The Moment of Greatest Alienation

The Moment of Greatest Alienation, by Issam Zineh

Review by Risa Denenberg

On first glance, I couldn’t decide if the poems in Issam Zineh’s The Moment of Greatest Alienation were about sex, clothed in its many garments, or if the work uses sexual interstices as a metaphor for any number of other life-and-death matters. Of course both are true, a truth that I find delicious. Although tangling with bodily union, no important matters seem to be absent in this collection—the work is the poet’s universe revealed.

The book itself is an art object. I’ve long been impressed with these limited-edition, hand-made/hand-bound micro chapbooks designed by Sara Lefsyk for Ethel Micro Press. The Moment of Greatest Alienation is a petite six by seven inches with a hand-sewn spine and a cover embossed with art and stitches, resembling a spider web, to the words of the title. The cover invites reading.

Then there are the poems. From the first lines in this chapbook, in the poem, “Metaphor is the Momentum Between Gestures,” we find a lyrical high bar that Zineh jumps over again and again throughout this work.

Answering the poem’s title, he says,

& I am Coptic

you are Christ, my heart a slit lamb, punctured,
slick at the throat. The alchemist’s optic

obsession: stuff to gold & never back.

Later in the poem, we find the story to be about an illicit affair.

. . . proud we pulled it off, proud of our disgrace.
We will smile. There will be nothing left
to do except go home
& make love in separate beds

Because I work in the medical arena, I have a particular fondness for poet-scientists and the way poetry can be looped into a scientific description of anything. In “Coefficients of Friction,” we find measurements of friction, body against body:

The physicist in me
with polymers mated against steel thrust

washer geometry, in all my traction, grip, and desire,
is trapped in the wrong version of eternity.

You are valuable and dimensionless.
Load and velocity.

There is a rewarding effort involved in following the syntax here. And, as I did, you may need to look up a few scientific concepts in this poem, such as washer geometry. But then you have the benefit of learning something new about how volume is measured, for example, if you want to calculate the volume of your lover.

The poems in The Moment of Greatest Alienation are the work of a poet who is erudite, deeply knowledgeable in numerous fields of the arts and academy, but who also pays astute attention to the political nature of everything he comes into contact with. Much is discovered in the “Notes.” For example, here is where we learn that the poem “Adagio includes titles from compositions by Bach, Barber, Copland, and Schnittke.” And I would add, all are folded seamlessly into the poem.

There are several poems that reckon with human tragedies caused by political inequity. In the notes, we learn that, in the poem “Plastic Bag,” Zineh “hopes to memorialize Òscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned in June 2019 trying to cross the Rio Grande.” In stark contrast with Zineh’s relative safety, the poem begins with the line, “I will tonight, god willing, sleep like a/ baby,” but goes on to describe how such horrific events affect him:

I will dream, the recurring one in
which you wrap me in your arms
and drag me to the bottom of the
lake, hold me underwater until I
either drown or wake.

In “Eight Parables to Keep You Safe, Defy Aging, & Banish Evil,” there is an amalgam of so many disparate substances, so much active and passive energy, that reading it gives me the dizzying sensation that all energy is matter and all matter is simple one version of reality pressing against another —and yet, there is an incoherent sense of order in the coupling. In the final parable, titled “8. The New Originals,” a narrative line wanders and then coheres with the line “all relationships are the same in the beginning,” –with its nod to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina– and continuing in the next stanza:

We still miss each other sometimes. We look for things that are irretrievable in these minor folds of solitude. We fire, we flood, we famine. We don’t know much of petal or stamen, the easiest of metaphors, the easiest sounds the tongue can make. And still, God has set up its system. Proteins are synthesized and sent to correct destinations. The awfully beautiful things of the body go on happening. 

The poem “Ars Poetica” is an epithalamium—a poem in honor of a wedded couple. It starts with “I am married on a cliff,” but leads to a premonition of cracks in a marriage:

The guests have arrived. We walk down one
path at once, hating for now, everything that blooms,

knowing this is a small part of the introduction,
an even smaller part of the conclusion.

I suppose it is this sort of brutal honesty that I find so delicious in this book.


