at the same time displaying the beauty of language. This sensory narrative gives an almost tactile impression of a nuclear fallout and the aftermath of decay. We see this in the poem, “Covet,”
When our bones were crushed into the asphalt dream,
as I watched you turn to liquid and your marrow soak into earth,
Other equally chilling lines include, ash caskets rain from Eden’s Skyline, in “Prisoner Zero.” And in “Witness to a Schoolyard Burial” we find, Atomic children stir below the grasses, / continuing education in soil spit. And in “Impressions,”
gullies filled with flakes of flesh, their fodder-formed whispers curdled, weaved in dust.
In the last poem, “A Final Visitation to our Monumental Glass Desert,” Gray holds our attention with lines such as, bone canyons with web-nested eyes / spilling regret from cavernous sockets, and continues the spell to these very last lines,
Blood and tears are encased within like swirls inside a marble, mixed with all that liquid skin, curled in slithers of flesh-resin tongues.
Gray’s thoughts go beyond the poems, as we find in his own description of the book’s lingering questions: Let us witness the horrors of an apocalyptic dreamscape. Let us witness the horrors that await these lucky ones called survivors . . .What will become of our Children of the Fallout? Will they live beyond Death’s second coming, or are they simply doomed to fade away?
In his first chapbook, Come Fly with Death – Poems Inspired by the Artwork of Zdzislaw Beksinski (Marrowroot Press), and in his horror novel, Feeding Lazarus (Jaded Books Publishing), Gray displays equally gruesome language and his great skill at writing horror. His work reminds me of Stephen King. In all of these books, he poses existential questions for humanity.
As an author of fiction and a poet, Wesley D. Gray is a writer of things that are mostly strange. He is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association, as well as a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. His other books include Come Fly with Death: Poems Inspired by the Artwork of Zdzislaw Beksinski, and the horror novel, Feeding Lazarus (originally published as Rafe Grayson). When he isn’t writing, Wesley enjoys geek status while claiming to be: a tabletop gamer, a reader, a dreamer, a veteran, a Trekkie, a Whovian, an amateur photographer, a radiographer, nature-lover, coffeeholic, boxed wine enthusiast, and an all-around nice guy, among other things. He resides in Florida with his wife and two children. Learn more at the author’s website: WesDGray.com.
Don Beukes is a South African, British and EU writer. He has written Ekphrastic Poetry since 2015 collaborating with artists internationally. He is the author of The Salamander Chronicles, Icarus Rising-Volume 1 (ABP), an ekphrastic collection and Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Concrete Mist Press). He taught English and Geography in both South Africa and the UK. His poetry has been anthologized in numerous collections and translated into Afrikaans, Persian, French, Kreole (Mauritius) and Albanian. He was nominated by Roxana Nastase, editor of Scarlet Leaf Review for the Best of the Net in 2017 as well as the Pushcart Poetry Prize (USA) in 2016. He was published in his first SA Anthology In Pursuit of Poetic Perfection in 2018 (Libbo Publishers) and his second Cape Sounds in 2019 (Gavin Joachims Publishing, Cape Town). He is also an amateur photographer and his debut Photographic publication appeared in Spirit Fire Review in June 2019.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.
Brittney Corrigan is a woman trying to make sense of the world using every power that blending breaking news events with imagination and metaphor will afford. In Breaking (Word Tech Editions, 2021), Corrigan displays a sensitive balance of empathy and craft while superimposing global trauma with details from her own life. These twenty-one poems are paired responses to events that occurred during the years 2013-2019; yet they seem timeless.
When I first opened Breaking, perusing at random, I ignored the postscripts included with each of the twenty-one poems, indicating which global event the poem was written “after,” such as “After the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park at the hands of trophy hunter Walter Palmer on July 1, 2015.” None of these poems actually need these postscripts, they are strong stuff on their own.
When I picked up Breaking again, with the goal of reviewing it, the dedication struck me:
For Angie Rinaldo Crowder,
my 8th grade social studies teacher, who taught me the importance of paying attention to the events of the world.
To be needlessly repetitive, this is a dedication to a social studies teacher, not a poetry mentor. This early lesson was not only internalized but considered, examined, and transformed by a poetic consciousness. And what better way to comprehend the bombings, mass murders, separation of children and families at the US-Mexican border, endangered animals, and catastrophic floods and fires? And, I should add, some wondrous events: “the female pilot who safely landed Southwest Airlines flight 1380;” the escape of “Ollie a female bobcat” from the Smithsonian National Park Zoo; or “the first all-female spacewalk.”
Floating above “After the suicide bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England that killed 22 people on May 20,1917,” is the poem “Put Your Hearts Up,” in which a “cousin’s 12-year old daughter / is dying.” This close-to-home tragedy is lined up with the mass murder. “This world in which freak accident / and planned evil turn out the same.” It goes on,
But patching up one hole leaves another gaping. Hearts are fracturing all around us, all across this organ of our earth. Our fear, our grief, is audible and persists. And yet our bodies cleave us together, quicken and pulse.
Other poems also carry the weight of tragedy mixed with credible hopefulness. “Unflap” is written in the voice of a person surviving a harrowing emergency plane landing who feels,
The gravity of our hearts plunging for what we’ve lost. Gripping onto each other, remembering what’s worth saving as the mess of us lands.
In “Steller’s Jay the Week of the Boston Marathon Bombings,” Corrigan considers her own culpability when,
The young cat whose life I saved carries a Steller’s jay in his mouth, the blue form limp on either side of his jaws.
. . .
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Somewhere behind him in the trees the little jays call from their nest: their blue mouths open.
And then she juxtaposes her “responsibility for this rending” with that of the mother of a murderer,
She would still run to him now, still gather him into her arms, rock him like a child— no matter what is lashed to his chest.
Corrigan finds a special place in these poems for wildlife: the bobcat escaping from the zoo; Cecil the lion in Nairobi’s National Park; the mother orca, Tahlequah, “who carried her dead calf for more than two weeks” while “immigrant families were being separated at the United States border with Mexico.” Here she muses, “The orcas are better than we at buoying up our own.”
In “Truck Carrying Live Eels Overturns on Highway 101,” she pictures the eels ultimate fate “not to be shipped off to Korea,” but instead becoming roadkill—
xxxxxxxxxx[a] viscous mass of lives across the pavement, racing the bulldozer, the push of its knobby, rolling track folding them on top of each other as if they were no more than snow, clearing a path through the wreckage in which no one was injured.
The irony of that quiet last line is heartrending.
We each bear awful news in our own way, pay attention to the things we feel moved to respond to, try to protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed, suicidally depressed, or callously disconnected. I am particularly sensitive to images of trauma and for this reason, after the events of 9/11/01 in New York City, I gave away my television, and have not owned one since. In Breaking, Corrigan paints dreadful images with words and puts forth a response (something I’m not always able to do) while making a valiant effort to not overwhelm, depress, or paralyze her readers. There is a feminist consciousness here as well, sharing fears and yearnings for a young daughter in “On Telling My Nine-Year-Old Daughter that Hillary Won’t be President,” and in praise poems such as “Astrosisters,” where, “two women navigate the Space Station in weightless / calm.”
I suspect that this practice of responding swiftly to events by writing poems (three of these were published in Rattle: Poets Respond) is a source of emotional self-care as well as a challenge to connect one woman’s life with larger events going on simultaneously. This engenders a sort of humanity on all things, large and small, human or fauna.
Corrigan can say, “The tide is against us. The children slip and slip and slip away,” but also,
From this ruin, we knead kindness into loaves, then break them. The fishes slip and slip from our outstretched palms.
Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collections Navigation, 40 Weeks, and most recently, Breaking, a chapbook responding to events in the news over the past several years. Daughters, a series of persona poems in the voices of daughters of various characters from folklore, mythology, and popular culture, is forthcoming from Airlie Press in September, 2021. Corrigan was raised in Colorado and has lived in Portland, Oregon for the past three decades, where she is an alumna and employee of Reed College. She is currently at work on her first short story collection and on a collection of poems about climate change and the Anthropocene age. For more information, visit http://brittneycorrigan.com/.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and curator at The Poetry Café. Her chapbook, POSTHUMAN, was the finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook contest.
Postcards from the Lilac City, by Mary Ellen Talley
Review by Sylvia Byrne Pollack
Mary Ellen Talley and I have attended many of the same workshops over the past decade, and I was already familiar with her work when I learned of the publication of her chapbook, Postcards from the Lilac City (Finishing Line Press, 2021). I’ve heard her describe this chapbook as “nostalgia-based,” but if nostalgia/memory is the seed from which this collection of poems sprouted and thrived, then I say keep on tending this tree. The fruit is delicious.
I also was drawn to this book because my mother loved lilacs. When I was growing up in Western New York, we drove to Rochester, NY each spring to the Lilac Festival in Highland Park. That park was the source of the lilacs that now flourish in Talley’s birthplace of Spokane!
Postcards from the Lilac City is an homage to place and era. However, it is not limited to Spokane, WA, known officially as The Lilac City, or to Talley’s school years. There’s a wide range of topics, from eating yak butter while traveling to baking shamrock cookies for the family.
The book is prefaced with a poem describing Pan’s infatuation with the wood nymph, Syringa, whose name is the genus name for lilacs. Three sections follow: “Bike Riding Before Helmets,” “Spokane Postcards,” and “After Vietnam.”
“Bike Riding Before Helmets” focuses on the poet’s early life. In “End of the Trolley Park,” we encounter the carousel where her parents first met. Strong sounds and dense details such as “two Chinese dragon benches / breathe fire” enhance the visual effects. They pick up the reader, carry us to another time, but by the end of the first section of the poem “The stallions are sleeping” and “The cemeteries are full / of riders.” The rebirth of the carousel in 1975, is told in declarative voice, rich with physical and emotional details, “as memories glisten spinning counterclockwise.”
The memories are mixed. For example, there is the contrast of a bomb shelter vs. the protection provided by the presence of the Poor Clare Monastery in “faith in the lilac city” –with the all lowercase title adding an ironic twist. A sometimes-troubled relationship with her father resolves into understanding in “As I Pursue You”:
what I most recall is your steady hand grasping the back of my bicycle
and running beside me until I could not fall.
Talley uses various poetic forms—even a duplex. In a Jericho Brown-inspired poem, “Duplex: We Had a Real Fred and Ethel in the Lilac City,” we meet Talley’s parents, the real Fred and Ethel, to whom the book is dedicated.