Issam Zineh is a Palestinian-American poet and scientist. He is author of Unceded Land (forthcoming, Trio House Press) which is an Editors’ Selection and finalist for the Trio Award for first or second book, and the chapbook The Moment of Greatest Alienation (Ethel Press, 2021). His poems appear or are forthcoming in AGNI, Guernica, Pleiades, Tahoma Literary Review, Tinderbox, Guesthouse, Glass (Poets Resist), Lunch Ticket, Poet Lore, and elsewhere.


Title: The Moment of Greatest Alienation
Author: Issam Zineh
Publisher: Ethel Zine & Micro Press, 2021
Book Design: Sara Lefsyk
39 pages $9.00


Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Guilty Prayer

Guilty Prayer, by Steve Henn (Main Street Rag, 2021)

Review by Charles Farmer

Two years ago, I checked into a rehabilitation clinic to kick an alcohol addiction. I brought along a few changes of clothes and some books: the who’s-who anthology, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry; and some volumes about the writer-as-drinker—Charles Jackson’s harrowing The Lost Weekend; Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Springs; and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. I hoped I’d have enough down time between counseling sessions to read with a clear head and conscience, something I’d been unable to do for the previous five years. I’d come to romanticize a lonely and calamitous routine of reading at my favorite bar until closing time, my head down in a book with an unspoken agreement with the bartender to refill my vodka sodas. It’d been years since I’d been sober enough to remember what I’d read the previous evening. For years, I’d told my students about literature’s power to restore, affirm, and heal, and settling into my residency, I hoped to validate my beliefs and fall in love again with living. Over time I did, and poetry remains essential to my sobriety. Reading poets—such as Raymond Carver, Nick Flynn, Hala Alyan, and Kaveh Akbar—who have made sense of and survived addiction and ruin provides me a sense of communion that I can’t find elsewhere.

Steven Henn’s latest chapbook, Guilty Prayer, offers me another instance for fellowship. Confronting his ex-wife Lydia’s addictions and eventual suicide, as well as his own drinking and depression, Henn finds life in the aftermath. Honesty is fundamental—Henn eschews the best-seller redemptive narrative arc and the platitudes typical of the language of recovery. Instead, Henn’s poems are unblinking, intimate accounts of a near-recovery. Confessional writing is a loaded term, conjuring accusations of oversharing and exploitation, but Guilty Prayer doesn’t read like an exercise in emotional manipulation. Instead, Henn delivers clear-eyed honesty, tenderness, and vulnerability.

Alcohol’s and drug’s seduction can be painless, effortless: “You can waste your whole cussed life/ Romanticizing the Dark Side,” Henn tells us in “What Darth Vadar Taught Me.” He recognizes a beloved trope: The creator fueled by substances, the artist who can access their creativity only after a few drinks or pills— their wit, sensitivity, and language sharpened by hard living. It sounds almost mystical, like Bukowski giving himself to his muse. Yet the poem ends with the reality: “Then I passed out/ of consciousness, not knowing if or when I would wake.” How do you romanticize that?

Henn doesn’t. Guilty Prayer revisits his traumas under a poetic microscope, one raw crisis, lyric after lyric. Confrontation defeats denial and deflection. In the haunting “Lydia,” Henn recounts the details of Lydia’s suicide and visiting her body with their children before cremation. There is a feeling of ownership as Henn talks to her:

Everybody knows
the trouble you put me through but nobody
says anything, not to me anyway, about how I
could be trouble for you. Nobody sees how I see
me seeing you.

Embracing the particulars in poems like “The Imperial Magisterium of Unrelenting Fortitude,” “Poem for the Mother of My Children,” and “Thank You, Lydia for Our Boy,” respectively, Henn addresses his late ex-wife. These poems aren’t chances for cheap voyeurism; they’re a means of assessing blame and responsibility, reckoning with hindsight, confronting parenthood, post-tragedy.

There’s an unrelenting, impossible wound:

Now I sleep on the lump in the middle,
As if wearing a hairshirt, or slack cloth,
Familiar like an injury that doesn’t heal

The need for explanation, the search for breaking points, reminiscent of Charles Bukowski’s  “The Shoelace”:

I wonder if it was an inability
to cope with 1000 minor disappointments
that drove you to put the belt
around your neck.