The final two poems recounting the speaker’s childhood relive teenage years. A Stone Man on a festival float brims with not-so-latent adolescent sexuality. My favorite of this group is “Butterfly” which captures teenage brio in the speaker’s casual description of herself:
I, in my herringbone pleated skirt, blue anklets and white Peter Pan collar, history and French books tossed in the back seat.
The poem includes the maneuvers required to start her hand-me-down car: opening the hood, flipping up the butterfly hinge, getting into the car to turn on the ignition, getting back out to flip down the butterfly, then idling in PARK while listening to the radio and watching her classmates head off to the bus. She then has an hour to spend with her boyfriend under a lilac (where else?) before picking up her mother. So much of a teenage life is captured in 34 lines.
The poems in “Spokane Postcards” contain the eponymous postcard poems. The first stanza of each is a description of place, the postcard image, followed by a message, generally from Mary Ellen but sometimes from her grandma. They have the feel of a flipped over haibun. The descriptions include place, season and senses. The messages use the casual voice of postcards to family and friends.
“Shadle Park” extends the teenage romancing of “Butterfly” with brief declarative and imperative lines: “Kiss the space between his teeth.” And, later, skin evokes the omnipresent lilacs:
pull petal soft sheer layers from burnt skin. Drop it all on an ant hill.
Probably the funniest line in the book is in the poem “Wandemere” in a message to a friend about experiences while traveling in Asia: “I am still so Spokane.”
The final section, “After Vietnam,” includes poems of marriage and maturity. In “The Things We Carry,” memorable lines, such as “you and I carried desire / like youth’s cranking jump rope” are juxtaposed with dense descriptive passages. Later in “Fabric of Worry,” we find Talley’s judicious use of white space.
An homage to Gertrude Stein, “Occupation of Lilacs,” overwhelms the senses with the sight and smell of lilacs, in true Stein fashion. The lilting “Prism” delights with its nursery rhyme rhythms and nonsense, e.g., “Old onions cry out once pumpkin seeds twinkle.”
The poem, “Since you ask how do we love a sibling (enough)” uses a clever device. Lines are divided into two columns and lines in the right hand column in each stanza begin successively with H,E,L,I,X. The poem further explores and pulls together family stories we heard about earlier in the book. It is a moving tribute to family and the DNA ties that bind.
In the final poem, Talley considers “the movie of my life” in a taut, beautiful series of images of a tapestry,
ripped in those years of hanging beside a stone staircase.
There is much to savor in this eclectic collection of poems. Talley takes us on a carousel ride through time and space and in her quiet voice returns us a little more grounded, more appreciative of family, more aware of the beauty that leavens life.
Mary Ellen Talley was born and raised in Spokane, Washington, the Lilac City, and then migrated to Seattle where she and her husband raised their two children. She earned degrees at the University of Washington and worked for many years as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) in Seattle area public schools. Her poems have been published in numerous journals including Raven Chronicles, Banshee, What Rough Beast, Flatbush Review, and Ekphrastic Review, as well as in six anthologies, among which are All We Can Hold and Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace. Her poetry has received two Pushcart Nominations. She reviews for several journals including Compulsive Reader and Asheville Poetry Review.
Sylvia Byrne Pollack, a scientist turned poet, has published in Floating Bridge Review, Crab Creek Review and Clover, among other print and online journals. A two-time Pushcart nominee, she won the 2013 Mason’s Road Literary Award, was a 2019 Jack Straw Writer and will be a 2021 Mineral School Resident. Her debut full-length collection Risking It is published by Red Mountain Press (2021.)
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.
Nickole Brown’s The Donkey Elegies (Sibling Rivalry Press 2020), is a beautifully written and instructive sequence of numbered poems about donkeys, and by extension other overlooked and under-appreciated beasts of burden.
The book begins intimately, as the poet describes a particular donkey, its ears “like single petals of Dahlias at full bloom, curled, firmly upright, but always soft, always open.” It’s an apt image for a book that asks us to listen deeply as Brown lays out the history of these creatures who have served humans for thousands of years.
In the second poem, the poet is on her knees, carefully cleaning the underside of the donkey’s hoof in her role as a volunteer at an animal shelter, and in this position of humility and service, she invites us to join her. She gives us the vocabulary for a donkey’s body: “fetlock, withers, eel stripes, heel, hoof wall, sole, toe, frog,” as opposed to the language used in later poems—stereotypes and jokes about asses, because,
behind their jokes is not the animal itself but the animal they see, not the animal they know but the animal they think.
She endures the scorn of a fellow worker at the shelter:
the community service punk clocked for speeding with a rattle of beer cans on his floorboards can’t get over the fact I clean the barn for free because I want to.
She notices the “subtle flinch of visitors, their pity seeing a grown woman shovel shit.'” But, she writes, “this grunt work is the repair of my soul.”
The middle section of the book catalogues the dismal assortment of grunt work that has been assigned to donkeys over centuries. This is a fascinating and appalling history, and a reminder that seeing any living being as inherently less than and disposable dehumanizes the perpetrator. Many of the of poems in this sequence begin with the phrase: “On your back,” and so begins a long list of people and things donkeys have carried, including the laboring Mary, later her son Jesus, untold numbers of soldiers, and burdens ranging from dead deer to pallets of bricks until, finally:
your back, it sways, it bends in the middle as does a shelf that’s been asked to hold more than it possibly can, before it eventually splits
exposing spine. Overloaded, the cart tips back, suspends in the air the limp donkey.
The use of donkeys in our World Wars, something I was completely ignorant about, is particularly heartbreaking. As many as 80,000 donkeys were in the trenches during World War I, with their vocal cords cut to silence them, and in World War II donkeys outfitted with parachutes were dropped from planes only to shatter their limbs upon landing and be shot. Brown weaves scenes of her own upbringing throughout the unfolding of the the donkey’s tale so as to describe how she could,
sense the life I was born into, the one I was meant to have. . . I’d be trapped with too many babies and a shit husband to boot. . . But what they couldn’t imagine is though I escaped all that, all those years behind the desk have unstitched me from my body in another way . . .
She shows us the girl she once was, who smiled and apologized to men behaving badly, concluding that:
Fawning is one way to dodge what’s coming when you’ve no other way to fight. Tractable is one way a domestic avoids extinction. It took me decades to step into the barn and ask these questions of a donkey who learned to survive as I did, who placidly moved forward, regardless, in spite of everything, just like me.
The language throughout the book links the poet and the donkeys to hardscrabble working worlds: “The truth of my family was buried in their talk.” In one poem Brown describes Mary as “tupped by the Almighty,” in another she refers to Pooh’s donkey friend Eeyore as a “stitched-back-together low note of Prozac.” In tone, these rich phrases are the offspring of the country sayings she grew up with, such as one she quotes in poem #14: “about as good as putting a steering wheel on a mule.” My own father, a Western Pennsylvania farm kid whose education ended when he dropped out of high school to work in a steel mill, peppered his own speech with similar talk. As cliched as it may sound, rural language is indeed wise, often poetic and has an earthy humor you can practically smell. Brown’s book is infused with this language, and coupled with her intellect and keen observations she spins plenty of her own wisdom: “Do we dismiss sturdy, useful beings / because we despise what we’re afraid we’ll become?”
The last poem is a blessing that calls to these lines from Galway Kinnell’s “Saint Francis and the Sow”:
sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness, / / as Saint Francis put his hand on the creased forehead of the sow, and told her in words and in touch blessings of earth on the sow
Brown ends her well-researched and deeply moving book with a similar blessing:
Blessed be. You know how it goes. Inherit the. / / a plain song of persistence, of hunger met with plenty of time to chew.
Listen. Can you hear it, too?
In his dutiful mouth, the pulp and resignation, the grit and patience of every thing grown by the sun surrendered but saved, brought back by the common, low-life, baseborn, absolute
holiness that is this donkey.
I highly recommend this book. The language is often bracing and always delightful, the donkeys are as real as rain—purely themselves, intensely seen, and yet also metaphors for the suffering that happens all around us that we manage not to see.
Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College, studied literature at Oxford University, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was first published in 2007 by Red Hen Press and a new edition was reissued by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015, and the audio book of that collection became available in 2017. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years until she gave up her beloved time in the classroom in hope of writing full time. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and teaches periodically at a number of places, including the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, and the Hindman Settlement School. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville, NC, where she volunteers at a three different animal sanctuaries. Currently, she’s at work on a bestiary of sorts about these animals, but it won’t consist of the kind of pastorals that always made her (and most of the working-class folks she knows) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it—these poems speak in a queer, Southern-trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, but damaged and dangerous. The first of these new poems, To Those Who Were Our First Gods won Rattle‘s Chapbook Contest in 2018. The second chapbook from this project, an essay-in-poems called The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in January 2020.
Suzanne Simmons’ poems, essays and photographs have been published in the NYTimes, Fifth Wednesday, Rattle, Smartish Pace, The Baltimore Review and numerous other journals. Her chapbook In September They Draw Down the Lake was released by Alexandria Quarterly Press in 2020. She volunteers for Monarch Watch, The Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, and lives in Eliot, ME. Visit her at http://www.suzannesimmons.net
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.
It’s hard to ignore a chapbook that includes a poem whose first line is: “I saw my ass on the news last night.” Heather Wyatt’s Call My Name (The Poetry Box, 2019) is filled with such detailed observations, often delivered with skillfully detached humor, and always presented with rich and precise imagery.
In “File Footage,” the above-referenced poem, Wyatt writes:
Almost like a heart, it bobbled, a teeter totter unaware of the camera. This isn’t good. I said to myself. I put down the cookie dough. I predicted this would happen one day.
Call My Name is part memoir, in that the author sometimes takes us back to her childhood and some of the important characters who shaped it. It is also a collection of her keen observations of everyday events and objects—things that make up a major part of our lives, but which we may tend to ignore. Wyatt pays close attention to them, and reminds us that they have meaning, even if we have sometimes been unable to find the words to convey that meaning. In “Nostalgic Scroll,” she runs through a list of sensory memories:
miniature teapot I begged my mother for after Aunt Frances died yellow crocheted purse from Great-Grandmother Maude fallen hair from Barbie on Salon day sand dunes perched on the coast of North Carolina littered with kites donning images of superheroes sixteenth century forts, lighthouses bigger than life and miles of white beaches in St. Augustine
And in “Full of Grace,” she laments the unfortunate existence of a neglected statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Made of stone, she stands prim, high, cream stone against the brick wall, nailed to a black L bracket looking over the leather teal sofas, and the television that never stops running the news ticker.