And a plea for mercy:

God forgive me for all the things
I blamed [my son’s] mother for.

Elsewhere, there are disenchantment and disappointment with a world that might offer happiness. Poems like “Dank Memes” find futility in friendships; “A Species of Creature” indicts the internet’s lack of humanity; “What I’m All About” and “The Woman Who Got Weirded Out I Wasn’t Eating” find the speaker back in the dating pool, but in a world of online mismatches and scams. Never far from children’s well-being, Henn acknowledges a world that has resigned itself to the normality of school shootings in “Role Playing Games.”

Yet there are reasons for hope. Zeb, an old acquaintance, returns in “Love Letter to an Old Friend,” whose reaching out inspires an urgency: “I want to tell you while I still can/ no gesture from a friend ever meant more to me.” Most endearing is the love letter to Henn’s students, “In the Classroom,” a poem that finds discussions of poetry fostering a community marked by empathy and an affection for the written word.   

Perhaps most hopeful are moments like those in “Still Life with Ceiling Fan and User’s Guilt,” where the speaker longs for lucidity, a release from a past dependent on “hallucinations and buzz.” This cry for clarity is profound, for it’s the recognition that the old life and its habits are unsustainable: “now all I want is to think/ quickly and clearly as possible.”

But what is there to do with newfound sobriety? Henn doesn’t fall back on wholesale redemption and “Lifetime” movie endings promising a return to innocence. The struggle is difficult and tedious, an endeavor full of monotony, down time, and unrest. “Recognition” captures the  initial apprehension of sobriety. Here, Henn is facing a Thanksgiving sober and haunted by Lydia’s presence—no small feat. Without the crutch of substance, what does one do? In this case:

They tell me the only way through it
is to feel it. When I talk to God I say
I’ll accept anything, maybe even death,
dear Lord, but please, not this immense sadness.

Guilty Prayer’s strength is in its ambivalence, its failure to promise miracles.  Yes, it’s a witness to catharsis through confession, sharing, and communion, but there’s always more work to be done. Henn writes that the stars “might be looking out for you./ Might even be editing the final cut,/ your happy ending.”

That’s a big might.


Steve Henn wrote Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year (Wolfson 2017), And God Said: Let there be Evolution! (NYQ Books 2012), and Unacknowledged Legislations (NYQ Books 2011). For a brief 8 issues he co-edited the defunct Fight These Bastards. He is currently working on a book of overlapping essays he calls a “memoir collage.” He lives and teaches in Indiana. Find out more at therealstevehenn.com.


Title: Guilty Prayer
Author: Steve Henn
Publisher: Main Street Rag, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-59948-854-7, 44 pages, $12



Charlie Farmer is a Georgia poet and professor who loves his wife, Erin, his daughters, his friends, his cats, his students, his books, his LPs, and everything else a poet should love in life.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

The Cows

The Cows, by Lydia Davis

Review by S.M. Tsai

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,

And,

[. . .] 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


Title: The Cows
Author: Lydia Davis
Publisher ‏ : ‎ Sarabande Books (March 29, 2011)
32 pages
ISBN‎ 978-1932511932
Price: $9.95

          

 


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.

Pre-Posthumous Poems

Pre-Posthumous Poems, by Lawrence E. Hussman

Review by Carmine Di Biase

Luminare Press, 2021

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.


Pre-Posthumous Poems, by Lawrence E. Hussman.
Eugene, OR: Luminare Press, 2021.
$9.95 49 pages.
ISBN: 9781643886619


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.

Breaking

Breaking by Brittney Corrigan

Review by Risa Denenberg

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.


Photo credit: Nina Johnson Photography

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/


Title: Breaking
Author: Brittney
Publisher: Word Tech Editions
ISBN: 978-1625493736
Price: $16


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.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

The Donkey Elegies: An Essay in Poems

The Donkey Elegies by Nickole Brown

Review by Suzanne Simmons

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.

Title: The Donkey Elegies: An Essay in Poems
Author: Nickole Brown
Publisher: Sibling Rivalry Press, January 16, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-943977-71-0
Price: $12.00


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.

Jackpot

Jackpot, Jeanne Morel

Review and Interview by Mary Ellen Talley

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

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

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

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

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

Take this to the boss
                        and best of luck

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

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

in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richland wives in glasses
including Marge

Oh, don’t worry

about that – my mother in
law cracked

when I fretted
about radiation wafting

over after Fukushima

My buddy cat black
dances

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

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

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

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

I wrap myself in an alphabet for stormy
weather

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

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

[the real estate woman smirked

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

When you are obsessed is no
time for pleasantries

the television of all night
convenience shops

a monitor monitoring our every move
above the cash register

while rats race labyrinths
/ in the space between

your hairline and your fine plucked
brows

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

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

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

Then “Jackpot,” ends with descent:

Perchance
your lucky

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

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

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

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

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


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals

Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals by Laura Cesarco Eglin

Review by Nancy Naomi Carlson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUY IT !!

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

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

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

To Those Who Were Our First Gods

To Those Who Were Our First Gods, Nickole Brown

Review by Wendy DeGroat

It’s fitting that I needed to sit outdoors amid squirrels and finches and summer humidity, to sweat a little, as I embarked on this review of Nickole Brown’s chapbook, To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a prayer, praise song, and plea that calls on readers to recognize our connection with and responsibility to “the animals with whom [we] share this land.” *

It’s perhaps fitting as well that I would sketch its trajectory while eating potato chips and sipping Sweet Baby Jesus porter. Nickole, who first discovered poetry in a summer workshop midway through high school, describes the surfeit of verse in her childhood this way: “I was raised on the literary equivalent of grease and plastic—if you don’t count the King James, there wasn’t anything to read in the house but Cosmo or maybe a potato chip bag or two.”* That early absence hasn’t stopped her from becoming an accomplished poet, editor, and teacher; her Southern, often hardscrabble childhood providing a wellspring of experiences and insights integral to her success.

I first learned about Nickole’s poetry from poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar Brown who suggested I read Sister, back then in its original edition from Red Hen Press (2007). In this first collection, Nickole navigates the terrain of childhood sexual abuse through a conversation in poems that she’s been unable to have directly with her sister due to the distance between them. It’s a journey she describes as a novel-in-poems but that reads more like a collective memoir-in-poems.

To Those Who Were Our First Gods reflects several stylistic throughlines from Sister and Nickole’s subsequent book, Fanny Says, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother. As was true in those poems, the speaker in First Gods is in constant conversation—with the Lord, with Samson, with Mary Oliver, with the animals she yearns to hear speak to her, and with the readers themselves. This is illustrated in these opening lines of the chapbook’s longest poem, “Against Despair, The Kid Goat,”

Reader, meet the two women who sunk
everything they had into taking in broken
animals—

This poem combines Brown’s engaging practice of embodiment with what she refers to as “an oral culture of bossy, storytelling women who always had something to tell you or something to tell you to do,” * her speaker leading the reader through the sacrament of imagining their own bodies in the motions of these two women.

Thus the reader is directed “to be / those two,” and “to try, / to always try, despite the odds.” The poem continues, “Reader, I want you tired, every joint / in your body stiff and worn.” And after the kid goat has a seizure, it directs, “Now, use your arms” then “push together the furred slits / of his lids,” and later, “Now, get on your knees”, say his name (Peanut) while you “stroke his scrawny / goat neck.”

The yearning, so much a part of Brown’s poetry and often amplified by repetition, is also here, as it is at the end of the first poem, “A Prayer to Talk to Animals”:

Fork my tongue, Lord. There is a sorrow on the air
I taste but cannot name. I want to open
my mouth and know the exact
flavor of what’s to come. I want to open
my mouth and sound a language
that calls all language home.