I lived in New Orleans for much of my life, so I was immediately drawn to “After My Second Hurricane,” in which Wyatt perfectly captures the city’s sometimes shocking ambience:
The streets of New Orleans smell like old trash filled with aged, Creole spices. . . . . . Purple and gold beads were flying at my head.
The author’s childhood memories include finding her grandfather’s golf bag in the attic, digging “to China” in the red mud of her yard, eating canned ravioli and watching ThePrice is Right at her grandparents’ house, and losing control of her crutches and falling down twice at her great-grandmother’s funeral. In every case, these memories are enhanced by Wyatt’s keen use of imagery and her attention to detail, as they are in the poem, “The Price is Right”:
Grandpa would pluck the strings on his guitar until he heard creaking floor boards that meant Grandma was coming to tell him to stop.
I spent every summer this way, reclining, looking at the wood paneling on the walls.
One of the most poignant poems in the collection is “A Caged Bird,” in which the author describes a sick bird:
Your curled beak and nails grasp at the wires— you squawk when you can catch your breath, The latch that keeps you caged comes unhinged and the door opens.
You don’t leave.
Even more affecting is the haunting title poem, “Call My Name,” which is the first poem in the chapbook. In “Call My Name,” Wyatt describes the failing mental and physical health of her aunt, who is in a nursing home. But the poem is really about the author’s reaction to witnessing the demise of her family member:
This is not the first or last poem I will write about you. This time I am trying to decide what I want from your house that you can’t fit in your tiny room. How can I choose what I want to take with me?
We haven’t even had a funeral for you.
The poet describes the patient’s condition in painful and startling detail, such as in this passage:
The closet is your refrigerator and you are on the kitchen floor and you are in the fabrics department and you are working. You fold the same stiff, sterile sheet for hours and look desperately at the oxygen machine to give you a price for the discounted fabric.
Wyatt’s poetry is spare and focused, transporting the reader directly to the scene, and all of the emotions and sensations surrounding it. Call My Name is evocative, emotive and and often humorous. Heather Wyatt closely observes everything, including herself, in this beautifully written collection. The result is poetry that nudges our memories, validates our feelings about events large and small, and calls us to be observers of our own experiences.
Heather Wyatt is a teacher and writer by day and food TV junkie by night. Her first book, My Life Without Ranch, from 50/50 Press features that love of food, but also explores the dangerous relationship we can all have with it. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and has a slight obsession with her two dogs. She both graduated from and instructs English at the University of Alabama.
She received her MFA from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky in poetry. Several of her poems have been featured in a number of journals including Number One, Puff Puff Prose Poetry , The Binnacle, ETA, Writers Tribe Review and many others. Her short story “A Penny Saved” was published in Perspectives Magazine in 2018. Her essay “Self-Defense” is in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, September 2018 and her essay, “Hot AF” is in the magazine Robot Butt.
Follow her on Twitter @heathermwyatt or visit her website at heathermwyatt.com for more information.
Diane Elayne Dees’s poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies. Diane is the author of the chapbook, Coronary Truth (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming chapbooks, I Can’t Recall Exactly When I Died, and The Last Time I Saw You. Diane, who lives in Covington, Louisiana, also publishes Women Who Serve, a blog that delivers news and commentary on women’s professional tennis throughout the world. Her author blog is Diane Elayne Dees: Poet and Writer-at-Large.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.
The US military has made a habit of using beautiful islands for target practice while also destroying animal life, fragile ecosystems, livelihoods, cultures, and even people. Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, is one example, about which Marshallese poet Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner has evocatively written. Culebra, in Puerto Rico, is another.
Inspired by Jetn̄il-Kijiner, Amelia Diaz Ettinger wrote her chapbook Fossils on a Red Flag (Finishing Line Press, 2021) about the Culebra Island Naval Defensive Sea Area and Naval Airspace Reservation. The Navy reserve was created in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for training purposes. Culebra is an archipelago of 11.6 square miles with a population, according to the government website, of 1,868 people. The chapbook begins with the Executive Order 8684, establishing the naval reserve, and presents nineteen poems that move through time from 1941 to 2017, when deadly Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Diaz Ettinger writes from her own experiences visiting Culebra for scientific study as a teenager in the 1970’s and from her vantage point today as a retired educator and an expatriate Puerto Rican now living in Oregon.
Echoing the protests of the culebrenses that took place in the early 1970s and resulted in the discontinuation of the Navy’s use of Culebra, Diaz Ettinger’s collection decries the extensive damage to the environment. She uses the motif of half-life, the scientific term that identifies the time it takes for a substance to decay to half its potency, to probe how long it will take for the archipelago to recover from being used as a bombing range. Among the damages done to the archipelago were destruction of bird and turtle nesting sites, destruction of coral reefs, radiation contamination of land and seafood due to leaching from munitions, and the threat of unexploded munitions. In the poem, “1968*half life,” Diaz Ettinger brings the reader right into the destruction of bird life:
They were parents here, and aunts and siblings. They knew and fed each other’s chicks. // The inferno that followed charred the anxious waiting families sitting peacefully at their nests.
The poem “*1970 half life” starts with the epigraph “I have my orders. / We will blow up some / more on Monday.” The poem depicts the detonation of missiles lodged in coral, a bombing that resulted in native fishermen’s loss of livelihood:
Two hundred feet from the explosion the coral was sliced as by a divine indifferent knife, white spots already spread, where life had been blasted. The shore filled with the glassy eyes of fish.
Diaz Ettinger’s collection also depicts the culebrenses in protest against the US military. The poem, “Claro Feliciano, a citizen of Culebra” describes how this 74-year-old man experiences the “ghost” of the Navy’s radiation poisoning in the cells of his body. It is like “skeletal fingers,” or like “fishbones / that turned to steel.” In “*1970 half life,” the culebrenses, in response, stand outside the naval base within range of “sharpshooters / poised on the occupied hill” and sound “Seventy conchs strong / singing / with the willingness of a hurricane.”
The collection reflects the history of Puerto Rico as a colonial landscape—site of displaced native populations and imported African slaves, colonized by the Spanish, won as a US territory as a spoil of war, disenfranchised in US politics, routinely mistreated and ignored by the US government, and now essentially bankrupt. On behalf of this population, Diaz Ettinger’s work demands that Americans notice the pattern of destruction, both ecological and sociological, to American lands and to fellow American citizens.
A third strand in the collection is Diaz Ettinger’s own life experience in this landscape. She recalls herself as a teen oblivious to the politics of life on Culebra. In “Queen Conch I,” she arrives as a scientist studying “birds and turtles,” “wrapped in loud youth.” A highlight of the collection is “Cebu Poem: Loggerheads and Leatherbacks,” which depicts a youthful love affair among the science crew:
Once in the Caribbean brine, away from the prying eyes of my father, lost in the blue with the smell of fish-bones on our skin I gave myself to you, soft as the inside of a mollusk.
The young people are oblivious to the destruction around them, this time other young people stealing protected eggs. The contrast between the lovers and the destroyers speaks to the irony of attempting to protect rare species in this devastating context. Here, even young love fails:
Plundered nests before the sun entered those waters, under the fading eye of Yucayu, just as you left without saying adios leaving me alone on sand, ocean, and new discovered fire.
Fossils on a Red Flag ends with a poem, “Dedication: After Hurricane Maria,” that depicts the poet looking at Puerto Rico and Culebran politics from the vantage point of years and of the Continental US. Her mourning for the people and places of her childhood is palpable in “baskets of loss.” In this poem, she calls readers to “Witness!” With this command, we are instructed to notice destruction and cruelty. We should take action in helping those who are suffering, and to have sympathy–also for the poet, safe in Oregon, watching with grief the desolation of her home.
In the poems of Diaz Ettinger, as well as those by Jetn̄il-Kijiner, the personal is political and so is the poetry. Diaz Ettinger’s chapbook is art that both delights us and motivates us to live better.
Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Amelia Diaz Ettinger has written poems that reflect the struggle with identity often found in immigrants. She began writing poetry at age three by dictating her poems out loud to her uncles who wrote them down for her. She has continued writing poems and short stories throughout her life. Her writing took a back seat while she raised two wonderful human beings and worked as a high school teacher. Now retired, she has renewed her writing with fervor. She has published three books of poetry: SPEAKING AT A TIME (redbat books, 2015), LEARNING TO LOVE A WESTERN SKY (Airlie Press, 2020), and FOSSILS ON A RED FLAG (Finishing Line Press, 2021). She currently resides in Summerville, Oregon with her husband Chip, her dog Oso and seven unnamed chickens.
Title: Fossils on a Red Flag Author: Amelia Diaz ettinger Publisher : Finishing Line Press (February 19, 2021) ISBN-10 : 1646624424 ISBN-13 : 978-1646624423 Price: $14.99
The daughter of two architects,Nancy Knowlesbegan her career in education as a school model, posing as an eager student in publicity photos for her parents’ business, which focused on designing K-8 schools. In addition to earning degrees from UCLA, Humboldt State University, and the University of Connecticut, she worked in business management in the entertainment industry and taught English at a summer camp in Japan. She has taught literature and writing at the college level for almost 30 years.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.
Embracing memory can be a tricky task for the artist. For some, remembrance realizes itself in the comforting gaze of nostalgia and sentimentality. For others, reminiscence belts us as a reminder of something lost, the unrecoverable better days. In his poetry chapbook, Much (UnCollected Press, 2021), Joel Peckham offers a different way to negotiate with our histories: the past as proof of our resilience. Grounded in the lucid and the circumstantial, Peckham’s autobiographical work turns past and present anxieties into narratives of focus and survival. Much confronts eventualities and catastrophes with a hard-earned durability characterized by love and empathy.
Much opens with “On Hearing a Scream Outside My Window,” a poem driven by a theme typical of Peckham’s best work –an unwavering trust in human connection fueled by recollection,
the way the mind desperately pieces things together, xxxxxtrying to follow its tracks as it bends into the woods, imposing xxxxxxpatterns, asking all the leading questions.