The concept of home is another throughline that persists from Brown’s earlier work. “But now [she’s] writing about animals, who, because of us, increasingly either don’t have a home left or find that home spoiled. *

My favorite poem, the one that made me grin and blush, then stop reading so I could call friends to read it to them, is the middle poem of the nine in the chapbook: “Self Portrait as Land Snail.” As the speaker describes the options the land snail has for both solitary and companion procreation (the latter being the better option, the speaker asserts), Brown’s distinctive voice rises from the page:

I couldn’t make this shit up
if I tried—this is no metaphor
but scientific fact—a telum amoris—literally,
a weapon of love

                […]

Cupid’s got nothing on this
mollusk congress, and because you know
how snails go, the foreplay is slow—
slow, slow, slow—my kind of sex—

This poem is deftly placed at the fulcrum of the manuscript.

To Those Who Were Our First Gods also provides plenty to study in terms of structural elements. There’s the effective and moving narrative arc, the first poem expressing a yearning to speak to animals book-ended by the last poem which asks instead to understand animals and speak for them.

There are a range of forms, from poems in a single verse, familiar vessels for the prayer and elegy they convey, to ones organized in sections, and a poem in couplets. This latter form is perhaps symbolic of the contrasting styles of the two lesbian poets in conversation within its stanzas: Mary Oliver with her quiet reverence of nature and Nickole who “speak[s] in a queer, Southern trash-talking kind of way about nature beautiful, damaged, and in desperate need of saving.” *

But don’t let me mislead you into thinking that To Those Who Were Our First Gods offers only more of the same distinct voice and accessible, engaging poetry you’ll find in her previous books—although that would be reason enough to click “Add to Cart.” There is something new here too: a heightened sense of immediacy, an urgency that pulses from the lines. With this work, Nickole Brown has moved from subjects long known—her sister and grandmother, her Southern upbringing— to a territory she was warned against when she was growing up, that of the animal and wild.

When sharing this chapbook’s origin story with Jen Sammons at Oxford American, * Brown explained that soon after she revealed a long-held wish to have “gone into environmental conservation and worked to save animals,” her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, pointed out that it wasn’t too late for her to fulfill that wish. Nickole started her study by reading books and observing animals at a nearby zoo “from a comfortable remove that’s not too unlike reading”—this from “a girl who left behind her body and became a book, and never had . . . gone outside much until [she] was forty.” 

It was not until she immersed herself in the sweaty, smelly, mucky, heart-wrenching, yet rewarding work of volunteering at animal sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation centers that these poems surfaced. I suspect that an earlier Nickole Brown, before coming into her sexual identity and fully into her own body—gifted poet though she already was—would not have written these poems with the same intensity she achieves in To Those Who Were Our First Gods. I’m glad she wrote this chapbook when she did and can’t wait to read her related essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies—and whatever comes next.

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


Nickole Brown received her MFA from the Vermont College, studied literature at Oxford University, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She worked at Sarabande Books for ten years. Her first collection, Sister, a novel-in-poems, was published in 2007 with a new edition reissued in 2018. Her second book, a biography-in-poems about her grandmother called Fanny Says, came out from BOA Editions in 2015 and won the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She was an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years. Currently, she teaches periodically at a number of places, including the Sewanee School of Letters MFA Program, the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, and the Hindman Settlement School. She lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs, in Asheville where she periodically volunteers at a three different animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals, resisting the kind of pastorals that made her (and many of the working-class folks from the Kentucky that raised her) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first nine poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize, and her essay-in-poems, The Donkey Elegies, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2020.  

Title: To Those Who Were Our First Gods
Author: Nickole Brown
Winner of the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize 2018
Finalist for the Julie Suk Award
ISBN 978-1-931307-39-
0

Wendy DeGroat is the author of Beautiful Machinery (Headmistress Press) and is currently revising a documentary poetry manuscript about Grace Arents, a Progressive-era philanthropist and educator, and Grace’s companion, Mary Garland Smith. Wendy’s poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Commonplace, the museum of americana, Rogue Agent, Rust + Moth, The Wild Word, and elsewhere.She is a librarian and mindfulness teacher in Richmond, Virginia, where she also curates poetryriver.org (a resource site for documentary poetry and for diversifying the poetry taught in high school and undergraduate classrooms), encourages writers to find inspiration in quirky historical artifacts found in libraries and archives, and serves as a small-group facilitator for Living the Richmond Pledge, a workshop that empowers participants to take an active role in ending racism in their communities.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.