Peckham, a Whitman devotee, finds common ground and kinship in the everyday and the extraordinary, in this instance, a cry that functions as both bridge and catharsis. On one hand, the scream conjures the memory of a great grandmother he never met, the relative:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… my sisters feared, who, in her last years would spend thanksgiving screaming that xxxxxxher husband was trying to kill her, tearing at her hair and weeping in terror as xxxxxxeveryone shook their heads, staring at their drinks–
Giving purpose to the noise of agony, Peckham “imagined and reimagined the voice” and, if only briefly, finds some insight into the mind of the great grandmother who has become the stuff of family lore.
The scream also recalls Peckham’s childhood spent listening to John Lennon records, whose wails are more than rock and roll theatrics. For Peckham, they are confirmation of the human condition, at times celebrating, pleading, suffering, or “harmonizing.” Lennon’s “voice split” is vitality manifested, universal, and prophetic:
it was all for me and through me–those cries and those I hadn’t yet xxxxxxheard or would make myself in time. Years later.
In Peckham’s hands, cries are a sonic purge, “terror turned to beauty. This force / freed from the sun.”
Other recollections that sprinkle Much’s first half eclipse the typical slice-of-life narratives, exploring labor and reward, success and failure. “Redemption Center” celebrates the “simple return[s]” of youth, when heaven is an uncomplicated exchange of a day’s hard work for an afternoon at the movies. Elsewhere, the struggles of adulthood reveal themselves. A group of boys playing in the woods in “Trembling in the Water” are left to reckon with discovery of an abandoned pinstripe suit. What are the young men to make of a man who has given up? Perhaps he “walked out of / a bank or some / cubicle in one of the office parks,” or emerged, hands in the air, from a “breakdown / lane off 95,” and stripped himself of authority and responsibility. The reality of an adult’s defeat leaves the boys, “Ready / to bolt.” Other poems demonstrate a young person’s realization of class-consciousness. In “You don’t know shit about shit,” the speaker finds camaraderie with the boss’s sister. Together, they are “the dropout and the washout, and the trust fund kid,” both “starving for blood.”
The poem, “Pavement: Jack Coffey Landscaping and Tree Service, July 1989” juxtaposes “the fine, manicured green of the lawn” with a truck bed of “black tar sloughing and / calving like a glacier, the scrape of iron on iron, and curses echoing,” as a three-person crew toil during a suburban summer. The working day ends not only with the satisfaction of a job well done, but also with a “deep breath, breathing the poison in.”
Other poems find Peckham more political, but no less intimate. Peckham’s signature familiarity saves his poems from the relic status resigned to much of protest art. In “Jupiter, Desire, Hope,” he confronts the reckoning of COVID-era America. After years of “walking up the gang plank,” we are left to take shelter, “duck and cover,” and “adjust our masks.” “The debt [has] come due.” The poem continues:
Did you ever think this would happen in our lifetime Rachel asks me as we adjust our masks and xxxxxxcross the lot to the grocery store Yes I hear myself respond
The poem “#naturalselection” tackles a country that reduces the substance abuse epidemic to bad statistics, and thinks that its casualties suffer a just-deserved fate as the “other”:
But the problem is the gangs from Detroit and who cares, let those bastards xxxxxshoot each other. And let those druggies shoot themselves up until they’re gone. Load the heroin and Fentanyl and xxxxxxFuck the Narcan anyway. It’s called natural selection.
Where War-on-Drug hardliners dictate with an either/or idea of justice, Peckham writes from the front-lines, giving names and a gentle humanity to the victims. Cool Chase, one of Peckham’s former student, “was beautiful in a quiet way that takes you / by surprise. He could reach you with his eyes without speaking,”
But he had nerve pain and a limp. And maybe he was a little too thin and sometimes he shook a bit like witch xxxxxxgrass in the wind. But that was just Cool Chase, holding back And leaning in, and who knew anyone or anything xxxxxxcould take you suddenly that way before you knew what hit you.
The poem, “America: Love It or Leave It,” is Much’s most vicious piece, addressing the absurd, “You’re with us, or you’re against us” mentality that has haunted post-9/11 America. Using the metaphor of a one-sided, abusive relationship, Peckham presents the country as a bully,
Just another cracking-open-a-six-pack- feet-up-watching-football-with-potato-chip-crumbs- xxxxxxin-his-navel kind of love asking what’s for dinner
In a country that traffics in blind patriotism, “There is no out,” no rescue or retreat, just:
you and all you us and thems and either ors. And xxxxxxthat’right, I didn’t think so’s. Don’t you know by now it’s been a long, xxxxxxlong time since This thing we have, had anything to do with love.
Much’s anxieties culminate in the title piece, dedicated to Peckham’s son, Darius, at age eighteen. The poem undercuts the easy romanticism of idealized youth, presenting a litany of too-much-too-soon experiences that test the resilience of young men and women living under the canopy of near-catastrophe. Reflecting on his own youth, Peckham offers a childhood that wasn’t just baseball cards, rock and roll records, or candy bars; it was also Regan-era angst, abusive parents, coked-up teammates, suicide, AIDS, Russia, sex, and questions about sexuality. His was a world punctuated by overexposure, breaking points, and muted suffering: “How much we hid from each other and ourselves and hid ourselves from / each other.”
“Much” is poem driven by the parental instinct to nurture and protect, and while it can’t do the impossible—guarantee a child’s safety—it articulates the confusing and difficult dynamic between parents and children. Peckham understands that parents:
Didn’t know us at all. And Back then we all thought that was what they wanted. xxxxxxxxxMaybe
they were a little scared of us, how much we had to xxxxxxxxxface, and how much we needed and how confused we were, how much damage xxxxxxxxxwas being done.
In confronting the realities of youth, Peckham gives us poetry-as-survival-kit, a lived-to-tell voice of experience:
All that was coming, coming at us, all at once. That no xxxxxxone could protect us from. And maybe it was all
Peckham concludes with the celebratory “Wow! Signal: Dredging Light.” Here, exhilaration fuels an anticipation of “Summer / when everything sings and stings with its need to be uncontained, and penetrate the skin.” A Whitmanesque kinship sends Peckham, tasked with the chore of dredging a creek, beyond the here and now, “insisting I am / not confined in … this body or this creek.” In an instant, his shovel “is not a shovel but a dish, glittering with stars that are future and past at once, sending their messages of birth and burial.” From there, a fabric of continuity reveals itself:
somewhere on the burning sand of an ever-expanding beach, unmodulated waves xxxxxxthat might have come from a light-house beacons somewhere in the xxxxxxconstellation of Sagittarius strain…
Somewhere in Ohio the astronomer shot through with wonder stares at the signal he’s been waiting for xxxxxxwithout hope and desperate with need, works out the coordinates, searching xxxxxxfor the source of what he sees.
Back at the creek, Peckham implores the Old Gods to “sing the language of the sumac” and “play the notes in any sequence.” Grappling with memory, Much could end on a down note; however, “Wow!” finds Peckham alive, hopeful, transcendent, and untranslatable, “staggering / with light and heat.”
Much, along with Peckham’s other books, channels the sweeping, out-of-breath exuberance of Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. At the same time, he deals in a reassuring tenderness that recalls Carl Sandburg. Understandably, any work published during the chaos and loss and COVID will be read as product of its circumstances. Yet Much transcends the trappings of topical art by re-imaging how we live with memory, not as a crutch, but as a resume. Here, a relationship with the past isn’t defined by what-ifs or senior yearbook superlatives; instead; it’s delicate dichotomy of thriving in the now and “letting go while holding to the line that links.”
Joel Peckham has published seven books of poetry and nonfiction, most recently God’s Bicycle and Body Memory. His newest collection, Bone bMusic, is forthcoming from SFA press in Spring 2021. His poems appeared recently in or are forthcoming in many journals, including Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, The Sugar House Review, Cave Wall, The Beloit Poetry Journal and many others. Currently, he is editing an anthology of ecstatic poetry for New Rivers Press, titled Wild Gods: The Ecstatic in American Poetry and Prose.
Selling the Family by Nancy Kay Peterson (Finishing Line Press, 2021) is a book you should buy and read. My review of it will be brief, reflecting Nancy Peterson’s poetry. She writes with Scandinavian sparseness about her family, which is now reduced (and simultaneously enlarged by this book) to her. The cover is a photograph of the auction, set outdoors, in a meadow, of her parents’ estate. The poems are brief and in free verse. Peterson avoids excessive self-pity in the same way she does unnecessary modifiers. She doesn’t indulge (maybe a little) the subjective bleakness of mortality. She likes objects. They are part of her family. It reminds me of the deep relationship between kin and ken.
Here’s one of the poems from the book, titled, “Being Last”:
Imagine being last. No one to call on Christmas. No packages under a fragrant pine.
Little but time to fill day after day after day.
Who will buy a coffin, make final arrangements, chance upon the writings, save them for discovery?
My heart knows the work will be simply discarded. What stranger would read them, a lifetime of poems?
Nancy Kay Peterson’s poetry has appeared in print and online in numerous publications, recently in Lost Lake Folk Opera, One Sentence Poems, Spank the Carp, Steam Ticket, and Three Line Poetry. Two of her poems were nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook, Belated Remembrance, (Finishing Line Press, 2010) is a series of poems telling the story of her great-great uncle Arne Kulterstad (1825-1902), who was convicted of murder in Oslo, Norway, and eventually exiled to Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Selling the Family, her second chapbook, relates her experience in auctioning off her family’s estate as the family’s sole living descendant. From 2004-2009, she was co-publisher and co-editor of Main Channel Voices: A Dam Fine Literary Magazine.
Title: Selling the Family Author: Nancy Kay Peterson Publisher: Finishing Line Press, 2021 Price: $14.95 ISBN: 978-1-64662-402-7
Bill Rector is a retired physician. He formerly edited the Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine. His publishing credits include a full-length poetry collection entitled, bill, through Proem Press, and five chapbooks: Lost Moth, about the death of his daughter, which won the Epiphany magazine chapbook competition; Biography of a Name (Unsolicited Press), relating the death of Jimmy Hoffa to contemporary American culture; Brief Candle (Prolific Press), a series of sonnets in modern idiom about selected characters from Shakespeare; Two Worlds (White Knuckle Press), relating the transcendent to the ordinary, which the editors called one of the most beautiful collections they have published; and most recently, Hats are the Enemy of Poetry (Finishing Line Press).
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.